The most important skillset to learn about riding motorcycles—and this is painfully missed by many—is how to stop the motorcycle. Using your brakes intelligently and effectively will control the direction and speed of your motorcycle in the most crucial of times. Like when you’re trying not to crash.Start using your brakes the right way, now, and you’ll be better off during your lifetime of roosting.
Today’s bikes are lighter and faster than ever. Luckily, most of them have very good brakes as well. Before practicing stopping drills, or even riding a motorcycle for the first time, find the right place to practice (flat, consistent surface, no neighbors or neighbor’s dogs running amuck, etc.) and make sure you know how you’re supposed to start using them. There’s a quick Rules of Braking list of things to keep in mind below.
General Rules of Braking
• Apply brake pressure smoothly; don’t grab a handful, jab or slam your dirt bike brakes (unless you’re skidding tires on purpose). This concept sounds simple but every day on almost every ride someone stabs, stomps-on and generally abuses his or her brakes. Even professional racers botch this on occasion. And guess what? They usually crash when they do. Don’t crash your dirt bike. That’s what using brakes is supposed to avoid.
• The front brake slows you and your motorcycle down; the rear brake also slows you down but is more useful for controlling the direction your dirt bike is pointing (unless you’re going backwards—don’t go backwards on dirt bikes unless you’re Geoff Aaron or Graham Jarvis).
• Pay attention to the surface you’re riding on, and adjust your braking force accordingly—you don’t use the same brake effort on hard pack as you do in loam or sand, do you? No, you don’t. Keep your dirt bike off the ground!
• Move your body with your brakes to keep your balance. If you’re going to slow down rapidly, your body will go forward as your bike slows. So, you’ll need to compensate and move your body back before and as you put on the brakes.
• Use as many fingers on the front brake as you’re comfortable with. As you gain skill and confidence, you will start using only two fingers on the brake at the most. But for beginners, it’s best to concentrate on pulling the brake in smoothly and controllably before worrying about finger count.
With those basic guidelines in your head, try a few basic braking drills like the ones below the next time you’re riding your dirt bike. Master them and use them every time you ride and you’ll have more fun stopping than you ever thought possible. The first one here teaches you how to stop precisely on a mark and control you balance while doing so. The next helps you learn how to skid the rear tire on-demand for increased control.
Stop on a Dime (or Line)
• Simply mark a line in the ground as a target, approach the mark in first or second gear going slowly and stop with your dirt bike’s front tire on the line. Come to a complete stop before putting a foot down. Also, don’t look down to see if you stopped on the line until you stop. If you do, you’ll have a good look at the line from the ground! Remember to apply your brakes smoothly and firmly and to move your body backwards as you slow down to keep as much weight back as possible.
• Repeat this drill until you can do it automatically. Use both brakes but don’t skid the rear tire. Just apply enough force to slow you and your bike down in a controlled way, stopping right on the line.
Skids are Forever Cool
• Just like the drill above, you’re going to need a line or something similar as a “target” here. If you’re using a line, perfect, prepare to destroy the line!
• Start at the same first or second gear slow pace as the first braking drill and start skidding the rear tire a bit at a time. When you’re comfortable with a longer skid (maybe a foot long at most) try to time your skid so it crosses the line, wiping it off the face of the earth in the process.
• Repeat this drill until you can do it automatically—always starting your skid before the line and finishing after.
• This drill teaches you to control your rear tire while skidding, helps you understand the limits of traction with the rear brake and gives you a sense of perspective to where your tires actually are while you’re riding.
There are plenty of great braking drills out there to help you gain confidence and control of your dirt bike. And professional instructors with years of experience teach some of the best at their riding schools. If you want to master your bike, invest in a riding skills course specifically designed for off-road. I can easily recommend Jimmy Lewis and Shane Watts’ classes—they are informative, fun and you will learn something no matter how many times you take them. Check them out:
Jimmy Lewis Off Road – jimmylewisoffroad.com
Dirtwise with Shane Watts – shanewatts.com