How To Brake Your Mountain Bike

When most mountain bikers think of skills they need to learn and practice, braking isn’t usually one of them. I mean, how tough can it be: pull the lever and your stop, right?

Actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that. If you take the time to learn how to brake properly, it can do wonders for your riding, giving you more control and actually making you faster.

Controlled braking. Photo: element22.

Brake Position

Before you even start learning how to brake properly, it’s very important to have your brake levers in the right position. When in the attack position (out of the saddle, weight forward, chest low) your wrists should be directly in line with your your forearms, your braking fingers, and your brake levers. There shouldn’t be an awkward bend in your wrist; it should be a natural, straight line. For more on bike fit, check out this article.

Use Both Brakes

Many beginning mountain bikers probably had an unfortunate incident on the mountain bike trail when they grabbed a big handful of front brake and flipped over the bars. As a result, they’ve just decided to never use the front brake and rely solely on the rear brake to control their speed and stop the bike.

This doesn't have to happen! Photo: joeblob.

When it comes to control and stopping power, avoiding the front brake is about the worst thing you can possibly do. When descending, which is generally when you need to brake, most of the rider’s weight is toward the front of the bike, and the force of the rider’s weight and gravity pulling the bike and rider down the hill puts a lot of force into the front wheel. Consequently, the front brake contains 70% of total braking power and the rear brake only has about 30%.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a little experiment for you to try: go out to a grassy slope and set up a start line which you will coast from, and a line where you will start braking. On your first pass, coast from the start line and start braking at the brake line with your rear brake only. Mark where you finally come to a stop. Repeat this same procedure with just the front brake (being careful not to endo), and then finally with both brakes at the same time.

You’ll find that with just the front brake you were able to stop in a much shorter time than you could with just the rear brake; with both brakes you’ll stop even more quickly.

Braking with both brakes. Rider: mtbgreg1. Photo: jeff.

The moral of the story: for maximum stopping power, use both brakes. Yeah, using just the front brake is a recipe for disaster, but if you use the rear brake along with the front brake you will find, with practice, the rear brake balances the front out, making for an extremely controlled braking experience.

Avoid Skidding by Modulating Your Braking Power

The second biggest mistake I see a lot of new riders making is skidding. For some reason, a lot of newbies think that a skid is the absolute fastest way to stop a bike, when in fact skidding is about the worst thing you can do. Yes, I already said using just the rear brake was the worst, but most of the time when riders use only the rear brake it devolves into a skid anyway.

An out-of-control skid here, while it wouldn't have a negative environmental impact, could cause a serious crash possibly leading to serious injury or death. Photo: AK_Dan.

Skidding is bad for several reasons:

  1. You don’t stop as fast as you could otherwise
  2. You don’t have as much control
  3. It accelerates trail erosion

You don’t stop as fast when skidding because, in order to slow down, you need to slow the rotation of the wheels. When you skid, the entire wheel rotation stops, locking up and dragging in the dirt. This actually takes longer to stop than not locking the wheel and maintaining a controlled braking process. You can do a test on a gravel road similar to the one mentioned above to see this in action.

Secondly, when the wheel locks up and starts sliding, you lose control of the bike. It starts to wash side to side and bounce over trail obstacles instead of traveling in a straight, controlled line.

While the third point doesn’t have much to do with performance, please strive to leave no trace when mountain biking.

So, in order to prevent skidding, simply don’t lock up the rear brake. Most modern brakes feature great modulation, meaning that the harder you squeeze the lever, the more power you apply. Don’t think of the brakes as an on/off switch; instead, think of them as providing a range of braking power. Instead of simply grabbing the lever as hard as possible, squeeze it gently and feel the pads engage as you add pressure, and disengage slightly as you let pressure off. With practice, you should be able to learn exactly how much braking force you need in order to stop in a given situation.

Brake with One Finger

Two-finger braking is a holdover from the days of weak rim brakes that would get gunked up with mud and slick with water. Those old brakes had a fraction of the stopping power modern hydraulic disc brakes have. Even modern-day mechanical disk brakes have significantly more power than the Y or canti brakes of yore.

One finger braking. Rider: mtbgreg1. Photo: Dan Lucas.

Since even the most basic disc brakes offer respectable stopping power, you should really only ever have one finger on the brake lever (either your forefinger or middle finger, it’s up to you). I have heard passionate arguments for both fingers and, logically, the middle finger argument has a lot of merits to it. But personally, I find it much more comfortable and natural to brake with my index finger. Last year I tried to train myself to use my middle finger to brake, and while I got to the point that I could do it regularly, I eventually just reverted back to the index finger. Most of the people I ride with use their index fingers too, so if that feels most comfortable and natural for you, I say go for it.

Once you decide which finger to use, adjust your brake levers so that when you are in attack position, your chosen finger lands right in the crook on the end of the lever. Having your finger out on the end will keep it from sliding around and provides the greatest mechanical advantage for maximum power and control.

Brake Before the Corners, Not in Them

One mistake I personally find myself making a lot of times, even when I know I shouldn’t, is braking in the corners. In an ideal world, you should strive to brake before the corners and not while you are actually in them.

Braking before the turn. Rider: mtbgreg1. Photo: jeff.

There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that braking in the corners reduces bike control, especially if the wheels wash out.

Instead of trying to slow down while cornering, try braking before the corner. This takes practice, but reduce your speed before entering the corner so you can navigate the corner confidently without having to brake while actually in the corner. This will allow you to focus on your cornering technique and will provide your tires with the maximum amount of traction possible.

Additionally, when done correctly, you will generally accelerate through the turn, exiting the turn at a faster rate of speed than you entered it. This is especially true for bermed corners.

If you do accidentally enter a corner at high speed, this is one of the few times when you should not use your front brake. Using your front brake in the corner is a great way to cause your front tire to wash out and start sliding. Front tire slides are very difficult to control and recover from, so avoid them at all costs.

Instead, if you absolutely must brake in a corner, use your rear brake. Avoid skidding, but if your rear wheel does break loose, it’s much easier to control a rear tire slide than a front tire slide.

Using just the rear brake while cornering. Photo: AK_Dan.

Don’t Brake Too Much

Finally, don’t use your brakes too much. Most riders don’t have an issue with staying off the brakes when the going is smooth, but when the trail gets rough many inexperienced riders tend to grab a handful of brake and slow way down.

As I wrote in an article on Loving the Bike a couple of days ago: “When riding technical terrain, speed is your friend. The faster your wheels spin, the more gyroscopic force the spokes generate. Basically, a fast-spinning wheel wants to stay upright, but a slower-spinning wheel is much easier to tip over.”

Here’s a quick experiment you can do on your own to see this in action:

  1. Take the front wheel off of your bike.
  2. Hold it by the QR skewer (or through axle) with one hand on each side.
  3. Roll it very slowly along the ground and then pick it up.
  4. As it spins, tilt it side to side in the air and feel how much resistance (if any) there is.
  5. Now roll the wheel quickly along the ground so that it starts spinning very fast, and then pick it up.
  6. As it spins, tilt it side to side in the air and feel how much more resistance there is when you try to tilt the wheel. You should find that it is very difficult to do, and that the spinning wheel wants to stay upright.

The same principles hold true out on the singletrack. If you are descending a rough, technical trail littered with rocks, roots, and drops, it is going to be much easier for you to be knocked off balance if you are moving slowly than if you are moving rapidly.

Of course, you should always ride in control, but when you are out there trying to push the limits just a little bit more, think about this principle. Try easing off on the brakes and pinning it through the gnar, and you may be surprised at how easy your nemesis rock garden actually is!

Staying off the brakes and pinning it! Photo: element22.

Conclusion

Some of these braking tips are very basic, and others are more complex and counter-intuitive. However, if you take the time to practice these skills and make them second nature, your speed will go up and your control over the bike will increase dramatically!

Your Turn: What do you struggle with most when braking?

This entry was posted in Downhill, MTB Training and tagged , , , by Greg Heil. Bookmark the permalink.

About Greg Heil

My name is Greg Heil, and I am the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com. I've been mountain biking seriously since 2005, and I love to travel and ride new trails. My travels have taken me across the United States multiple times. To date (November 2013), I have ridden hundreds of different trails in 18 different states, and am adding more singletrack to my trail resume every year! I enjoy all types of mountain biking, from ultra endurance cross country all the way up to chair lift-accessed downhill runs.

41 thoughts on “How To Brake Your Mountain Bike

  1. Doing any race car type driving (like an autocross) will really help enforce the ‘brake before the corner’ technique. The tires only have so much traction, so if you’re using most of it to corner, there’s not much left for braking. Slow in, fast out is the saying. Autocross will also teach you that sometimes what feels slower (because it’s smoother and you have more control) is often WAY faster. If something feels fast, it might be, or you might just be going slower but out of control.

