How to apply motorcycle brakes properly?

When was the last time you had to brake really hard? Was it hard for you to stop and did you just come to a standstill with your heart pounding hard against your chest? You are not alone!

Braking correctly and safely is very important when riding a motorcycle, especially during an emergency when you have to react quickly while riding. It is not always easy, however, trusting yourself is particularly important in dangerous situations, when you have to make a quick emergency stop.

Often, while riding, we only focus on turning the throttle or on how far we can bend. But there is no doubt that learning to brake correctly on the bike is equally important. Today, we will discuss everything that is required in order to brake just the right way.

Anticipate the situation

Of course, knowing how to brake can considerably reduce the risk of an accident. But it is even safer to know how to anticipate risky situations so as to avoid aggressive braking. Anticipating means quickly and correctly carrying out four steps:

  1. Observe
  2. Analyze
  3. Decide
  4. React

These different steps take more or less time depending on whether or not you know the situation you are facing, and whether or not you are trained to react to the situation.

The physiological reaction time to an unexpected stimulus is close to 1.3 to 1.5 seconds, whereas it can go down to 0.08 seconds for an expected stimulus.

Physiological reaction time is easily compromised by many factors including alcohol (which narrows the field of vision and alters the lateral perception of objects), drugs, fatigue, stress, lack of attentiveness, and activities that reduce the rider’s focus (cell phones, etc.).

The reaction time is a combination of the physiological reaction time and the mechanical reaction time for the brakes to come into action, the latter is often forgotten.

Calculating the braking distance
Illustrative example of braking distance that is covered in an event of emergency

Let’s consider a realistic example where a rider is speeding at 100 Km/h on his Yamaha and suddenly he realizes that a truck has stopped just 100 meters away from him.

In this case the realization time taken by the rider is 0.1 seconds, post which he acts on his realization (reaction time) which will take around 0.8 seconds, once the rider has reached the brake lever (which usually takes around 0.2 seconds), the bike speeding at such high speed will take another 3 seconds to stop completely.

So, despite the quick reaction time, the bike would have traveled around 70 meters before coming to a halt. This is an ideal scenario, and anything more than this reaction time may eventually be catastrophic.

In short, Stopping distance = reaction distance + braking distance.

Any beginner rider will try to pull the brakes with all his might. With such strong braking without ABS, either the front wheel will lock, which usually leads to a fall, or the rear wheel will lift up and the bike might flip forward.

Motorcycle braking: Things to keep in mind

Braking a motorcycle safely is hard and even more complex when the situation is somewhat urgent. Series of steps needs to be taken in a sequence, that should be well rehearsed beforehand. As you become habituated, these actions and steps will come naturally. We know it sounds complicated and too much to ask for, truth be told, operating your hand and foot brake is only one of several tasks that the rider has to master. Your braking power is well influenced by your muscular agility and sitting posture. If you find it hard to differentiate between your motorcycle saddle and your living room couch, you probably are going to get into trouble a lot more than you had imagined!

It is important to keep your body neither too relaxed nor too tensed; in short, the right mix is essential. Ideally, a rider should keep his knees wrapped around the tank, and sit upright with arms slightly bent towards the handle bar (while riding with straight elbows, you cannot react with the necessary agility). Also, while braking in an emergency, it is important to focus more on finding your way out rather than watching the obstacle.

Braking without ABS

A motorcycle that does not include ABS (Anti-lock braking system) is more prone to accidents during sudden braking than the one that is equipped with ABS. Because without this mechanism, probability of wheels getting locked increases considerably if in case the rider decides to pull the brake lever with full force. However, if the rider has trained himself in distributing the brake load on both the wheels, he can create a same mechanism manually similar to that of an ABS.

Due to dynamic load transfer during braking, the weight of the motorcycle shifts further and further to the front. In extreme cases, the entire weight of the motorcycle, including that of the rider, passenger, and luggage, rests on the front wheel. However, if the rider decides to pull the brake lever suddenly, the front wheel locks even before sufficient weight has shifted forward. If, on the other hand, he increases the brake pressure gradually, the front wheel has enough time to absorb the load and are able to perfectly grip with the road surface. Thus, it is recommended to pull the brakes lightly at first and then apply it more and more firmly.

You need to apply the rear brake a fraction of a second before the front one to gain additional stability.

Strong and effective braking in order to avoid an accident is one of the most difficult riding maneuvers on a motorcycle, regardless of the individual riding style. Unpredictable events can demand an emergency stop in split seconds. That’s why regular, consistent practice helps motorcyclists’ brake properly in sudden dangerous circumstances. Of course, these exercises should only be carried out in areas that are not open to the public, ideally as part of a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course.

Riders who hone their braking skills will not only enjoy the pleasure of riding a motorcycle, but will also develop more confidence and control over their riding skills.

