Which brake goes first on a motorcycle?
Front or rear brake: which should you use more?
Are you using your brakes wrongly? Learn more about proper brake usage.
Martin Asuncion on Oct 19, 2021
Despite the simplification from four wheels to two wheels, motorcycles are arguably more difficult to control than automobiles. This is due to a multitude of reasons, but to keep it short, motorcycle inputs have to be managed carefully in order to keep the rider balanced and fully in control when accelerating, braking, and cornering. One important aspect of controlling your motorcycle is the braking system—the rear brake and front brake can be controlled independently. Ask any veteran rider and you will know that controlling each independently brings a ton of benefits in motorcycle control. Each has its own purpose and if you’re curious to know how you can get a better hand at controlling your motorcycle, check out what we have to say below.
Why we have two brake inputs
The braking system of a car is a lot simpler than a motorcycle’s braking system. Simply slam one foot on the brake pedal, and brake pressure is immediately distributed to all four wheels in an appropriate manner. While motorcycles typically have independent brake systems, there are some motorcycles and scooters which also come with a similar setup: the Combination Brake System (CBS), where activating the front-right brake lever will engage both front and rear brakes. This is not a mainstream addition, however, and the majority of motorcycles out there still come with independent brake systems. There is a ton of speculation out there as to why, but the way we see it, there are only two real reasons why we still have two independent brake inputs: cost and the fact that motorcyclists aren’t actively looking for combination brake systems.
The combination brake system is a lot more costly than your typical independent brake system. The addition of extra brake cables, proportioning valves, and routing for the anti-lock brake system (ABS) makes the CBS module an expensive piece of equipment. For motorcycle manufacturers to continue selling motorcycles at affordable prices, this is a piece of equipment that can be done without. On top of that, motorcyclists just aren’t looking for a CBS module, to begin with. For many, the independent brake system not only does the job just fine but also comes with some added benefits such as a sharper feel on the front brake and better control for performance from having two inputs independently. As such, most motorcycles still come with independent brake systems. As a new or curious rider, however, it may still be a bit confusing under which scenarios to use either of the two.
The front brake is what does most of the work to get your motorcycle stopped to a halt, which is why it is also equipped with a larger front disc and brake pad. There are also fewer chances to lock up your front wheel than your rear wheel on heavy braking. When you use your front brake, rider and motorcycle weight naturally leans over to the front and squeezes your tire onto the ground—meaning more grip. This allows the rider to add more and more brake pressure to the front without worrying about losing grip on the front and locking up the tire. More experienced riders also use the front brake to fine-tune their line through a corner. Feathering the front brake appropriately through corners is a technique called trail braking, and doing so can help sharpen your line mid-corner if needed.
That being said, using the front brake does come with its own complexities. For example, when your handlebars aren’t straight such as when doing low-speed maneuvers or through corners, hard use of the front brake can destabilize the motorcycle and cause you to lean to one side more than needed—and will cause a fall. Additionally, excessive use of the front brake will inevitably cause a lock-up. If you’re traveling in a straight line and your motorcycle is equipped with ABS, this won’t generally be an issue. However, if you are cornering when this happens, your front tire can easily lock up and lose grip and cause you to fall on the pavement. Your front brake has to do most of the work to get you stopped, but know that it does come with its own responsibility of using the majority of the braking force only on a straight line.
While the front brake does most of the work to get you stopped, the rear brake arguably does more for motorcycle control. On a straight line, the rear brake should be used to supplement the front brake. Just remember that when using the front brake, the weight will be transferred to the front and out of the rear, which means that there is a greater chance of locking up the rear brake on heavy braking. Outside this scenario, however, the rear brake is incredibly versatile in providing the rider with greater control.
When maneuvering at low speeds, the rear brake can be feathered lightly to keep your motorcycle upright. This can and will be helpful when pulling off quick U-turns, filtering through dense traffic, and avoiding obstacles at low speed. On top of this, the rear brake can also be used by more experienced riders to straighten your cornering line accordingly—applying the front brake will sharpen the line, and applying the rear brake can widen the line. Lastly, the rear brake can also be used to bring you to a halt when you don’t need the sheer braking force of the front brake, such as when slowly coming to a stop in traffic, when approaching toll booths, or for any other similar scenario where you can more calmly go to a stop.
That being said, which of the two brakes should you use more? If we were to answer this question straightforwardly, the front brake should be used more when stopping your motorcycle in a straight line or when trimming your line through a corner. The rear brake on the other hand should be used more for when you need to balance your motorcycle through low-speed maneuvers or when you need to widen your cornering line. However, usage of the brake system isn’t as black and white real-world scenarios. New riders can follow this principle of when to use the front or rear brakes more than the other, but as you begin to understand your own riding style and the practical purposes of each brake system for you, usage of both brakes, together or independently, becomes a tailor-fit protocol to your own style and needs.
