Want to go faster? Learn to brake better. Sounds like a contradiction, but if you learn how to use your brakes effectively you’ll find you can use them harder but less often and keep better control. And with better control comes more speed… So here in no particular order are our top ten better braking tips:
Ever noticed how the bumps get bigger under braking? Chances are they are a bit (people locking up going into corners make braking bumps as the wheel skips across the trail) but there’s something else going on too. The fingers that pull the levers are driven by muscles in the forearm. Tense those muscles and your arms stiffen and can’t soak up bumps as effectively. Another reason for not overbraking, and for setting up your levers correctly.
Not strictly a technique, but you can make life easier for yourself by tweaking the position of your brake levers. Set them so they’re angled downwards to line up with your arms when you’re sat on the bike, generally around 45 degrees below horizontal. Use the reach adjusters to position the lever blades comfortably under your fingertips and adjust the brakes so that they start to come on about halfway through the lever travel. Having the levers generally nearer the bar makes them easier to pull – just don’t have them so close that they hit the grips…
3. Don’t be scared of the front brake
The front brake’s got a bad rep, but it’s entirely undeserved. Sure, ham-fisted use of the forward anchor is going to have you over the bars, but it’s not going to chuck you into the bushes every time you touch the lever. Physics says that the front brake is the most effective slowing-down tool at your disposal, so get used to using it.
4. Know your tyres
You might have the best brakes in the world but they’re only as good as your tyres. You can only slow down as fast as your treads will let you, so get out there and find out where the limits are. Once you know how hard you can brake before the tyres lock and slide, you’ll be able to brake as hard as possible – but no harder…
5. Brake in a straight line
You’re generally asking quite a lot of your tyres, and that’s just riding along and turning corners. Asking them to slow you down as well is likely to be one thing too many. Heaving the brakes on when you’re cranked over mid-corner is asking for trouble. Look ahead and if you need to slow down for a corner do it before you reach the corner.
6. Skids are for kids
The aim of braking is to slow down. You slow down fastest with the wheels almost, but not quite, locked up. If the wheels lock and the tyre starts sliding, not only are you not decelerating as effectively but you’ve lost a whole pile of control. Changing direction with rotating wheels is easy. Changing direction with locked wheels isn’t.
If you need to slow down in a real hurry, the trick is to keep the wheels at that sweet spot just before they lock. This is all about feel. It doesn’t take much practise to be able to tell when a wheel’s sliding, and with a bit more experience you’ll start to be able to anticipate a lock-up and ease off the brakes a bit to keep the wheels spinning. This is what that ‘modulation’ thing you read about in brake tests is all about – wooden, on/off brakes are harder to use effectively than squeezy, controllable brakes.
8. Squeeze, don’t stab
Grabbing a double fistful of brake lever every time you want to slow down looks like the obvious thing to do, but you’ll find that over-aggressive lever hefting leads to skids, loss of control and general sliding off the trail maladies. The way to go is to progressively squeeze the levers, pulling them gradually harder until they’re about to lock, then easing off, pulling back and so on. Just grabbing them means you’re never going to hit that decelerative sweet spot.
9. Learn to endo
Remember that stuff about not fearing the front brake? This’ll help get over it. It’s easy to dismiss stoppies and endos as peurile playground tricks, but if you can hoik the bike on to the front wheel with the brake and bring it back to earth without falling off you’ll get a much better feel for just how much front brake you can apply. Find a nice soft patch of grass, put some flat pedals on, ride along slowly and pull the front brake on harder and harder until the back wheel leaves the ground. Then let it off. Keep your arms straight and if you’re going over the front, vault the bars and land on your feet. If your biorhythms are up to new tricks, try going faster, pulling the front brake on enough to lift the back but not quite enough to lock the front and roll to a halt on the front wheel…
10. Weight back
More weight over a wheel gives it better traction, so it’s less likely to slip and you can brake harder before that all-important point of lock-up. Old Mr Physics says that as you decelerate your weight moves forward, and this is why it’s easy to lock the back brake, why you can slow down faster with the front brake and why overdoing said front brake tends to tip the bike forward. Shifting your weight back a bit as you brake keeps more of it over the back wheel, so it’s less likely to lock and you’re less likely to chew trail.