Motorcycle Braking - Tips for Success on the Street

Uncategorized Feb 01, 2017

As you are out and about riding your motorcycle:
• Have you ever felt anxiety about “what if that car pulls out in front of me?”
• Have you ever made a braking mistake or hit a slick spot, putting you into a skid?
• And have you ever worried that if something goes wrong in front of you (like the car brakes hard or even rear ends the car in front of them), that you may not get stopped in time?

Yeah …. Me, too!

In fact, thousands of riders have had those experiences. The data show us that braking problems are common in motorcycle crashes. Regardless of whose fault a situation might have been (a car driver’s fault, the rider’s fault, both, or neither), the ability to get your bike stopped quickly—or even slowed down quickly—is critical to avoiding crashes (or turning a major crash into a minor crash.)

Unfortunately, maximum braking is a skill that many of us haven’t been taught and don’t use very often. And for those riders that have been taught, it is common for us to make mistakes in “the moment of truth.”

Too many crashes, injuries, and fatalities happen at least in part as a result of braking problems. I believe many of these crashes are preventable with good braking skills (and good execution in “the moment of truth”). Every crash prevented makes life better for riders, for their families and loved ones, and for the riding community as a whole.

In this blog post, we will:
• Spell out 4 common braking problems and their consequences
• Clarify good maximum braking technique
• Explain how to handle rear and front wheel skids
• Provide tips on how and why to practice maximum braking
• Discuss the benefits (and limitations) of taking a professional riding skills class
• Reveal 2 bonus elements to drastically improve your ability to stop your motorcycle quickly

Common Braking Errors
1. Rear brake only – skidding all the way to a stop (or sometimes, as a colleague of mine often says, “all the way to the crash”). This is common and I believe there are a number of factors that lead to this. Among them are:

  • Car driving habits. Driving a car trains us to automatically press the pedal with our right foot and just press it harder if we want to stop faster.
  • Panic. When we are startled, tense, or scared, we tend to use more physical force and our ability to think clearly and rationally is greatly reduced.
  • Motorcycle habits. Many riders have developed that habit of only using the rear brake when coming to gradual stops. If there is no need to stop quickly, the rear brake will do the job. The problem with this is that in an emergency, we tend to do what we normally do.

Consequences of rear brake only and skidding

  • Looooong stopping distances. This one is pretty self-explanatory.
  • Committed to a straight-line path. With the rear wheel skidding, you can no longer change your direction. If you were headed toward a guardrail when you locked up the rear wheel, you’ll continue toward that guardrail as you skid.
  • Risk of a high-side crash. If the rear wheel fishtails and gets out of alignment with the front and then the skid is released, there is a real risk of the bike straightening abruptly enough to toss the rider off the bike.

2. Rear brake only – no skid. As above, habits (both car and motorcycle) can lead to using the rear brake only.
Consequence of rear brake only - Looooong stopping distances.

3. Using both brakes, but soft on the front brake. This is also pretty common, and I believe that this is very often related to a fear of the front brake. There are two aspects to this fear – one is the myth “if you use the front brake, you’ll go over the handlebars!” and the other is a very real and reasonable fear of a front wheel skid (that’s next…).
Consequences of using both brakes, but soft on the front brake - Stopping distances are much better (shorter) than rear brake only, but not nearly as good as with full application of the front brake.

4. Front wheel skid. Yes, this is something we all have some anxiety about, and for good reason. In my experience, the primary cause of a front wheel skid is applying the front brake too fast (“grabbing” the brake lever). This is often associated with a panic situation.
Consequence of a front wheel skid - Crashing. There are a few stunt riders out there who can maintain a front wheel skid for an extended period (which is very impressive!). However, for the rest of us, front wheel skids (if not handled correctly and quickly) will almost certainly result in a crash. As soon as the front wheel locks up, steering control is lost and the fall generally follows quickly.

Good Braking Technique
The basics of maximum braking are to apply both brakes fully without locking (skidding) either tire. Sounds simple enough in theory, but it does take some work to get it right in practice. Here is a little more detail for front and rear brake application.

Front brake - Squeeze the front brake lever:

  • Smoothly and firmly. Don’t grab, but don’t be shy, either
  • With increasing pressure. Since the weight shifts forward as you brake and presses more weight onto the front tire, you have increasing available traction. Take advantage of this by smoothly and quickly increasing the amount of your squeeze.