Motorcycle Controls Explained
Before you get started riding a motorcycle, there are six major controls that you absolutely need to know. You can see them listed in the infographic above. Knowing all the controls (which are discussed later in this article) and how they function with one another is an invaluable skill when it comes to riding, as it gives you more control and leverage over your motorcycle. You will combine the motor use of both hands and feet when operating a motorcycle. It’s really crucial to understand and be able to differentiate between each function and also to know which limb they apply to. For the most part, these controls are universal and can be applied across all motorbikes that maintain a manual transmission and are gasoline powered.
The clutch lever is located in front of the left handgrip. You can use this lever by pulling in and releasing slowly with the fingers on your left hand. Its function is to connect and disconnect power from the engine to the rear wheel. Squeezing in the clutch disconnects the engine power and easing it out engages it. Unlike cars, most motorcycles don’t have automatic transmissions (besides scooters and the small number of motorcycles). It is very common that in your MSF courses one of the first things you will do upon mounting the motorcycle, is to learn how to use the clutch. One key aspect you will need to get a solid understanding of is something called “friction zone.” On the clutch, this is the space where the clutch is slipping and the transmission is gripping. You’ll find yourself using this area a lot at slower speeds and on hills.
Handlebars are used to control which direction you want to go (for the most part). On each end is a handgrip. The handlebars are connected to a front fork. Handlebars also help you find your balance on the bike. Handlebars come in a variety of packages, depending on what style you want or your comfort level. These factors can be customized, but before you decide on changing your motorcycle handlebars, think critically about your skill level and comfort. Some handlebars positions offer more control than others. One way to have more comfort and control over the vibrations of the handlebars are by wearing motorcycle gloves.
Front Brake Lever
On the right side of the handlebars, in front of the right handgrip is the front brake lever. You’ll operate this control by using the fingers on your right hand. In your MSF course, you’ll be taught to use all four fingers, but it is widely practiced to just use the first 2-3, depending on your grip strength. A major point to be aware of, is how it is different from the clutch lever. Although they look the same, they are to be maneuvered differently. Unlike the clutch, you do not want to pull the front brake lever as fast as possible. This is a gradual, smooth and slow pull. If you were to yank it in, you can lock up the tires and skid, which is extremely dangerous, especially in situations where there is a lot of traffic. In some bikes, the weight displacement is 50/50 (between rear brakes and front brakes). However in sportbikes and cruisers, this displacement can vary and is usually higher on the front brake. When you’re first starting out it is good to get into the habit of using both brakes, and to keep your fingers curved over the throttle until you need to reach and apply your front brakes. This gets you into the habit of being smoother with front brake applications and to prevent you from panic-braking.
On the right handgrip is the throttle, which controls the engine speed by rotating. To increase speed, pull the throttle inwards smoothly, and to decrease speed twist the grip away from you. When you let the throttle go, it releases back into its neutral position. There are many advanced techniques you can use when applying throttle that can give you other options to operate the bike, such as clutch-less gear shifting. However, for new riders, I would recommend using the throttle just to apply more engine speed to the bike. Further, when you’re just starting out, it’s good to note that you do not need to twist the throttle so fast that you rotate the grip too much. This will cause you to have a jerky reaction and can get scary for new riders. Just gently give the bike some throttle, not even more than a millimeter or two of pressure. It may even be a good idea to get a feel for your bike’s throttle in an empty parking lot, because all motorcycles can have different ranges of motions.
On the left side, just in front of your left foot peg is the gearshift lever. You control this with the top side of your left foot (to shift up) and the bottom pads of your foot (to shift down). To shift up—either from neutral or first—lift the lever firmly until you hear a click. For downshifting place your foot over the lever and push downwards as if you’re pointing your toes to the floor. On most motorcycles you will find that they have up to five or six gears. However for beginners, you will pretty much stick to 1-3 and potentially 4 depending on where you are driving.
Rear Brake Pedal
The rear brake pedal is located in front of the right foot peg. You operate this very similarly to car pedals. When working through curves or tight turns, you may find that using the rear brake pedal can help immensely with controlling the bike, as well as maintaining your balance. As I said before, utilizing this brake along with the front brake lever all depends on how you ride, and the type of bike you have.
Other Key Motorcycle Controls
Besides the six primary controls we talked about above, there are some other very important controls you need to know for riding motorcycles. Besides the turn-signal switch listed below, these will essentially help start and turn off your motorcycle.
