Small bicycle brake levers for small hands

How appropriate that I’m writing this as Interbike, our industry’s major trade show, is beginning. I hope all the product managers who oversee the design of small brake levers will read this.

Let’s face it: there’s a dearth of small brake levers available for dropped bars. Yes, I know integrated brake/shift levers are hogging some of the real estate since they incorporate a lot of “innards.” Shimano does have a reach adjusting screw in their levers (can’t speak to SRAM since I’m not as savvy about their line), but…is it enough? More on that later.

How about just plain old brake levers that don’t have any shifting capabilities — ones that just actuate the brake itself. Some manufacturers have “ergo” levers that are supposedly downsized for small hands, but when one is trying to design a bike for a rider with truly small hands, these are still a reach (no pun intended). Thank goodness for cross top brake levers — they may be the only things stopping the bike.

I started searching for small brake levers even though I knew none were to be found. In the process, I found this delightful thread on the Cycling UK Forum from (!) 2011. Thank you, JonMcD, who offered a thoughtful, analytical look at the difference in size between his two Tektro levers — one the Junior Road Racing lever and the other a “standard” Tektro R200. Surprise! No real significance in reach and none at all in the hood size. Amazing — it’s now five years later and we still have no solution.

But JonMcD made me think about how the industry could give us hard, cold numbers about the size of their small brake levers. Words like “junior”, “ergo”, etc. just don’t cut it. And asking a tech person to tell me the distance from the front of the lever to the back of the handlebar is an apples to oranges comparison. Where is the lever mounted on the bar? What kind of bar — anatomic, round…??? All of these things will affect the reach.

So, dear industry, how about establishing some criterion that will let bike designers compare brake levers? Here’s my idea. Mount the brake on a straight piece of tubing. Then publish the measured distance between the tubing and the nearest part of the the lever. Granted, this tells us nothing about the reach of the lever when mounted on a handlebar, but it gives us a good idea of how levers stack up against each other. And with this information, it’s not difficult to approximate the actual reach of the lever on a handlebar.

Measuring small brake levers

Measuring a brake lever.


Now, about that adjusting screw in Shimano’s “brifter.” One of the sources I checked while looking for a small lever was Islabikes. Don’t know Islabikes? It’s the company founded by Isla Rowntree,  well-known in the U.K. for her cyclocross achievements — British National Cyclocross champion for three years and British Veteran Cyclocross champion for two years. She saw a huge gap in the market for children’s bikes — the need for lightweight, serious machines. With that in mind, Islabikes was born.

Islabikes uses Shimano brifters on their Luath Pro series of bikes. They’ve replaced the stock reach adjustment screw in the brake/shift lever with a longer screw so the lever can be snugged in closer to the handlebar. I’m not necessarily recommending this, but just sayin’ … why doesn’t Shimano do this?

The screw that adjusts small brake levers reach.

The screw that adjusts brake reach.

Frustrating — but some enterprising company will look upon this as an opportunity. “If you build it, they will come.” It’s never failed. Anyone up to the challenge?

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7 comments on “Small bicycle brake levers for small hands
  1. Andy says:

    I wish Islabikes were more supportive of small people in general. I sent them an email about how excited I was about their 26″ cyclocross bike, and they were fairly rude. They said that children have wildly different proportions than adults and the 48cm top tube would be too short. When I said that’s perfect, all my custom road bikes and Terrys have 48cm top tubes, they said the bike’s weight limit was 100lbs or something and kept reiterating that it is strictly for children, so I gave up on them. Hopefully another company picks up the slack!

    • Georgena Terry says:

      I’ve had no personal experience with Islabikes myself, but I wonder if the Portland office (which represents Islabikes in the U.S.) just came up short on customer service. 100 lb weight limit? Sounds wrong. Given the cyclocross battering some of those bikes are designed for, that number is totally bogus.

  2. Carol says:

    Amen sister !!!

  3. Bill says:

    Great post GT. Over the years I have risen with hundreds osxwomen who surly would appreciate a “small Brake lever”, and would have gladly paid for them. To bad the industry is missing the boat on this

  4. Marielle Levine says:

    I also wish that levers made or adjusted for smaller hands also had increased leverage. As a mechanic I see many clients whose small hands can reach sti levers with the reach adjusted, but with shorter lever travel they cant generate adequate force to fully stop the wheels. This problem is exacerbated by wide rims and 3rd party calipers.

    • Georgena Terry says:

      Excellent points! Sometimes I think the industry shies away from smaller levers because it adds another sku to the mix. But, if they were clever, they’d design a lever with enough versatility to work with all hand sizes. One sku fits all…

  5. Anna says:

    Thank you for another informative post. I’ll confess I work in Portland at a family shop blocks from Isla and from the handful of interactions by phone and yes definitely,a bit short on service but big on knowledge–but man do they have some fabulous solutions! now if something useful can come out of the Vegas rigamarole 😛

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