What’s more, knowing how to brake often means you can go faster downhill (unless it’s a straight line) than a less skilled cyclist.
1. It's All About Technique
First thing’s first: in order to make sure you brake safely, you need to check that your brakes are working properly. The brake pads should be in good condition and parallel to the rim. When they squeeze the braking surface, the entire pad should contact it. Make sure that no part of the pad touches the tyre, as this would certainly tear it. Your cables and housing should also be in perfect condition. We generally recommend changing them every year, particularly if you go out in the rain. Rusty or damaged cables don’t slide as well inside their housing and aren’t as responsive.
2. Front or Rear Brake?
When you were little, your parents no doubt taught you to squeeze harder on the rear brake to stop you going headfirst over the handlebars. Big no-no! Although this is understandable for children, who generally don’t cycle very fast and who are light enough that only the rear brake is needed to stop the bike, it’s a whole different kettle of fish for an adult. Like with motorbikes, you should squeeze harder on the front brake. We often talk about a 70% – 30% split between the front and rear brakes. This is all to do with the transfer of mass. When you brake, the weight of the bike and its rider is transferred to the front of the bike. Your front wheel is then loaded up and the front tyre becomes slightly flattened, meaning that there is a larger surface area creating friction with the ground. It is therefore more likely to be able to cope with heavy braking. On the other hand, weight is removed from the rear wheel and you can quickly stop it turning by braking hard. And stopping a wheel is never the most efficient thing. It is for these reasons that motorbikes generally have two large discs on the front wheel and one single disc, which is much smaller, at the back. The same is true for cars, which often have much larger discs at the front than the back – even for hub brakes at the back, which are much less powerful. Whenever you’re on dry ground and your bike is going in a straight line, keep this rule in mind: 70% at the front, 30% at the back. Because of this transfer of mass, don’t be worried about stopping the front wheel. If you get your braking right, it’s much more difficult to stop the front wheel than the back wheel.
3. Alternate the Front and Rear Brake to Slow Down
On longer downhills, you might want to merely slow down or even maintain your speed rather than to brake. In this case, alternate between using the front brake and the rear brake so that you don’t overheat the rims. This is an absolute must if you have carbon wheels, which heat up much faster than aluminium ones.
If you’re only using one brake over very long distances, the rim will build up the heat and the pressure will increase inside the inner tube, which could then burst under these extreme conditions. The same goes for carbon wheels, whose resin (which holds the carbon plies together) could even melt. This would make your carbon wheel completely unusable, and irreparable.
4. Braking on Gravel, Sand or Muddy Ground
These specific conditions up the importance of having a good braking technique. You can slow your bike down even if it’s at an angle when the ground is dry, but if the grip is reduced (wet road, muddy ground, dead leaves, sand or gravel), you must remember to never brake when it’s tilted. Otherwise, you’re sure to lose your grip. In dangerous conditions, it’s especially important to correctly distribute your braking power if you want to avoid stopping your wheel completely. The 70/30 split might need to become 50/50 on a wet road. And on sand or gravel, you might even need to go to 0/100, i.e. completely ignoring the front brake. Blocking the front wheel on gravel or sand is often a fall waiting to happen. It’s much better to take longer to brake by using just the rear brake, even if it means risking stopping this wheel, as it is easier to control as soon as your bike is straight again. And if you want to delay the point at which you brake, keep as much weight as possible on the back of the bike.
5. Braking on Corners
While riding downhill, it's important to slow down before going into a corner. But often, if you’re on a downhill route that you don’t know, you’ll approach a bend too quickly. If the bend gets tighter or is hidden by vegetation, it could take you by surprise and turn out to be sharper than you thought. In this case, if you don’t slow down, you’re sure to find yourself flat on your back. To help you with your turns, only use the rear brake once the bike has started to lean. This will help you to turn a little bit more, but remember to use the brake sparingly to avoid skidding.
6. On a Peloton
It’s quite common in a peloton for riders to be only 50 cm away from one another. Therefore, you obviously shouldn’t brake too harshly unless it’s an emergency. If you break too sharply, you could be hit by the riders behind you who weren’t expecting you to stop. The best thing is to use the rear brake more than the front if you want to slow down. Generally, that’s all you need. If you brake too much, you’ll have to expend much more energy to get going again.