Braking isn’t as simple as pulling the brake levers.
For most people road cycling is about going fast, the faster the better. The faster you can go the more fun it is, and it’s a good indication of your fitness.
However going fast isn’t all that there is to road cycling. Stopping is just as important, if not more important, than riding fast. So today I wanted to have a look at how to use your brakes.
Effective braking on a road bike
To the beginner the answer would seem obvious. You have 2 brakes, you just pull on both the handles and stop. However as any more seasoned road cyclist will tell you it’s not quite so easy.
There’s 2 brakes on your bike, one braking from the rear wheel and one braking from the front wheel. Learning how and when to use either or both brakes is a huge part of learning to stop, and turn efficiently on a road bike.
What is the best hand position for braking?
The first thing to remember, particularly when riding in a bunch, though it certainly applies when riding generally, is to have your hands in a position where you can brake easily. If you have your hands on the top of the handlebars you have to move one or both hands from that position to a position where you can grip the brake levers before you can begin to brake.
However if you have your hands with one or 2 fingers of each hand resting over the brake levers then you’re in a position to begin braking immediately.
There are several circumstances where this might be important. The first is the obvious one, in an emergency. If a pedestrian walks out in front you, a car drives out in front of you or any other emergency appears this allows you to brake as soon as possible.
Braking when riding in a bunch.
However it’s also very useful when riding in a bunch, particularly where you’re close to the wheel in front of you. Should the bunch unexpectedly begin to slow then you’re in a position to begin slow braking straight away. If you don’t begin to slow down straight away you may end up contacting the wheel in front of you.
Of course a good bunch will signal as early as possible if there is to be any slowing, but again that’s not always timely or possible, in emergencies.
So having your fingers over the brake levers is useful. That doesn’t mean you can only ride with your fingers over the brake levers, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t ride with your hands on the tops of the handlebars, just allow a little extra space before the wheel in front and be conscious of the fact that any braking might be a little delayed.
Most experienced cyclists tend to use the front brake much more than the rear.. Having both wheels braking together is effective, but not necessarily always, often braking with the rearwheel will produce little braking effect..
When you’re attempting to brake as hard as possible, for example in an emergency stop, the rear brakes do very little, almost all of the weight is over the front wheel. This makes sense as, when you hit the brakes, your weight shifts forward.
Estimates are that at least 80 percent of your braking capacity in a hard stop is achieved by the front wheel. In fact in an extreme stop your back wheel can be almost weightless or even lift slightly off the ground.
For this reason an effective emergency stop really only relies on front braking, and if you brake the rear wheel it may well just lock up, and experienced cyclists will rely on the front brake in cases of urgent braking.
This may take some practice, and beginners are well advised to practice some emergency braking first. Commonly beginners are worried that the front wheel will lock up and they will go over the handlebars. This is not generally the case, though can happen. For this reason, when braking hard with the front brake, be aware of the possibility, particularly of locking up the front wheel, and adjust your braking accordingly. However it is extremely difficult, when on a good surface in the dry, to lock up your front wheel.
Experienced riders may also shift their weight back on the bike to bring some weight over the rear wheel to give some traction to the rear wheel for rearwheel braking. This is not easy and again requires practice.
Braking in a corner
First I should say that you should not be braking, and in particular braking hard, in a corner. Good cornering requires that you judge the speed at which you can safely negotiate the corner, and reduce your speed accordingly before you enter the corner. Just like driving a car, you shouldn’t be braking hard in the corner.
Should you do so, particularly if you put more pressure on the front wheel, you run the risk of locking up the wheel which will usually result in a fall, or going off the side of the road, or both.
If you are required to brake in a corner try and start braking as early as you possibly can when you realise you’re going too fast, and be particularly conscious of the possibility of locking your front wheel. Generally, in a corner, if you start trying to brake hard with the front wheel you start to lose your cornering ability, and find it difficult to negotiate the corner.
Again practice helps, so spend some time practising cornering, both judging the correct speed to the corner and also attempting to slow down in the corner, and this will give you much better feel for how difficult braking in corners can be. In a corner you should be giving more emphasis to the rear brake, because locking up the rear wheel is less dangerous than locking up the front wheel.
There’s also some other considerations.
The brake lever position
Generally speaking it is much safer to have your front brake lever on the side of your dominant hand. This is because the front brake is the more important, and therefore best used by your strongest hand. If you’re right-handed it is generally considered better to have the front brake on the right.
This is not the standard set up in the US though it is in some other countries.
In the wet
Braking in the wet, just as in a car, has its own particular problems. Just like in a car the risk is that you will lock up the wheels and slide. On a bike this usually leads to a fall. So when it is wet you may well need to apply more rear brake, and it is less likely that you will lift the rearwheel off because the front wheel will lock up and slide before you do this.
On a long fast descent it’s quite possible to overheat your brakes, and if you are using the front brake alone the risk of overheating is increased as the load is only being taken by one pair of brake blocks. It is therefore worth sending some of the braking effort to the rear brakes to even the load.
You will also find that using only one hand for all the braking can lead to tiredness in that hand, and you may wish to share the load between both hands.
Bunch riding – a final suggestion
Often when you’re riding in a bunch and the bunch is slowing it’s not necessary to use the brakes at all. Sit up a little more, move out of the draft into the wind and catch a little more wind and you will naturally slow up yourself.
Not only that but this will leave a little more room for the bike behind you, and they can slow up more gradually as they slowly allow the gap to close.
Overall it is important to understand that braking is not as simple as it sounds, and the beginner road rider needs to spend some time learning about how to brake in various situations, and spend a little time practising to familiarise themselves with what is required.