When learning to ride, you hear a lot of braking “rules of thumb.” The problem is, once you start riding a certain style of bike, those braking techniques could be all wrong. We look into different motorcycle styles, and give tips on optimal braking for each one.
In many introductory riding courses, you’re taught a few braking basics: things such as ratios of front-to-rear stopping power of 70/30 or 75/25, to always use both brakes, and that locking the rear wheel is acceptable in panic stopping (in fact, this is even a drill in some courses.)
Most of the techniques that are taught are fine for basic, general motorcycle knowledge. But once you’ve got a decent amount of riding experience under your belt, it can actually be a bad idea to keep following the basics you were taught in intro courses. The fact is, how you should use your brakes is highly dependent on what kind of bike you’re riding, how it’s equipped, and how you ride.
So let’s shelve those rules you’ve always heard for now, and talk about why its so important to tailor your braking skills to yourself and your bike instead.
All Motorcycles Are Not Created Equal
The way motorcycles and their braking systems are designed is completely different from one type of bike to another, and these differences have a tremendous effect on the bikes stopping characteristics.
To illustrate this point, check out the two bikes below. Both are awesome motorcycles, but the way you’d ride each one is very different – and so is the way you’d stop them.
2014 Honda CBR600RR
- Weight: 410 lbs.
- Front Brake: Twin 310mm discs, 4-piston calipers
- Rear Brake: Single 220mm disc, 2-piston caliper
2014 Harley-Davidson Street Bob
- Weight: 670 lbs.
- Front Brake: 11.8 (300mm) single disc, 4-piston caliper
- Rear Brake: 11.8 (300mm) single disc, 2-piston caliper
The difference is not just in their brakes, but in their geometry and weight distribution. The light sport bike is tall, and has a high center of gravity and a short wheelbase for deep leaning and responsive handling. The big cruiser, on the other hand, has a low center of gravity with a lot more weight over the rear end, and a long wheelbase for stability and comfort.
So what does that have to do with stopping these bad boys? The point is that with all the differences between these two types of bikes, the braking techniques you would use from one to the other is also completely different.
When you stop a motorcycle, any motorcycle, a huge shift in weight to the front wheel occurs. This is why the front brake on any motorcycle is always dominant. Even on a bike with the same size brakes on both wheels, the front will always provide the majority of the stopping power.
The harder the stop, the harder the front brake has to work; this is one reason why it is impossible to definitively state that the front/rear braking power ratio is 70/30, or 75/25, or any fixed ratio for that matter. The ratio varies based on how much the front wheel is loaded at a given time (some bikes have so much front braking power they can lift the rear wheel off the ground, making front braking power effectively 100% in that instance.)
Thus, the shift in weight, and the resulting load on front vs. rear brakes, is important to understand when thinking about braking on different types of bikes.
Sport Bike Braking Characteristics
- Stickier tires
- Massive front brakes, tiny rear brake
- Rider sits high, leaned forward in the saddle
- Short head tube angle, high center of gravity
- Overloading the front brake is more likely to lift the rear tire (stoppie)
On sport bikes, the big twin discs and sticky tires provide so much stopping power, you can virtually never use the rear brake. Many track day riders and racers say they don’t use the rear brake at all.
But by omitting the rear brake, you might say that they are leaving some braking power on the table. This is partially true. As long as the rear tire has traction, if the rider could apply just the right amount of brake to get it to slow without breaking into a slide, stopping performance could be improved in theory.
However, because so much weight is unloaded from the rear when braking hard on a sport bike, it’s easy for the rear to break traction with just a bit too much pressure on the brake pedal. This will either result in a skipping or sliding rear tire, or the tire will regain traction violently, sending the bike and rider into a high-side.
Thats why so many sport bike riders omit using the rear brake almost completely – the additional benefit of using the rear brake becomes so small, and the risk of skidding the rear tire becomes so large, getting into the habit of using it becomes very risky.
