Braking, Where is the Power?
What you need to know to safely get stopped!
The question always comes up; Is it best to use the front brake, the back brake, or both?
The question is not as simple as it would seem. For the road bike rider, it is pretty straight forward, and I would side with those that prefer the front brake. However, some may be still undecided on the mountain bike.
Most people would say that you will stop faster if you use both brakes at the same time. That seems, at least on the surface, to make good sense and is probably the best advice for beginning cyclists. To get the shortest stopping distance, however, you will need to learn how to use the front brake more than the rear.
The front brake most effective when used for 70-80% of the bike’s stopping power in hard stops, depending upon surface conditions. Why, because rider and bike weight is transferred forward onto the front wheel even when both brakes are applied effectively, giving the front more grip and rear less.
A typical example of weight transfer is when you trip on something on the floor – your feet stop, but momentum keeps the top of you going, and you fall flat on your face. The weight transfer that takes place under braking on a bike pushes the front wheel onto the ground and makes it grip very well.
The rear brake is applied more with poor traction situations, or when you have a blown front tire. It only aids the front brakes to help stop the bike on dry pavement. Taking time to learn the proper use of the front brake will make you a safer cyclist.
Some cyclists use the rear brake exclusively; however, when they need to stop quickly in an emergency situation, they will grab the front also, and this is the usual cause of the “over the bars” or OTB crash. Josh Brandt has a theory that the over the bars crash is caused not by braking too hard but instead by braking hard without using the rider’s arms to slow the deceleration of the rider’s weight, so the bike stops but the rider doesn’t. This causes the weight of the rider to be thrown forward, and the “over the bar” (OTB) bicycle accident happens.
For that reason, all cyclists should learn how to use the front brake properly. It may take several practice runs, but here is the best way to learn to use the front brake. Ride your bike in a straight line in an open parkinglot with the least amount of autos possible. Ride the bike for a short distance to build up a little speed then apply both brakes simultaneously, making sure to put slightly more of the effort into the front brake. Make multiple passes, each time adding a little more front and a little less rear. Your legs will tell you when the rear wheel is about to skid, then back off just a bit. Practice this over and over on harder surfaces before attempting this on dirt. When practicing on dirt, start from the beginning, both brakes with just a little more front than rear.
While there are some instances where the back brake is the better choice.
- Don’t use the front alone on slippery or wet surfaces. The front wheel could skid on the slick pavement, front wheel skids are nearly impossible to control.
- If the surface is bumpy or rough enough that the wheels may become airborne and you apply the front brakes while the bike is in the air, the wheel will not roll when it hits the ground, and that will give you a 100% chance of an adverse outcome.
- If you have a front flat, don’t use the front brake. If you brake a wheel that has a low or deflated tire, the rubber can slip on the rim or even come off the rim and cause a crash.
- If the front fails for any reason, use the back brake.
- For long downhill rides such as mountain descents where the brakes could overheat, it is best to alternate between the two rather than use one or the other exclusively.
- Use both the brakes together in rainy weather or if the front brake is not strong enough to lift the rear wheel. If the front brake is not strong enough, repair the brake.