How to use your brakes

Dailies, How To -



Braking seems pretty simple on the surface: squeeze the lever and the bike slows down. You might have heard the old adage, “Fast riders have slow hands.” If you take an MSF course, they’ll tell you not to grab the brake lever and instead squeeze it slowly, but they never really offer an explanation. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a hard time doing just what I’m told without being told why. Maybe you keep crashing your bike because no one has taken the time to explain exactly why a gentle approach with the brake lever is a good plan. Or maybe you’re an experienced rider who has figured out braking intuitively, but would like to know more about the nuts and bolts. Understanding what squeezing the lever does, how braking is affected by your suspension, and how to be smart about braking by being aware of your surroundings will make you a more skilled rider who can avoid accidents.

When you squeeze the lever.
On a modern motorcycle squeezing the front brake lever pushes a hydraulic piston into a cylinder which forces fluid out and through a tube that’s connected to a caliper. In terms of mechanical activity, it’s a pretty simple process. There’s no computers involved; the caliper’s pistons are forced outward by the pressure of the fluid and they squish brake pads into a rotor that’s connected to the front wheel. So, squeeze the lever, and the force you apply is proportional to the force applied to the front wheel.

Did you catch that part? Squeeze the lever, and the force you apply is proportional to the force applied to the front wheel. Grab the lever hard and fast, and what is going to happen? Immediate force squeezes the brake pads into the disk that’s attached to your front wheel. Endowed only with its usual amount of grip, the front wheel stops.

Unfortunately, just because the wheel stops, doesn’t mean you and the bike stop too. You and your bike have a lot of momentum and something trivial like a stopped front wheel dragging some rubber on the ground is not going to get in the way of physics. Squeeze the lever over a longer period of time (we’re talking milliseconds here) and your suspension will help you stop without crashing.

Dane Westby knows how long it takes for a locked front wheel to cause a crash.

Now is also a good time to mention maintenance. If you can’t remember the last time your brake fluid was changed, then you’re almost certainly overdue. If you have a bike with rubber brake lines and it’s more than three years old, you need new brake lines. Pony up the extra bucks for stainless braided lines — they’re dirt cheap on eBay and the added feel and performance make them more than worth it. Riding with spongy brakes that only sorta work is a recipe for disaster.

What your suspension is doing
The front of the motorcycle is supported by springs which are in turn damped by hydraulics. If you didn’t have springs, it’d be like riding your fixie — and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you’re staying under 25mph. The added hydraulics keep your bike from riding like a pogo stick. The whole suspension package is usually hidden away inside forks, but weirder people have built bikes that use a shock and some sort of linkage. So what’s this have to do with braking? Well, it turns out that braking and suspension are pretty much married and what happens to one has a significant effect on how the other works.

Say you’re riding at 40mph and you need to slow to a stop. Use the lever and the brakes do their hydraulic thing to squeeze the rotor and slow the wheel. As you’re decelerating it causes more weight than usual to be supported by the front wheel. As weight is transferred to the front, the suspension compresses and the tire flattens out, which in turn, gives you more tire contact area, allowing for more grip and, thus, more braking. Weight will only transfer once you’ve started braking and suspension can only compress so fast. If you apply a lot of pressure very fast (like you might if you realized that you were about to hit a CB400 directly in front of you) the weight of the motorcycle doesn’t have time to transfer, squish the tire and compress the suspension. Squeezing the lever slowly will build braking force more gradually. That’s not to say that it takes a lot time or even significantly longer than if you just grabbed the thing, but the difference of a few parts of a second is all it takes.

What you should be doing.
It helps to know when you should brake and where you want to stop. That’s right, you should look where you’re going. Look as far ahead as possible while still being able to keep tabs on what’s going on directly in front of and next to you. Looking at a bumper that’s eight feet in front of you in traffic will set you up for disaster (just ask the MSF instructor I watched plow into the back of a suburban on a brand new Multistrada S Touring last Saturday). If you know what’s coming, you won’t get caught out. It’s as simple as using your eyes. But looking extremely far ahead is no good either; you can easily end up missing a tire swallowing pothole or a minivan trying to change lanes into you.

