Perfecting your braking will keep you safer on the road and also, ironically, allow you to ride faster while remaining in complete control. Here are our tips for fine-tuning your skills.
In the wake of the tragic case of Kim Briggs — who died after being hit by Charlie Alliston on a fixed-wheel bike bike that lacked a front brake — a legal reminder: your bike must have brakes, and they must work. This is laid out in the Pedal Cycles (Construction And Use) Regulations 1983. Couched in some of the most awful legalese ever, this says that bikes for adults used in the UK must have two independent braking systems, unless the rear wheel can't move independently of the pedals, in which case you must have a front brake. In other words, a fixie must have a front brake, all other bikes must have two brakes.
The regulations also say your brakes must be "in efficient working order". They don't explain what this means, but you can be certain Plod and the CPS will be unimpressed if you crash and it turns your brakes are so poorly adjusted you'd have been better off shoving your shoe against the tyre.
Some people like their brakes to bite almost as soon as they touch the levers, other people prefer more lever movement before the brakes engage. Make sure your brakes are set up the way you like them, and ensure the levers aren’t going to touch the handlebars before reaching the point of maximum power.
Two things happen to affect braking in wet conditions. First, your wet brake pads take longer to slow the wet wheel (this is much more of a factor with rim brakes than with disc brakes). Second, your tyres have less traction on the road surface. Both of these factors mean that you need to brake far sooner in wet conditions. You might want to use both brakes in the wet in circumstances when you’d usually use only the front to get the deceleration you want without skidding.
Some riders brake, consciously or unconsciously, at a given speed simply because they don’t feel safe going fast. We’re not suggesting you go everywhere at breakneck speed but looking a long way down the road will help you assess whether or not there are potential hazards coming up and so help you avoid unnecessary braking.
You’ve probably heard that you should do all your braking before the corner and none while you’re actually cornering, and we’d agree that that is a decent policy. However, sometimes you need to continue braking on downhill corners (particularly hairpins) or you’ll pick up too much speed to get around. Also, you’ll sometimes find that an unknown corner gets tighter as it goes on, or you’ll simply misjudge a corner and find that you’re travelling too fast when you’re halfway around; we all make mistakes.
If you do need to brake while cornering, try to do it while your line is as straight as possible. Any braking needs to be smooth and light because it’s much easier to slide than when your bike is straight and upright. Using both brakes reduces the possibility of a wheel skidding and you coming off.
Most of us were told as youngsters to be careful of using the front brake for fear of going over the handlebar. Well, that does occasionally happen, but you can decelerate much more quickly with the front brake than with the rear brake so it’s vital that you learn to use it properly. Pro racers, for example, use the front brake for the vast majority of their braking.
The front brake can slow the bike so quickly that nearly all weight is transferred to the front wheel, and that means the rear brake can’t have much effect. There’s no reason for you to go over the handlebar if you modulate the front brake properly and brace yourself against the deceleration.
Your front wheel is more likely to slide if you use your front brake on a slippery road surface, so favour your rear brake if there’s a high chance of skidding.
Skidding can cause you to lose control and sometimes – especially if it’s a front wheel skid – come off your bike. If there’s a danger of skidding, feather your brakes gently rather than pulling the lever suddenly with force. Extend your braking over a longer distance to avoid locking up.
Rely too heavily on your rear brake and the rear wheel will skid and wear out the tyre fast.
Braking pitches your weight forward. If you’re braking hard – with either the front brake, the rear brake, or both – move back in the saddle to keep your centre of gravity as far to the rear of the bike as possible.
Disc brakes aren’t as affected by wet conditions as rim brakes, although there is certainly a drop in performance when water gets on the rotors and pads. Generally speaking, you get better modulation (the control you get before locking up) with well set-up disc brakes than you do with rim brakes and many people find that to be a significant advantage, especially in wet conditions when it’s easier to skid and lose control.
Braking on carbon rims historically hasn’t been as good as braking on aluminium rims. The stopping power on offer isn’t as great, especially in wet conditions, and with certain rim/pad combinations it’s grabby rather than smooth. Technology has improved (braking on Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL C wheels, for example, is excellent) but you still need to give yourself more time for braking, or apply more braking power at the lever, if you use carbon rims.
Find yourself an empty road and practise braking. Pull both levers but favour the front one; make it about 75% with your front brake, 25% with your rear brake. Try pulling the levers harder and stopping sooner, just to the point where the rear tyre is about to skid. If the rear wheel does skid, release the brake to allow it to move again. The idea is that learn how hard you can brake while retaining control.
Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been road.cc technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now pushing 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.