Even top-level MotoGP racers dont typically use the rear brake to slow down. Instead, its used as a tool to settle the chassis, squish the rear tire into the ground to enhance traction, or as Casey Stoner explained after Qatar in 2012, to break traction in the rear to start a slide: “Most of the time when you break the rear it means you’re going to highside. So there’s a fine point between breaking it and keeping it, and breaking it and ending up flying through the air.”
The Rear Brake – Can’t Live Without It
The rear brake does have its place, however in certain situations, you actually wouldn’t get very far without it. What are they?
- Wet Weather: On wet roads, use brakes on both wheels to not overload the very limited front traction.
- Off the Road/Track: If end up in grass, sand or dirt, you must use your rear brake to slow the bike because your front tire has almost no traction.
- Low-speed Maneuvers: when riding around slowly (e.g. looking for a parking spot) holding the rear brake while using the throttle can keep the bike from lugging
- To Control a Wheelie: front brake becomes useless with wheel in the air; the rear brake is used to control speed and prevent looping the bike.
So the rear brake definitely does have its place. But for many sport riders, normal riding – or even performance riding – isn’t one of them.
Cruiser Braking Characteristics
- Less sticky tires
- Front and rear brake sizes closer to equal
- Rider sits low, upright or leaned back in the saddle
- Long head tube angle, low center of gravity
- Overloading front brake is more likely to break traction and tuck the front wheel
For cruisers, with relatively little front braking power and a lot more in the rear, there is more usable braking power on the rear brake – thus it becomes more important to use it.
For a cruiser rider, the rear brake isn’t just an extra tool for a handful of situations; it’s actually an essential part of the braking equation. Even with all the weight transferred to the front while braking, there is still a lot of weight and therefore, traction at the rear. This means there is a much larger benefit to using the rear brake, and a lower risk of breaking traction and sliding the tire.
In a panic braking situation is where this becomes a little controversial. If you’re used to using both brakes, you will mash hard on both in an emergency, and it there is a good chance you will lock the rear.
Sliding the rear tire in a panic stop is unnerving, but as long as you maintain control of the bike, and go straight, it is manageable. But if you do this in a turn, or release the rear brake and allow it to regain traction, which it will probably do violently, you are much more likely to crash the bike.
On a cruiser, the benefits of using the rear brake full time in normal riding are much higher, but so is the risk of over-applying it in a panic stop and losing control of the bike. This is why both knowledge and training are so important – no matter what kind of bike you’re on, sliding the rear tire is never a good idea!
How To Brake On Your Bike
Comparing two very different bikes like the CBR600RR and the Street Bob helps illustrate key differences in braking techniques. But at the end of the day, all that matters is learning and applying the right technique for your own bike.
Most bikes fall somewhere in between these two extremes, so its a good idea to take a look at your bike and see what kind braking system it has. Thats a good indication of how much braking power is at each wheel, and by extension, the degree to which it should be a part of your braking technique.
Here is a quick overview of what to look for:
- Single disc front, single disc rear (same size) – Relatively large amount of braking power at rear, practice using rear brake regularly
- Large single disc front, small single disc rear – Still a large amount of braking power at rear, but you can rely on it less heavily
- Dual disc front, single disc rear – Most braking power at front, rear brake use is optional (use rear brake in special situations)
- Large dual disc front, small single disc rear – Almost all braking power at front, use front brake only (use rear brake in special situations)
The Bottom Line
The key takeaway from this is that all motorcycles, just like all riders, are different, and they should be treated differently. While there are certainly some tried and true rules in riding, the key takeaway here is this: once you’ve begun riding a certain type of bike, you should tailor your braking techniques to what is optimal for that bike. Advanced technologies like ABS and linked braking systems that are becoming more common make it ever more important to do this.
Just like with any skill you learn from a book; the minute you hit the real world, you realize that a lot of the book knowledge you had gets thrown out the window. Braking techniques are no exception!
Testing the ABS system on a motorcycle in Germany.
What’s your braking technique for your bike, and why?