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Common Questions: How to Brake on a Motorcycle

Stop effectively and safely with these tips

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Common Questions: How to Brake on a Motorcycle
Ildar Sagdejev/Wikipedia
Braking is one of the most important things you’ll learn to do on a motorcycle; though newbies tend to get stuck on techniques like shifting and countersteering, the most effective way to avoid an accident is through proper use of the brakes.

Here are a few common questions about how to stop on bike; for more on the topic, you can also check out this video.

Should I use the front, rear brake… or both?
Balance is crucial to a motorcycle’s dynamics, and that’s why most bikes have individual front and rear brake controls. Most experts agree that roughly 70% of braking effort should go to the front wheel (which uses the hand lever on the right grip), and 30% to the rear (which is operated by the right foot pedal.) Front brakes require more effort because weight transfer from slowing down will shift the bike’s balance from the rear wheel to the front, enabling the front tire to handle more load. When there’s less downforce on the rear tire, it becomes much easier to lockup and slide that wheel, resulting in a loss of control... the front, however, is less likely to slip because of the weight transferred to that end.

Braking by bike type
The 70/30 braking ratio can shift slightly based on the type of bike you’re riding; cruisers and choppers can handle more rear braking because they carry more weight over their rear wheel (due to the rearward position of the saddle), while sport bikes can tolerate higher front braking effort since their forks are more vertical and their wheelbases are shorter. Dirt bikes rarely see front brake usage due to the nature of loose terrain (see more on this in “Be aware of road conditions,” below.) In the hands of experienced riders, motard or supermoto bikes can even be slowed down by sliding out the rear tire.

How hard can I brake?
Learning the finer points of your bike’s braking performance is the key to keeping your bike in control, so it’s a good idea to explore those limits in a safe environment. Practice repeated stops in an abandoned parking lot or empty lot, and you’ll start to get a feel for the amount of effort that triggers tire slip. Try stopping with your fronts only, your rears only, and then a combination of both: that way, you’ll get a sense of how hard you can apply the brakes in a panic stopping situation.

Once you become familiar with your bike’s brakes, the sensations of weight transfer will start to feel more apparent. Stopping hard enough on the fronts might even lift the rear wheel up, and using the rear brakes hard enough will cause a skid. You’ll also find that you can get away with applying more pressure at higher speeds. Learn those limits, and you’ll be much better prepared for the unexpected.

The lean angle issue
Tires are most effective when they’re upright, so you’ll need to keep that in mind when you start to lean your bike over. Let’s say that 100% of a tire’s available grip is available when it’s at a 90 degree angle; once that angle starts decreasing, its ability to maintain grip will also drop. Though grabbing the front brake might not break the tire free when it’s upright, the same effort could cause a skid when the tire is leaned over, and that loss of traction can instantly lead you to “tuck” the tire under, triggering a wipeout. Some braking effort can be applied while a motorcycle is turning, but the bike will be far less tolerant of brake input when increased lean angles are involved. Be hyper aware when you squeeze the brakes while you’re turning, and try to get most—if not all—of your braking before you turn.

Be aware of road conditions
Different surface conditions require different braking techniques, and you’ll want to use your front brakes gingerly when traction is iffy. Locking up the fronts can easily cause you to lose control of your bike, while locking up the rear is much more likely to be inconsequential. The possibility of sliding either end of your bike will be greatly dependent on the traction conditions beneath your tires.

Enter areas where oil spills are likely with caution; these high-risk areas include intersections and parking lots. Drag your rear brake where you suspect slick surfaces, and you’ll have a backup plan in case you start to feel the front tires slide. It takes quick reflexes, so stay on your guard and remember that it’s much easier to recover from a rear wheel lockup than it is a front slide.

Those rules get taken to another level when it comes to riding offroad, as dirt bike riding almost never involves the front brakes. If you plan on hitting trails, make it a habit to keep your hand off the front brake lever, or else you might have to get used to tasting dirt more often than you need to.

How about linked brakes?
Many scooters, touring bikes, cruisers, and even sport bikes are equipped with linked brakes, which are designed to actuate both front and rear brakes through a single lever. Some systems are only rear-to-front linked, while others work both ways, but the goal is the same both: remove some of the guesswork involved with choosing between front and rear brakes. While a majority of riders can’t produce stopping distances as short as those created by linked braking systems, this feature isn’t always popular among some performance-oriented enthusiasts.

What about ABS?
ABS, short for anti-lock braking systems, is designed to detect tire slip and “pulse” the brakes so they don’t skid. The system allows the rider to apply full effort at the hand or brake levers without worrying about locking up the tires, but ABS isn’t effective when a bike is leaned over.

Though it’s difficult to match the stopping distance of an ABS-equipped bike in wet or compromised traction situations, not all riders are enthusiastic about computerized brake intervention. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is considering making ABS mandatory on motorcycles, but both sides of the debate can be quelled when manufacturers equip ABS bikes with a switch that can turn the system on and off.

Related Video
How to Brake on a Motorcycle

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