Even Mr. Wide Open has to stop sometime.

In the long run, using the brakes is really a lot less about the technical skill needed to operate the lever and more about using your eyes and consciously picking where you want to go, when you want to slow down and when you’d like to stop. If you can do that then you’ll probably never have a problem with grabbing at the lever and locking the front wheel.

That other brake.
Now, I’ve been told that there is another brake on motorcycles that you operate with your right foot. If you’re riding a sport or sporty standard bike and you need to stop in a hurry, the back brake is basically useless. Trying to stop in a hurry on a bike like this will put 99 percent or more weight onto the front wheel and almost any application of the rear brake will lock the tire. It won’t make you crash, but it will zap valuable attention. You won’t really stop any faster and having the rear tire moving instead will help keep the bike more stable.

Now, that rear brake business only applies to sports bikes and the like. If you’re on something a little more laid back, with a longer wheelbase and lower center of gravity, then the rear brake will help you stop significantly faster. If you’ve got a passenger it’s the same deal. Your center of gravity will be moved much further back than usual and in addition to effortless wheelies, the rear brake becomes an important tool in slowing the bike.

And finally.
Riding a motorcycle at its limit is incredibly hard. To safely control a motorcycle that is constantly at the limit of traction you need both considerable skill and intense focus. It takes serious commitment to get it right, to perfect your body position, lines, timing, throttle control and braking takes years and nobody ever really gets it 100 percent right every time. Knowing how to stop in a hurry is a good thing to have in your back pocket, especially if you live in one of the 49 states that don’t allow lane splitting.

To recap the lesson: don’t grab the front brake lever, slowly squeeze it, working up to the amount of braking pressure you need to stop. You’ll feel the suspension compress and the tire gain more grip as you do. You need that added grip to stop safely and quickly. You can practice in an empty parking lot. Being able to employ your motorcycle’s full braking ability is an essential riding skill. Work at it until you can consistently apply full braking pressure without having to think about it.

  • Sean Smith

    Quit giving guys named Sean a bad rap.

  • damien

    Good article. I went over the handle bars in the emergency braking drill in my MSF course. Granted, it was snowing… Yep, that’s my excuse.

    I learned my lesson real quick after launching off the bike head first.

  • Toby

    The bike I learned to ride on (an Enfield Bullet 350) had its front brake adjusted so far out that it barely worked. I asked the guy to fix it and he said “oh, no sir… if you do that you will go over the handlebars!”

    I said I’d rather go over the handlebars than plow into the lorry in front of me… ended up having to adjust it myself with a leatherman.

    • Scott Pargett

      It’s important to learn how to do your own work anyway. Not only to you have complete quality control, you’ll understand the mechanisms and functions of the bike fully and how they operate, which in turn makes you a…

      better rider.

      • aristurtle

        Also, no mechanic is going to care as much about doing it right as you will. It’s not their life on the line.

    • Kirill

      The handlebar thing is seriously the dumbest and most dangerous “advice” ever. Just because its easy to do on a bicycle doesn’t mean its easy to do on a motorcycle, especially if its a bigger cruiser.

      I came across a Harley rider just under two years ago that followed that advice. Poor bastard was in a real bad way cause he’d plowed into a retaining wall. Pretty sure he got airlifted out (my group left once the EMTs we’d called showed up).

  • adeysworld

    I don’t stop…I go around. I recently got cut off pretty badly on La Brea during the day. Three lanes occupy La Brea…far right is parking lane. SUV was riding in left lane…me in the middle lane at brisk pace(of course lol)…SUV decides to take a gem of a parking space by swerving over from the left lane with no warning to the far right lane as I was about to pass in the middle lane…I squeezed the front brake lightly(loading suspension) then aggressively while feeding in the rear brake hard enough without sliding the rear tire…looking at the bumper of the (using my peripheral to plane escape route) SUV to gauge my distance for final maneuver. As the SUV comes to a stop I release both brakes and aggressively counter steer to the left then right to avoid SUV.

