Mountain Bike Braking


After the dare-devil days of bikes without brakes, the first widely used braking system was known as the plunger. It appeared on the high-wheelers of the 1800s and using it involved a principle of pressing down or pulling up on a lever which pressed a metal shoe against the outside of a tire and created friction to slow down the bike. It was not without its problems, especially excess wear on tires and weak performance in wet conditions.

Caliper & “V” Brakes

Popular brakes on mountain bikes were caliper, now more commonly, “V” rim brakes.

Pulling the levers toward the handlebars pulls cables and forces pads against the wheel rims. These brakes are lightweight and inexpensive but not without problems. During wet weather it may take twice the distance to stop as on a dry day because water acts as a lubricant on the rims. The rims can heat up, even to the extreme point of melting a hole in the inner tube during extended downhills.

As a guide, here’s some basic stopping data:

Situation Dry Road Wet Road Sand
Speed 15 MPH / 24 KPH 15 MPH / 24 KPH 15 MPH / 24 KPH
Stopping Distance 8.5 ft / 2.6 m 13.07 ft / 3.98 m 11.34 ft / 3.45 m

Look at the difference when adding just 5 MPH / 8 KPH

Situation Dry Road Wet Road Sand
Speed 20 MPH / 32 KPH 20 MPH / 32 KPH 20 MPH / 32 KPH
Stopping Distance 15.17 ft / 4.6 m 23.25 ft / 7.08 m 20.17 ft / 6.14 m

Disc Brakes

I wouldn’t dream of going back to caliper brakes now I’ve experienced the power of disc brakes, but some brands demand more maintenance. When applying the brakes, pads force pressure on a disc attached to the wheel-hub. The main benefit is that the disc is away from direct wheel spray and water or other grime affects braking power far less than calipers in similar conditions.

Using Front, Rear or Both Brakes

To stop or slow down safely, you need to learn how you use your braking system. That is obvious but, hands up if you ever did an ENDO, i.e. went over the bars?

It makes sense to use both brakes at the same time, right? This is useful advice for beginners, who haven’t learned to use their brakes skilfully, but it’s important to get beyond this stage.

The fastest that you can stop is to apply the front brake so hard that the rear wheel is close to lifting off the ground. But, by doing that, you’ve taken away any traction the rear wheel had. And lost control of steering too.

Won’t I Go Over The Bars?ENDO crash

The rear brake is O.K. for situations where traction is poor, or for when your front tire blows, but on dry surfaces, the front brake offers maximum stopping power.

The front tire is less likely to skid. This is also why most all-mountain, downhill and enduro bikes have a bigger rotor in the front providing more leverage on the front wheel and more stopping power. The front brake will slow you down quickly and safely when used correctly.

If you take the time to learn to use the front brake correctly, you increase safety and avoid injuries and time off the trails.

Many riders are wary of the front brake, due to fear of flying over the handlebars. This happens, but often to people who’ve not learned to modulate or feather the front brake. They squeeze too hard and launch themselves over the bars.

Relying on the rear brake for general stopping is OK until an emergency arises. Grabbing the unfamiliar front brake as well as the rear, for extra stopping power can send you over the bars.

There’s more to braking than what’s at the end of the levers

Imagine your arms as part of the braking system. Bracing them against the deceleration will help stop you moving forward until your thighs crash into the handlebars and, the bike ceasing to support your weight, flips over. I don’t mind admitting that this has happened to me but, in my defense, there was so much trail, speed and other information assaulting me at the time, my brain didn’t process quickly enough, I made an error and flew. So, a crucial part of braking is reading the trail too.

Over the bars doesn’t happen if you are using only the rear brake, because as soon as the rear wheel starts to lift, it skids and limits braking force. But on average, it takes twice as long to stop and doing this constantly will lead to frequent rear tire replacements.

In addition to use of the arms, moving back on your saddle as far as you can comfortably go, aids stopping power and helps whether you are using the front, rear or both brakes. Be aware that using both brakes together can cause “fishtailing.”

If the rear wheel skids while braking force is also being applied to the front, the rear of the bike can swing past the front, since the front is applying a greater decelerating force than the rear. Once the rear tire starts to skid, it can move sideways as easily as forward and it’s difficult to recover.

Dropper Seat posts are a wonderful way to help get your weight all the way over the rear wheel when necessary. By dropping the seat, it’s effectively out of the way and allows free body movement but, it is another action to think about.

