Brake usage in MTB is a mystery. Nobody knows much about brakes or how riders use them on the trails - not even the pros. But it shouldn't be that way. That's why we created BrakeAce. Our company mission is to Demystify Your Ride. We start by analyzing your braking for you and making it easy to understand. Every ride or run you do has 3 Key Opportunities. These are the low-hanging fruit for you to improve.
Through our braking research, we've identified 3 reasons you brake on the trails. These are:
To maintain control
To go fast
This post is all about stopping.
Coming to a stop on the trail is an incredible skill. Coming to a dead stop doesn't necessarily indicate that you are riding fast (I mean, you're stopping...), but being able to stop easily means you are equipped with some of the skills you might need to improve in your Key Opportunities.
We've outlined 3 reasons you brake, and stopping is number 1. We talked about control, so check that out here. But to ride in control, you must first know how to stop. So being able to control a bike with the brakes is, in a way, second to being able to stop a bike properly.
Imagine an old lady crossing the street. You're headed in her direction and you haven’t noticed her until the last second. You need to dump your speed and stop - fast! It sounds like a no-brainer that anyone would be able to stop in time, but the ability to stop quickly is a learned skill.
The following are anecdotes that I picked up from many years of coaching and testing riders of all levels.
Assume you take a group of 10 beginners and 10 experts out to a parking lot. Ask them to make 5 pedal strokes to get some speed and then stop exactly on some line drawn in chalk. The experts will be able to stop on the line within a few centimeters - maybe even on the line. The beginners may have a few extra centimeters on either side. Not bad. But then take this same group to do the same task on gravel, and you’ll see bigger differences between experts and beginners. Take them to a slope, and the differences are greater again. Take them on the trail, and the differences will be night and day. Increase the speed, and... well, you see where this is going.
Experts have a learned skill that allows them to use the brakes to stop when and where they want to, while beginners do not. Think of the last time you were riding with a friend.
"Wait, turn HEEEERE," you shout at the last second! Did you give your mate enough time to slow down and make the turn? Many times riders are not able to do this very well, especially on gradients or loose conditions.
One skill experts have developed is the ability to use the front brake to stop. Grabbing a handful of front brake is a scary idea. We all know that if you do it wrong you can flip over the handlebars with the front wheel as a pivot point locked to the ground. Experts have front brake usage dialed, but beginners on the other hand will use more - and sometimes only - the rear brake. Using more rear brake to come to a stop often results in a big long skid, the bike going sideways, and having to put a foot out to maintain balance. If you don't get your foot out for more support, you'll end up on the ground. The rear brake is not the best for stopping.
We’ve all been taught that you get 70% of your braking power from the front brake. This is a carry over anecdote from motorcycle track racing, where the surfaces are consistent and mostly flat, so the rule of thumb sounds pretty good. Mountain bikers thought this sounded good and stocked bikes with larger front rotors, leading people to believe that they use their front brake more at all times when riding. As above, the idea of 'more front brake' holds true when stopping. The front brake is much more effective for stopping.
But what about when we are actually riding? This idea of focusing on the front brake simply doesn't hold true when we are riding on trails. Riders use their rear brakes more - or at maximum, 50/50 front/rear - in terms of total energy when riding down a trail. See this article here comparing front versus rear with the same riders on the same trail (at about the same speed). The important point there is that riders were riding. Riding and stopping are different things. Nevertheless, when you need to come to a very quick stop, both brakes and appropriate body positioning are your friends.
But like we said above, using the front brake at all can be scary if you've never done it! I remember when v-brakes first came out after most people had learned to ride bikes with cantilever brakes. The sudden introduction of brakes that "work" was a shock to many - and many riders went over the bars. Today's brakes are just that much more powerful - you don't have to squeeze hard to get the power you need.
As soon as we grab the front brake, our weight starts to shift forward. This creates the feeling of being pitched over the bars. This is a scary feeling if you don't realize that you need to push back against this force. Experts have mastered this balance, but many beginners have learned to avoid the front brake altogether. Using the rear brake has less of a feeling of pitch, but due to reduced traction, isn't as effective. The result is that beginners end up taking more time to stop.
Remember, stopping is akin to slowing down. And being able to slow down well indicates great skill - it's not just about going flat out all the time. Stopping is just the most intense version of slowing down. You need both brakes.
Experienced riders have learned that they can use just the right amount of front/rear brake to stop when and where they want to. The result of this is that they can not only ride in greater control, but more effective stopping ability gives them the confidence needed to brake later or ride faster.
Try this one yourself:
Head out to a flat parking lot, take 5 pedal strokes and stop on a chalk line. Mark your stopping location
Now take 10 pedal strokes and stop on the same line. Were you at the same spot?
Now try this on gravel. Were you able to stop without skidding? Did it take more distance to stop?
Once you've mastered these skills, try stopping on a surface just like your trails. Different surfaces and slopes will have varying stopping distances, but if you can fine tune your stopping skills on a variety of trails, you can learn to ride in more control.
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