    Instead of turning around and beating the guy into a pulp…I threw it up on one wheel and gave him the “One Finger Salute”.

    Don’t panic in any situation…we’re not meant to come to a complete stop in these situations. It’s like racing…brakes are used to set your speed. Slow down…then move away.

    • Wes Siler

      Shouldn’t you be writing an article?

      • dux

        Or taking up professional stunt riding?

      • adeysworld

        I’m off my meds…can’t focus! ;P

    • Sean Smith

      “Can’t Stop/Wont Stop”

      • adeysworld

        eh eh eh eh(harlem shake*)

  • adeysworld

    Oh and I like the little plug in there SS lol…Mr. Wide Open…lol.

  • Mr.Paynter

    I miss discs!

    My little SR 250 has the most squishy drum brakes, they’re awful and I’ve replaced and oiled the cable and replaced the brake shoes to no avail!

    My back brakes are CRUCIAL on that little death-traP!

    Thanks for the explanations though, once I’m back on dual front discs I’ll be sure to put this in to practice!

  • AHA

    Thanks for this article. Spooky timing. I failed a ‘brake test’ yesterday, unwittingly dished out to me by a fair weather newbie. Panic braked and slowed very poorly, front not loaded up properly, rear breaking away. Just missed the fool. I’m the bigger idiot. Done properly, I had plenty of room to pull up. More awareness and I’d have ridden round him easy. Failed to do either. Tomorrow is Sat. Practice, practice, practice.

  • frankieapples

    Here’s what could be a dumb question:

    Drum brakes seem to be more complicated, require more materials and parts, are more expensive to manufacture and maintain and are substantially less effective. So why would they still be used on low end applications. I can imagine at one time they had a reason fo using them, so a vintage bike I get, but why would any manufacturer put drum brakes on any new bike, or even new car for that matter?

    • Gregory

      Maybe rubber tube/ hydraulic technology wasn’t there until the ~70s/80s?

      Maybe drum brakes (cable pulling pads) are cheaper to make? There might be some high-end metal in the discs or in the hydraulics that makes them more expensive.

      Portland, OR
      2008 Kawasaki KLR 650

    • Cheese302

      in general drum brakes are cheaper to make. they are also self energizing which is a reason many rear brake and parking brake applications use drums in the rear. cable pull is cheap compared to hydraulic hardware. Really the easiest way to see this is in replacement parts costs.

      • frankieapples

        I get the self-energizing thing on a Semi trailer: you run out of air or the trailer brakes free, the brake locks. I also understand that at one time disks weren’t an option, that’s why I was asking about modern bikes or cars. I didn’t think about the hydraulics factor, which is a big one. You seem some vehicles with both, though (disk up front drum in the rear) and it seems like if you are already using hydraulics though.

        Thanks for the responses Greg and Cheese

  • the_doctor

    Thanks for this. I do enjoy your articles Sean.

    I decided to start focusing on one particular thing ever time I ride (position, throttle control, etc). Currently I am working on braking. In Austin, its pretty critical.

  • MotoRandom

    Good article Sean. Given that your average HFL subscriber is likely to be more on the experienced side of riding, we are probably “preaching to the choir” here but it’s still good to review riding techniques as much as possible. I do pretty much all of my riding in urban conditions, so I realize that my little rant here does not apply to the track or rural areas. Something I see all of the time on the streets is something that should just be an absolute “no-no” in your riding style. Don’t ride in the middle of the lane. It’s a dangerous habit that will bite you in the ass someday. You should be in the right-hand or left-hand side, roughly where car tires are tracking. The are several reasons for this. Biggest: The middle of the lane has the oil track. Every vehicle of the 4+ tires variety drips minute amounts of oil and transmission fluid into the middle of the lane. This is much heavier near intersections where vehicles sit for awhile. Bad under dry circumstances but deadly with even a slight amount of rain. Try braking hard in the oil track under wet conditions and you will be crashing, end of story. The middle of the lane is also a fine place for debris to wander. Small objects, some sharp and pointy will be breezed over by cars and trucks. If you are in heavy traffic, there is a very good chance you will not see these things in time but your tires will to a fine job of finding these objects if you are riding the middle. If you are riding the left or right, that SUV ahead of you will clear the tire track.

