Using the Brakes

 Don’t Touch That Front Brake!

 Most of us have heard this at one time or another in our childhood, related to riding bicycles “you’ll go right over the handlebars”.  While this was never likely, it did get our attention.

But now you are being told that the front brake does 70% to 80% of the braking on a motorcycle, and is the key element in stopping.  So why does this article start with such an alarming title?  Partly to get your attention, and partly to lead into a discussion about times not to use the front brake.

Most of you know that on most vehicles, including motorcycles, that the front brake has the most stopping power.  This is mainly due to the weight transfer onto the front of any vehicle during braking.  The more weight on the front tires, the more traction they have, and therefore more braking pressure can be applied.  The opposite is true of the rear brakes.  When braking, weight is taken off of the rear tires, providing less traction for rear braking.

Lets look at some different braking situations:

Hard braking with the rear brake only, which sometimes occurs in a panic stop situation (all the more reason to practice stopping quickly, and taking a motorcycle safety course), can cause wild fish-tailing, which often leads to a crash.  When you lock up the rear wheel, it looses its traction and tries to swap ends with the front.  What’s worse is if you then release the rear brake, and the wheel regains traction while the bike is in one of the wild swings, it can cause you to “high side” – throwing you off of the ride altogether.

Hard braking with the front brake only, even if you lock up the wheel, is usually less dramatic.  The front wheel slides, but still tends to go straight ahead.  You can then release the brake and reapply pressure to it.

Some things you may not have known about braking:

Using the front brake only in a high-speed turn will tend to lift the bike out of the turn.

You come into a turn too fast, and apply the front brake hard.  Your bike straightens up somewhat, making the situation much worse.  You find yourself running off the road and into the woods.

Using the front brake only in a slow-speed turn will tend to pull the bike down.

You pull into a parking lot in a right-hand turn.  Suddenly someone steps out in front of you, so you hit the front brake while lowering your right foot to the ground to hold the bike.  Before you know it, people are looking down at you because you just dumped your bike.

The first situation – the high-speed crash –  is easily avoided.  If you find yourself going too fast in a turn, number one: don’t panic.  Keep your head up and eyes looking through the turn.  Use both front and rear brakes to scrub off some speed.  Press down harder on the lower handlebar and ride out the turn.  Unless the road is slippery from water or gravel, you’d be surprised at just how sharp a turn your bike can make.

Of course, the best way to prevent this is to know your abilities and the road conditions before putting yourself at risk.  Also, the recommended method for stopping quickly in a turn is to straighten up the bike, then apply the brakes hard – but it is not always possible to do this.

The second situation – the low-speed crash – is not as easy to avoid once you are in that situation.  When entering crowded areas, keep you head up, eyes active and be alert.  Keep both feet on the pegs until you actually stop. If you do have to stop quickly, try to straighten up the bike, then make the hard stop using both brakes.

One place to avoid using the front brake altogether is at slow speed on soft ground, like sand or deep gravel.  Using the front brake will tend to dig the front wheel into the soft ground, usually resulting in you looking up at strangers again.

The most effective way to stop a motorcycle in most situations, even in turns, is by using both front and rear brakes correctly.


Bill Hanna

VABA Safety Officer