Stop braking bad

Words by Andy Barlow | Dirt School

Knowing when to brake can give you the control to go faster. We uncover the science behind braking. Here’s how to brake better.

>>> The best mountain bike disc brakes

Pulling your brakes on can get you out of a lot of trouble. Obviously they slow you down, and if applied in the right places they do it safely too — cornering, tackling technical sections, or even come to a complete stop with stability and control.

But they can also hold you back from progressing as a rider, and even get you into trouble. We associate stopper with making our experience on the trails safer, it’s no surprise then that so many of us go to them as soon as we feel threatened or out of our comfort zone. But as our riding starts to improve and the level of trails that we’re capable of tackling progresses, we still go to the brakes for control. Only this time they do us a dis-service by reducing the amount of traction available right where we need it the most.

Front versus rear

Firstly, let’s look at what both brakes do. Your front wheel will be able to handle a much higher load before locking up because as you pull the lever all your weight will be on top of it. This means that you can trust it to stop you slowly. It also means that if you’re asking a lot of your traction already, in a corner for example, then you’ll overstep how much grip you have pretty quickly resulting in a sudden loss of control. As a general rule you can only use the front brake in a straight line.

Your rear brake will be able to handle a lot less force before it locks up. This is handy if you need to flick your back end around as you can make it skid fairly easily and still have your balance under control by steering. It also means that it’s able to do less for you in terms of slowing you down. Ideally you want to apply both brakes if you can, but the rear brake is a good one if you’re already close to your limits of traction; in a corner or on steeper technical terrain for example.

Safe braking zones

Mountain biking is full of loose surfaces and rough terrain. If you’re looking to use your brakes to give you control you’re going to have to be very careful where you pull them. Most people know that they can’t brake on roots for example, but no one ever tells you where you should be braking. Our advice is to look for the smoother, easier parts of trail and do as much braking as you can on them. Even the most technical trails have places where you can trust the surface. Look for these to control your speed and you’ll be able to enjoy much more traction where you need it further down the track.

Fluidity and control

When you brake your arms will stiffen up to hold your body weight where it is. This means that you’ll be rigid over rougher parts of the track on the brakes. Try and brake where it’s safe and if you need your range of motion to absorb features then come off the brakes to be fluid and allow range of motion. You can do way more braking where it’s calmer and you can trust the grip. Then rely on your range of motion and fluidity to give you control where it’s more difficult.

Equipment check

First things first, make sure you’re running disc brakes with big rotors, which will let you brake harder with more control. Big rotors create more leverage against wheel rotation, because the bite point of the calliper is further away from the axle. This means the rotor runs between the pads faster and in turn creates more friction. The same size rotors front and rear is usually a good idea too because you want decent power in the rear brake too, particularly if you ride steep stuff and need to drag the rear sometimes.

Weight transfer

Body weight transfer is crucial if you want to brake effectively. As a general rule you need to shift your weight back when braking — this stops your centre of gravity moving too far over the front wheel, keeps both tyres in traction and stops you going over the bars.

Another way to dramatically improve braking traction is to drop your heels and push forwards, driving the rear tyre into the ground.