    As addeysworld said above, brake then swerve is often the best solution. If you’re in the middle of the lane, you will lose precious seconds and feet trying to move out of the lane. Even if your state does not allow lane splitting, you really need to be prepared to just go ahead and do it. No ticket will be as bad as clipping a rear bumper and most cops are going to see you were just trying to save you ass anyway. Getting in the habit of always riding the left or right side and avoiding the middle like the plague will mean you are in a much better position to avoid disaster when it strikes. I tend to move back and forth from left to right depending on circumstances. From parked car doors opening to blind spots in multilane situations to the constant threat of potholes and badly paved manhole covers the urban riding experience is going to throw a lot of hazards at you. Moving back and forth helps you deal with these and also makes you more visible. The human eye picks up swerving motion better than a static light moving towards you. Despite the fact that it’s the most dangerous place to take a motorcycle, I love urban riding. It’s very exciting and there is certain sense of accomplishment from surviving it. But stay the hell out of the middle of the lane. Bad, bad, BAD habit to get into.

    • Myles

      +1 on the extra time to change lanes if you’re in the middle position. Staying in the far left or far right always presents quicker escape routes.

      +1 on urban riding being awesome.

      +1 on swerving motion to gain attention of the cages.

      What city? I’m in deecee and “fighting” traffic is a true joy in my life.

      • Kirill

        Another +1 to all of that. I always ride on the edge of a lane and it’s saved my bacon more than once, including a time when I almost got rear-ended by a Tundra (traffic was too dense to split). I’ve also gotten into the habit of going side to side as I approach intersections with unprotected left turns unless I can use a car as a screen

    • NickP

      I definitely agree on city riding. I spend plenty of time riding country roads near Detroit, but I also love riding Woodward and downtown. Terrifying sometimes, but great fun.

  • Mark D

    Nice article. I just took apart and cleaned my front caliper before installing new pads (just tossing new pads can drive dust and road grime far into the pistols, wreck your seals, and basically give you a real bad day). It was very cool seeing the inner workings. Way simpler that you would think.

    • Sean Smith

      All you really need to do is scrub the pistons, especially the area closest to the caliper, with a toothbrush and some dish soap. Another option is brake cleaner. A lot of the road racer guys I know clean their calipers every time the front wheel is off just so they can avoid having to tear the calipers apart when it’s time for new pads.

  • Grive

    It’s always good to see articles on proper technique. It’s incredible the amount of riders with little to no understanding of even very basic techniques, and not only the newbies. Then again, there are people in flip-flops and track shorts riding sportsbikes.

    Regarding the rear brake, though: I was taught both by an instructor and amateur racer cousin that the rear brake was actually useful in all bikes, even if cruisers and the like got the most of it.

    Basically, the idea is to use it to help the weight shift to the front wheel more safely. At least in straights, slipping the back wheel is not that much of a big deal, and will help you get on the front brake a bit faster.

    While it’s true that the slipping rear wheel is a distraction, with some time and practice you learn where is that limit, just like you learn how fast you need to press the front brake.

  • Gregory

    Locking my front tire is my greatest fear.

    I’m ok with: doors opening into my line of travel; bicyclers yelling at me when I go through the bicycle lane; cars yelling at me when I lane-filter; coffee-slurping SUV soccer moms conducting unknowing swerve lane changes into me on the expressway; tire track valleys/ peaks on old asphalt; slippery manhole covers; homeless people mumbling to selves and walking in front of me; large triple-trailer road trains looming up behind me; the unlikely event someone rear ends into me. All of that, I can handle.

    My greatest fear… perhaps it should not be… still… is locking my front wheel, going over the handlebars and being smushed by a big truck.

    Portland, OR
    2008 Kawasaki KLR 650

    • Myles

      Me too, but I always try and practice when I can (especially at the beginning of the season.

