There are a lot of misconceptions about a motorcycle's brakes: Many riders think that they know how to brake, yet they have not even scratched the surface of the braking capability of their motorcycle.
BRAKE PRO CON DRUM Sealed against water/dust Poor heat dissipation Predictable at low speeds Low power at high speed DISC Good heat dissipation Open to dust/water/debris 'Grabby' at low speed Smooth and powerful at high speedsIf you took a look at part one of this series (Slow Speed Riding), you noticed that I advised that you not use the front brake during low (walking speed) maneuvers. This is especially true if your bike has a disc front brake, because the brake has a tendency to grab or stop suddenly at very low speeds, therefore upsetting your balance and causing (aargh!) a dab (foot down).
Your bike will most likely have discs front and rear, or a disc front/drum rear. Older and smaller bikes will have drums at both ends. Most manufacturers have gone to what is known as a "triple disc" setup (dual disc on the front, single disc on the rear). On modern bikes (past 1980 or so), front brakes are always designed to be stronger than the rear. If that makes you nervous, read on and find out why they're made that way...
It is true that the front brake provides 70 to 100 percent of the stopping power of a motorcycle. To explain this wonderful phenomenon, let's go back to physics class: We have all looked at sportbikes in the recent years. The back tire is wider than most small cars' while the front tire stays relatively narrow. Why? When you are accelerating (in a straight line for the sake of clarity), the bike's weight -- which is normally biased toward the front, offering it more traction than the rear -- transfers to the back of the bike. If you have too small a tire 'footprint', the power will overcome the available traction and the back wheel will spin. If you doubt this, take a look at a motorcycle drag race. The front wheel doesn't touch down for 1/8th of a mile. This is affectionately known as a wheelie. The same principle applies when you are braking (though in reverse). As you apply the brakes (front or rear), the weight of the bike and rider transfers forward and eventually onto the front wheel. This is why a bike's front end dives when you brake. The amount of weight transfer depends on the weight of the bike and it's load, as well as the amount of braking power applied to the bike. The harder you brake, the more suddenly the weight transfers forward. However, all that weight must come from somewhere. It comes from, you guessed it, the bike. While the front wheel and suspension are busy doing their stuff, the back wheel quietly gets lighter and lighter. Now we find out why front brakes are so important. All that weight is transferring to the front wheel and off the back, so we have more traction on the front, and therefore, more braking power. And at the same time, less traction and potential braking power on the back wheel. With a good sport bike, it is possible to get 100% of the bike's weight on the front wheel so that the back wheel lifts right off the ground as the bike stops. This kind of reverse wheelie is generally only accomplished by skilled riders on a closed track. Trying this on the street can have serious repercussions if you goof it up! This trick is known as an "endo" or "stoppie."
By the way, almost of the power in your fingers is in the first two. There is very little power in your 3rd and 4th (little) fingers. So, use all 4 fingers when you brake -- this is a matter of preference with most riders, but it's my opinion that new riders should use all four. As you become more experienced, try using the first two fingers -- once you're good at it, this can offer you slightly more control of the motorcycle since you've still got two finger wrapped around the bar to make steering inputs.
At any rate, if you have been around motorcycles for any length of time, you have undoubtedly heard someone say that you shouldn't use the front brake because it'll lock with little provocation and you'll be horizontal in a hurry. Brake lockup is, in case you had any doubts, a bad thing. We can live with the rear wheel locked for a while, but lock the front and you'll be down. The front is one of those dump-now-and-ask-questions-later brakes. I have seen some front brake lockups recovered, but only by top-notch riders on excellent bikes in a controlled environment. Even then, the lockup was only long enough to get a chirp from the tire then he recovered. If you do find yourself in a stressful situation where you've locked up either wheel, don't panic! You can recover if 1) You're lucky and 2) When you do let off the brakes, ease them out -- don't do anything sudden, but you do want to get the wheel(s) unlocked as quickly as possible -- and make sure everything's pointed straight when you ease off the brakes. This is what causes so many crashes: People panic, lock up the brakes and either lowside, or they totally let go of the brakes and bike "hooks up" and straightens itself out and flicks the rider off. Again, make sure that the bike is straight up and that both wheels are pointed forward and you've a (admittedly slight unless you're a really good roadracer) good change to save it. Another point about locked wheels: If you lock the rear wheel and it starts to "come around" on you, ease off the rear brake and it'll come "back in."
Okay, that covered the easy one, now onto the front brake. A number of things happen when you start to apply the front brake. First, the shocks will compress as the bike does that weight-transfer thing. This, thank goodness, puts weight and extra traction on the front wheel. At this point, you are doing normal braking. If you continue to squeeze the brake lever, the front brake will get more and more weight on it. Eventually, most of the bike's weight will be on the front wheel. At this point, you are fairly close to threshold braking. If you continue to squeeze, and front wheel will start to complain. This is where you must be familiar with how your bike gives you input. We've found that on most bikes as you approach lockup, the front wheel will start to squirm. The rider get a vibrating or light shaking sensation through the handlebars -- it's not a violent motion, rather, it is quite subtle. If you feel this, you are at maximum braking. Do not squeeze the lever any more or you'll be rubber side up! This sensation is caused by the tire locking for fractions of a second then rotating again, and the squirming is the tire sliding just a fraction of an inch or so, then regaining it's grip, then sliding again. If it didn't regain it's grip, it'd go into full lock and, well, you can fill in the blanks. You can now see how close to lockup perfect braking is.
I've ridden ABS-equipped bikes and found that I can stop faster with the ABS disabled. But that's only from all the track time we get playing with new bikes and roadracing -- so if you don't race and can afford the extra two grand ABS tacks onto the price of a new bike, get it. You won't be disappointed. --Brent Plummer, Editor
Again, please don't be afraid of the front brake. I have been riding
for quite a while, and have talked to literally thousands of riders of
all sorts over the years. I can probably count on one hand the number of
first-hand accounts of a front brake lock up that I have heard. Treat your
front brake like a powerful engine; once you get used to it you're not
afraid of it, but bite it and it'll bite back. Brakes are your friend,
and if you practice these techniques they will save your life at least
once in your motorcycle career.