Advanced Riding Course: Braking Techniques

Let Niall Mackenzie inside your head and get your riding into tip-top braking advice

These days my riding is split pretty equally between main roads, off road and circuits. Although these disciplines require different riding skills, when it comes to stopping all three use similar techniques. With that in mind, this month I’d like to talk you through what keeps me fast and safe when it comes to braking from speed.  

When the best racers in the world go from 200mph to 40mph before that next hairpin, it’s hard to comprehend just how much skill is involved in those few seconds of deceleration. There may only be a handful of souls on the planet capable of doing it, but I’m sure anyone who has ever ridden a bike can appreciate the talent necessary to be part of Rossi and Co's incredible balancing act.

While stopping for the traffic lights after you leave the M6 at junction 15 may not need Casey Stoner’s expertise, the braking principle is pretty much the same, its just the whole procedure happens at a more sensible pace.

The following may all occur in a split second but this is basically how my thought process works when braking hard from high speed, be it on the road or racetrack.

Effective, safe braking is all about transferring weight onto the front tyre and suspension so closing the throttle is my first action to get this underway. As I’m rolling back the twist grip my fingers are already covering the brake lever ready to apply a tiny amount of pressure just to get the brake pads in contact with the discs. Further gentle pressure safely transfers most of the weight to the front of the bike so at this point I can then squeeze hard on the lever with virtually no risk of locking up the front wheel.

Providing the braking force is kept constant the worst that can happen at this point is the rear lifts off the tarmac or comes slightly out of line. If this happens then I simply gently release some pressure bringing things back into line. I understand you might not be doing this every day on your daily commute but I still think it is worth practising this as it can come in handy should you ever need to stop quickly and safely.

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Once I have reached my required speed for the corner I will generally begin turning in while still quite hard on the brakes. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, with the weight bias pressing forward, the front tyre contact patch is bigger and secondly, as the forks are compressed the bike will want to steer quicker into the turn. My rule for the releasing the brake on the way into any corner is, as I turn in I let the brake off in direct proportion to my increasing angle of lean. I find mid corner trail braking (applying front brake while leaned over) useful but I’ll only ever use one finger.

So how many fingers should you use on the brake lever? Personally I think it depends on how good your brakes are. On any modern bike fitted with radial mounted calipers I find two fingers provide more than enough purchase, however I also suggest whatever feels right is probably your best option. If you do use two fingers be careful of the lever working its way too close to the handle bars as like me you could end up with trapped digits and very little brakes. Interestingly, Rossi, who has super powerful carbon brakes uses all four fingers, so maybe he had a bad experience early in his career? Whatever works for you.

And how about Shinja Nakano? His thumb and index finger are continually wrapped round the throttle while he brakes with the other three, weird.

Like my whisky and women I like my road riding to be smooth, so I like using a fair amount of engine braking whenever possible. Using engine braking is particularly efficient in the wet and can be a real life saver should you ever have to pull up quickly. It is very unlikely that you will lock up the rear wheel doing this, but even if you a do a gentle squeeze on the clutch lever will bring things back into line.

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When it comes to whether or not you should use the rear brake I believe there is no hard and fast rule here again, just do what come naturally. Racers like Chris Walker and Troy Bayliss can get through a set of rear pads in one race whereas the likes of me or Carl Fogarty would have the same pads in all season long. Many racers will also use the rear brake as an anti-wheelie device while exiting corners or over crests as well as  helping to bring things into line mid-corner.

I might never use the rear brake while riding on circuits but I have to say couldn’t live without it while riding on the road. Apart from keeping general braking nicely balanced, I find it a great tool to help with the hazards of riding in traffic. As most rear brakes provide soft braking, when I need to scrub some speed off quickly I tend to mostly use the rear. If a car changes lane unexpectedly or pedestrian appears unexpectedly in town, it is always quicker to get to the rear brake pedal plus it’s normally the best option as a handful of front brake could easily see you going down. I also find the rear brake great for getting that extra boost just before overtaking or exiting corners. I hold the bike back with the rear brake so I can then open the throttle earlier getting instantaneous acceleration just when it’s needed.  

A few years ago when I worked for Crescent Suzuki we used to visit the ‘Suzuki Village’ at the BSB rounds. Within the village was the ‘Street Magic’ challenge which was a grassy obstacle course where visitors could set a time on the Suzuki Street Magic fun bikes. I’m ashamed we went to watch the hilarious spills, although I have to mention it was all low speed, the victims laughed and no one ever got hurt. The bikers that went down had zero feel when the front locked up so were eating cow-pat the first time they grabbed a handful of front brake. I remember suggesting at the time that every one of the fallers should spend a day in a field to hone their feel for braking.

And I still do, so if you’re unsure of your braking skills get yourself in a field with a £100 Honda C50, do a bit of losing the front and have lots of fun. One day it could save your life.

Niall’s Guide

Before you go

  • Adjust your brake lever so it’s right for you. Some people like a solid feel at the bars, others like plenty of movement. Try using two fingers and see if you prefer the feel, otherwise stick with what you know works.

On the road

  • Be progressive transferring weight onto the front before applying hard braking. Avoid sudden grab-ups!
  • Only use one finger for trail braking. You don’t want lots of power when dragging the brake through the corner, just a gentle pressure
  • Use lots of engine braking in the wet, but remember to keep some temperature in the discs. Brakes only work best when they’re hot
  • A quick dab on the rear brake is always quicker and sometimes even safer than using the front brakes
  • Experiment with using the rear brake mid-corner to steady the bike down through a bumpy bend. You’ll be amazed at the effect

Things to practice

  • Get off-road to perfect your braking skills. The worst that can happen is that you’ll get a muddy backside!