      Finding a bit of open road or parking lot then accelerating and braking as quickly as possible is something every rider needs to do on every bike they ride. You need to know the limits in a safe scenario before trying to use them in a potentially dangerous scenario.

    • Kirill

      The brakes on the KLR, at least in my experience, are pretty forgiving (read: crappy). You can grab a handful and as long as you let go right away, you’re extremely unlikely to lock the front. In fact, I think the rear requires more care (and you’ve got to use the rear if you want a chance of stopping in a reasonable distance).

    • Rachael

      Gregory – I’ve face-planted over the bars of a Ducati Monster, but it wasn’t because I locked the front wheel. A car turned in front of me while I was coming out of a turn. I hit both brakes hard.

      Stomping on the rear brake locked the back tire. When it started to slide, it pulled the front and rear tires out of alignment, which twisted the forks and resulted in the high-side. Should have stuck with the front only, with a squeeze, very brief pause, and then a hard squeeze to bring the bike to a stop while still upright. (Of course, reflexes are a different matter – I’m a city rider and should have known better. More practice might have helped!)

      Your front brakes will take good care of you, don’t worry about locking the front wheel. Practice… and wear a full face helmet. Very happy I was that day!

  • vegetablecookie

    This article alone is worth $1.99. Well done.

    Does anyone else remember a website that was around in the late nineties called “virtual motorcyle”, or something like that? It had a ton of articles like this. Loved it.

  • CG

    There are some reasons for using the rear brake on a sports bike, just not for stopping. Honda went to their combined braking systems on some of their bikes because research showed that a lot of bikers never used their front brake! Using a front brake properly and pulling a trigger on a gun are really the same principle. Gregory: I think you will find that locking up your front brake and going over the bars is a lot harder than you may think. I gave up riding a bicycle because on those things, it is too damn easy (I still wonder if it wouldn’t have better to have just hit that drunk old lady in her car – at least that way she would have paid my hospital bills…).

  • Steve

    This article inspired me to order a set of replacement brake lines for my 10 year old bike which has all original hoses. It will easily be a weekend long project since the 01 VFR has 9 separate hoses! Just bleeding the brakes takes hours.

    • Mark D

      If you’ve got the time, don’t try to bleed the brake 100% the first time. You’ll just drive yourself nuts. Do it at night, let it sit, then try again in the morning. Let the fluid “settle”.

      • Steve

        The VFR has, as I recall, 8 different bleed points. It will sit overnight just because the job cannot be done in a single day. You also must dismount all the calipers, dismount and stroke the front caliper mounted aux master cylinder for the rear brake, and remove some of the plastics. Now I remember why I don’t bleed the brakes more often.

        • Eric

          The shop manual I had for my 2000 VFR listed brake bleeding as a job that could not be done by a home mechanic.


    • Steve

      I love Honda. I hate Honda. As long as I am doing the brake lines I might as well rebuild the calipers. So in addition to braided hoses I ordered seals and pads for the calipers. I have already spent $600 on parts without even putting any labor into the project. This bike was not exactly designed with lifetime costs in mind. Until the consumers start to demand motorcycles that are affordable over their whole life cycle I guess the manufacturers are going to keep building bike that sacrifice ease of maintenance for performance.

      But I love my bike.

      • Mark D

        Ha, that’s why I ride a POS Ninja 500. One front brake, two pistons. New seals + pads + fluid + grease for the sliding pins was like $75. One bleed point. Sometimes low-tech is better!

        • Sean Smith

          Until you need to stop in a hurry ;)

          • Mark D

            Well…ummm…::searches for comeback::…yes, you’re right. Those crappy old bias-ply tires don’t help, either.

      • Gene

        A lot of the time weird shit like this doesn’t really show up until you’re sitting there going “how the hell…?” and this is long after you’ve bought the thing and way too late to demand anything.

