There are two main factors that separate a beginning rider from an advanced rider; experience and confidence. My guess is that there are some people who have ridden for years but who are still at a beginning skill level because they don’t ride that often or don’t have a wide range of riding experience. An advanced rider hasn’t been endowed with any magical powers; he simply has ridden a lot, in a wide range of circumstances. Advanced riders realize the importance of the basics, many of which I outlined in “Motorcycle Safety And How To Ride Safely.”
They anticipate potential hazards, manage risk and maintain as much control over their situation as is possible. They also understand that not everything on the road is within their ability to control. So they practice the skills that could save their lives, such as emergency braking.
Straight Line Braking
There will be times when you need to stop quickly, like when a car turns in front of you at an intersection or an animal darts into the road. The first time this happens to you your initial reaction may be to slam on both brakes. But doing that may cause more problems for you. It’s important to understand the dynamics of your motorcycle and how they change under hard braking. The goal is to apply both brakes to the maximum without losing traction or locking up one or both wheels, causing you to skid. When you first apply the brakes the weight of the motorcycle shifts to the front. This means your rear tire will have less traction available while the traction available to your front tire is increasing. Take advantage of that increasing traction by increasing the pressure on your front brake. I’ve seen this theory referred to as “brake staging” or “progressive braking.” What it really means is that you keep squeezing the front brake lever with increasing pressure as the weight of the motorcycle shifts forward.
Because your rear tire has less traction available under hard braking, you should apply the rear brake a little more gradually than the front brake. The rear wheel is more likely to lock up and skid, causing it to slide out of line. If this happens, steer or lean slightly into the direction of the skid. But don’t release the rear brake if it locks up. This can cause a high-side. And that’s very bad. A high-side usually happens when the rear tire loses traction and then suddenly regains traction, like when you lock up the rear wheel by over braking and then let go of the brake pedal when you notice the skid. When this happens the bike will violently begin to straighten, so much so that it throws you off the bike on the high side, or the side of the motorcycle furthest from the ground.
Now your bike is riderless, but still in motion and heading in the same direction that you are. Pretty soon your motorcycle is riding you. The easiest way to avoid this scenario is to not lock up the rear tire in the first place. But in an emergency situation it’s easy to slam on the brakes a little too forcibly. If that happens and your rear wheel starts skidding and fishtailing on you, get the bike straight as quickly as you can, but do not release pressure on the rear brake pedal.
If you lock up the front tire by over braking your response should be the opposite. Release the brake. Once the tire begins to roll again you can reapply the brake, but do it a little more gradually this time so you don’t lock it up again. When you lose traction and begin to skid, and you can’t regain traction, you’re in for a low-side. This can happen when you lock up your front wheel or go too fast around a curve. The tire, or tires, begins to slip out from under you and you lay the bike down on its side. While this is bad, it’s not nearly as hazardous as a high-side.
Braking In A Curve
We’ve already seen that when you brake, the weight of your bike shifts frontwards. As the weight shifts the front suspension will compress and both of these events will affect your ability to steer. For this reason, whenever possible, get your bike perfectly upright before braking. If you happen to be leaned over into a curve and suddenly need to brake hard you have to apply the brakes more gradually. As you brake in a curve get the bike upright as quickly as possible and then apply full pressure to both brakes.
Because some of the traction available to your tires is being used to turn your bike into the curve, it’s not available for braking. So with less traction available you’re more likely to experience a skid when braking hard in a curve. For that reason you need to apply the brakes more gradually, while getting the bike straight as quickly as you can. It’s also a good reason to slow down before you enter a curve. Curves present all kinds of opportunities for mishaps. Having less traction available for braking is one. Another is that on some curves your sight distance is limited. You need to enter a curve slow enough that you have time to stop within the distance you can see.
Downshift While Braking
Let’s say you’re riding along and suddenly a car pulls out of a driveway in front of you. You apply both brakes to the maximum without losing traction or skidding and come to a complete stop with a couple of feet to spare. What about the guy in the car behind you? Was he paying as much attention as you? Can he bring his much heavier vehicle to a full stop as quickly as you? If you’ve managed to downshift into first gear while bringing your bike to a stop you can quickly accelerate to safety. But if you’re in neutral or second you may have just traded a front collision for being rear ended. Always shift into first gear when you’re coming to a stop, whether it’s for a stop sign or in an emergency. Always. If you make it a habit then you’re much more likely to do it in an emergency, and that could save your bike and your life.
