How To Use Your Brakes The Right Way
You never forget how to ride a bike. That’s true. That’s also a bit of a problem. Not because anyone wants to forget, of course—but because as kids so few of us learned to ride the types of bikes we’re riding as adults… And that’s actually a problem.
There’s a massive difference between skidding down the alleyway at 10km/h on a cruiser or BMX, and pumping your rim or even disc brakes in the rain on a twisty mountain descent at 30 or 40km/h. Unless you raced as a young adult, chances are nobody has ever formally showed you the most basic of skills—like braking, probably the most essential skill of all.
Sure, you got the gist. You pulled the levers, the brake pads squeezed your rims (or in many cases these days, your rotors) and the bike slowed to a stop. But if you’ve ever fishtailed, endoed, skidded out, and/or blown a corner, you know that there’s a lot more to braking than that.
“I used to hold skills clinics, but attendance was terrible,” says former cycling coach and clinic instructor Josh Horowitz. “People aren’t interested in practicing skills when they could be out riding. But a little technique practice goes a long way,” he says.
Here’s what to work on for better braking.
Push Your Weight Back
As you pull the brakes and your bike slows down, your weight shifts forward over the front wheel, which puts all your braking power on the front brake. That makes it harder to control your bike and stop effectively, says Horowitz. “Push your weight back as you brake to keep weight on the back wheel and even out the braking forces,” he says. Should you have to brake hard at high speed, this will also prevent you from going end over end. “The faster you have to brake, the more you should push your weight back. I’ve actually thrown my butt behind my saddle, where my stomach is on the seat. It makes a huge difference in your braking power and control.”
You can practice this by doing some emergency stops in a parking lot or grass field. Get up a little speed, put your hands in the drops, straighten your arms, and push your weight back behind the saddle while you brake hard with both hands, staying low on the bike.
Get Low—And Stay Off The Brakes—In Turns
Ideally, you want to scrub enough speed before the turn so you don’t have to hit the brakes in the turn. Approach the curve with your hands in the drops, which gives you better braking leverage and keeps your center of gravity lower, improving your bike control. Shift your weight back and apply even pressure on the brakes. Then release the brakes, and carry a manageable amount of speed through the turn.
Of course, life is not always ideal. If you come in too hot and need to scrub speed, use a very light touch. Braking too quickly in a turn is a recipe for hitting the ground in a hurry. For one, hitting your brakes causes your bike to sit upright, which is the last thing you want in a corner. Worse, it also causes your bike to lose traction, says cycling coach John Verheul.
“’Don’t touch the front brake while cornering’ is as close to a 100-percent rule as there is,” says Verheul. “When you’re cornering you’re close to the limit of traction that your tires have. So, when you add braking force, you’re going to come closer to breaking that limit and sliding the tyre. A rear skid is way easier to catch than a front skid,” he says. Feather your back brake for gradual deceleration, as needed.
If your arms and shoulders are tense as you hit the brakes, your body can’t absorb any of the stopping forces, so they go into your hands, causing your hands to close and for you to suddenly brake harder than intended, which in turn makes it very difficult to maintain control of your bike. “Keep your shoulders loose, elbows bent, and relax your grip on the bars,” says Horowitz. “That will allow you to modulate your speed with the suppleness you need to maneuver around obstacles and maintain control.”
Easy In The Wet
It can take about three times as long to stop in the wet as on dry pavement, so take that into consideration. “ Your tyres have less traction in the wet, so an even lighter touch is called for when you do brake,” says Verheul. Because it’s harder to slow down and stop, many people end up pulling the brakes too hard, too late. That can lock up your wheels and send you into a skid… and likely a crash. Scrub speed by lightly feathering your brakes. If it’s very slick and you need to apply more pressure, err on the side of hitting your back brake to prevent the front from locking up. You may be able to save a rear wheel skid—or even put a foot down—but once the front locks up: You’re. Going. Down.
Set Yourself Up For Success
You’ll be able to brake better if you use high-quality tyres with good traction, notes Verheul. “Err on the side of bigger tyres and don’t over-inflate them,” he says. “On the road, experienced riders are often doing their general riding on 25 to 28c tires these days, at well under 100psi. I’m 80kg and ride mostly on 26 to 27mm tyres at 65 to 75psi. Nice comfy ride on most surfaces, but still fast enough for the local group rides and training races.”