Beginner Basics: (Not) Braking Bad

One of the most important things to be able to do properly is brake. It’s a safety thing, sure, but it’s also a fun thing. If you know how to brake properly, you’ll actually be able to go faster for the majority of the trail, because you’ll cut down the amount of space it takes to get to your desired speed. So, let’s review: safer, faster, more fun. Do you need any more reasons?



To go fast, you gotta learn how to slow down. 8-inch discs certainly help, but they also make it quite easy to test the efficacy of your helmet.

One of the most common problems newer riders have is improper braking distribution. More than likely, you’ve had at least one “oh shit” moment where you hit your front brake just a little bit too hard, and wound up knowing all too well what people mean when they say “eating dirt”.

On the other hand, if you do all your braking with the back brake, you won’t be able to stop nearly as quickly. You will also always have to worry about locking your back wheel – not a good idea! A locked back wheel will slow you down much less effectively than controlled braking, and will also rob you of quite a bit of control. You might also get beaten up by the trail maintenance guys, because it trashes the trails.


So then, how do you brake properly? There are two main things that you need to keep in mind: weight transfer, and force distribution.


Weight Transfer: This part is pretty easy. Like many aspects of mountain biking, braking requires that your weight is over the back half of the bike, and the harder you brake the farther back you will need to be. If you’re on a smooth section, you should also try to keep low. If you’re going through a really steep descent you need to be careful, though, because with most hydraulic disc brakes these days you will have enough force to lock both your wheels – just about the worst feeling, and usually one of the worst things you can do if your goal is to stay on the bike. So, to stay away from that, you need to learn…
Force Distribution: Pretty much, this means you don’t slam on both brakes as hard as you can every time you need to slow down. That will work well about 0% of the time, especially on a mountain bike. What you need to do instead is find the limits of your machine and yourself – how hard you can hit each brake in most situations (dry, muddy, sandy, rocky, mossy, gravel, etc.) without losing traction or flipping over. Obviously this takes awhile to figure out, so the general rule of thumb 70/30 can be used. Essentially, that means that you do 70% of your total braking with the front brake, and 30% with the rear. Sticking with that ratio will give you a good starting point to figure out the peculiarities of your technique, tires, and brakes.


If you’re new to biking, it would probably be worth doing some home tests before you get out on the trails. Simple things like riding down a (paved) hill and using only one brake at a time can help you figure out what the beginning of a slide feels like (so you know when to let off the rear brake), and what the beginning of an endo feels like (try not to go all the way over the bars, please. Been there, done that, no fun). There’s only so much you can learn from reading and road riding, though. The best thing to do now is get out and ride, there’s no substitute for experience!


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