Motorcycle Braking Skills

How Much Braking Is Too Much?

Motorcycle braking skills
Do You Know the Limits of Braking?
While smaller displacement bikes like this Yamaha R3 can’t match the acceleration of a literbike, most provide an equivalent stopping force.©Motorcyclist

There are a host of things a rider needs to know in order to be confident in braking. What does hard braking feel like? How hard is too hard? How much is enough to lock up my front tire or endo and cause a crash? Can I recover from a locked front wheel and, if so, how? Any rider without confident answers to those questions is—to some degree—afraid of the brakes.

Today’s literbikes have maximum braking roughly equivalent to hard acceleration, around 0.9 G, or, a rate of change of about 19 mph per second. While smaller displacement bikes can’t match the acceleration, most provide an equivalent stopping force. With anti-wheelie control and ABS, these numbers are not difficult for a “seasoned rider” to experience. Unfortunately, “seasoned rider” applies to well less than one percent of the 150,000 riders we’ve observed.

To experience the limits of braking, I had a (nearly) “uncrashable” bike built for the school in 1985. We called it the Panic-Brake Bike and its purpose was to familiarize riders with the limits of front braking. For a couple of years the bike had a G-meter mounted that registered the maximum braking force achieved in a panic stop. The vast majority of riders began with an average of 0.4 G—less than half of the bike’s capabilities.

More recently we ran 1,100 riders through an experimental rider-training program incorporating the Panic-Brake Bike. After being coached on the bike, we tested the students on their own bikes and recorded an average reduction of 50 feet in stopping distances from 60 mph. (Incidentally, less than 2 percent of the bikes used were ABS equipped.) In a real-world comparison, that 50 feet would be the full length of a five-lane road intersection. For the riders, it meant they were able to slow and stop their bikes with more than double the stopping force, from 0.4 G up to roughly 0.9 G. Those are lifesaving distances brought about by familiarizing each rider with the limits.

Included in the brake-bike coaching was how to recover from a locked front wheel and a nascent endo. From observation of the many earlier runs we realized that a full release of the lever was the knee-jerk reaction to a locked wheel or impending endo. In other words, a common panic reaction by the riders.

The solution to a locked front tire is simple enough to describe: Once the wheel locks, or the back end rises, release pressure on the brake lever. But we took it one step further. In the case of a lock-up in a panic situation, fully releasing the lever would be counter-productive, extending the braking distance. Our solution was to train the rider to release the lever just enough to allow the wheel to regain rotation and return to maximum braking force; that’s the optimum method to achieve the quickest possible full stop. This also applies to an endo.

Another of our early realizations was the reaction to a locked rear wheel from overuse of the rear brake. Nearly every rider would also release pressure on the front brake lever when the rear locked.

While it is true that skillful use of both brakes yields shorter stopping distances, my philosophy was to train our experimental group to use only the front to maximum. The only exception being cruiser-style bikes that carry more weight on the rear tire; on those we allowed the rider to use both front and rear brakes, with good results.

Most of the 1,100 riders trained were in the high-risk age bracket, and I’m very proud that over a seven-year period of tracking these riders less than one percent experienced significant incidents on the road. While there were many more components to the program, we’ve always felt that the braking exercises—which included the Panic-Brake training bike—were a big part of our success.

It does not require much imagination to see that proficient braking will increase any rider’s chances of survival, just as it’s easy to see that hard-braking practice pays big dividends. Indulge yourself in some.

Keith Code, credited as the father of modern track schools, founded his California Superbike School in 1980 and currently operates programs in 11 countries and on six continents. His "A Twist of the Wrist" series of books and DVDs are thought by many to be the bible of cornering.