10 things you need to know about Trailbraking

Trail braking can be very useful for street riders. Downhill corners is one example.

Trail braking can be very useful for street riders. Downhill corners is one example.

Braking skill does not only apply to stopping your motorcycle, it is also important for safe cornering. The first rule for safe cornering is to enter a turn at a safe speed. What exactly is a “safe” speed? It is a speed that allows you to negotiate the turn comfortably while applying gradual acceleration without the need for deceleration or braking. Steady acceleration keeps the bike stable and makes the bike corner predictably, so entry speed should allow for this steady drive through the curve.

The amount of brake pressure needed to slow the motorcycle is directly dependent on the approach speed and the point where you begin braking. Braking earlier means you can use less brake force and braking later requires more brake force.

Trail Braking Defined

Sometimes delayed braking can be a useful tool. Trail braking is a technique that is done by continuing to brake beyond the turn-in point. You then gradually “trail” off the brakes as you lean until there is no brake pressure by the time you are at full lean. Trail braking is most useful for tighter turns with a relatively high approach speed.

Trail braking is typically done using the front brake only, although trail braking can be done with either or both brakes.

Trail braking is traditionally a technique used when racing to keep the competition at bay. But, it is also useful for street riders. Let’s see how.

1. Helps Refine Entry Speed

Trail braking is done all the time when racing to keep the competition at bay.

Trail braking is done all the time when racing to keep the competition at bay.

One advantage of trail braking is that it allows the rider to extend the distance used to establish entry speed. This can be a real advantage if a bit more braking is needed for a tightening turn or to avoid a mid-corner obstacle. By entering a turn with light brake pressure, you are less likely to upset the chassis if you need to slow a bit more. For minor speed adjustments, simply remain on the brakes a bit longer.

Staying on the brakes past turn-in allows more time and space to get your entry speed just right. On the other hand, if you release the brakes completely before leaning, you have committed to that entry speed. If you need to slow more, you’ll have to begin braking again, which can easily upset the chassis and stress the tires. To prevent front tire traction loss, you must avoid increasing brake force and lean angle at the same time.

For those of you who use the quick-turn method of initiating lean (an excellent thing to learn and use) understand that it isn’t often conducive to trail braking. Most times you will ease into the corner more when trail braking. To turn quickly, you will release the brakes completely immediately after turn-in.

2. It Enhances Stability (when done right)

Trail braking is also used as a way to enhance stability and control. Trail braking helps minimize forward and rearward chassis pitch that occurs when applying and then releasing the brakes. When the front brake is applied the forks compress, and when the brakes are released they rebound and extend. The forks compress once again when the bike is leaned into the curve. When trail braking, the forks remain compressed as the bike is leaned and the “off-brake” rebound action is eliminated. This also steepens the front end geometry for easier turning. The suspension stays compressed as the bike leans and then rebounds gradually as the brakes are released and the throttle is rolled on.

3. It Can be Risky (when done wrong)

Trail braking is a technique that combines both cornering and braking forces, which means that you must use light brake pressure otherwise you can lose traction. This is why it is best to get most, if not all, of your braking done before the turn. Because trail braking can be risky it should be used judiciously and should be avoided when traction is limited. However, trail braking is an advanced technique that can be useful for all riders.

Learning how to trail brake starts with overcoming the anxiety that the tires will slide. To prevent “tucking” the front tire and lowsiding, you must use light front brake pressure and understand that increased lean angle requires decreased brake pressure. Once this fundamental level of trail braking is learned, then you can use the technique.

4. It Can Help Salvage a Blown Corner

Remember that trailbraking is a planned technique to refine cornering control and should not be confused with salvaging a blown corner entry. That said, we all make mistakes sometimes and trailbraking can be used to fix a mistake. One of the most common reasons for crashes in corners is when a rider enters a turn too fast and lowsides or goes off the road. Most untrained riders panic and either give up and stand the bike up and leave their lane or grab the brakes and lowside. If you are adept at trailbraking, then you can brake past the turn entry while still maintaining a relatively relaxed composure (depending how overspeed you are).

5. You Must Get a Feel for it

To brake effectively you must develop a feel for how much brake power is possible without losing control. Brake feel is a learned skill that includes understanding the dynamics of load transfer on traction as well as developing a feel for how your motorcycle’s brakes respond to subtle inputs. This knowledge is necessary if you are to learn to use brake force to maximum advantage.

6. Learn to Use Two Fingers

One way to help refine the trail braking technique is to use two fingers on the front brake. This allows the use of both the brake and the throttle, which is useful for transitioning smoothly between braking and acceleration. The advantage of two-finger braking is that it allows the two remaining digits to remain on the throttle grip (usually the ring and pinkie). This is useful when implementing advanced throttle/brake techniques such as brake and throttle overlapping or throttle blipping (to be covered in a future post).

7. Trailing off is as important as Trailing on

Getting the right brake pressure applied is critical when trail braking. Progressively squeezing the brake transfers weight gradually and avoids spikes in tire load. But, it’s also important to release the brakes progressively to prevent abrupt rebound of the suspension, which can cause the tires to lose traction, especially when at full lean. Even if you don’t lose traction, the extended forks can push the bike into a wider line than desired.

