Advanced Motorcycle Braking

Before you can stop well, you need to start getting past some popular misconceptions—and maybe even your training. Story & photos by Evans Brasfield.

Many myths abound when it comes to proper motorcycle braking technique. In the bad old days before Motorcycle Safety Foundation's (MSF) basic RiderCourse, most new riders were given a five-second class on how to operate a bike: "This is the throttle, this is the clutch and don't touch that. It's the front brake, and it'll throw you over the handlebar." With such sage advice, neophytes were sent wobbling down the road and straight into the school of hard knocks. Fortunately, today most riders know better when the front brake is involved. (If you don't, get thee to a MSF class!)

Still, misinformation abounds in this information age. From chat rooms to bulletin boards to Web sites—all purporting to address the issues of thinking riders—faulty techniques propagate at alarming speed. So, in this reliable old format of ink on paper, I'd like to take a moment to correct two of these misconceptions and then give you a braking technique to implement in your daily riding.

Myth #1:
Use Only the Front Brake

This train of thought goes something like: "Since the majority of a motorcycle's braking power comes from the front brake, don't use the rear brake at all. In fact, as the weight shifts forward during heavy braking, the rear brake becomes more likely to lock up and cause you to crash."

Always question advice that suggests you do something because the other way is difficult to master. Unless you are braking so hard that the rear wheel of your motorcycle is in the air, you can shorten your stopping distance with proper application of the rear brake. It is true that as the weight of the motorcycle shifts forward, less traction is available to the rear tire for braking, but in order to master the use of your brakes, you need to use both of them for every stop. While there are instances, such as when a tire blows out, when you would only want to use one brake, the best way to master the control of either brake is to use them on a regular basis.

So, how do you stop in the shortest distance possible? The textbook response states you should achieve full application of both brakes without skidding. As you apply more and more pressure on the front brake (up to the point of lockup), you will have more traction available to the front tire (for more braking) resulting in progressively less traction available to the rear. To keep from skidding the rear wheel, you will need to modulate the rear brake. For every Racer X those pundits cite for not using his rear brake when stopping, there is a Racer Y who uses just a little rear brake to settle the rear suspension and a Racer Z who uses a lot. Also, these examples don't readily apply to street riders since skilled racers know exactly where the point of brake lockup is, while most of us are far from that point with the front brake—even in panic-stop situations.

Myth #2:
You Should Only Brake with All Four Fingers on the Lever

"When I took my MSF class, the instructors said I shouldn't cover the front brake unless I'm preparing to stop, and the only way to fully control the front brake is to use all four fingers."

While this may be true for beginners in a MSF course, riders should learn how to cover the front brake once they've moved beyond basic operational skills. We'll get to the how in a moment. First, the why.

As a rider rolls down the road practicing SIPDE, the concept taught by MSF (see Survival, August 2000), the time between when he notices a hazard that must be responded to and the moment of the actual physical response is called Reaction Time. Common sense says that if the rider's fingers are already covering the front brake, the Reaction Time will be shorter than if he has his fingers curled around the throttle. Since (as former Motorcycle Cruiser editor Art Friedman is fond of pointing out), the realities of motorcycling often don't follow common sense (as in countersteering), the Head Protection Research Laboratory, a think tank formed by Dr. Harry Hurt (author of the famed Hurt Report in the early 1980s), conducted a study entitled Hand Position and Motorcycle Front Brake Response Time. The study concluded:

"The human factors approach [to preventing motorcycle accidents] begins with education of motorcyclists to the value of covering the critical front brake. Training and practice in the effective use of the front brake and covering the brake lever has the potential to increase the numbers of motorcyclists who successfully avoid a critical violation of their right of way."

Covering the Brake

Your comfort level in properly controlling the throttle and the front brake will play a major role in your ability to cover the lever. If you're unsure of your throttle and braking technique, take a MSF class. When covering the front brake, try various numbers of fingers until you find out what works best for you. Some people prefer to use all four fingers, while I generally use two with the remainder giving me a firm grip on the throttle. Before you actually ride on the street, sit in your driveway and practice rolling the throttle on and off while covering the brake. If you have trouble closing the throttle completely, release it and place your hand on the grip with your fingers resting on the brake lever. Then, wrap your fingers around the grip and try opening and closing the throttle. Next, roll off and apply the front brake. The motion should be as smooth as possible. If the lever traps your fingers against the grip when you apply the brake, try adjusting the lever or bleeding the brake line. If the problem remains, you will need to cover the lever with four fingers. Once you feel comfortable closing the throttle and braking simultaneously, try it in a parking lot and then move to the street.

While you might struggle initially with this new throttle control and braking technique, don't be disheartened. Remember how long it took for releasing the clutch from a stop to become second nature? I spent two months riding with the front brake covered before it became automatic. Your investment will pay dividends every time you face a panic-stop situation. Once you've mastered the covering technique, you'll discover you can also smooth your entry into corners by beginning to roll on the throttle while you are still releasing the brake. As you spend time focusing on the front brake, don't forget that covering your rear brake will also shorten your reaction time.

The beauty of motorcycling comes from refining your skills each time you ride. So, take a step up the learning curve and learn to cover your front brake.

Former _Motorcycle Cruiser _ staff editor Brasfield freelances these days. He may be contacted via his website:

Illustration by John Breakey
_To find proper hand position on the throttle, place your palm on the grip with your fingers resting on the brake lever. _
The two-fingered approach is popular with experienced riders.