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Five tips for better braking
When I run my Survival Skills 'Performance' courses which seek to improve cornering skills or my 'Urban' which aim to equip riders for riding in towns and cities, one of the recurring issues I have to tackle for most riders is confidence with the brakes. When I learned to ride, there was good reason - if you overdid braking, you tended to fall off. Even when I originally wrote this article, both combined braking systems (CBS) and anti-lock braking systems (ABS) were uncommon and restricted to top-of-the-range machines. The vast majority of motorcycles and scooters still used conventional front and rear brakes on different circuits. But in the last few years, the pace of technological development of electronic rider aids has accelerated rapidly, and all new machines from 125 up have some kind of advanced braking system. The bad news is that numerous different systems have evolved. Right now there are linked brakes and ABS on budget machines, with sophisticated proportional linked systems and cornering ABS on the more expensive bikes. It's impossible to keep track of every development, so whilst the advice below still applies, it's also important to READ THE MANUAL and find out precisely what your machine is fitted with.
Some years back when I was still a basic trainer, I bought a GS500E as a runabout and spare instructor bike. With just 2000 miles on the clock, it was immaculate and the middle aged owner's pride and joy. An hour later I was at the local Suzuki dealer purchasing some new rear brake pads. They were down to the metal! Meanwhile, the front had been so little-used you could still see the machining marks in the disc... which only goes to show it's not only novice riders who often have some misconceptions about the use of the brakes.
As I'm talking about misconceptions, let's blow away another. "Braking force in the dry should be split 75:25 between front and rear wheel". Trainers delivering the UK's Compulsory Basic Training course for new riders (CBT) often quote this '75:25 rule' but front-to-rear ratio depends on a number of factors, not least the style of the bike being ridden.
If you try a 75:25 emergency stop on a lightweight step-through moped or scooter, you WILL lock the front wheel. That's because the engine is at the rear of the machine and there is little weight over the front wheel - the braking force needs to be biased towards the rear wheel for a swift stop.
But on a conventional motorcycle, the brake which does most of the work IS the front brake, but just how braking force is split depends on several factors including type of bike, how the bike is being ridden and what we're aiming to achieve and how the machine is loaded.
The most important point to remember is that the main role of the brakes is to adjust our speed downwards. But within that simple-sounding statement lurks a lot of detail.
So let's start with the most extreme case - the emergency stop. Now our aim is to get the bike stopped in as short a distance as possible. Here are the basic rules which apply to bike fitted with conventional as well as combined brakes:
- get the bike upright
- shut the throttle completely
- apply the front brake smoothly
- apply a little light pressure to the rear brake
- progressively apply the front brake harder until maximum braking power is being generated
- clutch in and LEFT foot down (so you can keep a foot on the rear brake) as the bike comes to a halt
That's the UK system. We leave the gears alone, we concentrate on getting the most out of the brakes and we leave the clutch alone too - that gives us some engine braking too.
Here's a key point - maximum braking force is obtained just before the tyres start to slide. And a key question - how much front brake do we apply? It depends partly on the machine. So long as the brakes are applied progressively, modern bikes can brake surprisingly hard with no danger of locking the front wheel. On a modern sports or sports-touring bike, the balance under maximum braking is near-100% front brake, near-0% rear brake - the rear wheel will begin to lift. Cruisers and fully-loaded touring bikes generally have a longer wheelbase and more weight to the rear, so allow more use of the rear brake. Lightweight trail bikes usually have relatively little weight over the front wheel and so the rear brake becomes more important. Changing the loading matters - the more weight to the rear and particularly when carrying a pillion, the more rear brake we can use. And trying to stop a classic machine will almost certainly need both brakes!
It also depends on the surface. Even in the wet, modern tyres deliver surprising amounts of grip but NO tyres, however good, are any better than the road surface. So watch the surface when braking hard - a good general rule is if it's shiny, it's probably slippery! So if we're likely to need to brake hard, we'd best aim for a good bit of surface.
What do we do if a wheel does lock? Once again, this is the UK system for a non-ABS bike. If the front brake locks, RELEASE the pressure. If we remembered to brake UPRIGHT, the bike will slide in a straight line long enough for us to RELEASE the front brake and reapply it, a little more gently. We should recover full control with no more than a bit of a wobble. But if we're leaned over or don't respond rapidly, then it's likely we'll crash - I had a couple of those in my early despatching days. If we lock the rear wheel on a non-ABS bike, UK riders are taught to release it quickly. The US school of thought is to keep it locked and ride out the skid. My worry is that this applies to rear-heavy, long wheelbase machines like Harleys. My very first crash was a rear wheel lock-up and because I was using the front brake too, the rear simply turned out sideways, overtook the front and I still crashed. I could have saved that if I'd simply got off the rear brake. But if we have a more modern machine with ABS, DON'T RELEASE the brake. The ABS will now stop us faster than you can release, then reapply the brakes.
But even with ABS, riders are still reluctant to brake hard. In fact studies show that in collisions, the rider rarely gets much over 60% of the possible braking power. Of course, in the days before ABS, then locking the front wheel was usually game over. But ABS has changed that and if we've got the technology then we should be able to use it.