8. Use the Thrake/Brottle Overlap Technique

The throttle/brake overlap technique (Thrake or Brottle, get it?) is how you smoothly transition from brakes to acceleration while leaned fully in a corner. Begin throttle roll-on just before completely releasing the brakes to smooth the transition from braking force to driving force. See me use this technique through turn 1 at Loudon in the video

The brake/throttle overlap technique takes some practice. One technique that is helpful is if you curl your fingers over the front brake lever as you squeeze, then simply straighten your fingers to release brake pressure as you roll on the throttle. You can practice this technique using Brake Drill #4 in Riding in the Zone.

9. Trail braking Take Practice

Trailbraking requires expert-level brake and corner control, which means that most people should be careful with this technique until they become proficient through practice. Once a rider is reasonably proficient at both braking and cornering, then he or she should start to explore the benefits of trailbraking, because one day, they’ll need this skill.

10. How to Practice Trail Braking

The practice drill diagram found in Riding in the Zone.

The practice drill diagram found in Riding in the Zone.

By mastering trail braking, you can train your mind and muscles so that you believe it is possible to slow the bike down even when leaned and stay upright. This mastery tells you not only that it’s possible to salvage the corner, but also tells you just how much braking force can be used without sliding the tires. If you think this skill will magically appear when you need it, you are dead wrong! You must practice to make this important tool available to you. How do you practice trail braking? Start in a clean and clear parking lot (see the video above) And then practice on the street where no surface hazards are present. Then refine and solidify the technique by going to a track day and asking an instructor to help you work on this technique.

Braking is one of the most important skills to learn. Regularly practice emergency braking and refine your corner braking technique so these skills remain sharp.

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Author of "Motorcycling the Right Way", "Riding in the Zone" book and blog, "Street Savvy" columnist for Motorcyclist Magazine, and longtime author of the Proficient Motorcycling and Street Strategies columns for Motorcycle Consumer News. Ken is Lead Instructor for Tony's Track Days and Riding in the Zone Motorcyclist Training, and a 20 year MSF instructor.

Posted in Motorcycle Safety, Rider Education, Riding Technique & Tips, Track Days
5 comments on “10 things you need to know about Trailbraking
  1. Walt Farnlacher says:

    I have a 2002 BMW 1150RT with linked braking, servo assisted. I cannot say trail braking works like described. When I use the back brake the front will come on too based on what the computer determines the force should be. Using the front brake only would do somewhat the same. Using the front brake on a turn would load up the suspension in front and eat up the traction available. I would use the rear brake instead.

  2. steve miele says:

    I always understood it as rear brake on and release apron turn in is it possible to upset the front tire using this technique ?and I typically lift the front brake just before turn in I thought this would settle front tire just before turn in
    I wanna learn how too back the rear end in.can someone describe that technique for me ? Great, detailed, well explained jeez now I feel sloppy and now I understand how I lowsided my duc thank you .

  3. Rob Ingram says:

    Hi Ken,
    Good article and I feel the technique was well-described. That said, it seems obvious that the other commenters did not get it. Adding more braking while simultaneously adding more lean angle is NOT trail-braking. Braking with the rear brake only is NOT trail-braking. I know that, and I know you know that, but I feel it’s important that other readers know that as well.

  4. robson says:

    I’ve used this technique for years but exclusively with rear brake. It’s way more safer on street condition since recovery from rear wheel skid is much more likely then from front wheel washout. Very good article BTW.

  5. anonrider says:

    I’ve never heard of this technique, but having ridden for several years, and having a basic understanding of physics, this makes perfect sense.

    One personal experience comes to mind. I was in a tunnel in NorCal and screaming up to the exit of the tunnel (at an unsafe speed which was an incredibly stupid thing to do). This particular set of tunnels is three tunnels (now four), the middle one’s direction being switched depending on the time of day.

    I had previously done this same scream in the tunnel and brake on the exit corner on the right most tunnel going eastbound, but not typically in the middle tunnel in the eastbound direction; on account of my schedule at the present time. In hindsight, I think the corner on the middle tunnel is a slightly smaller radius in the eastbound direction than the right tunnel in the same direction.

    One day, while feeling abnormally reckless, I decided to go a little faster in the middle tunnel. Upon entering the final turn, I realized that I was approaching the edge of the road with alarming speed. I was already on the brakes and did what I could in my state of near panic to brake as hard as I thought reasonable and lean over just a little more. I was already lightly on the brakes but had to increase braking pressure far more quickly than I was comfortable with.

    By the time I exited the turn, I had tiptoed over the white line, scared myself $#!tless and realized that I needed to stop this tunnel monkey business and reckless riding in general.

    This technique is obviously not to recover from reckless driving, but I certainly wish I would have been more familiar with the method given the high likelihood that I was about to eat a guardrail.

    Thanks again for the post.

    And in case your curious, I sold the bike and haven’t ridden for years. I’ll get back on the horse again some day and when I do, I’ll have my kicks on the track, not on the street.

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "10 things you need to know about Trailbraking"
  1. […] Deliberate trail braking is a very useful technique that I use often on both the street and the track, but especially on the racetrack. The reason to use trail braking (braking past the turn's entry and "trailing" off the brakes as you lean more) is to stabilize the suspension. A lot of inexperienced riders brake late into corners, but this is usually unintentional and is instead just poor cornering technique (charging into corners). I write about trail braking in my book and in the articles I write for MCN. It's a technique worth mastering. But, it's also important to know when it's beneficial and when it is increasing risk. See my latest blog post on trail braking for more: 10 things you need to know about Trailbraking | Riding in the Zone […]

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