Proper Braking Technique

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.

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12 thoughts on “Proper Braking Technique

  1. The League of American Bicyclists recommends using both brakes evenly and shift weight backward. If the rear wheel begins to skid, let up on the front brake.

    • “If the rear wheel begins to skid, let up on the front brake.”

      Umm… what? Won’t that make the rear wheel skid MORE since the front brake is even more out of the picture?

      I always apply front brake first, then rear some and front more. Rarely do I use full power on both, that usually means someone did something stupid (usually someone else, but occasionally me!).

      • A body in motion tends to stay in motion. As you hit the front brake hard, your body (where most of the weight is) wants to keep moving forward. To counteract that forward tendency, the cyclist pushes on the handlebars to slow the body. That causes the rear wheel to lift. As the rear wheel lifts, it causes the rear tire to skid. In an emergency stop situation, a skidding rear tire is an indication of an unweighted rear wheel (about to flip over the handlebars) so the correct response is to lighten up on the front brake. In an emergency stop, most (if not all) of your braking power is going to come from the front wheel. The rear brake is applied solely for you to use as an indicator of when the bike is about to flip. Something else you can do to lower the center of gravity from the handlebars to the bottom bracket is get off of the seat, throwing your weight back, and using your pedals to counteract the braking forces instead of your hands. Mountain bikers do this all of the time to avoid flipping over the handlebars when dropping off of a ledge, but if you push forward with your feet more and with your hands less, this lowers the center of gravity and will further allow you to apply front brake pressure without flipping the bike.

  2. @ Wes –

    Ah, got it, thanks. I wasn’t considering the emergency stop situation fully. Most of the time I skid (which is rarely) it’s intentional and I’m applying front brake very lightly or not at all, so that’s why this didn’t make sense to me.

    I almost always have my body off the seat and farther back when stopping – I grew up mountain biking (and still love it) so it’s pretty automatic for me.

  3. My only problem is that I always forget to shift my weight in time during an e-brake. I would just squeeze the back brake hard, and the front brakes even harder, and brace.

    I always end up skidding, but I’m pretty good at recovering from one, so I haven’t yet gone down. Scary feeling to skid at 40 km/h (~25 mph.) though. always gets my heart beating.

    • It’s important to practice these emergency maneuvers regularly so that it becomes an instinctive response. In a real emergency, you probably will not have a chance to think about it. Practice the emergency brake and the quick turn when you are out riding on your own and you’ll have the hang of it soon enough.

  4. Tonight my wife and I went out for her first 5 miler. Riding slower I was noticing a few things about my bike. One of which was the fact i did stop alot quicker with the front brake. Had some time to practice and getting a feel for the front brake. excellent post!!!

  5. I had to go out for a ride to see what I do. Once I cleared all the suggestions I read here and braked naturally, I realized that do both lightly and adjust to the need to stop or slow down.

  6. Circling back to thank you for this post. Turns out I was doing it all wrong while descending mountains. Dangerous! Tried it your way down a considerably steep one and it worked like a charm.

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