Fuel Supply Valve
In your MSF Course, you might’ve learned an acronym that details how one can start their motorcycle called ‘FINE-C’. The first part of this acronym (F) stands for the Fuel Supply Valve, and is the first thing you must turn on in order to start your motorcycle. This is usually located under the fuel tank. This valve controls the flow of gasoline to the engine.
The ignition switch on a motorcycle is very similar to that of a car. You simply put in the key and turn the ignition to on, and if your Fuel Valve is on, the bike is in neutral, you can then simply flip the engine cut-off switch and your motorcycle should roar to life.
The choke control on a motorcycle is used to enrich fuel mixture to help start a cold engine. The choke lever is usually located on the right side of high/low beam buttons on your motorcycle. It works by restricting airflow from the carburetor to the engine. This is especially useful in colder temperatures, as it gets the engine warmed up quickly. Once your engine is warmed up, you should turn off the choke as soon as you can. If you have a fuel-injected motorcycle you do not have to worry about this control.
Engine Cut-off Switch
The engine cut-off switch, or more commonly known as the kill switch, is the big red button located on the right side of your bike near the right handgrip. When you’re starting up your motorcycle, pushing this button on will be your last step (besides making sure your clutch is pulled in). As well as turning on your bike, this button works to cut the engine off just by the press of your thumb.
Turn Signal Switch
The turn signal switch is simply a switch or button that signals your turn to other motorists on the road. You operate it with your thumb, and once the turn/lane switch is made, it cancels out on its own (on most bikes). This button is located on your left hand side.
Motorcycles are a fun and efficient way to travel, but they can be dangerous if you don’t know how to control them properly. The most important thing to remember, as a beginner rider, is to always stay in control of your motorcycle and never ride beyond your abilities. With a little practice and common sense, you can safely enjoy the many benefits of motorcycle riding.
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Braking on your motorbike
The front brake assumes around 75-90% of the braking power depending on the road surface, your riding position, your bike’s set-up and a how your bike is loaded (e.g. if you are carrying a pillion passenger, which is explained here.)
The brake works by slowing you down using friction. Different types of brakes have different braking capacities and durability. A brake with a cross-drilled rotor with larger pistons like the one pictured above will have superior cooling ability and more surface area to dissipate heat in order to resist brake fade. On a motorbike your front and rear brakes are usually operated separately (some bikes and scooters have linked brakes).
As you brake, the load shifts forwards putting more friction on the front tyre. This means it also reduces the load on the rear tyre making it more difficult to brake with the rear wheel (this is why when you have a pillion passenger you can use more rear brake because there’s more weight over the rear).
The quickest stops are made without locking the wheels (skidding), and using both brakes together. If you just use the rear brake this will take the longest to stop. If you just use the front brake you will stop quite quickly, but not as quickly as if you use both brakes together. Apply the front brake just before you apply the back brake to shift the weight first, otherwise if you use the back brake first then the front, the forwards shift of weight can cause the rear wheel to become unloaded and the wheel can lock more easily.
Normal stops should still be made by using both the front and rear brake. The rear brake can still be quite powerful and on a cruiser, where more of the weight is positioned over the rear, it is more important. As you can see in the photo below, the rear brake on this motorcycle is of a substantial size.
The complete stopping distance comprises the reaction time and braking distance. The usual reaction time will be between 1-2 seconds. At 50kph this is 14-28m – this is why you need to adjust your following distance as if you are close to the vehicle in front and it has to stop quickly you could run into the back of it before you even have time to apply the brake.
In dry weather on a good road surface you should leave 3 seconds’ gap between you and the vehicle in front. 3 seconds gives plenty of time for you to react and brake.
When you are braking you need to do it in a straight line. Braking while turning puts much more stress through the front tyre because it has to deal with two sets of forces. Your bike will be much more stable if you get your speed right before you turn in, then use a small amount of throttle through the corner to keep the bike balanced.
Downshifting shifts the balance of the bike temporarily and therefore should be done before the turn so that you are in the correct gear while in the turn. The higher the revs are when you downshift, the more engine braking you will experience, and this makes it easier for the rear wheel to lock. Be careful not to over-rev the engine as you downshift. You can smooth your downshifts by matching the revs using the throttle, and this makes it less likely to lock your rear wheel.
This video explains the braking procedure on a motorbike.
Braking for an obstacle or slippery surface
If you see a slippery surface ahead such as sand or oil, brake as much as you can in a straight line to reduce your speed as much as possible. If you end up on the slippery surface release the brakes, don’t make sudden movements and let your engine do the braking for you (remember to change down into an appropriate gear). If you have to brake more, do so gently and use your feet as outriggers for extra balance and to keep yourself upright.
Darren is an expert on driving and transport, and is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists