Braking and Control: How to maintain the right speed for your skill level

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Descents are scary. Well-maintained bicycles are extremely efficient on the downhills, so even a novice cyclist can speed up to 25, 30, 40 miles per hour or more in just seconds. (Bicycles are extremely efficient all around, too!) But a couple incidents recently reminded me that braking does not come naturally to new riders and must be learned. So, here are some general tips on braking. These apply to descents, to stops at stop signs and the like, and in emergencies.

Like any skill, these techniques need to be practiced. With enough practice, you will quickly master these techniques and will be ready for the ride!

Can’t get enough of Robert Förstemann, Image credit.

1) Apply Both Brakes Each Time you Brake. The front brake has far more power than the rear. In very fast stops, the rear brake contributes little and may cause some fishtailing under bad conditions. On the other hand, under the wrong circumstances applying the front brake alone can cause you to go over your handlebars. Which evil to choose? As a novice, fancy braking patterns are likely to cause more problems than they solve.

For instance, do you even know your front brake from the rear? I didn’t think so. That’s on the list too, but until you feel comfortable with advanced techniques, its important to be able to stop or slow your bike. So, apply both brakes firmly, smoothly, and equally.

2) Look Where you Want to Stop. As a general matter, you should be looking where your bike is going, not trying to look where it is now. That means: keep your head up! If you’re slowing, pay attention to potential hazards, and be ready to brake. If you’re stopping, focus on where you’re bike is going to come to a rest, being mindful of your surroundings.

3) Apply your Brakes Smoothly and Evenly. Avoid grabbing your brakes at the last minute and pulling hard. Instead, notice when you need to slow or stop and pull on them gently, smoothly, and firmly. This will help avoid jerk and bumps (and wheel lockups) which may cause you to lose control of the bike. (See this article by the Over 40 Cyclist about avoiding tumbles off the bike.)

4) Keep your Hands Near your Brake Levers. In climbs, stopping or slowing the bike can occur by stopping or slowing your pedaling. So it is OK to have your hands on your top tubes. But on descents and most flats, you need to have your hands where you can reach the brake levers. That means either on the hoods or in the drops.

5) Keep your Fingers Curled Comfortably Around the Bar. Don’t just rest your hands on the bar. Keep your fingers curled securely around it. That way, your hand won’t get dislodged when you go over bumps and ruts. You don’t want a white-knuckled grip, but a secure grip.

6) Don’t “Feather” your Brakes. Feathering means keeping the brakes lightly applied during a descent. There are two problems with this. The first is that you will overheat your rims, which, in turn, overheats your tires, which can cause a blowout. The second is that you are more apt to jab your brakes rather than using them to smoothly control your speed.

7) Avoid Braking While Completing a Turn. The best, most efficient time to brake is when your wheels are at a 90º angle to the road surface and your front wheel is in line with the rest of the bike. Braking in a turn (when the bike is leaning) is dangerous because you are more likely to skid out on gravel or slick roads or loss of control due to inadequate speed reduction.

8) Apply your Brakes Before your Speed Gets out of Hand. On descents, you will find yourself picking up a lot of speed. You want to shed that speed before the next curve, not while you are in the curve. Pick a time when the bike is relatively upright, and slow yourself to where you know you can complete the curve without applying your brakes. Especially in the beginning, this will be VERY slow. And that is OK.

Just be mindful of the people behind you. Move to the right if it is safe to do so. Slow gradually and call out: “SLOWING!” in a loud, outside voice. Keep both hands on the handlebars and apply both brakes gently, but firmly. Remember: in the turn itself, your outside foot is down, counter steering you, and your inside foot is up, safely far from the road surface.

If you find that you MUST slow in a turn, be very careful of riders behind you and traffic. Move as far to the right as you can (not always possible), avoid gravel, and reduce your counter steering to get the bike a bit more upright. Apply the brakes VERY gently until you feel comfortable. Counter steer again around the curve.

9) Learn your Front from your Rear Brake. Generally, the front brake lever is on the left and the rear brake lever is on the right. This may be different in your set up for a variety of reasons, so test it out before you ride. Learn which is which, but continue to apply both brakes evenly and equally until you always feel comfortable with braking.

10) Advanced Braking. The only advancement in braking you may need is to become comfortable applying your front brake more firmly (and more often) than your rear brake. (There are many articles describing better braking technique. Review them when you become comfortable with braking: Don’t be Scared of your Brakes. Sheldon Brown on Braking. Cycling like a Pro.)

11) Emergency Braking. You must learn to stop your bike quickly. This skill requires its own blog entry. The gist of the technique is that you thrust your weight backward, keep your bike fully upright and in a straight line, and squeeze the brake levers hard. Moving your weight will let you keep control of the bike. You move so far back that your belly will likely be over your saddle. (Here and here are some Youtube videos demonstrating the technique.) Practice this under non-emergency conditions! Ask your TRLs for help and consider taking one of the many fine training courses out there, such as the one at Savvy Bikes!)

I hope this helps. Please feel free to comment or ask me questions.

Your Bear


3 thoughts on “Braking and Control: How to maintain the right speed for your skill level

    Lindsay said:
    March 16, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    Thank you for the tips! Descending still scares me! And I love the “SLOWING” on #8 – I could hear your voice shouting it (alc riding rules) as I read it.

    scott said:
    March 17, 2015 at 4:01 pm

    Great tips! I learned one thing that is (maybe) different from all above. “Feathering” was taught to me not as lightly braking all the time, but as the term used for gently applying brakes INTERMITTENTLY and, as you stressed, BEFORE going faster than my skills and comfort allow on any given hill.
    The intermittent bit, whatever one calls it, is very important on long descents to avoid over-heating rims and transferring this heat to tubes — causing blowouts.
    The bit about braking BEFORE gaining too much speed is essential, as you noted, and merits repeating so that less-experienced folks do not feel out of control mid-turn and then panic, pull hard on brakes, fish-tail or skid out and …. OUCH!…. also, because staying well in control at all times allows one to deal with unexpected obstacles — debris, potholes, gravel, other cyclists, passing trucks pushing their right-hand mirrors dangerously close to your left shoulder….
    Bit by bit, we learn to balance better and gain confidence when we stay within our growing comfort zones and then gain descending skills — wait? Did I just say our skills ascend as we descend more and more? I think I did. And I think that’s true — when we consciously work on things.
    As much as I love to fly downhill as fast as I safely can — it’s my huge reward for working so hard up the other side of that dang hill, after all — I always remember what my bike buddy David says: “Nothing is more dangerous than an unknown descent”

    […] written several posts on how to climb, how to descend, nutrition and climbing, and related safety issues. Please review them because this post […]

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