Code Break - Braking and Downshifting Smoothly

Code Break

Sometimes, the smallest changes make the biggest differences. One of the first skills a rider learns is how to simultaneously brake and downshift. But how many riders focus their attention on making this action smooth and effortless? Sure, a hurried and slightly frantic approach doesn't sound like a life-or-death situation, but the lack of it can lead to far bigger issues.

If a rider doesn't brake and downshift smoothly, he faces one of the following situations with the accompanying consequences:

1. Slowly letting out the clutch to make the downshift smooth: Most uneducated riders handle things this way, but it requires tremendous concentration. 2. Changing gears once the bike is stopped: Even the best transmissions can be sticky. 3. Changing gear after braking is completed: This often means doing it in a corner, which is distracting and can upset the bike-to say nothing of the rider. 4. Alternately going from the brake to the gas to match revs: This makes the bike pogo at the front. 5. Downshifting before braking: This is fine for relaxed riding situations at slow speeds, but is hazardous to the engine if the rider is in "spirited" mode because it provides the opportunity to over-rev the engine. And in an emergency, you don't have time to do this. Some emergencies require you to brake and then get on the gas right away to avoid things like cars. 6. Forget it entirely and just roll through the corner: This forces a downshift at the corner exit, when you should be rolling on the throttle, ruining your drive. It's distracting and not smooth at all.

Yes, an uncoordinated rider attempting simultaneous braking and downshifting can be dangerous. Applying the front brakes while the power is on can cause the front wheel to lock up. On my panic-stop training bike, I have seen it many times: A rider aggressively squeezes the brake and unconsciously rolls the throttle on at the same time. It's spooky to watch. Practice and coordination are necessary. It's like a dance and you have to make a decision. Can the six potential situations above cause trouble? Absolutely-in part because each breaks the rider's concentration, however slightly. If you aren't a superhero at multi-tasking, each option is a negative compared to braking and downshifting simultaneously.

What's the solution, then? Continuous perception of your speed. Accurate turn-entry speed is critical to confident cornering. If you're worried about your speed, you're distracted by it. Finding the right turn-entry speed-for you-is far easier when braking and downshifting happen in one continuous flow. Your sense of speed is a precious resource and is far more accurate when monitored as a steady stream of constant awareness. Your communication with the machine improves; there are no false signals or guess work; no waiting to know how the bike will respond in any of the above scenarios. Your ability to maintain communication with the bike is important input.

The following sequence creates the ideal set of situations:

1. Gas off.
2. Brakes on.
3. Bike slows and revs come down rapidly.
4. Clutch in. Maintain consistent brake-lever pressure.
5. Blip the gas quickly on and off, usually no more than a quarter-turn. Maintain consistent brake-lever pressure.
6. During the blip, make the gear change positively and quickly. Maintain consistent brake-lever pressure.
7. Clutch out. Maintain or modulate brake-lever pressure until desired turn-entry speed is achieved.
8. Release brakes smoothly.

After the initial brake application, the quicker you do steps 1 through 7, the better. Expert use of the brakes during this entire cycle means that you can maintain, increase or decrease the pressure as desired without abruptly stabbing or releasing the lever. How many fingers you grab the front brake lever with is up to you, although I recommend you use just two: your index and middle fingers. That leaves your two outside fingers to blip the throttle along with your thumb.

Braking is important: It's life-and-death on the street and vital on the track. Changing gears is not. You can still make it through the corner or get the bike stopped without ever touching the gears. Even if you have a slipper clutch, give this a shot. It can take a while for some riders, but gives tremendous satisfaction once mastered.

Contest Winner
Congratulations to Scott Morris of Arroyo Grande, California, who won Keith Code's contest in our January issue. For correctly identifying the 10 fundamental riding skills, Scott will receive a pair of Dunlop Qualifier 2 tires.

Learning to brake and downshift simultaneously can make you a smoother, and in turn quicker, rider. European Correspondent Roland "Too Tall" Brown demonstrates how it's done.