Mountain Bike Basics: How to Brake

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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With terrain that can be unpredictable and constantly changing, mountain biking has certain challenges you don’t get on the road. For example, learning to perfect your shifting and handle corners on a mountain bike requires time and practice as does braking.

Braking might seem as simple as pulling the brake levers, but using correct braking technique is an important mountain bike skill that can be difficult to master. From maintaining your momentum to staying upright and avoiding an unnecessary accident, here are the basics of how to brake on a mountain bike:

1

PRACTICE YOUR BRAKE POSITION

Most of the time, you’ll need to brake to control your speed when heading downhill or dealing with a corner. In these situations, you’ll be in an attack position, which requires you to be off the saddle with your elbows bent. Keep this in mind when setting up your brake position, making sure the brake levers are in a comfortable position that doesn’t force you to twist your wrists at an awkward angle. Also make sure the levers are easy to reach with one or two fingers while riding in this position.

2

KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE FRONT AND THE REAR

In general, the front brake provides 70% of your stopping power while the rear brake gives you the other 30%. While you can get away with only using the rear brake when you need to slow your speed slightly, relying only on the rear brake can cause your bike to skid, giving you less traction and making it easier to lose control. On the other hand, if you need to stop and pull only the front brake, you can topple end over end. For this reason, it’s best to get into the habit of using both brakes at the same time whenever you need to adjust your speed.

3

MODULATE INSTEAD OF PULL

There are times when an obstacle or corner might sneak up on you quicker than expected. A common reaction to realizing you need to adjust your speed quickly is to grab a handful of brake lever. However, pulling your brakes suddenly can cause your wheels to lock up. Like your bike gears, the brakes have different ranges, and going from zero to maximum braking power in a second or two can be dangerous, causing you to skid and lose control. Instead, modulate your brakes by squeezing the levers with gradual light pressure. It’s also a good idea to let off the brakes slightly before applying more pressure. Using this technique can be a much safer way to control your speed and keeps you from braking too hard all at once.

One way you can avoid pulling too much of the brake lever and learn to brake more gradually is to use a single-finger technique. Move your brakes to a position on the handlebar so your index finger rests toward the end of the lever where it curves. Having your finger here provides you with enough mechanical advantage to apply enough braking power for any given situation. If riding with only one finger on the brake feels uncomfortable, you can use two. Whichever you choose, you should never need to use more than two fingers on your brakes no matter what situation you wind up in.

4

AVOID SKIDS

You’ve probably seen videos and other riders on the trail skidding around a corner. While it looks cool, the truth is, skidding is a result of locking up your rear wheel, and can have plenty of negative consequences. Here are a few reasons to avoid skids:

  • It takes longer to slow down than proper braking.
  • You’ll have less traction and control over your bike.
  • It will wear down your tires quicker.
  • It leaves trails in bad shape.
  • It’s hard on your brakes and pads.
5

BRAKE EARLY

To avoid overreacting and carry as much momentum as possible through a corner or turn is to control your speed and slow down as early as possible. This allows you to pick a good line to move around dangerous obstacles like large rocks and tree roots and slows you down. When approaching a technical section on the trail or an upcoming turn, brake early and get to a speed that allows you to ride through this section without having to excessively use the brakes. Getting into this habit lets you focus on your technique, gives you more traction and keeps you safe on the trail.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.

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