    “Trail braking” is a useful technique too. Basically you ease off the brakes as you enter the corner. That way you’re braking as late as possible, but still have maximum traction available to corner. It’s tough to get the timing just right though, so I try and be off the brakes before going into the corner.

    We have a little time trial series here in town, and the trail is short and very tight and twisty, so good bike handling skills are paramount if you wanna go fast. Braking before the corners, and not IN the corners, results in smoother riding, more control, faster corner exit speeds, and much faster lap times. The stop watch does not lie!

    All that said, it’s something I have to constantly remind myself of.

  2. Great write up Gregg! I was just on a fire road Monday that went from 3,200 ft starting elevation to over 4,200 feet with a total of 1,700 feet elevation gain and what goes up must come down. The road was a mix of hardpack gravel, peanut butter mud, snow, and ice. Did I mention it started sleeting high on the mountain! Fun! On the downhill which was full of switchbacks I kept telling myself many of the same tips you gave above. One point I would like to add is in Brian Lopes and Lee McCormack’s Mastering MTB Skills they contantly remind us heavy feet light hands. Drive the weight into the pedals. That really makes a huges difference in the traction when it comes to braking and riding in general. Keep the advice coming! Oh yea…and don’t try to brake on ice…did that last year.

  3. Look, Greg–I don’t need your help–I can break my bike all on my own (and have on multiple occasions)!

    Actually, all great stuff and I know from experience every bit of it works. Except, I’ve never been able to get my levers adjusted to the point I can use just my index without the lever hitting my knuckle on my middle before fully engaging the brake. Looks like I need to fiddle a bit more.

    • Haha lol, think I broke my bike on my ride tonight: there were some horrible sounds coming from the bottom bracket region.

      Re: Lever hitting knuckles: most brake models should have an adjustment for that. I was having this issue with some XO brakes last summer, but there was a screw down near where the lever reaches the main reservoir that could adjust it.

      • At an SCCA Autocross you can ‘race’ any car you own on a safe course for only about $30. Yeah, it’s autocross and not real road racing, so it’s not that high speed, but it is unbelieveably fast when you’re in the car. Riding along with someone is terrifying because you have no control. Most people have never really pushed a car to it’s limit, and autocross lets you do that in a safe and controlled enviroment. It’s an absolute blast and anyone interested in cars or becoming a better driver should do it at least once.

  4. And just an other article from the good people of Singletracks.com full of information I need to try to remember on my rides! It would seem I need to work on my setup a little bit too. I will be breaking out the torque wrench when I get home tonight to move my brake levers a bit further from the grips so I can’t use two and three fingers!

      • I will have to tool around the neighborhood for as long as I can stand the cold after I set them up tonight! Man I can’t wait for spring and no freeze thaw!

  5. Great writing, Greg! I also agree with @dgaddis about rally car driving or driving any car in adverse conditions. Braking with one finger works for me when on bike with hydro brakes. When on bike with BB7, I have to use two fingers for enough power.

  6. If you drive on icy/snowy roads the braking while turning is the same. Slow down before the turn not in the turn. I must be a left over of the two finger brake era. Wish I had blogs like this when I first started riding……then again there was no internet yet. Great write-up Goo :)

  7. Great article with great tips. I think I have most of them covered, but my biggest challenge is the braking in turns. Like you said, I know I shouldn’t, but I still do. I continue to work on it every ride…

    Index finger is it for me. I did have some temporary issues adjusting the lever on the Avid’s so that they didn’t pinch my other fingers, but switching to Shimanos took care of the problem.

  8. I would like to add a bit about turning and braking..Milliken and Milliken Father and Son team (now a team of engineers) made many good points in one of the “Bibles” in vehicle dynamics. One of the chapters bests describes the interaction of a tire in relationship with the group. One of the concepts is something called a traction circle. Basically staying within the circle you have traction. If the forces step out…There is a loss of traction (skidding). So one thing that we used in motorsports was this thinking of balancing braking/ acceleration, and cornering. For example entering a braking zone. Full brakes (F/R). Once the driver starts to input steering, he/she then eases off the brakes a proportionate amount (done by feel, unless you have the ability to data log). Reverse holds true accelerating out of a corner.

