Brake Like a Pro

By Tony Marchand

We have 2 brakes on our bicycles (unless you're riding track); one for the front and one for the back. For most slowing, applying both brakes gently and evenly so you don't have a sudden change in speed. Always be aware of cyclist around you and either signal your slowing or call it out so others will also slow and stop. But for emergency braking, braking in turn or long downhills and braking in wet weather, different techniques are applied.

Emergency braking:
One of my experts, Sheldon Brown, in his article on Braking and Turning Your Bicycle notes that the maximum braking capacity is in the front brake. For most cyclist there is a hesitancy to use the front break because of the fear that the sudden stop with the tremendous forward momentum the rear wheel will lift off the ground and send the cyclist crashing over the handlebars. The typical "over-the-bars" crash is caused, not so much by braking too hard, but by braking hard without using the rider's arms to brace against the deceleration. Moving back on the seat, lowering one's center of gravity and bracing with one's arms should be practiced on a grassy surface or at a slow speed until it becomes second nature. The problem with using the rear bake in such emergency stops is that as one's weight shifts off the rear wheel toward the front, the rear wheel will lock up and cause skidding.

Bottom line: If your uncomfortable in using only the front brake in such cases, follow the technique suggested by Kevin Livingston's video on How to Brake A Bike , Tony Marchand's video on Safe and Efficient Braking, or the technique suggested by GNC1. Here they apply both bakes but also move back, lower their center of gravity and braces with his arms. There is still the chance of skidding or fish-tailing the rear, so concentrate on the front brake (which on most U.S. bicycles is on the left) more then the rear. Practice, practice and more practice will make you an expert and keep you safe with out flying over the handle bars.

When to use the rear bake:
  • Slippery surfaces: You won't skid the front brake on dry surfaces, but when things get slippery in which case applying the front brake will can lead to a skid and inevitably a fall. Under such conditions control your speed by applying gently pressure on the rear bakes.
  • Bumpy Roads: If you apply the front brake while riding into a bump, the bike will have a harder time riding up and over the bump. If you apply the front brake while airborne, it will stop and your landing will not be pleasant.
  • Front flat: Braking a flat tire can cause the tire to come off the rim with dire consequences.
Braking in turns:
Try to slow to the speed you desire in the turn using both brake gently, before entering the turn. As you turn, lean into the turn and let up on the bakes. Then accelerate out of the turn. Braking while in the turn tends to force the the bicycle up right in which case your bound to lose control. If your making a right hand turn, place the left pedal all the way down and place pressure on that downward pedal as you lean into the turn. This will increase stability as you lean. Do the opposite for for left turns. I learned the technique from some close friends as I rode downhill switch-backs in Italy.

Long downhill braking:
Some downhills in Italy may take me 45 to 60 minutes to descend. It's tiring on the hands. Gently pumping the brakes and alternating between the front and back can make your descent much easier. Don't hold the brakes but gently pump. Holding the brakes will heat up the rim and may lead to a blow out.

Additional notes for mountain bikers:
A slightly different technique is used for emergency stops on mountain bikes an shown in RideWorks Braking Video.  Stand to allow flexibility in the legs, apply the front and back brakes simultaneously, and throw your weight back to prevent one from being thrown over the handle bars. On sand, applying the front brake may lead to a front skid which will usually toss you off the bike. In such a case apply the rear brake alone, in which case you're more likely to stay upright. Also see Mountain Bike Technique - Under Rotation and Braking  from IMbikeMag. Down hill straight braking 4,5 and braking prior to obstacles 6 requires additional techniques.

 Also see video: and  Fitness and Cycling Tips at

Other References:
  1. How To Brake Like A Pro - Road Cycling  From GNC: Using your bike's brakes properly is a key skill, and one that people often get wrong when out cycling. Your front brake is key to slowing your bike down quickly, so use it to make sure you stop faster - this is why you'll see disc rotors on mountain bikes and motorbikes are much larger on the front than the rear. Using both brakes together though is the most effective method of stopping fast, as demonstrated by the guys in this video. Moving your body weight back and keeping it low also means that you can apply more braking force on the front brake, again helping you to stop faster.
  2. How to Brake on a Bicycle  News from Bicycle Quarterly and Compass Bicycles
  3. Better Braking   Some tips from Bicycle Magazine.
  4. Mountain Bike Braking Tips - Downhill Straight Braking   An essential mountain bike braking tip that gives you more control and confidence downhill.
  5. Speed Control  Essentials from IMBikeMag
  6. Mountain Bike Braking Technique - Braking with Less Dive   Proper mountain bike braking technique to stop fork diving into obstacles so you can ride with far more flow, control and momentum.