Rear brake

  • Apply the rear brake with light to lighter pressure. As stated above, the weight is shifting to the front, so the rear is getting lighter. This means there is a decreasing amount of traction available at the rear tire. To avoid a rear wheel skid, decrease the amount of pressure you are applying to the rear brake.

Handling Skids
No one wants to skid in an emergency situation (if think you do, re-read the above section on the consequences of skids!). The bottom line is that skidding gives up control. That may sound extreme, but bear with me and I’ll share my reasoning. Here is my definition of motorcycle control: “The ability to control and change the speed and/or direction of your motorcycle.” A skidding tire (front or rear) takes away your ability to control direction and severely limits your ability to control speed. Because of this, you no longer have control of your motorcycle. To regain this control, here is how to respond to skids:

Front wheel skid - Immediately release and reapply

  • Get off the front brake as soon as you can to allow the when to roll again. Once the front wheel is rolling, you have regained steering control.
  • Now, whatever was there that caused you to get on the brakes in the first place is very likely still there, so get back on the front brake right away (more smoothly this time) so you can get slowed or stopped.

Rear wheel skid - Immediately release and reapply (yes, the same technique)

  • Get off the rear brake as soon as you can to allow the rear wheel to roll again. It is important to get off the rear brake before the rear of the bike has a chance to fishtail out of alignment. This quick response addresses the risk of a high-side crash mentioned above.

**NOTE** Some motorcycle rider training programs teach the technique listed above (immediately release and reapply), and some teach riders to keep the rear wheel locked all the way to a stop. After over 25 years in the motorcycle rider training industry (and having taught both methods) and over 35 years riding, my recommendation is to immediately release and reapply. However, you need to decide for yourself which is best for you. Here is a summary chart of my view of the pros and cons of each.

Here are two short videos of a rider at 25mph. In the first video, the rider locks the rear wheel, keeps it locked and tries to turn to avoid a hazard. Note that the motorcycle pivots, but keeps moving in the same general direction he was going when he started skidding.

 In this second video, the rider locks the rear wheel, releases the skid to regain control and then turns left to avoid the hazard in front of him. By releasing the rear brake immediately, the rider regains control and can now turn, swerve, or even accelerate. These options are not available to the rider when the rear tire is skidding.

 How (and why) to Practice
“I’ve been riding for 30 years…I don’t need to practice!”
Yep, I’ve heard this phrase and others like it for many years. Here’s the deal – if you want to be good at any skill, you need to practice that skill. This applies to bowling, target shooting, playing pool, juggling, typing, and - in our case - motorcycle riding.

“I ride every day…that’s how I practice.”
Maximum braking on a motorcycle is a very specific skill, and the fact is that just riding doesn’t build or maintain that skill. As you are out riding, scanning your environment for hazards, you are doing braking, but the number of times you do maximum braking on the street is quite low. (NOTE: if you are doing maximum braking a lot on the street, you may need to work on better visual scanning and hazard detection).

Think about airlines pilots – they practice a lot how to handle emergency situations. They don’t encounter those emergencies very often in flight (fortunately), but they specifically practice the skills so that if and when the emergency does happen, they are ready (and we, as passengers, appreciate that!)

Physical Practice
It’s pretty easy to practice maximum braking and I encourage all riders to invest some time practicing. Here are some practicing tips:

  • Find an off-street location with good pavement that is free of gravel or other debris (and one that you have permission to ride on). Keep an eye out for traffic. Maybe bring a friend to help keep watch.
  • Cut a few tennis balls in half to make cones for a “start braking here” mark (other objects will do, but I like the bright yellow of the tennis balls).
  • Find a way to measure your stopping point. Here are some options:
    • Keep small bean bags in your tank bag or pocket and drop one to mark where you stop
    • Use the parking lines in the parking lot
    • Have a friend watch and note distances
  • Start out at a relatively low speed to work on smoothness, say about 15-20mph. Do several runs at that speed until you feel comfortable and are doing smooth quick stops. Then increase your approach speed in 5mph increments.
  • Got riding buddies? Make it a group event and encourage each other.

CAUTION #1: Doing maximum braking practice is physically taxing. 15-20 minutes of practice is good for 1 session. You can—and are encouraged to—come back another day and do more. I learned this one the hard way after over on hour of repeated maximum braking runs. Boy did I feel it the next day!
CAUTION #2: You may experience an accidental skid when practicing. If you do get a skid, remember to release the brake immediately to regain control, then reapply more smoothly.

