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If you take the time to learn to use the front brake correctly, you will be a safer cyclist.
Many cyclists shy away from using the front brake, due to fear of flying over the handlebars. This does happen, but mainly to people who have not learned to modulate the front brake.
The cyclist who relies on the rear brake for general stopping can get by until an emergency arises, and, in a panic, he or she grabs the unfamiliar front brake as well as the rear, for extra stopping power. This can cause the classic "over the bars" crash.
Jobst Brandt has a quite plausible theory that the typical "over-the-bars" crash is caused, not so much by braking too hard, but by braking hard without using the rider's arms to brace against the deceleration: The bike stops, the rider keeps going until the rider's thighs bump into the handlebars, and the bike, which is no longer supporting the weight of the rider, flips.
This cannot happen when you are using only the rear brake, because as soon as the rear wheel starts to lift, the rear wheel skids, limiting its braking force. Unfortunately, though, it takes twice as long to stop with the rear brake alone as with the front brake alone, so reliance on the rear brake is unsafe for cyclists who ever go fast. It is important to use your arms to brace yourself securely during hard braking, to prevent this. Indeed, good technique involves moving back on your saddle as far as you can comfortably go, to keep the center of gravity as far back as possible. This applies whether you are using the front, rear or both brakes. Using both brakes together can cause "fishtailing." If the rear wheel skids while braking force is also being applied to the front, the rear of the bike will tend to swing past the front, since the front is applying a greater decelerating force than the rear. Once the rear tire starts to skid, it can move sideways as easily as forward.
If you don't believe me, perhaps John Forester can convince you...see his Entry in the rec.bicycles FAQ on Front Brake Usage (Subject: 9.17). (Unfortunately, the maintainer of that site has a habit of breaking links, so you may need to go to the rec.bicycles FAQ index to find the article.) Or read John Allen's advice.
Skidding the rear wheel also wears the rear tire very quickly. A single rear-brake-only stop from 50 km/h (30 mph) with a locked rear wheel can wear the tread of a road tire right down to the fabric!
Maximum braking occurs when the front brake is applied so hard that the rear wheel is just about to lift off. At that point, the slightest amount of rear brake will cause the rear wheel to skid.
If you ride a conventional bike, the best way to master the use of your front brake is to practice in a parking lot or other safe space, applying both brakes at once, but putting most of the effort into the front brake. Keep pedaling as you brake, so that your legs will tell you immediately when the rear wheel starts to skid. Squeeze, don't grab, the brake levers, so you can sense when this happens. Practice harder and harder stops, so that you will learn the feel of stopping fast, on the edge of rear-wheel liftoff.
Test the brakes in this way whenever you are about to ride an unfamiliar bike. Some brakes are more sensitive than others, and you need to know the "feel" of the brakes.
Once you are comfortable with the front brake, also practice releasing the brakes to recover control, until this is an automatic, reflex action. At a very low speed, apply the brakes hard enough that the rear wheel skids, or just begins to lift. When it does, immediately release the brakes. Wear your helmet.
Some cyclists like to ride a fixed-gear bicycle, that is, a bicycle that does not permit coasting. When you brake hard with the front brake on a fixed gear, the drivetrain gives you excellent feedback about the traction at the rear wheel. (This is one of the reasons that fixed gears are favored for winter riding.)
If you ride a fixed gear with only a front brake, your legs will tell you exactly when you are at the maximum brake capacity of the front brake. Once your fixed gear has taught you this, you will be able to stop any bicycle better, using the front brake alone.
Typical rim brakes lose a great deal of their effectiveness when the rims are wet, so using them both together can reduce stopping distances.
When leaning in a turn, traction is shared between braking and turning. Using both brakes together reduces the likelihood that one wheel or the other will skid and dump you. The steeper you lean, the less you can brake, so moderate your speed before a curve. When you are leaning deeply, you need to release the brakes entirely.
Tandem caution: when riding a tandem solo (no stoker on board) the rear brake becomes virtually useless due to lack of traction. The risk of fishtailing is particularly high if a solo tandem rider uses both brakes at once. This also applies to a lesser extent if the stoker is a small child.
For this reason, I set my own bikes up so that the right hand controls the front brake, which is not the norm in the U.S.
I also do this because I'm right-handed, and wish to have my more skillful hand operate the more critical brake.
On the other hand, if you have already developed a preference, it is usually best to stick with it -- or at least, choose a few weeks of riding under undemanding conditions to retrain your reflexes. In an emergency, you must act faster than you can think. If you switch between a Mac and a Windows PC, where the same keys don't make the same characters, or between a clarinet and a saxophone where they don't make the same musical notes, you know how reflexes can trip you up. If you are used to skidding the rear wheel with the rear brake, switching the brake cables can result a flight over the handlebars. If you mostly use the front brake, switching the cables can result in rear-wheel skidding and increased stopping distance. These problems are most likely when first riding an unfamiliar bike, so, again, always test the brakes with a light brake application when you first start out.
See also my letter to Bike Culture magazine.
What you do have control over is whether you lean the bicycle more than, less than, or the same amount that you lean your body, to get the overall center of gravity to the place that it has to go.
This approach is popular with beginners who are scared to lean over sideways, and who feel less disoriented by keeping their bodies more upright. -- though actually, they don't. The cyclist is much heavier than the bicycle, which leans over farther, instead.
Captaining a tandem with a stoker who doesn't know about leaning in turns can be a very unsettling experience, because you must lean farther to compensate.
Keeping the upper body more upright is recommended by some racers and coaches as offering the possibility of recovering from a skid, but I don't believe it.
