How to improve your braking and deceleration

People don’t think too much of their brakes when riding their bikes, or even driving their cars. They usually relegate braking only for situations where you have to stop or slow down. Indeed, when learning how to operate any vehicle, braking is the least intuitive skill, and it deserves to be consciously studied and analyzed. Braking can actually unlock speed you never knew you had.

How well do you know how to use your brakes?

AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE, DO YOUR BRAKING IN A STRAIGHT LINE

Before we delve into the finer points of braking technique, we should look at the two finger-length pieces of rubber through which everything you do on a bike is transmitted: the tires’ contact patch.

Tires have a finite level of grip. At any one time, a rider can apply three forces to a tire: acceleration, braking, and cornering. The way tires work, they are able to do one of these three tasks to the theoretical limit of traction by committing 100% of their grip to that one task. However, they don’t do so great when asked to combine two tasks, because each task requires a certain portion of grip to work, and the tires have to split their grip between them. With this splitting of grip comes an according lowering of the traction limit.

This is why it’s best to do your braking in a straight line. Doing so lets your tires concentrate on deceleration, especially if you have to scrub a lot of speed rapidly. The moment you turn your handlebars, you will not be able to brake anywhere near as hard, because your tires’ grip will already be committed to cornering. The most you will be able to do mid-corner is to feather the brake levers, preferably the rear, as loss of front grip is almost impossible to recover from.

APPLY THE BRAKES SMOOTHLY

One other thing about tire grip: It doesn’t respond very well to sudden inputs. Smooth control inputs will maximize whatever grip you have available. This is one reason why you want to squeeze your brake levers progressively, and not grab them suddenly.

This smooth application is called “modulation.”

A disc brake offers much better modulation due to tighter tolerances and harder friction material.

By design, disc brakes have much better modulation than rim brakes, because the pads are harder and there is much less distance between them and the braking surface.

ON THE ROAD, THE FRONT BRAKE IS YOUR FRIEND

I’m pretty sure you’ve heard stories of people somersaulting over their handlebars because they used their front brakes. That will only happen if you’re clumsy with its use and application. Learn to love your front brake, because it is far and away the fastest way of retarding your speed.

If you tried to come to a stop with the rear brake alone, you’d need a lot more space. You can start by squeezing both brake levers equally, then learning to bias your braking more toward the front.

SHIFT YOUR WEIGHT BACKWARD

On a car, most of the braking happens on the front wheels. Because it has a pair of front wheels, the forward weight shift under braking translates only into the “dive” of the front suspension.

Maximum braking with rearward weight transfer on a road bike with drop handlebars.

With its single front wheel, maximum braking with the front brake on a bicycle requires active weight transfer. You do this by getting out of the saddle, leveling the pedals, and pushing your hips rearward, as far behind the saddle as you can. You’re effectively pushing the bike away from you as you brake. This will counteract any tendency to somersault forward.

Keep in mind that this weight-shifting technique should be done only in a straight line. If you initiate a turn with your hips shifted backward, you will end up unweighting and losing grip on the front wheel – and that is guaranteed to end with you hitting the floor.

PRACTICE YOUR MAXIMUM BRAKING

It’s worth going to a quiet street to practice this.

Sprint to 20 km/h or so, then squeeze your brake levers hard, remembering to perform your weight shifting. Maximum braking is achieved when your rear tire lifts a few centimeters off the ground, and skids when it meets terra firma again.

DECELERATION DOESN’T ALWAYS REQUIRE BRAKING

While pedaling at speed on flat terrain, the large wind resistance usually means all you need to shed some speed is to stop pedaling. Sitting more upright also increases your frontal area to the wind, increasing drag.

This is also important if you ride in a group. When in a paceline, you’re in close proximity to other riders and their wheels. A mistimed fistful of brake can mean collision within the pack. It’s better to control your speed by freewheeling and sitting up, very gently using the brakes if needed.

BRAKE EARLIER IN WET CONDITIONS

To work in the wet, rim brakes have to drive away water from the brake track first.

I cannot over-stress the importance of this tip for cyclists who ride bikes with rim brakes. Because of the closer proximity to the ground, the braking track of your wheels gets wet fairly easily. Your brake pads have to push this water away from the braking track before they stand a chance of generating friction and actually slowing you down.

To compensate for this, brake earlier than you normally would. It’s also a good idea to dry out your rims by periodically applying the brakes lightly while riding.

With disc brakes, the braking surface is much farther away and is less affected by water, so your braking is much more reliable. The limiting factor isn’t in the brake hardware, but in the grip of the tires. Because disc brakes also have much better modulation, however, you’re better able to make use of whatever tire grip and braking power you have.

TO GO FASTER, BRAKE LATER

Conversely, free speed exists for the taking if you can delay your braking as much as possible, while still remaining as smooth as you can on the levers.

This last tip requires practice and a healthy appetite for risk. On a course you know well, start entering the turns slowly. Then as your confidence builds, delay your braking point further and further, as you adjust your brake input to scrub off excess entry speed.

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I hope you learned something with this writeup. If you want me to write about a certain topic, let me know in the comments.

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