Let’s recap. To get your motorcycle stopped in the shortest amount of time and distance you apply both brakes. To take advantage of the increasing traction available to the front tire, thanks to the forward shifting of the weight of your bike, you apply more pressure on the front brake. You do this gradually, though in reality it’s only going to take a few seconds. Your application of pressure on the rear brake should be more gradual, to compensate for the smaller amount of traction available to the rear tire. Keep the bike straight, or if you’re in a curve, straighten it as quickly as possible to give your tires more available braking traction. You squeeze the clutch lever and downshift until you’re in first gear. The only difference between performing an emergency stop and a normal stop is how much pressure you apply to the brakes and how quickly you apply that pressure.
To be sure that you’re able to successfully execute an emergency stop when you absolutely have to, it’s a good idea to practice. And practice often. I’ve read studies that show that once you learn or practice a skill it’s good for about six months and then it begins to deteriorate. So if it’s been awhile since you last practiced emergency braking, it’s time to head to a nice big parking lot.
If you can, use a parking lot with lines outlining the parking spaces. Most parking spaces are about 10 feet wide and provide a wonderful set up for practicing. If you can’t find a lot with marked spaces bring a tape measure and some chalk. You’ll also want to bring a few objects to use as markers. Two-liter bottles with some sand in the bottom work well, as do those bright neon colored tennis balls cut in half.
For the first exercise set one marker at the beginning of one parking space and another marker at the end of the third space, or at 30 feet. Get on your bike six parking spots, or 60 feet, away from the first marker. Ride across the lot toward the first marker, getting your speed up enough to shift into second gear, say 15 to 20 mph. Keep looking straight ahead and keep the bike heading in a straight line. As you pass the first marker begin applying both brakes, squeeze the clutch lever and downshift. The goal is to come to a complete stop by the time you reach the second maker. If you overshoot the second marker try a little more pressure on the brakes next time. If you lock up the rear tire keep the rear brake engaged until you come to a stop, but on the next pass try a little less pressure on the rear brake. Run this exercise until you can stop right at the second marker five times in a row.
Next we’ll move that second marker a little closer to the first one, say to 25 feet or the middle of that third parking space, and gradually increase the speed of your approach. Start off from the same place, 60 feet from the first marker, and get your speed up just high enough to shift into second gear, say about 10 mph. As you pass the first marker begin braking and downshift to first. The goal on this exercise is to come to a complete stop before you reach the second marker. Once you’ve accomplished this at 10 mph five times in a row, go back and increase your speed to 15 mph. Then do it at 20 mph.
The final exercise will be stopping in a curve. It’ll be helpful if you can use a portion of the parking lot where there are two rows of parking spaces where cars would park head-to-head. Put your first marker on the outside edge of one of the parking space lines. Put another marker, we’ll call this one number three, on the opposite end of the same line, or the end of the parking space that abuts the first space. Place another marker; we’ll call this one number two, on the line that separates the two rows of spaces, two spaces or 20 feet away. Start about six spaces, or 60 feet, away from the first marker. Get going fast enough to shift into second gear, about 10 mph for the first couple of attempts. Position yourself so that you’ll ride on the outside of the markers, or that you’ll ride by them with the markers on your left. As you pass the first marker begin to lean into a curve, so that you’ll ride past the second and third marker as tightly as you can. Once you’ve got the curve down try it again, but as you pass marker number two begin to straighten the bike, apply the brakes and downshift to first. See how wide of the third marker you are? This is why it’s so vital not to enter a curve going too fast. Try this exercise at 10 mph until you can get the bike stopped close enough to the last marker that you wouldn’t be going off the road if you were actually out in traffic.
The key to being able to successfully execute an emergency braking procedure is knowing the limits of your bike, being aware of road conditions and remaining vigilant the entire time you’re riding. Practice is big factor. The longer you ride, the better you’ll get. And you’ll be able to minimize your chances of needing to use this skill. But it sure will make you feel more confident knowing you can do it if you ever need to.