Take it slowly.
Bad braking technique is one of the biggest causes of crashes for both novice riders. Novices are far more prone to panic braking, harsh use of the brakes at the last minute or in an emergency, which causes one or both wheels to skid leading to loss of control of the bike.
As covered in the Beginners section, spotting a hazard early and therefore knowing when to brake is an important part of braking. It gives you plenty of time to slow down gently in a straight line without grabbing a handful of brake and loosing control. Keeping your brakes covered with at least one finger at all times allows instant smooth breaking rather than grabbing at the lever. Braking with only your index or index and forefinger allows the other fingers to maitain control of the handlebars.
We also talked about braking evenly with both brakes. This was because the rider was braking gently in the seated position riding on smooth, grippy trails using relatively gentle braking force.
In the Fundamentals section will be looking at braking when riding in the standing ‘attack’ position which allows a much greater braking force to be safely applied and covers progressive braking, using the front and rear brakes independantly, bracing against braking forces and braking on loose or slippy surfaces.
Your brakes are capable of much more than just on or off.
A key braking technique is to apply your brakes smoothly rather than simply pulling the lever firmly straight away. This is called progressive braking and allows small adjustments to the level of braking to be made easily. This reduces the risk of over braking and gives you a far better feel of what is happening as you apply the brakes. Progressive braking allows the front wheel to get weighted as the brake force is increased gaining more grip rather than just locking up and skidding if the brake is applied suddenly.
Bracing Against Brake Forces
As you apply the brakes, the bike starts to slow however your body wants to continue forward causing your weight to shift towards the handlebars. Extend your arms slightly and move your hips backwards a little as you apply the brake to brace against this weight shift. If you a riding on flat pedals, tip the heels of your feet down a little to stop them getting bounced off over rougher terrain. Remain relaxed whilst braking so you can continue to absorb any bumps in the trail and keep the wheels planted on the ground. Under normal braking, try to keep using the bars for balance rather than support which will give you much more control.
The need to apply a different amount of brake to each wheel, unless taught, is easily overlooked as the skill level of a rider increases. The easiest way to learn benefits of using different levels of brake bias, the amount each brake is used compared to the other, is to experiment at the two extremes. Find a quiet, smooth and relatively flat area of tarmac or path with plenty of grip and practise braking with each brake individually.
Whilst riding straight ahead in the attack position, gently apply the rear brake. Notice how you weight gets pushed forward as you brake making the rear wheel lighter. Brace against this movement as described above.
Release the brake before you come to a halt to get used to how it feels. Keep adding more rear brake each run, pretty quickly the rear wheel looses traction and starts skidding. When the rear wheel skids, release the brake to regain control of the bike. You do not stop very quickly using only the rear brake.
Now do the same drill with just the front brake.
Start very gently at first, notice your weight shift forward much quicker when using the front brake. Add more and more front brake with each run until the rear wheel starts to feel like it wants to lift off the ground. Remember to use your arms and feet to brace against the weight shift. Once you feel the rear wheel wanting to lift you have achieved optimal efficiency when braking on a firm surface, using the back brake at this time wouldn’t really achieve much as all the weight is on the front tyre.
If the rear wheel does lift off the ground gently release the front brake and it will drop down again. If the front starts to skid before this happens, again, release the front brake to get the wheel turning and regain control.
Once comfortable with using each brake individually, try using both brakes together . Experiment to see the amount of each brake to stop as quickly as you can whilst still applying the brakes smoothly. Finally practising changeing the amount of brake you are using as you slow down. Brake gently and then add a little more or brake strongly reducing the amount of brake you use as you slow down. This will teach you the micro adjustment technique used to adapting your braking to changing trail surfaces.
It is only on tarmac that you can really ‘go for it’ with the front brake without using wheel weighting techniques covered in later topics. On most other surfaces traction is limited so the front wheel will start to skid well before there is enough braking force to lift the rear wheel. On these surfaces the most efficient braking is usually a combination of front and rear brakes depending on how much grip is available. The exact amount depends on the surface you are riding on, the more grip you have the more front brake you can use.
As a general rule, when braking in a straight line on a reasonable off road surface use about twice as much front brake as rear. As the trail loses it's grip, adapt by using less front brake. When slowing gently, use a more balanced lever pressure rather than front heavy braking.
Remember to brake progressively which will give you a little warning when a wheel is about to let go so you can ease off a bit.
Don’t even bother braking on anything like wet roots or ice unless you have specialist tyres fitted.
If you are braking heavily on a good trail surface like hardpack but this changes to a poor surface like gravel in your braking zone you need to release your brakes slightly before going onto the poor surface. Go onto it with the brakes applied at a force the good surface can handle and you may start skidding. Conversely, wait until you get onto a good surface from a poor one before braking harder.Get your braking done whilst the ground is good.
Cornering also reduces the amount of grip available to braking so try to stick to braking in a straight line for now. If you must reduce speed in a corner go easy on both brakes and try to do as much as you can with the rear. It’s easier to correct a rear wheel cornering skid than a front one.
Finally, and this may sound obvious, brake when you NEED to slow down. If you don't need to slow down stay off the brakes as braking upsets the bikes handling. If you need to slow down do it fast on a decent surface so you can get back to having a well balanced bike for the rough stuff.