[I think there might be something to this. If you start to skid out, you might be able to yank the bicycle up and momentarily press the wheels harder into the road surface to gain more traction -- though the side force also might potato-chip a wheel, or roll a tubular off the rim.
Racers also sometimes drop the knee that is to the inside of the turn. Yanking the knee inward may also help ro recover from a skid.
Also see Jobst Brandt's comments, below -- John Allen.]
This approach is popular with riders who are afraid of striking a pedal on the road. This is a particular concern for riders of fixed-gear bicycles, since they cannot coast through corners.
This technique is also recommended by some racers and coaches as offering the possibility of recovering from a skid, but I don't believe it.
This technique has the advantage of keeping the steering axis, tire contact patches and center of gravity all in the same plane. This preserves the proper handling characteristics of the bicycle, and makes a skid less likely. You can verify this yourself by performing an experiment suggested by Jobst Brandt:
"To verify this, ride down a straight but rough road standing on one pedal with the bike slanted, and note how the bike follows an erratic line. In contrast, if you ride centered on the bike you can ride no-hands perfectly straight over rough road. When you lean off the bike you cannot ride a smooth line over road irregularities, especially in curves. For best control, stay centered over your bike."
He is specifically exercised by new E.U. regulations that specify that the front brake should be controlled by the right hand. "The trouble begins when a bike with right lever to front brake is ridden...in any country where traffic keeps to the right. The left hand signal, across traffic, is much more hazardous than the right hand signal. With the right hand...front brake the potential danger increases. Stopping the front wheel only, with one hand on the handlebars, can cause front-wheel instability. Also the upper part of the cyclist's body moves forward as the bicycle abruptly decelerates, causing further pressure on the right side of the handlebars."
I have to attribute his attitude to a common misunderstanding about brakes. With bicycles, as with virtually all wheeled vehicles, the front brake is the more important and effective brake. The front brake by itself will stop a standard bicycle twice as fast as a rear brake by itself. The front brake by itself will stop a standard bicycle as fast as both brakes used together, except on very slippery surfaces.
Unfortunately, many casual cyclists and non-cyclists have the mistaken idea that using the front brake is dangerous, and that you are likely to lock up the front wheel, pitch over the handlebars and crack you skull. This type of accident is extremely rare, and unlikely on a bicycle that is in good repair, ridden by a cyclist who has learned to use the front brake sensitively.
The danger is more real for bicycles with damaged rims, or mis-adjusted brakes. The danger is even greater for the cyclist who habitually relies on the rear brake alone when suddenly faced with the need for a panic stop. A panicky rider who is unused to the front brake may indeed grab it full-force as a last resort, and may take a header.
If you will forgive an automotive analogy in these green pages, a driver who has never driven a car with power brakes is likely to skid a few times the first time he or she tries driving a car that has them. This does not mean that there is something wrong with power brakes, however, it means that the driver needs to learn how to use them.
I frequently ride a fixed-gear bike with a front brake only. This is an excellent way to learn subtle control of the front brake, as the fixed gear gives very good feedback of the traction available at the rear wheel.
In the early '80s, I became infatuated with mountain bike riding in the woods, and completely re-adapted my braking style to cope with the loose surfaces common on woods trails.
In 1988, I moved to France for a year, and got back into road riding. Near my house was a wonderful bit of road down the side of a valley, called La Route des Sept Tournants. It is a series of sweeping switch backs, beautifully paved, very well engineered. I used to descend it regularly on one of my favorite loops. The problem was, I could never really go fast down it, I always felt that I was on the verge of losing traction with my rear wheel and spinning out. After a few months of this, I was beginning to conclude that I had just become a coward as I reached middle age. I remembered I used to go faster around similar bends on my old fixed gear with no rear brake----wait a minute, maybe that's it! The next time I went that way, I decided not to use my rear brake unless I felt I really needed it--I would just go slowly at first, only as fast as I felt comfortable with using the front brake alone.
Mirable dictu, I found that I was my old self again! It had indeed been the rear wheel that was on the verge of slipping, and only because I was using its brake. Without the drag of the rear brake, the rear wheel was in no danger of slipping. The front wheel, thanks to the weight shift caused by the braking I still had to use, had plenty of traction as well.
Many people will tell you that it is dangerous to use your front brake in a turn; I would respond that this is so if your turning/banking technique is incorrect. The center of gravity of a bicycle/rider must lean into a turn; this is required by the laws of physics. There are three ways you can do this. One way is to keep the bike more-or-less upright, but to lean your upper body into the turn. Another is to keep your body more-or-less upright, and lean the bicycle under you. The third, and usually correct technique is to keep your body in line with the bicycle frame, lean the bicycle and rider together as a unit.
Leaning the bicycle and rider differently messes up the handling of the bike, by moving the center of gravity sideways from the plane of the wheels. If you apply the front brake while doing this, the braking force exerts a steering force through the now off-center headset. Jobst Brandt has an excellent way of proving this to yourself: try riding down a straight, but bumpy stretch of road while leaning the bike to one side and your body to the other. If you are brave, try applying the front brake very gently.
I must admit to a bit of ambivalence as to whether a government body should tell people how to set up their bicycles. In the U.S.A., de-facto government regulation has made left-front all but compulsory for new bikes to be sold. I strongly object to this. I once had a near-accident as a result: I was riding an unfamiliar bike that was set up left-front, even though I am used to right-front. I came to an intersection, a car cut me off, I instinctively grabbed with my right hand. Since this was the rear brake, I was only barely able to stop in time!
I will add one further reason for preferring the right-front setup: Most people are right handed. I think we can all agree that the front brake requires more skill than the rear; therefore, it should be assigned to the more skillful hand.
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