Cycling Street Smarts, left-hand drive version



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 bicycle with your hands in their normal positions on the handlebars . Squeeze the front brake lever. The bicycle 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 tyre 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 tyre quickly. But you can launch yourself 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 anti-lock braking system for your bicycle.


Practise on your bicycle in an empty car park. Squeeze the front lever three times as hard as the rear, at first lightly. Increase force on both brake levers at the same time.

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 tyre - though you will feel and hear the skid.

npbrak1.gif (1664 bytes)

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

npbrak2.gif (1538 bytes)

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

npbrak3.gif (1549 bytes)

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 lever harder again. Continuously adjust the force on the front brake lever to keep the rear wheel from skidding constantly .

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.

Also train yourself to release the brakes whenever the bicycle begins to go out of control. Practise 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.

Turning and braking on a slippery surface lead to a fall (3 kB gif)

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

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. Shiny, steel rims are the worst. Aluminium rims and disc brakes are much better.

When turning, you may have a choice to swerve out of danger or stop - but don't try to do both at once. Practise 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.

Rear wheel brake only? Not!

Some bicycles have only a coaster brake on the rear wheel. Others have no brake, but only a “fixed gear” – the cranks always turn when the rear wheel turns, and braking is by pushing back against the turning pedals. These bicycles need twice the stopping distance of a bicycle with a front brake. Any brake will eventually fail mechanically in one way or another. With the coaster brake or fixed gear, it’s usually by the chain’s lengthening with wear and falling off. A coaster brake can overheat, and fixed-gear pedals can spin out of control on downhills. A front rim brake easily can be added to any bicycle. It is a wise investment. A rear bake is also advisable on a fixed-gear bicycle.


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.