The No-Brakes Exercise | CODE BREAK

How can no brakes improve your braking skills?

It sounds counterintuitive, but experiments with pro racer Joe Roberts showed that you can learn a lot about proper braking technique by riding without using brakes.©Motorcyclist

Last summer we did an experiment with one of our California Superbike School students, 16-year-old AMA Pro roadracer Joe Roberts, at New Jersey Motorsports Park’s “Thunderbolt” circuit. Guidelines for this test were simple: Lap the circuit in fourth gear only, without touching the brakes, riding one of our stock BMW S1000RRs. It had been years since I’d asked a pro racer for lap times under those riding conditions.

Joe has the right go-fast credentials: He still holds the Red Bull Rookies Cup lap record at Brno in the Czech Republic, set three years ago. In 2013, between Rookies Cup rounds in Europe, Joe entered five AMA Pro Supersport races—and won them all. He can ride.

Despite riding on well-worn Dunlops, Joe recorded a 1:32.3 lap—without using the brakes. That’s just 12 seconds slower than the AMA Pro Superbike record at that course and about seven seconds off winning CCS literbike club-racing lap times. It goes without saying that would be a more than respectable trackday lap. But what does this say about good braking habits?

In response to the multitude of braking errors we repeatedly observed at the school, we first instituted a fourth gear/no brakes riding exercise for students way back in 1983. There are as many braking errors as there are different approaches to braking, the most glaring being inconsistent corner-entry speed. Accurately predicting your line, mid-corner speed, steering rate, lean angle, and apex are all difficult at best when your entry speed fluctuates from lap to lap.

The theory of the no-brakes exercise is simple: Proper braking all begins with the rider’s own sense of speed, and with or without brakes (and gears), speed decisions are based on an intimate, intuitive ability to process bike feel. Physical sensations and visual feedback provide the raw information to make accurate speed adjustments. The no-brakes exercise—which is just that, an exercise, not a riding technique per se—is a particularly effective way to sharpen and develop one’s own sense of speed.

Like a computer’s virus-detection program, our sense of speed should be operating all the time to catch errors and guide how quickly or slowly we pull and release the brake lever to achieve an acceptable entry speed. Corner-entry speeds for a pro racer are typically very consistent, often varying by less than 1 to 2 mph from lap to lap. Average riders may vary 5 mph or more. Humans have this facility innately, but it does improve with practice.

Braking is an essential skill to master, and good technique demands continual comparisons of multiple factors including: bike pitch in response to braking force, lever pressure changes, rate of deceleration, lean angle if you are trailing the brakes, location on the road (or track), estimated line based on current rate of deceleration, and more. Maintaining a firm grasp on the objective—optimum entry speed—becomes an art under these conditions.

Hard braking requires even more attention, and the harder the braking effort, the more attention it absorbs—which can cause awareness of your entry speed to suffer. Improving and fine-tuning your sense of speed by removing the distractions of braking and downshifting is the purpose of the one-gear/no brakes riding exercise. Braking and corner entries both improve proportionately with the rider’s trust in his sense of speed.

A safe environment such as a trackday or riding school is the ideal place to practice this exercise. However, I’m willing to wager that the results might help you achieve a new level of riding confidence and personal satisfaction no matter where you ride.