Mental Practice
As mentioned above, panic in the moment of truth is a legitimate concern. Sometimes riders have the knowledge and the skill, but fear or panic can override both in an emergency. So, practice in your mind. Yes, I really said that…
When riding (and even when not riding), visualize yourself executing maximum braking skills confidently, assertively, and successfully. This is what professional athletes and performers do. It allows your brain to gain experience (to the brain, clearly imagined experience is just as good as real experience) so in the moment of truth, your brain can say “hey, I’ve been here before, I got this” and that confidence can override the fear or panic.
**NOTE: this is not instead of physical practice; it’s in addition to physical practice.

Taking a Riding Skills Class (Benefits and Limitations)
I am a big fan of rider training (I’ve been in the rider training business for over 25 years, so I’d better be!) I take courses regularly and encourage other riders to do the same. Here are a few of the benefits and limitations of taking a rider training course.

  • A trained professional watches you ride and gives you feedback to improve
  • It’s a safe environment to push yourself to increase your skills
  • By doing the exercises in class, you get to see how you can practice on your own once the class is over


  • Taking a class is a one-shot deal. Just like any other kind of training class, if you don’t practice after taking the class, it doesn’t do you much long term good. This is not a “negative” to taking a class, just the reality of training. It’s like eating healthy meals for 2 days – if you shift your diet to be healthier as a result, you will experience long term benefits. If, however, you eat healthy meals for 2 days and then eat junk for the rest of your life, the benefit of those healthy meals is very short lived.
  • The moral of the story is that if you really want to benefit from a rider training course, take what you learn and apply it and practice it in your street riding after the class is over.

BONUS SECTION: 2 Tips to Supercharge your Stopping Ability

Tip 1 – When did you start braking?
I referred to scanning earlier in this article. Scanning well ahead is critical to safe riding and it can make a huge difference in how soon you get on the brakes. The best braking skills in the world won’t do you much good if you don’t know when to apply them.

To be effective, scanning is just the first step. Here is how it works:

  • Constantly be scanning well ahead for potential hazards
  • Make predictions about what might happen
  • Take action early (this can often prevent the emergency)

Simply getting on the brakes 25 feet sooner can make the difference between crashing and not crashing.

Tip 2 – How fast were you going when you started braking?
While I’m not suggesting that we all ride around at 10mph (that would be really boring and would present its own hazards…), I am suggesting that when we are approaching a situation where we have identified the possibility of needing to brake, slowing down can be a good move. Let’s say you decided to slow from 45 to 35 as you approach a particular high-risk area. Then, if the need for maximum braking presents itself, the distance you need to get stopped is significantly shorter.

What’s Next?
As mentioned above – practice. Practice may not make perfect, but I believe that practice makes permanent. In other words, the more you practice good technique, the more that good technique will show up in the moment of truth. This works both ways, so the more you practice poor technique, the more that poor technique will show up in the moment of truth. As always, the choice is yours.

And finally, stay engaged with riding tips, techniques, and ways to prevent and survive crashes. Unfortunately, this is something that we, as riders, don’t often talk about.

The Be Crash Free blog is free to everyone and we put up new content several times a month. We also post regularly on our Facebook page ( ). You’ll find riding tips, announcement of new blog posts, videos, photos, links to interesting articles, and information designed to assist riders in preventing and surviving crashes. Join the conversation, comment on posts, and share the content and the site with friends and fellow riders. Together, we can reach thousands…maybe millions of riders and push those crash and fatality numbers down.

In addition to our free resources, Be Crash Free is also a rider membership program. Our mission is to inspire and empower the riders of America to prevent and survive crashes. Members make a pledge to themselves and their loved ones (a pledge to Ride Legal, Ride Sober, Ride Protected, Ride Skilled, and Ride Informed – you can get a free PDF copy of the full pledge here - ). Those who choose to join get a membership card, sew-on patch, reflective helmet sticker, monthly riding tip in the members-only section, and discounts on a growing list of motorcycle related products and services. You can learn more about membership at

Motorcycling is an incredible activity (and much cheaper than therapy!) However, it is also a very unforgiving activity. Unforgiving of mistakes, poor choices, bad drivers, or even bad luck. Practice your braking skills (as well as your scanning and predicting skills) to stack the odds in your favor. I look forward to seeing you join the discussion on our Facebook page, our blog, and as a new member.

Ride well, and Be Crash Free!