For many riders, the back brake of their motorcycle is the anatomical equivalent to the appendix. They perform a very minor function overall and if they’re removed you wouldn’t be any worse off. Yet, your back brake is another arrow in your quiver when it comes to reducing your speed as rapidly as possible.
For many, the back brake is used only when travelling at low speed. Think parking your bike at the shopping center carpark or filtering slowly between traffic. Most riders are taught that the rear brake assists the motorcycle with low speed stability and if you remember your training or have been involved with motorcycle gymkhana, you’ll know this is true.
Unfortunately for a lot of riders this is where it ends. Carving through the canyons on a sportsbike – no need for a rear break you hear. Even when coming to an emergency stop in a straight line, there are a huge number of riders who don’t even consider using the rear brake and I have a theory why.
The premise of this theory is located at page 104 of A Twist of the Wrist II. Here’s the quote under the subheading Rear Brake:
The obvious mathematics of the situation are that the front wheel can do 100 percent of the braking and the back at that point just locks up no matter who you are. Learn to totally rely on the front brake for quick, clean stopping; then, if you still have a use for the rear, go ahead and use it. But realize that the rear brake is the source of a huge number of crashes both on and off the track. I’ll leave the final decision up to you. While it is true for most riders that a motorcycle will come to a full stop quicker with both brakes applied, in racing, you don’t come to a full stop until you’re done.
Now, it’s reasonable to say that what Keith Code was focusing on here was the use of rear brakes at the track where the need of the rear brake is definitely lessened (although not eliminated). Some have taken this passage so close to heart they’ve turned up at track days with the rear brake system removed to save weight!
We would however argue that rear brake lock-ups are a result of poor technique rather than an inherent flaw in motorcycle design. You also have to remember that A Twist of the Wrist II was published over 20 years ago and not only has technology improved so that rear brake locks-ups are less common, they don’t even happen at all on an ABS equipped bike.
Unfortunately, many riders decided to transfer the above quote from the track to the road. They told their mates that you don’t need to use the rear brake on a sportsbike and the wrong information ended up being presented as fact.
The short of it is that using both your front and rear brakes together when coming to a complete stop will reduce your stopping distance. That’s why Honda, BMW Motorrad and other manufacturers offer some bikes (even sportsbike) with a combined braking system – a system whereby pulling the front brake lever activates both the front and rear brakes simultaneously.
We did a test to prove with numbers what the difference in stopping distances are between using only the rear brake, the front brake and both combined. This test was done at a speed of 80 kph, or 50 mph
As you can see, by using both the front and rear brake, stopping distance reduces by around 4 meters or 13 feet. Put another way, a reduction in stopping distance from the front brake alone of over 23 percent. In an emergency situation that’s a fairly significant amount of distance reduced, especially when you consider that 4 meters is the length of a small/medium car.
Like just about every input in motorcycle riding, the key to good use of the back brake is:
- Do it consistently
- Do it smoothly
If you never use your back brake, come the moment when you’re hurtling towards a car that’s run a red light, there’s little chance your muscle memory will respond by moving your foot to actuate the rear brake lever. So be consistent – whenever slowing to a complete stop, always use the rear brake.
Smooth application in this instance applies both to the front and rear. If you’re not smooth on the rear brake you’ll lock the rear wheel (even on a bike equipped with ABS you want it to be smooth). Perhaps just as important is the smooth application of the front brakes, especially in higher end motorcycles with massive stopping power – the rear brake will do absolutely nothing to reduce stopping distances if you’ve lifted the rear wheel in the air which will happen if you’re too forceful on the front anchors.
So remember, motorcycle companies install rear brakes for a reason. Use them.