QUESTION: Should you always use both brakes on a road bike? I’ve heard that I should mostly use the front brake, but won’t that cause me to flip over the handlebars? —John K.
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: The answer I’m about to give presumes two things: First, that your brakes are working properly. Each brake should engage smoothly, and the lever should bottom out before coming into contact with the handlebar. And second, that you know which lever controls which brake. Usually, bikes sold in the United States are set up with the right lever controlling the rear brake and the left lever controlling the front one. But some people prefer them set up the opposite way. Be sure you know which is which on your bike.
The basic reality of braking is that the front brake alone provides the most stopping power. Using the rear brake by itself will stop the bike, but you’ll go twice as far before that happens. Applying the front brake suddenly in a panic stop situation can cause the bike to stand on its nose and send you over the handlebars, but you can avoid that scenario by simultaneously sliding back as far as you can go on your seat or even behind it, which moves the center of gravity back, and bracing against the deceleration with your arms.
Admittedly, it takes some practice to do that, but it’s worth your time to learn. Try it out in an empty lot, while wearing your helmet.
I typically use both brakes most of the time, and in normal stopping situations, I apply both gently. But in emergencies, it’s best to squeeze the front brake lever harder than the rear brake lever, and be ready to back off the rear brake if needed.
I learned this the hard way. Back when I was still a fairly new rider, I was “flying” down a steep hill when the wind caught the map I had tucked in my handlebar bag and sent it sailing. Not wanting to lose the map, I slammed on both brakes. I quickly found myself lying on the road with some skin missing from one arm and with a pulled groin muscle (the cleat grippers on my new clipless pedals were adjusted too tight and one foot didn’t come out of the pedal right away). My bike was lying farther down the road with a bent handlebar and a new series of nicks and scratches. Thankfully, I was wearing a helmet.
Later, trying to diagnose what must have happened, I came across this from the late, great Sheldon Brown: “Using both brakes together can cause ‘fishtailing.’ If the rear wheel skids while braking force is also being applied to the front, the rear of the bike will tend to swing past the front, since the front is applying a greater decelerating force than the rear. Once the rear tire starts to skid, it can move sideways as easily as forward.” (Brown was a bike mechanic and author with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things bicycle. See his advice about braking here.) I do think that fishtailing caused my crash.
John Allen, another bike tech wiz, who now maintains and updates Brown’s website of bike info, advises that when using both brakes, you should squeeze the front lever three times as hard as the rear, but increase the force on both levers simultaneously. If the rear wheel starts to skid, release the front brake a little and shift your weight rearward. When the rear wheel stops skidding, resume pressure on the front lever. You may need to repeat this front-rear modulation a few times before coming to a full stop. (Allen’s full advice about braking is here.)
The problem with spelling all this out in words is that it makes braking sound like some highly technical procedure that can only be mastered with hours of practice. In fact, it can be learned rather quickly with a little experimentation at slower speeds. And learning it will serve you well when you must decelerate quickly from higher speeds.
Readers, what’s your approach to bicycle braking? Let us know in the comment section below.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.