Braking or the ability to properly slow down a moving motorcycle is perhaps the most underrated and often most neglected skill by a lot of motorcycle riders. It's nothing to be ashamed of as most of us first learned to ride a bicycle then went on to ride motorcycles, most likely without the proper guidance of a trained motorcycle riding coach.
This also means that over the years, most of us may have developed bad riding habits that could be dangerous without knowing it. Just a few examples are putting both feet down when slowing the motorcycle down, or putting all fingers on the brake and clutch lever with nothing but the thumb to grip the handlebar.
Tips from a certified coach
To find out how to properly stop a motorcycle, we called on one of my off-road riding mentors, Mel Aquino, to give us a few tips. This coach is the director of the Mel Aquino riding school in Antipolo. We've shared before how some skills in off-road riding can help you even on paved roads.
Understanding the motorcycle
Before we go on any further, it's first important to understand the critical parts of the motorcycle, and how its weight can also impact handling and braking.
Use all 3 motorcycle brakes
Naturally, most of us would assume that there are only two brakes on a motorcycle: the front brake and the rear brake. After all, it's plain to see on each wheel.
Actually, just as important is the third brake, which is generated by the engine’s torque. This is commonly known as engine brake. This brake is activated by using the engine's inertia to help slow down the bike. Engine brake happens when the bike is rolling faster than the engine's revolutions when in gear.
Your motorcycle’s suspension also plays a crucial role on your motorcycle’s handling and braking. This usually consists of a front fork and rear monoshock or twin shock absorbers for the rear.
The suspension plays a key role not just in absorbing bumps but also managing the weight of the motorcycle.
According to coach Mel, most motorcycles will have a 50/50 weight distribution when at a standstill. As the rider twists the throttle and accelerates, most of the weight of the motorcycle and the rider will be transferred to the rear. When applying the brakes, the weight will be shifted to the front, what we call a brake dive. This phenomenon of weight moving forward or backward along the motorcycle is called load or weight transfer.
Learn the right habits
One of the most important things that I’ve learned when I attended Mel Aquino’s classes, as well as when I took classes at the California Superbike School (CSS), is which bad riding habits we should unlearn.
These are the things we do subconsciously when riding our motorcycles, which may lead to poor braking. Like we mentioned above, these are putting down both feet meters before the motorcycle makes a complete stop. Another is using all of your fingers when braking or clutching (even pulling the clutch whenever they brake). Other bad habits to overcome are having or keeping arms stiff or using the passenger footpegs as “rear sets.” These are all examples of poor posture which can be detrimental to effectively controlling the brakes.
In order to properly control the brakes and bring the motorcycle to a stop, we need to ride the motorcycle properly, hold the handlebars and levers the right way, and put our feet on the right footpegs.
1. Use the right fingers
Coach Mel Aquino demonstrates the two-finger braking (via video call interview)
Let's start with the most critical, but also easiest one; using the right fingers to pull the brake lever. This is critical because you need fingers to grip the handlebar as well.
Most motorcycle riders I see on the road use their middle and ring fingers, while others use the middle, ring, and pinky. These are all wrong, according to coach Mel and my riding instructors in CSS.
The proper way is to use both your index and middle finger for braking. There are two reasons for this: 1) these fingers have enough strength to pull the lever in both normal and emergency braking situations and 2) this leaves your ring, pinky and thumb to firmly grip the handlebar.
Why are these the wrong fingers?
By contrast, imagine using the middle and ring fingers for braking. It's pretty awkward to look at and perform. In addition, using the middle, ring and pinky for braking leaves just the index and thumb to grip the handlebar, which is NOT safe.
Some may even use just one finger, like the index or middle finger only. Some riding instructors say this is fine, but another argument is that those fingers should have the pulling power of an average rider’s index and middle fingers combined.
While it's important to brake using the right fingers, it's also important to know when to let go and grip the handlebar with all fingers. Always having your fingers on top of the brake lever or clutch even when not in use is another bad habit. A pothole or a similar bump on the road could cause your fingers to pull the brake unintentionally, leading to a front tire lock-up or excessive braking that could cause an accident.
2. Look ahead
A lot of motorcycle riders, for some reason, have this habit of looking at the brake lever, speedometer, or just down at the road in front, during deceleration or braking. This is NOT safe.
When slowing down to a stop, always make sure to LOOK FAR ahead to see the vehicle or the road in front of you. This helps you focus farther down the road, giving you more time to react to any situation. It may sometimes look clear, but the next second, another rider or vehicle could come into view.
