Braking bad habits
Braking is about so much more than just stopiing, or taking the fear out of speed. Use your brakes with skill and style and you’ll be faster and safer.
Words by Andy Barlow | Dirt School
Pulling your brakes on a bike is one of the first things that you learn how to do as a kid to make everything feel safe again. However fast you’re going you can always slow down gradually to a stop and get your feet back on the ground to feel safe. As you start mountain biking though, you’ll find out that pulling your brakes on when things get lively isn’t always the best course of action. A lot of the time once the terrain gets loose or twisty, pulling your brakes on will actually loose you control.
This month we’re going to look at how to brake properly. We’ll take in what your two brakes do and how to know the difference between them. We’ll take in how to identify safe places to brake, and why letting go of your brakes can often give you more control than pulling them.
Safe braking zones
Everyone knows that they’re not supposed to brake on slippy things like wet roots or slick rocks. While this is true, the thing no one ever takes the time to explain is that in order to do this you’ll need to take care of your speed elsewhere – preferably where the ground is more predictable and has better traction. Safe places to brake might include open stretches of consistent ground, cambers on technical tails that are in your favour, or even just the safe run up to a steep technical chute. The less speed you carry into something difficult or technical, the more likely you are to commit to staying off the brakes when you start to gather speed over the bumpy bits.
When you brake two major things happen. Firstly you loose traction as the available grip gets caught up in the act of slowing you down. If this happens over something slippy then your wheel will likely lock up and move away quickly. The second thing that happens when you brake is that you stiffen up your arms to stay in the same place on the bike. Think about it. Every time you pull the brakes your bike slows down but your body weight wants to keep moving forwards. The only reason you don’t go over the handlebars is that you tense your arms to stay put. Do this over choppy ground and the feedback will feel rigid and harsh. If you’re doing all your braking on the smooth, predictable terrain before a technical section however, then you’ll be able to take full advantage of that free-rolling traction that goes along with letting your wheels spin. You’ll also be able to let your arms fill the gaps on the trail by leaving them supple and free to move react to whatever comes their way. The fluidity of staying low and letting your bike move is the thing that will allow you to roll over the most complicated features. Just remember to brake where it’s safe and to stay low to allow for more movement.
Your acceleration on any section of trail will be dictated by the angle of the slope that you’re on. Flat ground will have almost no acceleration at all, while steeper ground will accelerate you quickly and immediately. As you progress down a trail with a consistent gradient to it you can balance this acceleration by braking. Don’t think about it as slowing down necessarily. Think of it as not speeding up. If you were descending on a road and you wanted to keep a constant speed you’d pull your brakes and drag them so that you could keep the same speed. Riding trails is a little more complicated as there will be safe places to brake, and places where you’ll need extra traction so badly that you’ll need to let go of your brakes completely. For you to keep your speed consistent overall down the trail you’re going to have to do more braking in the places where it’s safe and let go on the places where you need that extra grip. Get this right and you can enjoy a lot more consistency to your control and pacing, as you’ll be doing different things in different places. Brake where it’s safe and let go where it’s difficult.
Front vs rear
Both of your brakes obviously do the same thing. They slow you down. But they also do two completely different things. As you pull both brakes on your weight will transfer to the front end of your bike. This will mean that you have a lot more grip up front as you will be heavier on that tyre. This is great to slow you down more effectively, but it will cause problems if you need to turn, or if your traction is limited. Your rear brake will tend to lock up easier, and with less effort, because as you slow down and your weight transfers forwards your rear end will become lighter. On top of this your two tyres have different jobs on the trail. Your front end is your balance, your control, your steering and, when needed, the majority of your braking. If you’re trying to do too much at once though it will find it’s limits and break away quickly. If you are braking and you need to turn, or if the ground is choppy, then come off the front brake to give you that extra control and keep dragging the rear. A rear wheel skid is a lot easier to control than a front wheel one. You can always apply it again once your front wheel is over the obstacle and you’re back on trustworthy terrain again.
You might want to practise this one in a car park first before doing it on the trail. It’s basically the act of braking so heavily with the front brake that you deliberately roll up onto the front wheel. If you can do this while turning gently then you’ll set up a swing with your body and bike that will allow you to pivot around the front end and turn the bike with your rear wheel in the air. Very handy when your turning circle is limited, but only available to you if the traction can handle it.
Move with the times
If you’re coming in hot and you need that front end grip, then you might still be relying on that rear brake to scrub off some excess speed. These are those moments where you can see the back end fishtailing all over the place. Opening your legs here and allowing for that movement will allow you to stay connected with the front of your bike and stay neutral. If you try this then your saddle might start hitting you in some strange places like behind your knees or the tops of your calves.
Skids are for kids, or so they say. Sometimes a skidding is the only option! If you have your front brake off for maximum front end grip, but you still want to slow down because you’re on something steep, then dragging or locking the back brake in a skid is sometimes the only option. A common place where this might happen is setting up for high lines. You are still slowing down but you need to turn up to open up the high line. Often your only option is to come off the front and just steer up the hill. You’ll be able to feel the back end almost anchor you for a quick turn. Just make sure that you don’t get into the habit of it as it causes major trail damage.
If you aren’t on one finger braking already then you are still to discover one of the best things to come out of the more powerful brakes that are available today. Keeping three fingers and a thumb on the bars means that you can have maximum contact and great grip in all conditions, allowing you to keep one leading finger on each lever will mean that you can brake as soon as you need to without hesitation. It’s part of your attack position and should always be there at the ready. If it doesn’t feel like you can achieve this properly then try moving your controls around so that you’re using your lead finger right on the final bend in the lever blade. This will give you maximum leverage and mean you can keep those other fingers on the bars.
This is something that you should be aware of. We all do it, but if you can be honest enough with yourself to notice it then you can do something about it. It tends to happen when you go fast, turn with speed or exposure on the outside, or sometimes just when it’s technical. Squeaky brakes often give comfort braking away, but ideally remember to brake where you plan to. That way you can release your fingers and let the tyres do their thing.
Foot out, flat out
More of a fall back this one, but throwing down a safety dangler and locking the back end is a great way of squaring off a turn. If you’ve come in hot and you just need to make it round, it’s always a good way of staying on track. Watch out though, because although it will feel fast because there will be a loss of traction at the back end, it will basically stall you in the turn and give you no exit speed. Try not to ride this way too often, but feel free to use it in an emergency. if you’ve exhausted all your other options.
This is the opposite of braking! Harnessing your inner mid-nineties Nico Vouilloz and go for a good old-fashioned aero tuck now and again. Point those lever fingers and get behind the bars. This one is possibly the simplest technique that we’ve ever encouraged you to perfect. You basically make yourself as small as possible and try not to chin the bars. Trek World Racing rider Reece Wilson has been solely responsible for it’s resurgence recently and we’re starting to see it come back on the trails more and more. Tuck on the fast bits and save your legs for pedalling where it counts.