Whether you are brand new to mountain biking or you’ve been riding for many years, it’s important that you have a baseline understanding of what your brakes do, why they are important and exactly how to use them. Having a solid braking foundation will allow you to build up to more advanced braking technique, and more advanced terrain!
You have two brake levers on your bike. In the US, a standard bike setup has the front brake on the left and the rear brake on the right (Think: Right Rear). In other parts of the world (i.e.; New Zealand, UK, Australia …) these are reversed!
Left Brake ➡️ Front Brake
Right Brake ➡️ Rear Brake
Your front and rear brake are arguably equally important and both serve a slightly different purpose. Let’s dive in…
Your front brake has your stopping power. Why is this? The front of the bike dips down when you apply your brakes and because of this, there is more weight on the front of the bike and thus more traction on the front tire. This means the front tire is less likely to skid. It also means, you must brake with good technique and body position to prevent being slung forward (or over-the-handlebars, “OTB”). More on body position in a minute!
Your rear brake helps you to control your speed, but depending on terrain, may not necessarily be all that great at bringing you to a full stop. You may have noticed that you rear tire is more likely to skid.
Test It Out
It can be helpful to see for yourself, how these brakes function. Try the following drill:
Grab your bike by the handlebars and stand off to the side, facing forward.
With your hands on the bars apply pressure to only your back brake and push the bike forward. You should notice it dragging behind you but the bike would still move forward.This is a good indication that your rear brake may not the best at bringing you to a complete stop!
Then, try only applying pressure to only your front brake and push the bike forward. You should notice how the bike would not move forward and your rear wheel might even lift. Bam – that front brake has considerably more stopping power!
Now, put one foot on your pedal and push your heels down to weight the pedal at the same time you apply pressure to your front brake. Ah ha! You should notice the back wheel stays down and your bike doesn’t move
In order to use your brakes effectively, it is important that your brakes are setup correctly. You should be braking with your index finger and only your index finger.
You should adjust the positioning of your brake levers so that your index finger naturally lines up with the bend in the brake lever. This will give you better bike control, a better feel for what the brakes and tires are doing and give you greater confidence in your riding. When checking for this index finger / brake lever alignment, make sure your hands are completely on the hand grips — if the side of your hand is hanging off the bars (grips) you’ll be putting pressure on your Ulnar nerve. This pressure can cause numbness in your hand and arm, fatigue, discomfort and diminished control of your bike.
For further explanation on one finger braking, checkout this article.
You use your brakes both to control your speed while riding and to bring yourself to a complete stop. Sometimes you will have the runway to gradually slow yourself down and other times, you might need to quickly and safely bring yourself to a stop (think: cliff!).
Now that we understand what each brake does and why they are important, it’s time to dive into the HOW of braking. Here are the key components:
One finger braking. The correct way to brake is using just one finger, your index finger.
Ease the squeeze. You should never grab the brake lever and immediately pull it all the way back to the grip. Rather, you should gradually squeeze the lever, or “ease the squeeze” as we like to say. Think of using your brakes like squeezing toothpaste out of a bottle. When applying toothpaste to your toothbrush, you don’t squeeze the bottle as hard as possible, right? I hope not! You gently squeeze the bottle until the perfect amount of toothpaste has been applied, and then you release.
Use both brakes. Generally speaking, you should be using both brakes when slowing or stopping. In our Braking 201 article, we will cover more advanced braking techniques and when you might use only your front brake or only your rear brake.
It is hugely important to have proper body position on the bike at all times, and especially when you are braking. The key components to good body position are:
Heels dropped + toes up
Body low (bend those knees!). Lowering your center of gravity in this way gives you more stability and drives your weight down into your tried more evenly for greater traction.
Weight in your feet and light hands on the handlebars. The more of your weight you can drive down into the pedals, the lighter you are on you handlebars.
Relax your arms (don’t lock out those elbows!)
How much and/or how quickly you want to slow or stop will determine how quickly you apply the above principles.