Two-step braking

Even in an emergency, you should not pull the brake lever suddenly. Instead, you should engage the brake lever with moderate sensitivity at the beginning. If you do not, you run the risk of over-braking the unloaded front wheel before it can even transmit high braking forces (due to dynamic load transfer).

Only when the brake pads have been fully engaged, the pressure on the brake lever can be clearly felt, and the increased front wheel load exerts full pressure on the ground, can the braking force be quickly increased in accordance with the situation.

This procedure is also applicable on motorcycles equipped with ABS. However, the initial increase in braking force can be faster compared to motorcycles without ABS.

Braking & wheel lock

In case you accidentally lock your front wheels while braking, you increase your chances of skid considerably. Only an immediate lightning-fast release of the brake will protect you against the impending fall. While this requires a lot of effort, it is the only way to regain control of the motorcycle. The trick is to keep the bike close to the locking limit during the entire braking process.

The rear wheel plays a supporting role in braking. It is progressively relieved of pressure by the dynamic load transfer, so that it can only transmit low braking and lateral guidance forces. However, this increases its tendency to lock up, which is no joke on the rear wheel either. A careless, clumsy maneuvering in this situation can cause the motorcycle to swerve sideways, and even at moderate lean angles a locked rear wheel can result in severe slips.

It is therefore advisable to leave the rear brake engaged after the initial braking impulse. Here, too, the trick is to keep the brakes close to the locking limit.

Altogether, correct braking has a lot to do with practice. It is important to understand the response of your motorcycle at an early phase. A lot of practice is needed to develop this understanding and to automate the sequence of actions.

Note: Almost all the modern-day motorcycles are now equipped with an ABS as a standard, this ABS prevents the wheels from locking during sudden braking by reducing the brake force and distributing it evenly on both the wheels. Furthermore, this system keeps a check on the wheel lock by its brake-release-brake mechanism.

When to use the front brakes?

Front brakes should be used almost every time while stopping since they are the most effective ones compared to the rear brakes of a motorcycle. To stop or slow down the bike, simply pull the front brake lever gradually. The important thing is to avoid relying only on the rear brake to stop, as you would lose much of your braking power. If done correctly, braking with the front occurs without any problem.

It is recommended to maintain a standard riding position, with the knees and thighs sticking close to the tank and the torso relaxed, but firm. Nothing in riding requires major movements of body parts, rather it involves subtle and micro adjustments. Gradually, your reflexes automatically become faster and smoother. As with anything, this takes time and practice.

When to use the rear brakes?

The rear brakes are used to reduce speed when you are in a parking lot or in traffic at rush hour, or to prevent the bike from gaining too much speed downhill. You can also use it in conjunction with the front to slow down in an emergency. But during an emergency, make sure that you are not solely focused on the rear brakes as it might lead to a wheel lock. And in case the wheel does get locked, release the brake immediately and balance your bike again before applying them.

Which brakes should be used more aggressively during emergency braking?

Initially, it is recommended to apply the rear brakes so that the bike remains stable. Just a few fractions of seconds later, you can pull the lever of the front brake and gradually increase the pressure until maximum braking force is reached. Many motorcyclists only brake with the front brake, but an ideal braking involves distributing the braking force between the front and rear wheels. For a motorcycle that is not equipped with ABS, it is recommended to apply 80% force on the front brakes, and 20% on the rear. Some recent models have combination brakes, so the rear brake is also controlled by the front brake lever which makes it quite easier for the rider. And for motorcycles that are equipped with ABS, the rear brake can be applied at the same force as the front.

While braking it is best to keep a check on clutch lever as well. The last thing you want is a stalled engine which causes the wheels to lock.

Braking around corners

Braking around the curve is relatively more dangerous, it is best to avoid braking around the curve as much as possible (never ride at high speeds on a blind curve).

However, if the danger is inevitable, of course you will have to brake, but make sure you only apply the rear brakes first. Furthermore, make sure your first contact with the brake lever is gentle; Why? because the rear wheel locks very easily and may cause your motorcycle to skid. Once you have pulled your rear brakes, you should then use the front brakes in order to stop before crashing.

Again, it is best to practice and prepare yourself for situation like these beforehand. When it comes down to it, you should be able to do it without having to think of every step, because by then it will probably be too late.

See also: Cornering on a motorcycle

Braking techniques while riding with a pillion

Just like cars, the driving behavior of a motorcycle changes under heavier loads. But not only the general driving experience is different, but braking distance is also longer. Riding with a pillion is a much more difficult task on a two-wheeler, as balance plays a completely different role here than it does on a car.

On the curves, for instance, the pillion should move with the rider. Holding on to the rider gives additional advantage in the event of sudden braking, since the pillion can support himself with one hand directly on the motorcycle’s fuel tank. This also helps to transfer more load on the front wheel that results in more efficient braking. Here too, the trick is to act very quickly yet applying gradual brake force before exerting full pressure on the lever.

Riding a motorcycle with a pillion requires mutual trust. You have to keep faith on the pillion and likewise, the pillion should trust you. A pillion should never surprise the rider with sudden movements or a sudden shift in weight. It is of course ideal for a pillion to observe the traffic situation over the rider’s shoulder. However, the pillion should only react with the motorcyclist and not ahead of him. In other words, even if the pillion sees an inevitable danger ahead, he shouldn’t act before the rider does. 

Downhill braking

When we are faced with a downhill braking, our advice is to decrease the speed and use the engine brake a lot. Prolonged use of the brakes while descending will heat them up and cause them to lose their effectiveness. Also, refrain yourself from using the front brakes alone around the corners or while maneuvering, in order to avoid falling, even when you feel that the asphalt has enough grip on it.

Prudence and the utmost concentration while riding a motorcycle are undoubtedly two essential and fundamental aspects, which must never be neglected by a motorcyclist. Also, it is important to always be prepared for emergency braking by keeping at-least two fingers around the front brake lever. This will ensure that you are ready to react quickly.

Useful tips for efficient braking while riding

  • During the first few meters whilst starting your journey, you should check the functionality of your brakes by briefly analyzing its performance. This is especially applicable for a motorcycle that has been sitting idle for a long time.
  • Emergency stops, especially while riding at high speeds requires decisive action. The more practiced you are about the entire process, the better you will perform under these stressful situations. And if you generally ride along with pillion, the most ideal thing would be to practice your braking techniques along with them. This way you also make sure that the pillion is also ready for any kind of emergency braking.
  • Ideally, you will achieve a high level of deacceleration by brake-release-brake mechanism, and this is the most effective way of shortening the braking distance, however, do not pull the brake lever completely in one go.
  • If possible, adapt a composed, straight sitting posture before full braking. Support the lower body with your legs well against the tank and arms with a slight bend relaxed towards the handlebar. And most importantly, do not slide towards the tank during braking.
  • When braking in a straight line, make sure that the same amount of force is applied to both ends of the handlebars. Operating the clutch and brake levers must be absolutely unrestricted. For this reason, check the brake lever position and grip width in particular before you begin riding and correct them if necessary.
  • Start braking by applying the foot brake initially. This helps in transferring the angular momentum of the rear wheel to the entire motorcycle, which helps in loading the front wheel more quickly, and thus the front brakes can be pulled more quickly.
  • Look ahead but not towards the obstacle. Find a way out and plan your way out in case your braking distance is beyond the point of obstacle.
  • For group riding, adjust the distance between other motorcycles depending on your speed. And always try to drive in a staggered form so that you can grasp the situation as quickly as possible. If you ride in a group whilst maintaining a smaller gap from each other, even with a proper hand signal from the group leader, the last rider in the group might struggle.
  • While riding in traffic, keep an eye on the vehicles following you as much as possible. Instant braking by motorcyclists usually surprises the vehicles following behind. This is especially true when traveling fast on the highway, since the following vehicle’s distance is very small compared to their speed. Furthermore, a motorcycle decelerates, depending on the engine, much faster than a passenger car due to its higher air resistance and lower weight. This becomes quite difficult for the vehicles following you. The rider can avoid such situations by increasing the braking distance and briefly tapping the foot brake to give a signal to the following vehicles.
  • Hard braking immediately after an acceleration phase, overtaking for instance, is potentially dangerous. The front wheel is very much unloaded by the acceleration and cannot transmit the braking forces or can only do so to a limited extent. In such situations, use your foot brakes for few seconds till the front wheels are loaded again.
  • It is hard to predict the amount of grip available on the road just after a downpour. It is best to ride at a low speed with a gentle application of brakes whenever required. Ideally, your bike should be equipped with ABS. Lately, a lot of budget motorcycles for beginners come with ABS as standard. These motorcycles are basically braked the same way as motorcycles without ABS, i.e., in two steps. The only difference in straight braking is that after the brakes are engaged, the pressure can be increased more quickly and more heavily than on motorcycles without ABS.
  • If the brakes are behaving unusually, perform a thorough check of the entire system and have maintenance work carried out if necessary.

Also read: How to replace motorcycle brake pads 

Bottom Line

If you are planning to purchase a new or used motorcycle, make sure it is equipped with an anti-lock braking system (ABS). This system ensures utmost stability while braking in difficult situations as it reduces the brake pressure on the wheels and avoids locking. This eventually shortens the braking distance and prevents accidents.

But even if you have all the latest mechanisms on your motorcycle, being a responsible motorcyclist, you are expected to ride with complete focus. It is also worthwhile to complete a beginner level motorcycle safety foundation course to get habituated with unforeseen situations. Lastly, do not forget to put on your motorcycle helmet.

Ride Safe! 🙂