3. Have the right riding posture
Bad riding posture is another bad habit. Some extend their arms and sit back as far as possible. Some sit very near to the handlebar. Others ride tense and have very stiff arms. This can be tiring and may require a couple of pain relievers after a ride.
The ideal riding posture can vary from bike to bike. Since there are different types of motorcycles, your motorcycle’s owner’s manual would suggest the best riding posture when you board your motorcycle.
Generally, it's ideal to have your torso straight up if not slightly leaning forward. When reaching for the handlebars, have a bend in your arms, with your elbows raised a little bit and away from your ribs. This ensures that your arms can move freely and unimpeded.
Keep your feet on the front footpegs, not the passenger footpegs.
A lot of riders think that the proper way to brake and slow down your motorcycle is just by using the front brake.
“It’s what MotoGP riders do,” they say. What they forget is that MotoGP-spec bikes have top-of-the-line brake systems (about US$ 20,000 for the caliper and discs alone), and a high level of skill earned from years of racing. Stock bikes and stock riders don't come close.
So for the average Juan Dela Cruz rider like you and me, coach Mel Aquino suggests we use both front and rear brakes, as well as the engine brake. Since there are only two wheels that serve as the contact patch between the rider and the pavement, the quickest and fastest way to stop is to use the front and rear brakes, as well as the engine brake. But how?
This video demonstrates the good, better and best way to put a motorcycle to a stop
1. Release the throttle
The first and most important step is to release the throttle. Do NOT apply the clutch. Releasing the throttle closes the intake and reduces the amount of air and fuel entering the engine. Because the engine is no longer accelerating, the inertia of the engine slowing down will help slow the bike. Do not apply the clutch as this simply negates engine braking.
2. Front then rear
When you need to slow down, first apply both the front and rear brakes ALMOST simultaneously, with just the right amount of pressure. This means that the front is applied first to help compress the front suspension, then less than a second later, apply the rear brake. You'll notice that this compresses the front suspension (brake dive), which means most of the weight has shifted to the front.
For those who are riding motorcycles with a clutch, get a feel on when to pull the clutch before getting to a complete stop. Get a feel of the engine's rev if it is still enough (while rolling to a stop) and won't stall or if it's about to stall. Do not pull the clutch to bring the motorcycle into freewheeling. Use the engine brake along with the front and rear brakes.
On a side note, the use of engine brake is especially helpful on mountain roads, like going down from Marilaque, since it will take some of the load off from both the front and rear brakes. Excessive and improper use of both the front and rear brakes can cause overheating and when it happens, lusot na yung preno (the brake will no longer bite/ work).
3. Manage the weight transfer
To help stabilize the motorcycle and bring the weight back to the middle, riding coaches suggest letting go of the front brake lever a few feet before a complete stop while still maintaining pressure on the rear brake. The logic behind this is to keep the motorcycle more balanced. It helps the front fork decompress and reduce the brake dive.
It's important to decompress the front suspension as you slow down to allow it to absorb any bumps on the road as well as leave allowance for compression while steering or harder braking if needed. This style is particularly helpful for riders on heavy motorcycles (like a BMW GS). It helps manage the massive weight transfer without overwhelming the grip of the front wheel.
4. Manage your body
It is also worth noting that you need to manage your body weight too. As you brake, move your body (just the torso) in the opposite direction to help compensate with the weight shift during acceleration or deceleration. Some naturally move their body forward during acceleration. When braking, it's important to do this too. Move your torso up and stretch your arms a bit to move your body rearward during deceleration. This puts less pressure and weight on the front.
If you’re riding a standard motorcycle with a front tank, grip the fuel tank with your legs. This gives you extra leverage to stop from sliding forward as well as moving your torso upward. Gripping the gas tank also gives the rider better control over the motorcycle.
5. Stop from rolling
Like what was demonstrated in the above video from MCrider.com, keep your foot on the rear brake while at a complete stop. This acts like a car's handbrake and prevents the motorcycle from rolling, especially when on inclines. Keep the bike upright with your left foot.
That's our short guide on how to properly use the brakes. It may sound quite complicated but with practice, you'll soon get it and find just how much more control over the bike you'll have. When practicing braking, start slow, give yourself lots of room and slow down slowly. As you get it, you'll be able to do these steps more quickly and will manage braking at shorter and shorter distances.
It would also help you master the motorcycle's brakes, and you will not be one of those who said madulas kasi yung gulong/ kalsada (blaming tires or the road because of unskilled braking).