Part 1 – Virtual Classroom covering trailbraking, braking and handling hairpin turns on a motorcycle.
A lot of riders ask about which brake is appropriate for what situations. The short answer is that it depends on speed, desired maneuver and available traction. Here, I’ll discuss proper brake use as it pertains to various situations. Let’s start by defining the characteristics of each brake.
Your front brake is your “power” brake. The front brake is designed to take the burden of getting the bike and you stopped ASAP. The front brakes include components that provide maximum brake force…two large multi-piston calipers, large vented brake rotors, and brake pads designed to handle and dissipate lots of heat. Even the front brake components on smaller bikes and cruisers with a single front brake are more robust than the rear brake.
In contrast, the rear brake is the “control” brake. It provides additional braking power at road speed, but it is the tool you want to use to refine your speed and direction.
Which Brake and Why?
Now that we have an understanding of the basic characteristics of each brake, we can discuss the benefits or disadvantages of each brake in specific scenarios.
Normal braking (street)
When slowing or stopping normally, use both brakes. This shares the braking load between both tires and helps stabilize the chassis.
Use both brakes to get the most braking power for the shortest stop. The caveat here is that emergency braking causes the load to transfer to the front tire, reducing weight on rear of the machine. This means that it’s much more likely to skid the rear tire and is why you’ll engage the ABS on the rear tire first.
Control the Rear
So, how to get the maximum brake force without skidding? Reduce rear brake pressure as you increase front brake pressure. This isn’t easy to get perfect, but is worth practicing. If all you can manage in an emergency is to use one brake, use the FRONT BRAKE! That’s where the majority of your brake power comes from. Do it firmly and progressively for maximum effect.
Consider that short wheelbase sportbikes will pitch onto their nose earlier and easier than a long and low cruiser or a heavyweight tourer. This means that the rear brake is more effective on these machines in an emergency.
The rear brake is much more useful and effective when carrying a passenger or heavy luggage, because of the extra weight on the rear wheel. This is true no matter what type of bike you ride.
Normal Stops at Intersections, etc.
For the smoothest, controlled “normal” stops, like at an intersection, taper off the front brake and finish with the rear brake. Reduce brake pressure and speed progressively. Avoiding abrupt stops is especially appreciated by passengers who hate having to brace themselves to avoid the unwelcome “helmet bonk”.
You can execute a smooth stop by using the front brake, but it takes more finesse and effort. Keep the right foot on the rear brake until completely stopped. This avoids rolling past your desired stopping point. This may sound obvious, but I see a lot of riders surprised when the bike keeps rolling.
Poor Traction Surfaces
When riding on gravel, sand, wet leaves or slick construction plates, use the rear brake. This is because the powerful front brake is much more likely to skid when traction is sketchy and a skidding front wheel means a crash is imminent.Whereas a skidding rear tire is less likely to cause a crash unless it fishtails violently.
The MSF says to ride out a rear tire skid to avoid the rear tire hooking up when sideways and causing a highside. But, chances are that you’ll be okay if you release the rear brake before the rear kicks out too far. ABS reduces this risk significantly, but keep in mind that some less sophisticated ABS systems aren’t very effective at slow speeds, so you may end up with a skid that lasts a foot or two.
Favor the rear brake when creeping along in traffic, stopping smoothly from a slow speed and making tight u-turns. Be very gentle with the front brake, or avoid it altogether when speeds are below, say 8-10 mph; the front brake is too powerful for slow speeds and you risk stopping the bike abruptly which will cause imbalance. I like to lightly “dab” the rear brake as I make very tight u-turns. It gives me more speed control and feel.
Trailbraking is when you carry some brake force past the turn entry to allow more time to refine your entry speed. Light trailbraking (and/or deceleration) also helps the bike lean into the curve. Read all about trailbraking here.
There is a belief that trailbraking is using the rear brake only. But, you can use front only, rear only, both brakes, or even strong engine braking (what I call “trail-deceleration”) to get the desired speed reduction and easy turn-in.
