Commuting 101: How to stop the bike

This may seem like a silly topic, but one of the skills taught in the League of American Bicyclists (LAB) is the “Quick Stop.”

Most of the time, simply squeezing the brake levers (on most bikes) will slow and stop you adequately. There are times, though, when you need to stop on a dime. Knowing how to quickly stop a bike — and practicing these steps — can save you from a tacoed wheel or worse. It’s even conceivable that a very steep hill might negate much of the stopping power that a rear-only brake can provide.

Most of the braking power on a bike comes from braking the front wheel. Yes, its possible to lock up the front wheel and lose control, which is why practicing before you need the panic stop is important. Maximum braking occurs at the point right before the rear wheel leaves the ground; at this point the rear wheel provides no stopping traction so it’s a little pointless to apply the rear brake.

Back to the quick stop. If I recall, I think the LAB teaches cyclists to apply about three times more force to the front brake than the rear. Many cyclists, including myself, are able to maintain control even when the rear wheel leaves the ground. If you feel that happen, you relax the braking pressure a little to get that rear wheel back down. One of the reasons practice is important is so you don’t freak out and freeze up and lose control when this happens.

There are exceptions, of course. Don’t use the front brake exclusively in slick or wet or any other conditions where the front tire might slide out while braking. You should slow down to account for the increased stopping distance. I’m assuming that most commuters ride on paved surfaces — this advice is completely inapplicable for mountain bikers.

“What if my brakes fail?” Well, then, you’re hosed. Some things to try, though, are jamming a shoe into the space between the downtube and front tire, being careful not to lock that tire up. Another trick that works is to pivot your heel inward so it rubs against the rear tire. That probably won’t get you stopped, but it may slow you enough so that you can bail. Another trick is the “Fred Flintstone” — drop down onto top tube and skid your feet on the ground. If you’re headed toward traffic or other obstacle and you’re not getting stopped, your only option may be to bail out. Hop backwards off of your saddle and land on your feet running, hoping you won’t fall in the process.

A word about maintenance: Ensure your stopping surface (usually the rims on commuter bikes) are in decent condition. If they’re scored from overuse, it’s probably timme to replace them. Brake pads are expendables and should be replaced when they’re worn down. Check brake cables or hydraulic lines and the levers for wear, also.

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0 thoughts on “Commuting 101: How to stop the bike”

  1. wolfy says:

    I’d say it’s completely pointless NOT to apply the rear brake at the same time as the front.

    As you’re modulating the front brake weight will shift back to the rear and if you aren’t applying that brake then you won’t be slowing as fast.

    People with less control will vary from all on to all off the front so it’s more important. A good strategy is to just drag the back wheel and only worry about modulating the front.

    Also if my brakes were to fail I’d hang off one side and use my foot on the REAR wheel cause the toe in the fork trick is pretty hard to do w/o a crash.


  2. You’ve left out a VERY IMPORTANT point that I learned from the LAB Road I course – get off the saddle and LEAN BACK! Hang your butt behind the seat so your weight is far enough back to counteract the weight of the bike moving forward to the front wheel. If you don’t do this, you risk going over the handlebars (“endo”) in a hard stop.

    In that course, we demonstrated stopping distance with (1) just the back brake, (2) just the front brake, and (3) both at once. The difference was amazing. You can actually go from 20 MPH to 0 in a few seconds with both brakes, hard, without endo’ing, counteracting the weight in this way. Of course you need to practice. Find an empty parking lot, target a line at some point in the distance at which you will begin braking, then get up to speed and see how quickly you can stop once you get to that line. Remember to lean back or you will go over!

  3. ande murdoch says:

    On the subject of “if your brakes fail” i think i may have a useful hint.
    As well as 26″ and 700c wheeled bikes i also ride a bmx which is brakeless ie theres no brakes on my bike AT ALL. (it makes the bike a lot simpler and i feel it makes my riding smoother).
    Because the bmx is smaller you can adjust your speed by dragging your feet or doing the Fred Flinstone running manouvre while seated. However these are only any good if you know you need to slow down and have time to adjust.
    In an emergency theres a technique which i and other brakeless riders use which is to shift your weight forward on the bike, take ur rear foot off (in my case my left), plant this on the ground and use it as a pivot point around which you can unweight (but not lift off) the rear wheel and slide it round so that the bike is at 90 degrees to the direction u were orignially travelling.
    The friction of the rear wheel skidding around and the fact that you have changed the direction your bike is facing stops you pretty quick.
    I would not suggest doing this at too high a speed though.
    If i am travelling at high speed on my bmx and want to adjust my speed instead of the two techniques i mentioned earlier i sometimes use a variation of the foot pivot which is to either plant my back foot and pivot the rear wheel out slightly (maybe about 45 degerees) so that the tyre starts to skid due to it not facing in the direction of travel and slows me down or i miss out the foot on the ground bit and use my body weight to kick my back wheel out to the side (imagine standing up on the pedals and trying to hit an imaginary target beside you with ur ass!).
    These techniques are something i do as a brakeless rider to avoid wearing out my shoes too much but i reckon that with a bit of practice they could be applied to bigger bikes as a back up system for slowing down/stopping.

  4. Kyle says:

    I find that when u use like 90% of ur back brakes and like 50% of ur front brakes u can really stop fast. But i have my brakes tuned good.

  5. sam says:

    when i stop my bike engine, it is not stopping. i had off my start/stop switch, fuel and removed spark plug and tried with a mechani. nut still the bike engine coulld not b off. why i cant stopp it inspite of doing such things?

  6. Dead tomorow says:

    I have no brakes and a 30 mile journey I need to make daily I hate my life

  7. Rafa says:

    So about a week ago I was riding a really old, rusty and unkept bike. For some odd reason, I decided to go bike up some really big hills here in Salzburg, Austria (great bike town btw). I noticed that every biker I saw had extremely nice and well kept bikes. On my way down I realized why.
    My front brake failed, cable snapped off the break handle. Im talking about a steep winding road, in which breaking is essential in order to make it down alive.

    I managed to go down the downhill road by using my rear break in combination with planting my heel down on the ground (Flintstone style). The other cyclists looked at my as if I was crazy… But I made it down safe and sound, and I must say it was quite a blast.

    Other than a worn shoe there were no casualties.

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