Commuting: 4 things you should know about bicycle brakes

Check all the brake cables for damage and wear
Check all the brake cables for damage and wear | photo by John Rees

Ah, braking. Some people are afraid to go fast(er) because they do not trust their brakes and ultimately themselves being able to stop their bicycle in utter annihilation of mind and body. As we spoke in our article about learning to fall, now we will give you some information and hints about using your brakes. With science!

1. The front brake is better in stopping than the rear brake

Most people look surprised when they hear that they should use their front brakes in stopping their bike. Did you know that skilled bikers use their front brake in 95% of all braking done by them? Common sense says to use both brakes when stopping yourself, and this is and will be good advice for beginners who do not master their bikes very well yet. However, it is important to learn to use the front brake properly to make you a safer cyclist for yourself and especially for others. Don’t believe me? Try it, go outside and drive at the same speed and brake using first the rear brake and then the front brake. You’ll be surprised.

2. Using the front brake will not throw you over the handlebars

I think this assumption is the main reason less skillful cyclists do not use their front brakes more. I think this is the reason they will not even dare to try using the front brake – and that might end up with them flying over the handlebars. Ironically, the people who have experienced the handlebar somersault have been riders that have faced an emergency and panicked, applying full power to both brakes and then the rear wheel leaves the ground and off you go.

If you know how to moderate your front brake through practicing it, the chance of you flying overboard is very small.

Check the functionality of the brake levers | photo by Let Ideas Compete

3. Learning to use the front brake is easy

I’m pretty sure everyone has heard the good ol’ saying of “practice makes perfect” – apply directly to forehead. For instructions, I’ll give the floor to the late great Sheldon Brown:

Maximum braking occurs when the front brake is applied so hard that the rear wheel is just about to lift off. At that point, the slightest amount of rear brake will cause the rear wheel to skid.

If you ride a conventional bike, the best way to master the use of your front brake is to practice in a parking lot or other safe space, applying both brakes at once, but putting most of the effort into 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, on the edge of rear-wheel liftoff.

In short, try it and learn to trust your front brake. It literally could save your life.

4. Know when not to use (only) the front brake

As we wrote earlier, a skilled rider uses their front brake for 95% of all stopping purposes, but there are the 5% you must not forget. On surfaces where you can lose control of your front wheel for even a fraction of a second, such as slippery surfaces, bumpy roads or technical malfunctions (broken cable, poor brake pads) and simply in phases of your trip where you don’t actually want to stop per se, but to slow down – then the rear brake is your friend.

Check the brake pads for wear and change if necessary | photo by g_kat26

bonus: Check your brakes

No amount of skill or experience can help you stop your bicycle if you have poorly maintained brakes. If you notice anything different with the performance of your brakes, slow down and check out what’s up. Fix your brakes as soon as possible and before you continue riding, test the functionality in different speeds. Tuning and fixing your brakes in any local bike shop will cost pennies and you will be a safer cyclist.

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By Markus Sandelin

Markus is a bike commuter gadget freak who is learning the ropes of the bike world, you can find him all around the web - but you can start with his twitter at @banton.