Tight, Slow Corners
I just described a simple use of trailbraking. However, a skilled rider can fine tune their speed and direction control with a finely orchestrated use of the brakes. Start by using both brakes to slow into the curve, but about halfway around (this varies depending on the radius of the curve) smoothly release the front brake but keep a bit of rear brake applied.
This helps “hook” the bike around the last section of the curve and helps refine speed. Ideally, at this point you don’t want to slow anymore, so brake lightly. For uphill tight turns where momentum is important, I often overlap acceleration against that last bit of rear brake force to execute the smoothest transition I can. A bit of late rear brake also helps manage the effects of gravity in downhill curves.
Some larger bikes, particularly tourers link the front and rear brakes. While this limits the proportioning the rider has control of, many manufacturers design their brakes to give more or less power to the front or rear depending on the input of the rider. In this case, thee techniques still apply, but the effect is lessened.
On the racetrack and when riding fast and hard, it makes sense to concentrate on using the front brake only. Yes, you’re giving up the advantages of the rear brake, but brake forces are considerably higher where the rear wheel is barely in contact with the surface.
Professional-level racers develop their rear brake technique to help with direction control, but track day riders and amateur racers are usually better off keeping it simple.
Like most skills, braking skill is perishable and needs regular practice just to maintain proficiency. You don’t need anything more than a large parking lot or a straight piece of remote roadway. Brake hard from speed to practice emergency stopping and work on trailbraking when in appropriate corners. However, the best place to improve all of your skills is at a track day.
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It was a long and cold winter here in the Northeast, but at the first Tony’s Track Days event of the year at the beginning of May, we were given clear skies and ideal temperatures. Last year, I worked hard on my track day form which included letting speed come with practice. My effort was rewarded with an advancement from the novice to intermediate level. This year, I was amazed at how much I retained even with a seven month gap.
My Mantra: “You Are That Rider Now!”
As I rolled out onto the track for my first session and each one thereafter, I heard my track Guru Ken’s voice in my head, and what he told me at my one-one-one session last year: “You are that rider now! – when you go out for a session, ride that way right from the start.” I started saying that to myself – “You are that rider now.” I believe it was that confident mind-set that allowed me to tap into the foundation that I had built from my work last year.
Repetition Builds Muscle and Mind Memory
Last year, I met my goal of completing ten track days. This helped me, through repetition, build muscle and mind memory. The first few sessions of my first day this year went remarkably well. Of course, I was not as proficient as I was at the end of last season, but my body “knew” what it was supposed to do, and I was able to get into the proper body position quickly. My eyes reached out and ratcheted far ahead through the turns and down the straights to reduce the sensation of speed. And, as the day progressed, I was able to work up to speeds approaching my fastest last year.
Muscle and Mind Memory Lead to Confidence
The thing that really amazed me was how comfortable I was in my head. I no longer felt a flash of fear when another rider slowed dramatically, crossed my line in front of me, or passed me on the outside of a turn; I just managed the situation without much thought.
At one point, I was following behind a rider on a faster bike, and I was on his tail in the turns, but he would pull away in the straights. I decided that I could pass him going into the sharp right hand turn after the long straight by waiting to initiate my braking until after he did and trail brake into the turn as best as I could. I did this, and was just about to “tip-in” to the turn, when another rider came up on my right. I delayed my turn waiting for this rider to initiate his. He never did. Instead, he stayed upright, and locked his rear wheel, and went straight into the run-off area. Once he was out of my line, I went about my turn and kept riding. Last year, this incident would have scared me silly and shaken me the rest of the day. This year, my heart rate didn’t even go up…but maybe it should have!
So, I guess I really am “that rider now.” The lesson for me is that a mantra, conscious effort, repetition, and a great coach build confidence. Thanks Ken!
Jeff Meyers is a self-described middle-aged sport bike and track day dog. He has been riding for almost 30 years and, like many folks of his vintage, was taught by his friends. He is amazed to still be here given what he did at a young age on a motorcycle with such little skill and such a need for speed. He is a lawyer at his “real” job, but also is a part time Motorcycle Safety Foundation Rider Coach and has had the privilege of working for Suzuki assisting in running demo rides, mostly at the Americade rally in Lake George, New York. Jeff loves to learn, especially about riding motorcycles.
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