ABS or no ABS, it's panic grabs that cause most of the problems when braking hard, so learn not to grab the brakes - work on learning how to apply the brakes smoothly to the desired pressure, letting the suspension settle. Brakes are not on/off switches - they can and should be used subtly and smoothly. Don't snap them on, even in an emergency. A too-sudden application can cause a skid or trigger the ABS. It will also throw our weight suddenly onto the handlebars, compresses the front suspension and front tyre suddenly, and that combination can cause the bike to go unstable. Efficient braking starts light and builds progressively - the front forks dip smoothly, we can brace our knees against the tank, and the front tyre 'bites' into the road surface for maximum grip. Aim for a smooth 'one-shot routine', not a series of jerky on-off-on actions.
After one more e-stop crash when a pedestrian ran in front of me on a zebra crossing, I took myself off to a car park and spent an hour going up and down practicing hard stops. And I've continued to practice ever since.
Mastering e-stops has a HUGE benefit in ordinary riding too, because we now KNOW we can brake hard if we have to. One of the recurrent faults I see on my Survival Skills advanced motorcycle training courses is a reluctance to brake on the approach to corners. What's the most common crash on a rural road? Running into a bend too fast! We ALL misread corners and that sometimes means approaching a bit too fast. But if we have a bit of confidence to use the brakes positively - thanks to our e-stop practice - we can nearly always shed the excess speed before things get out of hand.
We need to practice using the brakes so we know how they feel under different conditions. Here are some to think about:
- emergency stops
- 'standard' braking to a halt
- 'standard' braking to slow down
- gentle applications for minor speed adjustments
- in wet and dry conditions
- solo, with a passenger, and fully loaded
I've already covered emergency stops, and 'standard' braking to a halt is similar, just less extreme, but if we time our braking right, just before we come to a standstill, we can ease off the pressure on the brakes, and ultimately come right off the front brake, gliding to a halt on just a little rear brake. The big benefit here is that the front forks rebound slowly and progressively before we stop, and the bike comes to a standstill nice and level.
Similarly, if we're braking to lose speed, maybe for a lower speed limit or a bend, then we may need to use the brakes. The same basic front first / rear second technique is the simplest way but we also need to release the pressure progressively, to allow the front suspension to rebound smoothly. 'Pinging' the brakes off suddenly upsets the bike's balance. Whenever possible, aim to complete braking early rather than late. Braking harder and later is rarely the key to riding faster - the result is far more likely to be an unsettled bike and tense rider. For example, getting the brakes off WELL BEFORE tipping into the bend means that the bike will be settled on the suspension and we'll not be worrying about whether or not we're going to make the corner. If we start braking early, there's room for further corrections if we need to lose some extra speed (maybe the bend tightens up and we've only just been able to see that) and it frees up our brain to think about what we're going to do next (such as find the line around the corner). Braking late and hard, we're focused on getting the bike stopped - our attention is down under the front wheel looking at the road surface or looking at where we DON'T want to go. Getting OFF the brakes is what frees up our attention to look further ahead.
But remember - the front brake is a conventional motorcycle's 'stopper' brake. So I'll finish off with five basic rules for using the FRONT brake:
- apply the front brake whilst the bike is upright - when the forks are compressed, there is less suspension movement to deal with bump, but upright in a straight line, this is a relatively minor issue. But if the forks are compressed because we're braking hard mid-corner and the bike hits a big bump, it will tend to kick the front wheel sideways, upsetting stability and potentially causing a crash.
- apply the front brake momentarily before applying the rear - this lets the front forks compress and the rear suspension extend before the rear tyre tries to grip the surface. Many rear wheel lock-ups happen when riders are braking rear brake first - as the front starts to bite, the rear lifts, loses grip and locks.
- avoid applying the front brake harshly mid-corner - as well as grip issues, the forks compress, steering geometry changes and most bikes attempt to sit up which makes them want to run straight on. This is a common cause of running wide incidents in bends, and cornering ABS won't help here.
- applying the front brake mid-corner is possible IF we're smooth - sometimes we have to slow mid-corner (maybe the road's blocked ahead or the bend's a lot tighter than we thought) and the front brake remains the main 'stopper'. If we're not already sliding the front tyre through the corner then there is SOME grip to brake - it may not be much so apply the front brake very lightly (use a little rear at the same time). Here's the clever bit. As the speed comes down we can either MAINTAIN LEAN and turn on a progressively tighter radius (just what we need if a bend tightened) OR we can REDUCE LEAN and brake progressively hard (which will get us out of trouble if the road is blocked ahead).
- make the release of the front brake as smooth as the initial application.
So schedule some general braking practice:
- work on progressively building braking power from gentle to firm and back to gentle, then off the brakes altogether
- practice braking and transitioning straight back onto the throttle. Try this - from 30 mph or so brake hard to a slow walking pace, then pull away again. If you progressively release the front brake as mentioned above, you should be able to move away smoothly again. Practice this until you can go from firm braking to positive throttle easily
- practice emergency stops. This is probably the most important skill of all and if you haven't done one for a while, start gently and slowly, then build speed and braking pressure steadily. If you're not sure how to perform an emergency stop, GET SOME HELP!
Most bikes and their tyres will exceed owner abilities. So we should aim to improve our abilities to get closer to the tyres' limits, and get confident enough in our braking technique that we can avoid snapping on the front brake in emergencies. But don't use brakes as a performance aid. If we ride on the road as we would on a track, sooner or later we'll come across a bit of road surface that doesn't cooperate. In particular, braking into bends may be a great race track technique, but there's a reason for braking upright on the road - it's to retain control. Even with cornering ABS, the basic 'brake upright' rules still apply.
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