Braking on your mountain bike

Braking on your Mountain Bike, Your Butt is Not Your Third Brake!

There is a lot of dangerous misinformation on the subject of braking on your mountain bike, I will clear some of it up for you. YOUR BUTT is Not Your Third Brake! We were horrified when one of our downhill camp students told us that in the high school league the coaches were teaching students to get their butt way back while braking and using the phrase, “your butt is your third brake”. After explaining to him why this was bad he said, “Wow, that is why my coach broke his corner bone! We were riding down a steep hill with a few ledges and he was braking over one of the ledges and got catapulted over the bars because he was yanked forward.”

As the sport of mountain biking has matured there have been huge changes in both equipment and the understanding of proper riding technique. When I started BetterRide in 1999 there were few people coaching technique and most advice was given by great racers who had created their own techniques. Often, these great racers were not the best bike handlers (simply really fit) and even if they were they weren’t great at explaining how and why a certain technique should be

used. So my task was to find out what worked, why it worked and how to get you to do that technique. Fortunately I had been doing that for 10 years as a snowboard coach and since my passion for snowboarding had faded I put all of my coaching energy into mountain biking. I sought out the best motorcycle coaches (Danny Walker, Gary Semics and Keith Code) to learn from and have worked with and coached some of the best racers in the world (Greg Minnaar, Marla Streb, Ross Schnell, Lynda Wallenfels, Mitch Ropelato, Chris Van Dine, Cody Kelly, Erica Tingey, Kelli Emmett, Jackie Harmony, Sue Haywood, etc.) As you can imagine I learned a lot over those years and I have often had to rethink the skill I was teaching and rethink my methods for getting you to master that skill. Which is polite way of saying that some of what I taught was wrong!

One of the skills I was teaching incorrectly was braking. I had a student wash out his front tire and crash doing a braking drill one day in 2004. Although he was doing the drill slightly wrong (he shifted his weight back before he braked, not as he braked) it made me question the idea of getting your butt way back while braking. It turns out that it didn’t jive with my in balance and in control philosophy (the student was obviously neither in control nor in balance when he crashed). I also noticed great racers like Steve Peat and Greg Minnaar were staying centered while braking. So in 2004 I threw out the little drawing that I had been using since 1999 to explain this (A rider with a an arrow driving from his butt through his bottom bracket into the ground showing the “physics” of getting your weight back while braking). It was a pretty handy and powerful in explaining the “physics” of why we get our weight back while braking! The problem was it doesn’t work that way in real life, on a trail with changing traction conditions, bumps, rocks and small ledges. You need to get low and stay centered while braking!

Forgetting about dangerous misinformation, it is plain instinctual to move away from danger, in this case moving your butt back as you brake. Unfortunately, as you probably know our instincts are terrible mountain bike skills teachers as they are thousands if not millions of years old! They became instincts to help us survive as bipeds in those times (before bikes, motorcycles and cars). For more info on this read this article: Why Our Instincts Fail Us On Our Mountain Bikes!

Braking on your mountain bike

Jon Widen staying centered while descending one of the steepest lines at Whistler!

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