TOTW: Both brakes: squeeze and ease

The riding tips on these pages are my personal opinion about matters related to motorcycle riding. They are not the official position of any organization, and are for your consideration only. They are not hard and fast rules, they should not necessarily be applied in all circumstances, and they should not be applied without thinking. Always use your judgement and take all current safety factors into account while riding. You are responsible for your riding, not anyone else (especially me). These tips were originally published by a motorcycle riding course, called “Tip of the Week” (the reason for the TOTW in the titles).

What’s the problem?

Many riders have poor braking technique, and are stopping in much greater distances, with less control, than necessary. Their bike’s real braking ability far exceeds what they are actually getting.

Fear of using the front brake is the main reason for this poor stopping. There is a myth among some untrained riders that touching the front brake will result in the rider “being thrown over the handlebars.” This is nonsense, but has resulted in a large number of riders using only their rear brake when stopping. This has resulted, in turn, in countless unnecessary collisions.

Stopping with only the rear brake is a habit you should break. It is poor practice for many reasons:

  • During braking, a phenomenon called “weight transfer” occurs. Your momentum causes the effective downward pressure of your weight to move forward. The result is as though the weight bearing down on the front wheel is increased, while the weight on the rear wheel is decreased.
  • Weight transfer means the rear wheel is not being pressed very hard against the ground. So using the rear brake to slow this wheel isn’t a very effective stopping technique. (To see why this is so, imagine using only the rear brake while training wheels lifted your rear wheel completely off the ground. Obviously, braking a wheel that is not touching the ground would not slow you at all.) The front wheel, on the other hand, is being pressed harder against the ground, so it would be an ideal wheel to which to apply braking force. Because rear-wheel braking is exactly the wrong technique, braking distances are much longer than they need to be: up to ten times longer.
  • Because the rear wheel isn’t being held firmly to the ground, using the brake on that wheel tends to make it “lock,” or stop rotating entirely. This results in rear-wheel skidding, which causes loss of control and tire wear.
  • Worse, if the rear wheel is locked and then released while braking in a tight curve, a spectacular form of crash known as a “high-side” can result, throwing the rider from the bike.

The solution

The solution to the above problems is to always use both brakes, front and rear, when stopping.

Remember that, because of weight transfer, the front wheel is the main one involved in stopping the bike. (When using appropriate pressure on both brakes, about 90% of your braking effectiveness comes from the front.)

You should brake by applying gentle pressure to both brakes, front and rear, then smoothly squeezing more firmly on the front until you are getting the amount of braking force you want. Don’t increase the rear pressure much, though, because, as discussed above, the rear wheel has a tendency to lock.

We say “squeeze and ease.” Squeeze the front brake more firmly, but just ease on the rear brake.

Practice

You should use the two-brake technique every time you stop. If this is a new technique for you, you should practice in a safe location like a parking lot before venturing onto the street, since you will be surprised how much your braking distance changes.

Although weight transfer makes it much more difficult to lock the front wheel than the rear, locking the front wheel is much more serious, and almost always will result in a crash. For this reason, you should practice braking in gradual steps — don’t start by grabbing the front brake with all your might.

Make several test runs in a parking lot, gradually increasing the amount of front brake pressure you use. Practice in a straight line, not a curve. Watch for the following:

  • If your rear wheel locks, practice again with less rear-brake pressure.
  • Be alert for signs your front wheel is nearing the point where it will lock. The signs that your are approaching this point are a squealing, chattering sound that you will hear, and possibly feel as a rapid, sharp vibration through the handlebars. (This applies to bikes without AntiLock Braking Systems. ABS will generate such a vibration to prevent locking.)
  • If you get the front-wheel-lock symptoms described above, you have found the limit of your front brake pressure. Slightly reduce your front braking pressure; do not try to increase it any more. A front wheel lock will almost certainly result in a crash.
  • To increase your practice difficulty, work on decreasing your stopping distance, not on increasing your speed. Both are equivalent, but practicing at moderate speeds is safer and will allow you to concentrate on technique and on the feedback the bike is giving you.

When braking in a curve the same points apply, with one extra: it is especially important that you make control changes smoothly. If you lock your rear wheel while turning, reduce the rear pressure gently, not in one sudden jerk. Sudden changes to braking pressure while turning can result in drastic balance changes, and loss of control.

Finally, as you practice two-brake technique and your braking distances improve, form the habit of always shoulder checking behind you immediately after you stop. You are now stopping in much shorter distances than other vehicles, and you need to make sure nothing behind you has become a threat.

Why both?

If the front brake is so much better than the rear, why use the rear at all? Why not just the front?

Racers on the track do use only the front brake, and reserve the back brake for deliberately forcing the rear wheel to slide. For street riding, however, we find that using both brakes results in slightly smoother stops and better control, plus about 10% better stopping distances.

Practice with supervision

Because there is a risk of locking your wheels while learning your braking limits, you should practice this skill with supervision. At least have someone with you to provide feedback on what your wheels are doing, and provide help if you fall. Better still, this practice should be guided by a qualified instructor, another reason to take professional rider training.


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