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Bicycling Street Smarts cover imageBicycling Street Smarts


Picture yourself on a city path. Suddenly, you notice that you're about to ride down a flight of stairs. Or you're riding on a country road and there's a bridge out just a few feet in front of you. In cases like these, your bike's brakes could save your life. But even if you don't have such a dramatic experience, you'll feel more confident and go faster if you're ready to stop quickly and smoothly.

It takes practice to get peak performance out of your brakes. You can't just jam them on and skid to a stop as in a car.

Your brakes must be in good condition to give you the most control. Good bicycle brakes work powerfully and smoothly. If your brakes are weak or grabby, it's time for an overhaul. But to get the quickest possible stop, you also need to understand weight transfer and how it affects your stopping.


When you're stopping - in a car, on a bicycle or on foot - your weight shifts to the front. You see this happen every day. When you're running and stop suddenly, you have to put a foot out in front of yourself to keep from toppling forward. In the same way, when you stop a car, it "nosedives" as more weight goes to the front wheels.

When stopping your bike, the weight also goes to the front wheel. Try a little experiment: Walk along next to your bike. Squeeze the front brake lever. The bike will stop quickly, but the rear wheel will rise off the ground.

Also try squeezing the rear brake lever. Braking will be weak, and the rear tire will skid.
The same things happen when you're riding. If you rely too heavily on the rear brake, the rear wheel will skid and wear out the rear tire quickly. On the other hand, you can go right over the handlebars if you use the front brake too hard.

How, then, do you get a powerful stop without risk? There's a trick to learn. Use the rear wheel as a signal to tell you how hard to apply the front brake. You become an antilock braking system for your bicycle.


Practice on your bicycle in an empty parking lot. Squeeze the front lever three times as hard as the rear, while increasing force on both brake levers at the same time. With your light force on the rear brake lever, you're braking the rear wheel only lightly.

For a powerful stop, squeeze the brake levers harder and harder - the front always three times as hard as the rear. The rear wheel will eventually skid. But by this time, most of the weight will be off the rear wheel, so it will skid only lightly. You won't wear a big bald spot in the rear tire - though you will feel and hear the skid.

Rider using back brake

a) If you use the rear brake alone, the rear wheel will skid and stopping distance will be long.

Rider using front brake only - risk of end-over fall

b) If you use the front brake too hard, the bicycle will pitch forward.

Rider using proper braking technique

c) Achieve a quick stop by squeezing the front brake three times as hard as the rear brake. If the rear wheel skids, reduce force on the front brake.

The rear wheel's skidding is your signal to release the front brake a little, transferring weight toward the rear to reduce skidding and avoid pitchover. Once the rear wheel stops skidding, squeeze the front brake harder. Continuously adjust the force on the front brake lever to keep the rear wheel just below the point of skidding.

This is your braking technique for straight-ahead stops on clean, dry pavement. Under these conditions the front wheel will never skid, so you can adjust the front brake to keep the bike under control.

You can also train yourself to release the brakes whenever the bicycle begins to go out of control. Practice only with great care in a quiet location. At a very low speed, 2 or 3 miles per hour, squeeze the front brake lever hard enough that the rear wheel begins to lift off the ground. Then release the brake lever instantly. Wear your helmet!


Braking technique is different when the road surface is slippery, or if you're turning. Under these conditions, the front wheel can skid. You must brake lightly and use the front brake less.

On pavement that is good except for a few places, look ahead for the slippery spots and bumps. Release the brakes as you go over the bad spots, then increase force again once you're back on good pavement.

On dirt, gravel or any surface that looks as though it might be slippery, test the surface by applying the rear brake lightly. If the rear wheel skids easily, avoid using the front brake. Keep your speed down so that you can still stop in time to avoid hazards.

In wet weather, the streets will be more slippery and so will your rims. Dry the rims by applying the brakes ahead of time. It can take 100 feet or more before the brakes begin to work normally.

Turning and braking on a slippery surface lead to a fall

Avoid turning and braking on a slippery surface. If your front wheel skids out, you'll fall.

When turning, you may have a choice to swerve out of danger or stop - but don't try to do both at once. Practice braking on turns and slippery surfaces to get a feel for these conditions.

On a long, steep downhill grade, use both brakes equally to control speed and avoid overheating either rim. If the slope is extremely steep, the risk of pitchover is increased, so ride slowly to avoid the need for a quick stop.


Your training will pay off as you become more confident on your bike in all types of riding situations. You never know when you might have to stop - and the better you can stop, the more confidently you can go.


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