Need to come to a stop or reduce your speed quickly? You’ll want to apply your front brake and back brake at the same time while simultaneously shifting your weight low and back and dropping your heels to weight your pedals, in a quick “STOMP” like motion. This will help you to avoid tumbling forward!
Simply want to control your speed or slow down a little? You will still want to have your heels dropped, knees bent and weight in your feet. Rather than a quick STOMP, you stay loose in the body and adjust your body position as you apply your brakes to stay balanced and centered over the bike.
All Together Now
Braking is not as simple as ON / OFF. There is an art and a science to using your brakes effectively and believe it or not, “good” braking can make you a faster rider. Yup, that’s right; smoother is faster. So start by dialing in the key principles detailed above and you’ll be well on your way to tackling more advanced braking techniques and more advanced terrain with confidence.
Are you still feeling a bit unstable when you use your brakes? Nervous about going over the handlebars? Looking for in-person feedback on your braking technique? We can help! Join us for a Fundamentals clinic where we cover the foundations of braking and check out a 2-Day Camp to progress to more advanced technique and terrain.
Had a great class Oct 11. Kris and Richard were very helpful and knowledgeable. They made things fun and easy...
Ninja Mountain Bike Skills
Had a great class Oct 11. Kris and Richard were very helpful and knowledgeable. They made things fun and easy going, even while rolling you off the the lunch table bench. Came away with a bit more confidence which I have already put into practice. I really appreciated the review of what was covered in the class in the follow up email. Looking forward to taking the Jan intermediate class at Balboa, hopefully it will be up for registering soon. In the mean time I have a lot to work on. ~Linda Peterson
Don’t hesitate, sign up for the next skills clinic in your area!
My adult son and I participated in the "Fundamentals" camp on Saturday at Hildebrand Ranch in Denver, Colorado. We were...
Ninja Mountain Bike Skills
My adult son and I participated in the "Fundamentals" camp on Saturday at Hildebrand Ranch in Denver, Colorado. We were both very pleased with the clinic and would highly recommend it to anyone who has recently started riding full suspension mountain bikes. We have already been back out on the single-track trails practicing what we learned in the clinic. Aaron and Richard did a great job breaking down all the fundamentals and honestly amazed at the impact on my riding. Still have a lot to work on but if I follow the instructions I can improve my riding. We are both scheduled to attend a two day clinic in Santa Fe with Richard and looking forward to taking our riding to the next level. If you want to improve your skills, don't hesitate to sign up for the next skills clinic in your area. ~Dan Mitchell
My brain is still swelling with knowledge one month later.
I had a great time at a 3 day camp in Big Bear, CA and my brain is still swelling...
Ninja Mountain Bike Skills
I had a great time at a 3 day camp in Big Bear, CA and my brain is still swelling with knowledge one month later. Not knowing what to expect, I was pleased with the professionalism and detail that Richard and his team brought to camp. They not only take the time to teach you great MTB skills, but when and why you should use them. They begin with the fundamentals skills and reinforce those skills throughout the camp, which I found quite helpful. The skills progress quickly and we covered a lot of ground in three days. I was able to do a few skills I had never really tried before by the end of camp. I recommend highly and plan to attend another camp in the future. ~Joey W.
I'm a road Triathlete that lucked into a XTERRA World Championship slot via the lottery last year. Being a road...
Ninja Mountain Bike Skills
I'm a road Triathlete that lucked into a XTERRA World Championship slot via the lottery last year. Being a road triathlete, I had very little experience and no technical skills on a mountain bike. I took the Ninja beginner and then intermediate classes almost back to back. Richard is a great teacher, and taught the sequential skills that matter most. He does a great job of "breaking things down" with the what and the why, and illustrates the information well with his demonstrations, all the while, delivering it with a sense of humor and enthusiasm. Richard's instruction helped me successfully get through a very technical course in Maui without major injury! Yea, thank you Richard!!. Whether a complete beginner or an advanced rider, I promise you can take a lot away from his classes.... and, let's be honest ...Who doesn't want to be a Ninja! ~ Ray S.
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