We regularly receive mail requesting information about effective braking and the age old question, should I use front or rear brakes in an emergency, or both?
Effective braking is actually a result of the efficient use of both front and rear brakes. To do this convention says you should use both brakes at the same time. Whilst this is probably good advice for beginners, if you don't graduate beyond this stage, you will never be able to stop as quickly as a cyclist who has learned the skill of braking..
The quickest way to stop any bike of normal wheelbase length is to squeeze the front brake so hard that the rear wheel is just about to lift off the ground. However, in this situation, the rear brake cannot contribute to stopping you because it has no traction.
The rear brake is great for situations where traction is poor, or for when your front tyre has a flat. However for stopping in dry conditions on the road, the front brake provides maximum stopping power. If you take the time to learn to use the front brake correctly, you will be a safer cyclist.
Many cyclists shy away from using the front brake due to a fear of tipping over the handlebars. This can happen but usually to people who have not learned to modulate the front brake correctly, or when someone looses it in front and you need to take avoiding action; personal experience.
The cyclist who relies on the rear brake can get by until an emergency arises. Then they grab the unfamiliar front brake as well as the rear resulting in the classic ?endo? or "**** over ***" crash, sorry ladies.
Some consider that the typical "endo" crash is caused, not so much by braking too hard, but by braking without bracing the arm against the deceleration; the bike stops, the rider keeps going, the rider's thighs hit the handlebars, and the bike, which is no longer supporting the weight of the rider, flips over taking you with it to the amusement of your riding companions.
The ?endo? can?t happen when you are only using the rear brake, because as soon as the rear wheel starts to lift, there is not more braking. Unfortunately, it takes twice as long to stop with the rear brake, so reliance on it is unsafe for cyclists who ride fast.
It is therefore important to use your arms to brace yourself securely during hard braking. Indeed, correct technique involves you moving back on your saddle as far as you can comfortably go. This keeps the centre of gravity as far back as possible. This "rule" applies whether you are using the front, rear or both brakes.
Incorrect use of both brakes together can however cause "fishtailing". A very artistic movement some would say, but likely again to end in disaster. ?Fishtailing? happens if the rear wheel skids while braking force is also being applied to the front brake. The rear of the bike will tend to swing past the front because the front is applying a greater force than the rear.
Learning to use the front brake
Optimum braking occurs when the front brake is applied so hard that the rear wheel is just about to lift off the ground. When this happens, the slightest amount of rear brake will cause the rear wheel to skid.
If you ride a normal cycle, the best way to master the use of your front brake is to practice in a safe space such as an empty car park. Practise applying both brakes at once, but applying most pressure onto the front brake.
Keep pedaling as you brake, so that your legs will tell you immediately when the rear wheel starts to skid. Practice harder and harder stops until this happens, so that you will learn the feel of stopping fast, i.e. on the edge of rear-wheel lift off.
Some cyclists like to ride a fixed wheel cycle, i.e. a cycle that does not permit coasting. When you brake hard with the front brake on a fixed wheel, the drivetrain gives you excellent feedback about the traction situation at the back end.
If you ride a fixed wheel with only a front brake, your legs will tell you exactly when you are at the maximum braking capacity of the front brake. Once your fixed wheel has taught you this, you will be able to stop any cycle better and faster, using only the front brake.
When to use the rear brake
Skillful cyclists use the front brake alone probably 95% of the time, but there are instances when the rear brake is preferred:
? Slippery surfaces.
On good, dry roads, it is generally impossible to skid the front wheel by braking. On slippery surfaces however it is and it is almost impossible to recover from a front wheel skid. So, if there is a high risk of skidding, you're better off controlling your speed with the rear brake.
? Bumpy surfaces.
On rough surfaces, your wheels may actually bounce up into the air. If you apply the front brake while the front wheel is airborne, naturally it will stop. Coming down on a stopped front wheel is not an activity I'd recommend.
? Front flat.
If you have a front tyre blowout, you should use the rear brake to stop. Braking a wheel that has a deflated tyre can cause the tyre to come off the rim.
Which Brake Which Side?
There is often disagreement as to which brake should be connected to which lever:
? Some cyclists say it is best to have your stronger hand operate the rear brake.
? Motorcycles have the right hand control the front brake, so cyclists who are also motorcyclists often prefer this setup.
There are also observable national trends:
? In countries where vehicles drive on the right, it is common to set the brakes up so that the front brake is operated by the left lever.
? In countries where vehicles drive on the left, it is common to set the brakes up so that the front brake is operated by the right lever.
The theory that seems most probable is that these national standards arose from the view that the cyclist is able to make hand signals, and still be able to reach the primary brake. This logical idea is, unfortunately, accompanied by the incorrect premise that the rear brake is the primary brake.