7 Tips for Braking on Your Motorcycle

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Before you start riding a motorcycle, make sure you understand how and when to use the front and rear brakes. Though newbies tend to get stuck on techniques like shifting and counter steering, braking is the first skill to master. Once you understand the mechanics of motorcycle braking, you will be much less likely to make the most common mistakes that can lead to accidents and even death.

Which Brakes to Use

Balance is crucial to a motorcycle’s dynamics, and that’s why most bikes have individual front and rear brake controls. Most experts agree that roughly 70 percent of braking effort should go to the front wheel, which uses the hand lever on the right grip, and 30 percent to the rear, which is operated by the right foot pedal. Front brakes require this level of effort because weight transfer from slowing down will shift the bike’s balance from the rear wheel to the front, enabling the front tire to handle more load and not slip out of control. When there’s less downforce on the rear tire, it becomes much easier to lock-up and slide that wheel, resulting in a loss of control.

Braking According to Your Bike

The 70/30 braking ratio can shift slightly based on the type of bike you’re riding. Cruisers and choppers can handle more rear braking because they carry more weight over their rear wheel due to the rearward position of the saddle, while sport bikes can tolerate higher front braking effort because their forks are more vertical and their wheelbases are shorter. Dirt bikes rarely see front brake usage due to the nature of loose terrain. In the hands of experienced riders, motard or supermoto bikes can even be slowed down by sliding out the rear tire.

How Hard to Brake

Learning the finer points of your bike’s braking performance is key to keeping your bike in control, so it’s a good idea to explore those limits in a safe environment. Practice repeated stops in an abandoned parking lot, and you’ll start to get a feel for the amount of effort that triggers tire slip. Try stopping with your fronts only, your rears only, and then a combination of both. That way, you’ll get a sense of how hard you can apply the brakes in an emergency.

Once you become familiar with your bike’s brakes, the sensations of weight transfer will start to feel more apparent. Stopping hard enough on the fronts might even lift the rear wheel up, and using the rear brakes hard enough will cause a skid. You will also find that you can get away with applying more pressure at higher speeds. Learn those limits, and you’ll be much better prepared for the unexpected.

The Lean Angle Issue

Tires are most effective when they’re upright, so you’ll need to keep that in mind when you start to lean your bike over. Let’s say that 100 percent of a tire’s grip is available when it’s fully upright and making full with the road, roughly at about 90 degrees. Once that angle starts decreasing, the tire's ability to maintain grip will also drop. Though grabbing the front brake might not break the tire free when it’s upright, the same effort could cause a skid when the tire is leaned over. That loss of traction can instantly lead you to “tuck” the tire under, triggering a wipeout. Some braking effort can be applied while a motorcycle is turning, but the bike will be far less tolerant of brake input when increased lean angles are involved. Be hyper aware when you squeeze the brakes while you’re turning, and try to do most if not all of your braking before you make a turn.

Road Conditions and Braking

Different road conditions require different braking techniques, and you’ll want to use your motorcycle's front brakes gingerly when traction is iffy. Locking up the fronts can easily cause you to lose control of your bike. Locking up the rear is much more likely to be inconsequential when the road is wet or otherwise slick.

Approach areas with a lot of oil spills, like intersections and parking lots, with extra caution. Drag your rear brake where you suspect slick surfaces, and you’ll have a backup plan in case you start to feel the front tires slide. It takes quick reflexes, so stay on your guard and remember that it’s much easier to recover from a rear wheel lockup than it is a front slide.

Those rules get taken to another level when it comes to riding off-road, as dirt bike riding almost never involves the front brakes. If you plan on hitting some trails, make it a habit to keep your hand off the front brake lever, or else you might have to get used to tasting dirt more often than you need to.

Linked Brakes

Many scooters, touring bikes, cruisers, and sport bikes are equipped with linked brakes, which are designed to actuate both front and rear brakes through a single lever. Some systems are only rear-to-front linked, while others work both ways, but the goal is the same with both: To remove some of the guesswork involved with choosing between the front and rear brakes. While a majority of riders can’t produce stopping distances as short as those created by linked braking systems, this feature isn’t always popular among some performance-oriented enthusiasts.

Anti-lock Braking Systems

Many bikes have anti-lock braking systems (ABS), which are designed to detect tire slip and “pulse” the brakes so they don’t skid. The system allows the rider to apply full effort at the hand or brake levers without worrying about locking up the tires, but ABS isn’t effective when a bike is leaned over.

Though it’s difficult to match the stopping distance of an ABS-equipped bike in wet or compromised traction situations, not all riders are enthusiastic about computerized brake intervention. Test drive a few motorcycles with and without to see which you prefer.