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.
My wife started mountain biking recently and while she enjoyed it, she was lacking some confidence and needed some skills....
Ninja Mountain Bike Skills
My wife started mountain biking recently and while she enjoyed it, she was lacking some confidence and needed some skills. I knew Richard La China from the cross country racing scene and felt confident that he and the ninja team could help out. I bought a woman's beginner clinic for my wife and she really enjoyed the challenge and experience. She is a better mountain biker now with much more confidence and new and improved skills. Mission accomplished! I highly recommend Richard LaChina and the ninja skills clinics for any level. I bought my wife a clinic gift card for Christmas which she will use to take the intermediate clinic. I plan on taking an advanced course to improve my cornering skills. ~ Mark T.
Good clinic. It was helpful to learn, practice with repetition and get critiqued by the coach all at once. I...
Ninja Mountain Bike Skills
Good clinic. It was helpful to learn, practice with repetition and get critiqued by the coach all at once. I look forward to an intermediate level class! Thanks for doing this coach Richard! ~ Sally A.
The best money I’ve ever spent on mountain biking!
Just finished a two day skills workshop in Dallas. To say it was the best money I've ever spent on...
Ninja Mountain Bike Skills
Just finished a two day skills workshop in Dallas. To say it was the best money I've ever spent on mountain biking would be an understatement. Our instructor was Aaron Lucy, a wonderful teacher and just a real pleasure to be around kind of guy. I highly recommend Ninja for anyone from novice to advanced riders as they cover just about anything and everything that will make you a more rounded rider. Thanks so much Aaron for all the advice and coaching! ~Mark Stewart
I'm a 63 y.o. Road and MTB cyclist. I've ridden mountain bikes since 1988. I really wish that I'd taken...
Ninja Mountain Bike Skills
I'm a 63 y.o. Road and MTB cyclist. I've ridden mountain bikes since 1988. I really wish that I'd taken this course 25 years ago and I might have avoided some of the injuries I received over the years. I took only the morning first intro session at Phoenix and I learned a great deal in a short period of time. Richard is a very gifted cyclist and coach with excellent pedagogical skills. The class moved quickly, but covered all the appropriate details needed to handle a bike on technical trails. Richard had two local expert cyclists who demonstrated techniques while he provided a narrative and answered question. We had one relatively new rider who was very wary of some of the steeper, technical descents. By the end of the class, you could actually see a significant increase in her confidence using the skills acquired in the class. I'm looking forward to doing one of Ninja's camps and I hope they are able to expand their clinics to my area (Albuquerque, NM). William J.
We are a group of passionate, dirt-loving, community oriented, world-class mountain bike skills instructors committed to helping you reach your personal riding goals through clinics and camps. We are excited to work with riders of all ability levels and share the joy (STOKE) of mountain biking.