    Now adding to what Greg was saying about too much rear brake. In a straight line the center of gravity lies between the front and rear wheel. When braking the center of gravity migrates forward, you feel this as a compression of the front suspension, and an extension of the rear. Add to that the front wheel tends to gain traction and friction, while the rear looses. Seeing the rear is “light” and the center of gravity is behind the front wheel, there is a tendency of the mass wanting to get in front of the friction (object in motion tends to stay in motion). Thus a swap of ends tends to follow. This is why when braking moving your center of gravity back, by forcing the bike in front of you a bit, aids traction in the rear, making sure to be aware that the rear is not locking.

    Another bad thing about braking that some are not aware of. Some suspension designs tend not to work well while the wheel is locked.. It tends to apply torque and prevent free movement of suspension (further diminishing traction).

  9. Outstanding article! I was getting ready to write up an article on some of this, but you beat me to it.

    With my old-school bike with “canti” brakes, sometimes the brakes used to get wet. That was when I had to sometime end up doing the “death grip” just to slow things down enough. Even then I used to only used 2 fingers.

    The new disc brakes now-a-days are so much more powerful and modulate so well. Smooth, finessed braking is so much easier to control, and all I need now is 1 finger.

    I swapped the brake levers with the shifters (grips, shifters, brakes). I also adjusted the levers so that I can easily reach to grab them with my index fingers.

  10. Using rapid-fire shifters, I prefer to keep my index finger for shifting and have been using 2 middle fingers for braking. I’ll keep working on using 1 middle finger. It gets most of the action anyway. More so on the highway:)
    My larger challenge is what to do when I realize too late that I’ve got too much speed for the corner. Lately I’ve been twisting my upper body toward a tight turn and it seems to help get through the turn a little quicker and safer.

    • There are many techniques for minimizing issues during high pucker factor moments that can be gleamed from motorcycle riding. The “when in doubt, gas it out” mantra is harder to apply, since leaning the bike over and pedaling sometimes causes greater issues.

      When you find yourself coming in too hot, the best thing to do is get your center of gravity (CG) as low as possible. Get your weight off the seat and onto your feet and pedals. This, coupled with the gyroscopic effect, will help reduce the possibility of crashing. Keep the inside pedal as high as possible, and the outside pedal low, again, keeping as much weight as possible on your feet and not on the seat or bars. Keeping your CG low and back will reduce the likelihood of your rear tire coming up and over your head.

      While doing that, squeeze (never grab) the brakes as close to the point of locking up the tires as possible. This will compress the suspension, helping to lower your CG even more, set your springs to absorb bumps/rocks/dips better, and more importantly, slow you down.

      All the while look where you want the bike to be going, turn in, keep even pressure on the bars, and keep your weight low and inside the turn. Keeping the wheels rolling (not locking them up and skidding) will help in the even that either tire starts to wash out on you. If the rear decides to step out, control it with your feet and legs, putting pressure on the outside leg pushing inwards to help keep it from looping around you.

      If the front starts to wash out, again, this is not a life ending situation (though, if there is a cliff, maybe you should have been going slower to begin with). Resist the urge to yank the bars further in to the turn, as this will cause the wheel to dig in, bite into the dirt, stop rolling, and then catapult you over the bars. Keeping the tire turned where you want it will be your best bet, as is keeping the front tire rolling.

      Speed, momentum, and the gyroscopic effect are all GOOD things to keep on your side in the case of entering a turn too hot. Search for videos of motorcycle high side accidents to see what happens if someone chops, or cuts, the throttle while in a slide. You want to keep things rolling and moving, while controlling the lack of static friction between the tires and trail.

      Typing this all is one thing, doing it is another. It becomes second nature after a while, which is to your benefit. The best thing to do is look ahead on the trail, adjust speed, stance, trail position, and other variable accordingly, and anticipate as much as possible. When you can’t do that, resist the urge to grab as much front and rear brake as possible and skid to a halt, and attempt to control the slightly out of control ride through the turn until you scrub off enough speed to exit the turn safely.

  11. Thanks for great article. You name the mistake, I’m still working on it. Would have liked more about body position which Syd covered a little in the comments and most of the pictures demonstrate. Need to keep your dynamic CG over the BB by shifting body position as you ease onto and out of breaking (just one reason a dropper post is on my wish list.) and probably don’t need to break at all when there’s a berm till next Wednesday :)

  12. Great post! Good for those who are new to read. I learned a great deal about braking from the quad days, was interested to see what was here. Would have helped me as a beginner. :-)

  13. Great info Greg. I grew up riding moto, and graduated to street bikes… so the front/rear brake thing is second nature. Though, switching from moto brakes to bike brakes always takes a little thought. I am surprised how many riders you find out there who don’t get what you are teaching. Great job explaining it.

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