In mountain biking, brakes are possibly one of the three most important components of the bicycle, along with tires and transmission. It is no coincidence that the most important technological advances in braking were first tested on mountain bikes, such as disc brakes. Innovations have ended up being extended to other cycling modalities, such as the road or cyclo-cross.
Investing in good brakes is one of the first tips we can give you in this regard. If you have to skimp on the expense, it is preferable to do it in other less crucial components for the handling of the bicycle or your safety (wheel material, peripherals, accessories, etc.). Because having a reliable braking system already improves the behavior of the bicycle. And if you know how to use it with ease and head, much better.
But it is not only about having the right brakes but also – and especially – knowing how to use them correctly. When is it necessary to brake hard? How should you approach the braking on a descent? How should the front brake be used? Mastering braking techniques in mountain biking will help you take advantage of the most demanding trails, improving your results and performance. In addition, you will avoid a good number of scares, mishaps, or falls.
How to adjust and operate the brake levers
Before advising you on the braking technique, it is important that the levers are correctly positioned with respect to the handlebars. As a general rule, it is recommended to lean them below the handlebar, allowing the forearm, wrist, hand, and fingers to be stretched out in a straight line.
Also, you have to adjust the reach of the lever. That is the distance between the lever and the grip. Many of today’s mid-and high-end brakes already have a quick-adjust wheel to regulate them. If not, they have a nut to move it forward or backward.
Lastly, make sure that the anchoring position of the lever on the handlebar is adequate to allow the brake to be applied without forcing fingers or wrist. In this Solo Bici article, you can see in more detail how this adjustment of the lever in three steps.
A good adjustment of the position and inclination of the lever will allow the brake to be applied with more force and precision, modulating the power according to the needs of the terrain. The rear brake will be the guide brake, which regulates the speed and controls the movement of the bicycle.
The rear brake is used to control the bike, not to stop it
It is the brake that should be used more, always in a controlled way and not abruptly, to avoid skidding. The rear brake is essential for controlling the line in curves and reducing speed before entering curves, obstacles, or jumps. It is the control brake, not the one that stops the bike.
The front brake is less progressive, more abrupt and generally has a point more power than the rear. It is in charge of stopping the bicycle and acts more as a definitive break or safety brake. It is also the only one capable of counteracting the inertia of the bike, especially if they are strong.
Therefore, when activating it, we recommend doing it smoothly and progressively, never forcefully or abruptly, to prevent the front wheel from suddenly locking up and your body, with the rest of the bike, jumping over the locked wheel and suffering a spectacular fall, or the wheel itself slips if the ground is slippery or muddy.
The front brake should always be pressed gently and from low to high
Another of the most frequent situations of the use of the front brake is to control the strong inertia in the descents and avoid that the bike gets out of control and you go off the line or even the path.
In what situations should you not brake?
As a piece of general advice, we recommend that you do not abuse the brake. Today’s mountain bikes have a design and geometry intended to control the strong inertia of the cyclist with the cyclist’s own movement and handling.
Normally, when facing a steep or cut downhill, it is best to use the brake before reaching the difficult section, release it and drop the bike without braking. The bike will do its job, as will the tire studs, to get out of the difficulty in a controlled way.
Other frequent situations in which not to use the brakes of your mountain bike are the following:
Inside a curve
You have to brake before entering it. Only if you feel that you have deviated from the line will you apply the rear brake. If that is not enough, press gently but without overshooting the front brake, but only in exceptional cases. Before braking, it is more important to move or lean your body to guide the bike on the correct line.
On obstacles or rocks
Before passing through roots, stones, rocks, holes, or other similar obstacles, braking must always be done before pressing the rear brake to adapt the speed to the passage of the obstacle. Never stop in the middle of the obstacle. The terrain is uneven, unstable and could cause both wheels to skid, throwing the bike out of control and losing your balance.
In steps by rivers or puddles
It is common to see bikers stuck in the middle of a puddle or stream because they did not know how to wade through it or have braked in the middle of the water. Nor do you have to stop in front of a river bed. The best thing, as in the previous points, is to moderate the speed slightly and pass it without slowing down too much, pedaling smoothly and decisively.
A sudden stop in the middle of a sandbar can have two consequences: get stuck and stuck or make one of the wheels slip, lose control and even fall. That is why it is better to brake moderately before the section, without stopping, firmly grasp the handlebar and guide the bike on the side where there is less concentration of sand, forming a groove that allows you to overcome it quickly and without imbalances.
Main risks for bad braking
Behind bad braking is 80% of the falls on the mountain bike. Reaching a corner well past braking, braking in the middle of rocks, obstacles, or the like, or squeezing the front brake hard are very common causes of falls, which in some cases can be serious.
In addition to falls, heavy and sometimes unnecessary use of the brakes accelerates tire wear and de-adjusts brake tension faster. In the case of discs, they can get too hot, losing stain if you don’t cook them, at the same time that the brake track of the pads wears out more quickly.
The importance of good maintenance
To always get the best performance from your brakes and not to fail in the most critical moments, you should do at least one visual review of its most important parts every month. Levers, cables and covers, pads, and the condition of the discs are the points to examine in the review.
In addition, if you notice a loss of power, especially when you lose the feel of the lever, it is possible that the brake cable is not tensioned correctly in the case of mechanical brakes or a replacement of brake fluid is necessary for the hydraulic systems. This purging should be done at least once a year or earlier if you practice a more radical MTB such as trail or enduro.
It is important to know how and when to check your bike’s brakes to avoid scars and falls.