  • Plotts

    I have to disagree on the rear brake issue on a sportbike, it is extremely valuable if you know how to use it correctly. I agree that in a panic or emergency scenario and on the race track it is generally best left unused. However in day to day driving and slow speed maneuvering it is essential. I think the biggest reason the rear brake gets a bad wrap is because of it locking up. Here’s a tip, leave the clutch out when slowing, turning, etc while using the rear brake and it won’t lock up (generally). It has also been said by people way more experienced then me that the rear brake used in conjunction with the front helps to settle the bikes suspension and lesson the weight transfer to the front. You see all of those cool Gymkhana videos? Those guys are using both brakes but more importantly they use the rear brake longer through the turn even at those extreme lean angles. The reason (I’ve been told) is keeping the chassis level and smoothing weight transfer which equals better grip.

    Don’t hate on the rear brake, learn to use it correctly.

    • Sean Smith

      I don’t hate the rear brake, it’s just not all that useful for stopping real fast. It’s much better used as a tool for low-speed maneuvering. Those gymkhana guys set their idle to 4000 rpms or so and rarely touch the throttle. They control everything with the rear brake, the chain stays tight the whole time, and there’s never any of the weirdness from taking up driveline slack that can upset the chassis.

      If you happen to have some extra attention around while you’re dragging your knees, you can also apply that low-speed driveline loading trick on left hand corners. Never close the throttle all the way, and drag the rear brake from your braking point all the way past the apex and, if you need to, out of the corner to keep the front end down. This can supposedly be done and in theory at least, makes the transition from decelerating to accelerating much much smoother. If you’ve got a thumb brake, it works in right handers too.

      • rvltng_bstrd

        Article should be updated with the slow speed maneuvering observation. As effective the front brake is for stopping and slowing down regularly, it is usually disastrous for the slow speed maneuvering.

      • Justin

        You still get around 10% of your braking from the rear in max deceleration on a sportbike. more on bikes with longer wheelbases. Every little bit helps, and the fact that you upset the chassis less with a front/rear braking event is also huge. I probably would have traded some paint with people cutting me off running red lights or some other jackass without using the rear. I’m not going to throw 10% of my decel away because it takes time to learn.

    • T Diver

      I don’t know if you’re supposed to but I use it all the time. Mostly when going up hill in canyons. I don’t know why. It just feels right. I say do what makes you comfortable.

  • Dan

    Nice article. Reminded me of something that Id been wondering for a while re trail braking-

    If trailing the brake past turn-in is about setting corner speed and keeping the suspension smooth, at what point should you be ‘fully trailed off’ the brakes? Is it at apex, or when you’re first starting to open the throttle (not necesarily the same as apex) or some point else entirely? I took a class (Lee Parks) that taught overlapping throttle and braking for the sake of chassis stability, but I don’t know where in the turn that transition should be made.

    Also, outside of radical low-speed stuff (or stunters/injured racers equipped with thumb brakes), is trail braking typically front-brake only? Otherwise, wouldn’t it be strange to have a different braking theory for right vs left-hand turns?


    • Sean Smith

      There are some roadracers that use a thumb brake so that they can use the rear on right hand turns. Try to step on the pedal with the bike cranked over to the right and you’ll find that your boot hits the ground.

      If you’re going through the trouble of trailing the rear brake, you might as well leave it on well past the apex and let off sometime after you’ve got the gas open. That’ll keep the chassis settled and make the transition to acceleration smooter.

      When I’m trail braking, it’s with the front and I leave the brakes on right up until I get back on the gas if necessary. It really depends on the corner.


    Great article. Even for seasoned guys.

  • NickP

    Thanks for these articles. Any more tips you have are always helpful! Thanks to you I have been hanging off the seat much more lately and getting better! :)

  • Kathie

    The guy in the photo by the bay is Trevor Doniak riding a Zero Electric Bike

  • John

    Eh, the article seems to be full of painfully obvious content. If you don’t understand the things in this article you shouldn’t be on a bike. Seeing your demographic on this site I would expect something with more valuable information. Like watching your road surface as all are very different before deciding how much brake to apply, or the tire compound that your riding on, or if your bike will endo or wash the front end based on the weight of the thing…

  • Ben Incarnate

    I’m glad HFL has articles like these and hope they become regular features. Even if it’s nothing new to me, it’s always good to have reminders.