Take it Slowly

Poor braking technique and panic is one of the causes of crashes for novice and more advanced riders. Reading the trail and spotting potential hazards leads to knowing when to brake. It gives you plenty of time to slow down gently without grabbing a handful of brake and losing control. Keeping your brakes covered with at least one finger allows controlled breaking rather than grabbing at the lever. Braking with only your index or index and forefinger allows the other fingers to focus on steering.Brake Lever Position

Try adjusting the position of your brake levers more toward the center of the bars so you can cover the brake levers with just one or two fingers. It makes an enormous difference.

Progressive Braking

Brakes are not just on / off devices. Use them smoothly and progressively and you will feel your wheels grip the surface without a skid. If you lock the brakes, they will skid.

May The Brake Forces Be With You

Extending your arms slightly and moving your hips backwards a little as you apply the brake will brace against your body’s natural forward momentum. If you a riding on flat pedals, tip your heels down a little to stop your feet bouncing off over rough terrain. Relaxing also helps you to absorb bumps in the trail and keep the wheels connected to the earth. Under normal braking, try to use the bars for balance, not support, and you will feel greater control.

Independent Braking

Applying different amounts of braking force to each wheel is a skill worth developing and can be practiced easily. Find a quiet, smooth and flat area or a path with plenty of grip and practice braking with each brake separately.

Riding in a straight line in the attack position, gently apply the rear brake. Notice how your weight pushes forward as you brake. Counter this by moving your weight back a little as described above.

Release the brake before you stop to get used to how it feels. Add more rear brake each run, until you feel the rear wheel losing traction and starts skidding. Release the brake to regain control of the bike.

Now repeat this exercise with just the front brake.

Start gently and notice how your weight moves forward much quicker when using the front brake. Increase front brake power with each run until the rear wheel starts to feel like it wants to lift off the ground. Remember to use your arms and feet to brace against the weight shift. Once you feel the rear wheel wanting to lift you have achieved optimal efficiency when braking on a firm surface, using the back brake at this time wouldn’t really achieve much as all the weight is on the front tyre.

If the rear wheel lifts off the ground, releasing the front brake will drop it down again. If the front starts to skid before this happens, release the front brake to get the wheel turning and recover control.

Next, try using both brakes together. Experiment to see how much of each brake you need to stop quickly whilst applying the brakes smoothly but focus more on rear than front brake. Brake gently and then add a little more or brake strongly reducing the amount of brake you use as you slow down. This will teach you the feathering adjustment technique that you can use to adapt your braking to changing trail conditions.


Always keep at least one finger on each brake.

Stop quicker by applying the brake slower to get some weight on the front wheel before braking fully.

Try to brake in a straight line on firmer sections of trail.

Your brakes are lever not switch controlled. Use the extra control it gives you.

If a wheel starts to skid, release the brake and re-apply with less pressure.

Brake less with the front.

GMBN produced a great YouTube video, “How To Brake Like A Pro Mountain Biker” Definitely worth the 2-minutes 43 running time.

Comments and Questions

You will always get a response to please don’t hesitate to ask questions or share what you know, it will be of great benefit to other riders too.

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2 thoughts on “Mountain Bike Braking

  1. Hello,
    I don’t ride a bike but I do ride a motorcycle. Some of the things you mention here about breaking, still applies. I use my front breaks on my motorcycle a lot more because they work better, but if I mess up and press the brake too hard, it would probably be bad.
    I can’t imagine going down such steep hills in the mountains such as you do. I can see how learning more about brakes and how and when to use them would be important.
    Going over the handle bars could be deadly depending on where it happens! I’m sure it would have to be a very painful experience. I have some friends that are starting to ride mountain bikes. I feel like your site will be very helpful for them, so I plan to share it.
    Thanks for these great tips.
    Best wishes,

    1. Hi Devara, Thanks for your comments and for sharing with your friends. Yes, an “endo” as mtb riders call them are very painful. Bruised ribs and an attractive selection of skin bruises last time it happened to me and I wasn’t even braking at the time. . . front wheel dropped down a leaf covered hole, the braking power was instant. It’s not so much the landing that hurts but catching the bike on the way off 🙁 I often meet moto-cross riders out on certain trails and we make comments like “you must be crazy”. Not sure who is ??? 🙂 Hope you have a great day.

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