I was on a short easy ride with Mrs. Noob the other day. We were on a slight downhill leading to a stoplight. I noticed as she braked for the light that she applied both brakes at the same time.
“Do you ever brake with just the front brake?” I asked.
“I’m not even sure which one is the front brake,” she replied.
Hm. Seems to me that to be in full control of your bike, you need to know which lever controls which brake. I explained that the left side controls the front brake, and the right side, the rear brake. She didn’t think it made much difference.
“There’s quite a difference in the amount of braking force between the two,” I said. “Most of your stopping power comes from the front brake.”
I’ve seen some articles that suggest bikers apply both brakes evenly. That’s the opposite of the way I learned to ride. Since the front brake handles most of the load, I’ve always applied the front brake first and hardest. I’ll use the rear brake, but only as a supplement to the front.
For example, if I’m going down hill and there’s a red light at the bottom, I’ll apply the front brake to slow the bike, but squeeze the rear brake on and off to slow the bike quicker. But be careful with that rear brake — it can cause a skid, and that can put you out of control in a hurry.
I experienced that first hand about a month ago. One of my area rides features a nice wide suburban street with a sweeping left-hand curve. Usually, there’s no traffic at all on this street. But at the bottom, there’s a cross street. When I reach it, I’m often going 32-33 mph, and although I have the right of way, I’m certainly not going to depend upon a car in the cross street to wait for me.
On this particular ride, I moved to the middle of the street as I neared the cross street. Sure enough, a car pulled up to the stop sign, looked both ways quickly without coming to a full stop, and started to cross. I went for the brakes hard, putting as much pressure on the rear as the front. My back wheel locked up immediately, and the bike started to fishtail. The driver of the car saw I was in trouble and slammed on his brakes. I got the bike under control at shot across the intersection in front of him.
OK, two things. First, I needed to apply the front brake first. According to Sheldon Brown, you should squeeze it so hard you nearly lift the rear wheel off the ground. The second thing would be to counter a possible rear wheel skid by moving my weight back as far as possible to keep the rear wheel in contact with pavement.
You won’t go over the bars. Just remember to brace with your arms, and even if you forget to scoot your weight back on the seat, you’ll probably have enough traction back there to prevent, or stop, fishtailing.
If you use both brakes equally, you’d probably benefit by practicing with just the front brake. You’ll see that you stop faster.
And every so often, I’ll apply just the rear brake as I pull into my driveway at home — and lay down a nice skid mark. Just for fun.