Pulling on the Brakes | CODE BREAK

On motorcycle riding, “good” advice gets passed around like a bottle of Mad Dog in a homeless camp. Like the “wine,” most of it goes to the head and clouds the issue it’s actually supposed to clarify. Advice on the initial brake pull is an example. We’re told it should be a gradual application to settle the bike’s suspension and not lock up the wheel. Sounds good and logical but, like most “good” advice, it can be deadly if applied in the wrong situation.

Let’s take a one-second (one heartbeat) gradual squeeze at 60 mph and compare that to a racer’s fifteen hundredths of a second (that’s half the time it takes to blink) brake pull. How would that difference in technique impact your accident-avoidance capabilities? Without doing the math, but knowing you are traveling at 88 feet per second, it’s safe to say it would be many more yards before you stopped the bike. Even cutting the reaction time in half buys you two and a half Escalade lengths at peak velocity.

You may say, “Yes, yes, but those racer boys are on special tires that are hot and sticky, so of course they can do that. But what about me under normal riding conditions?”

Let me offer this in answer to that question. Seven years ago, I designed a rider training program specifically for street riders and to date more than 1000 riders have run through it. For the braking portion of it, we begin with measurement of their untrained braking at 40, 50 and 60 mph. After coaching each rider, the three measured braking maneuvers are repeated.

The result of this training has been a very consistent average improvement of 55 feet shorter stopping distance from 60 mph to zero. That is the depth of an entire five-lane intersection. There were similar, proportional, improvements at 40 and 50 mph. All types of street motorcycles, with all brands of street tires, participated in this program. This answers the question of whether or not it is better equipment or a trained rider that makes the critical difference in braking.

You’d still like an answer to the question: Can you brake too hard or too quick? The answer is yes. You can lock up the front tire and crash a bike. In reality, with today’s tires, it’s more likely you will endo the bike than lock the front. What the training and the results we found in the school prove is that finding that limit is a proven route to gaining control over the initial brake pull. The gains, as the numbers tell us, are huge.

But there are important considerations regarding technique. Lean angle, road conditions and tire quality all play a part in how hard you can brake and how progressively you must apply the brakes without locking up the tire.

In the 1970s here in Los Angeles, my primary transportation was a motorcycle. I used to amuse myself by riding along on my street bike and, when conditions allowed it, momentarily locking the front tire.

Around that same time, our club here in SoCal, the AFM, didn’t have a new racer’s program so I put one together. One of the pass/fail items for getting a racing license was the rider demonstrating a front wheel lock-up. I do recall the looks of dismay and panic when I outlined the exercise to my would-be new racers. They all did it and no one crashed. The key element to not crashing is the partial release of the lever once the lock-up takes place.

As with so many other riding fundamentals, that moment of brake application is a learned, technical skill. What about that datum has changed since way back then to now with phenomenally better bikes, brakes, suspension and tires? Absolutely nothing. It is still, and will remain, all about the rider.

Modern motorcycles offer tremendous stopping power. Bracing your body weight with your knees instead of your arms can prevent the front wheel from "tucking" if it locks up.