How To Stop Effectively
Skills practice isn’t about learning fancy tricks or stunts. Sometimes you need to strip things back and consider the basic but oh-so important skills—like thinking about how you stop.
Using your brakes is pretty simple, right? Just pull on the levers and you stop. Well poor braking technique holds many riders back. If you’re uncertain about controlling your speed when it’s steep or loose, you’ll be hesitant and likely to baulk when a challenge presents itself. Even on less demanding terrain, the ability to slow yourself more effectively will let you carry speed for longer and give you greater control — brushing up on how to stop will make you a faster, smoother rider.
Plenty of people adopt poor techniques early on and cling to them. One of the most common is a fear of the front brake. If that sounds familiar then you’re missing out, as your front brake is by far the most effective. You need to get comfortable with applying the front brake and doing it safely.
Another common hang-up is brake dragging. Rather than applying the brakes firmly and effectively when it’s really needed, some riders tend to use them gently and constantly. This often stems from a fear of letting the bike run and then needing to brake in a hurry. Constant brake dragging can lead to excessive wear and heat build-up in your pads and rotors, so your brakes will be half-cooked before you really need them.
Even if you don’t lack confidence, poor technique can lead to mid-corner braking and skidding on steeper trails. So let’s look at the correct way to control your speed and the best way to practise your skills.
How it Works
As you apply the brakes, inertia transfers your weight forward and onto the front wheel. The rear wheel gets proportionally less weight, and with this there’s less force driving the rubber down into the ground. Up front the added load plants the tread firmly into the dirt to provide near limitless traction, which makes your front brake extremely effective. On a level bit of trail, you’ll get around 70% of your braking force from the front wheel and even more during a last-second panic stop.
Point yourself down a steep grade and your weight is on the front wheel to begin with. With this the front brake becomes even more important, providing 80% or more of your stopping power. Try to stop with your rear brake and you’ll succeed in skidding but not in slowing down.
If you’ve got any doubts about this theory, go and try it out. Find a grassy slope and mark a line across it. Coast up to the line and see how long it takes to stop using; only your rear brake; only your front brake; and both brakes at once. Your rear brake only stopping distance will be the longest by some margin while the other two will be relatively close.
Get Low to Go Slow
So the front brake is by far the most effective, but utilising it fully requires more than just a hard yank on the lever. Without the appropriate action in your upper body, you may well pitch yourself overboard.
The first and most obvious thing is to shift your bodyweight towards the rear of the bike. It’s basically the same as you’d do when going downhill and it helps to counter the forward pitching of your weight. Your front tyre will have great traction in straight-line braking but shifting your weight back can return a little bit of grip to the back tyre too. The harder you brake, the further your weight needs to shift.
To become truly proficient, you also need to lower your centre of gravity. Sitting up high on the bike makes you more prone to pitching forward, so get low to be fully pro. With your cranks level, or maybe the rearmost pedal a bit lower than the front, bend your knees and lower your torso on the bike. Drop your heels (and therefore your hips) to lower your centre of gravity even further.
Whilst experimenting with this, try dropping your saddle height. By getting nice and low, you won’t need to get as far back and that can improve control; you’ll have more of a bend in your elbows and be better able to absorb bumps — a dropper post can really help here.
It’s important to remain loose on the bike whilst braking. Don’t brace yourself against the handlebars and lock your arms. Instead, drive your bodyweight down through your hips, drop your heels and push forward into the pedals — it should be quite intuitive once you get a feel for it.
Now Go & Stop
There’s the theory but now you need to apply it. Pay close attention to my position on the bike in the examples and aim to replicate. Thankfully it’s something that you can practise just about anywhere. If you are nervous and have always shied away from using the front brake, start by practising somewhere soft like a grassy slope. If you have a bit of confidence, try stopping quickly on a smooth high-traction surface. Get a feel for how much front brake can be applied and focus on the tips that we’ve provided; low and back with relaxed arms, drop your heels and push down through your feet. Aim for smooth power application; by all means brake powerfully but don’t just slam the lever to the bars. And if you feel your back wheel lift, just release your front brake and it’ll quickly drop back down (unless you’re getting really comfortable with it, in which case go practise your nose-wheelies).
Once you’re confident with braking really hard on a high-traction surface, start playing around in the dirt. The techniques are the same but you’ll need a little more finesse — if you're skidding then you're probably doing it wrong. Aside from damaging the trail, a locked tyre offers less control and stopping power than one that’s still turning. Aim to stop as fast as possible without skidding with either wheel — you want to become the human equivalent of ABS brakes.
Hit the Trail
On the trail, good technique will allow you to let go of the brakes, knowing that you can confidently haul yourself up as required. If you’re braking hard and start to skid, back off that brake for a fraction of a second to regain traction. Likewise, if your front wheel grabs on a rut or root, release the brake so that you roll on through.
When approaching a corner, do all of your heavy braking beforehand and don’t use your front brake during the turn. If you have to brake mid-corner, do so with your back brake as a rear wheel slide is much easier to control. Your tyres have finite traction, so applying braking and cornering loads all at once is a sure-fire way to land yourself on the dirt. Brake before the turn and don’t enter the corner too hot—nine times out of ten you’ll be smoother, faster and safer if you don’t try too hard.
With modern disc brakes, one finger should be sufficient to haul you down from any speed. If you need more than one finger, consider getting your brakes checked by a good mechanic — the pads could be contaminated or the hydraulic lines may need a bleed. Ideally, you should be braking with your index finger. Ensure that the lever is positioned so you pull on the hook at the very end of the lever. This is where you’ll get the greatest mechanical advantage and the least finger fatigue on longer descents — slide your brakes further inboard if you find that you tend to grab the middle of the lever.
Assume your advanced braking position; pedals level, standing with slightly bent knees and your torso low. Now reach out with your main braking finger — it should rest nicely on top of the brake lever. This is a good starting point and you can tweak the angle from here. Some riders who tackle steep and really rough terrain may prefer a slightly flatter lever position as it drops the heel of your hand down behind the handlebar, offering more support when smashing through steep and rugged terrain.
Compared to the rim brakes of old, disc brakes are fantastic and very easy to live with. However, if there’s one commonly overlooked problem it would have to be pad contamination. It only takes the tiniest drop of oil to ruin a perfectly good set of pads. Take great care when oiling your chain and if you think a drip has landed on the rotor, wipe it over with disc brake cleaner before the wheel rotates and wipes the oil onto the pads. Contaminated pads are usually a throw-away item. If you’re replacing dirty pads, make sure you clean the rotors before installing the fresh ones.