How to brake on a mountain bike is a very misunderstood subject and I received this great question from a newsletter reader: “Going down an incline brings up a question. As I’ve seen stated before, it is suggested to apply 80 – 90% front brake going down a hill. (Keep in mind I’m almost 63 and only MTB a few times a year).
We brake for either of two main reasons, to cut speed or to maintain speed (not accelerate). When cutting speed the front brake does most of the work. Where we cut speed is very important, we only cut speed in a straight line, on-camber and where the surface is smooth and has good traction. As 3 time world champion Greg Minnaar has said in our camps, “don’t brake on off-camber and don’t brake on roots.”. Which means all braking happens before or after off-camber or roots. You did the right thing in letting go of your front brake on that root! Had you let go of both brakes before the root it (the root) would have had little to no effect on your trajectory. Few skills are isolated, there are a lot of important vision and body position skills that allow us to brake more efficiently and safer too. For instance in the first part of our mini-course you read about being centered with all of your weight on your pedals, this is really important when braking because if you shift your weight back the front brake can skid instead of hooking up and slowing you down (and if going off a small ledge braking with your weight back can cause you to endo as you will get pitched forward as your arms, hands and chest are yanked down the ledge). See article, Mountain Bike Descending body position 101, video demonstration: http://wp.me/p49ApH-aT
When our goal isn’t to cut speed but simply not speed up and we are descending a mellow to medium pitch hill using just the rear brake will often be enough to keep us from speeding up (“dragging” the rear brake). There are a few pros (it can keep your speed at a comfortable level, keeping you relaxed, and a few other reasons) and cons (it can break traction and slide sideways, your rear wheel will smack into a bump instead of gently rolling over them and many more reasons) to doing this but again, hard to explain with just the written word. On steeper hills the rear brake alone will not provide enough power to not slowly accelerate so on steep hills you will be using both brakes to simply maintain your speed. The photo below is an example of a steep hill on a cross country trail in Whistler that you must stay centered and use a massive amount of front brake on, just to get down it! (the scary thing is you have to release the front brake for a second for the off-camber left turn he is about to make which about doubles your speed! Then get on that front brake hard!)
Riding a mountain bike in balance and in control on dirt, rocks and roots, up and down steep and often slippery surfaces is rather complicated. Riding a bike in balance and in control on easy trails or on pavement is also complicated, the difference is when the conditions are easy (on pavement or easy trails) you don’t need much skill and can get away with doing a lot of things wrong. This often gives riders a false sense of competence that gets them scared or hurt when they try more challenging trails! Knowing what to do and even knowing how and why to do something are NOT the same as being able to consistently do something! Being able to do something effortlessly without thought requires a high volume of quality practice (usually in the form of drills designed to make something you know but currently have to think about turn into an unconscious habit). This is true in all physical endeavors, sport, music and art and the only way to truly reach your own potential.
A quick recap of the main new braking concepts (not addressed in our mini-course): 1. Only brake to slow down in a straight line 2. Never brake over roots or on off-camber, brake before or after! 3. Stay centered with weight on the pedals while braking. 4.
I hope this has helped. Good luck with your riding and have fun out there. For inspiration I have attached a photograph of our oldest student, Fred Schmid. In the photograph he has just finished the Leadville 100 in 13 hours and 9 minutes, at 81! The year before he finished in under 12 hours!
Create your best ride yet,