Picture yourself on a city path. Suddenly, you notice that you’re about to ride down a flight of stairs. Or you’re riding on a country road and there’s a bridge out just a few feet in front of you. In cases like these, your bike’s brakes could save your life. But even if you don’t have such a dramatic experience, you’ll feel more confident and go faster if you’re ready to stop quickly and smoothly.
It takes practice to get peak performance out of your brakes. You can’t just jam them on and skid to a stop as in a car. You’d fall off!
Your brakes must be in good condition to give you the most control. Good bicycle brakes work powerfully and smoothly. If your brakes are weak or grabby, it’s time for an overhaul. But in addition to good brakes you need to understand weight transfer and how it affects your stopping.
HOW WEIGHT TRANSFER WORKS
When you’re stopping — in a car, on a bike or on foot — your weight shifts to the front. You see examples of such momentum every day. When you’re running and stop suddenly, you have to put a foot out in front of yourself to keep from toppling forward. In the same way, when you stop a car, its front springs squeeze down as more weight goes to the front wheels.
Your bike doesn’t have springs, but the weight nonetheless goes to the front wheel. Try a little experiment: Walk along next to your bike. Squeeze the front brake lever. The bike will stop quickly, but the rear wheel will rise off the ground.
Then squeeze the rear brake lever. Braking will be weak, and the rear tire will skid.
The same things happen when you’re riding. If you rely too heavily on the rear brake, the rear wheel will skid and wear out your back tire quickly. On the other hand, you can go right over the handlebars if you use the front brake too hard.
How, then, do you get a powerful stop without risk? There’s a trick to learn. Use the rear brake as a signal to tell you how hard to apply the front brake.
THE REAR BRAKE’S SIGNAL
Practice on your bike in an empty parking lot. Squeeze the front lever three times as hard as the rear, while increasing force on both brake levers at the same time. With your light force on the rear brake lever, you’re braking the rear wheel only lightly.
For a powerful stop, squeeze the brake levers harder and harder — the front always three times as hard as the rear. The rear wheel will eventually skid. But by this time, most of the weight will be off the rear wheel, so it will skid only lightly. You won’t wear a big bald spot in the rear tire — though you will feel and hear the skid.
The rear wheel’s skidding is your signal to release the front brake a little. Once the rear wheel stops skidding, squeeze the front brake harder. Keep adjusting the force on the front brake lever to keep the rear wheel just below the point of skidding.
This is your braking technique for straight-ahead stops on clean, dry pavement. Under these conditions, the front wheel will never skid, and you can keep the bike under control.
You can train yourself to release the brakes whenever the bike begins to go out of control. Practice using your front brake so hard that the rear wheel actually lifts off the ground. It’s less scary to do this on soft grass. At a very low speed, 2 or 3 miles per hour, grab the front brake lever so hard that the rear wheel lifts off. Then release the brake lever instantly. Wear your helmet!
BRAKING UNDER POOR CONDITIONS
Braking technique is different when the road surface is slippery, or if you’re turning. Under these conditions, the front wheel can skid. You must brake lightly and use the front brake less.
Avoid turning and braking on a slippery surface. If your front wheel skids out, you’ll fall.
On pavement that is good except for a few places, look ahead for the slippery spots and bumps. Release the brakes as you go over the bad spots, then increase force again once you’re back on good pavement.
On dirt, gravel or any surface that looks as though it might be slippery, test the surface by applying the rear brake lightly. If the rear wheel skids easily, avoid using the front brake. Keep your speed down so that, even with your reduced braking power, you can still stop.
In wet weather, the streets will be more slippery and so will your rims. This is especially important when it first begins raining – raindrops mix with the old oil and dust on the road, making a thin greasy mud on the pavement. After it rains a while, this slippery “grease”is washed away, making the road much safer.
Dry the rims by applying the brakes lightly ahead of time. They will squeeze the water off your rims. It can take 100 feet or more before the brakes begin to work normally.
When turning, you may have a choice to swerve out of danger or stop — but don’t try to do both at once. Practice braking on turns and slippery surfaces to get a feel for these conditions.
Your training will pay off as you become more confident on the bike, in all types of riding situations. You never know when you might have to stop — and the better you can stop, the more confidently you go.