Better Riding: Braking for corners
The brakes are used for more than emergency stops – and how we use them reveals a lot about our riding
ometimes you’ll approach a tight corner and need to slow down quickly – which is a job for the brakes. The sequence of blended braking applies: build front brake power, add the back brake, ease off the front brake, then ease off the back. The bike will want to keep going straight on while braking forces are pushing the front wheel into the floor, so braking should be finished before reaching the corner, leaving time for the bike to settle before starting to turn.
That’s the ideal, anyway. It isn’t always possible: sometimes you misread the road slightly; sometimes you’re riding with a bit too much spirit. Sometimes the choice seems to be between braking really hard before the corner or trailing some of the brake into the corner. If the latter, you want to get off the brakes as soon as is safely possible, but it’s important to do it smoothly. Crudely letting off the brakes in the middle of a corner will unsettle the bike and that is A Bad Thing.
As a general rule, applying the brakes mid-corner is best avoided. Sometimes, going into a corner too fast makes it feel like braking is the only option: it’s almost always not. Grabbing the lever here will either make the bike sit up and run on or wash the front tyre out – in either case it’s a crash. It’s better to concentrate on turning your head, looking through the corner to where you want the bike to end up and leaning for all you’re worth. If you can shift your weight to the inside of the bike, so much the better.
Of course, it is possible to brake very sensitively in a corner without crashing. However, nine times out of 10 when the brakes are applied so gently that the bike isn’t unsettled, it’s not really braking hard at all. In other words, that touch of the lever probably wasn’t needed anyway, so it would be safer to leave the brakes and concentrate on riding through the corner.
To brake or not?
There’s a bit of unhealthy snobbery about braking for corners: some go to elaborate lengths to avoid showing a brake light before a bend, because they think it’s bad. It’s not. If you think you need to brake to get round a corner, use the brakes. There are no prizes for going into a bend too hot – only a booby prize if it’s so hot you end up crashing.
The idea of advanced riding is to read the road well enough to smoothly adjust speed before each corner, so braking may not be necessary. In this approach, speed is managed on the throttle, with engine compression slowing the bike and a lower gear selected once speed has fallen.
If you brake before every bend, it suggests either you’re going too fast everywhere or, more likely, you’re not looking far enough ahead. The answer in both cases is to slow down a little, take a bit more time to assess the road and relax.
Braking for every corner is often dismissed as “comfort braking” – usually the tiny squeeze of the lever does more to adjust confidence than speed. If you’re braking for every bend but always have time to get off the brakes before turning, having slowed down too much, looking further ahead should help you manage your speed using the throttle alone.
If you want to have a second squeeze of the brake at the last moment, it suggests you’re not turning your head enough to look through the corners: as you get closer to the bend, you lose sight of what’s coming up so feel the need to slow down. You can cure it by consciously turning your head and, if it’s safe, by varying your road position to improve your view.
Even experienced riders can start comfort braking – either before the turn, or with a gentle mid-corner comfort brake. This is usually a sign of tiredness, as vision and concentration levels drop on longer rides. If you find yourself starting to comfort brake, it’s time for you to have a break before finishing your ride. But don’t beat yourself up: it’s better to be comfortable and braking unnecessarily than uncomfortable and not enjoying the ride or, worse, crashing.
The tyre-grip trade-off
A concept beloved by advanced instructors, the ‘tyre-grip trade-off’ clarifies why cornering is safest when it consists just of going round the corner, not braking as well.
It works like this: a tyre has a limited amount of grip available, which can be used for braking, acceleration or cornering. In broad terms the tyre will have plenty of grip for doing one thing at a time. Asking it to do two things at once makes things dicey… and when the tyre tries to do too much of two things it runs out of grip and you crash.
In other words, a tyre may have enough grip to lean the bike over and do a little braking; but brake too hard when leaning over and the tyre will wash out. By the same token it’s possible to lean the bike over and accelerate gently; but if you try to accelerate too hard while the tyre is using its grip for cornering, the back wheel will spin out or highside you.
Words Simon Weir