It's been a while since my last blog post, so I apologize to all my loyal readers out there. So far, it's been a busy July. I started off the month with a trip to Madison, Wisconsin for the US Road National Championships where I had a number of junior and U23 athletes racing. One of the things that shocked me during the week was how there were so many athletes (juniors in particular) who were so physically strong, yet had a poor grasp of some of the fundamentals of the sport. Now, I'm not just trying to make the point that some of these kids should be working on their bike handling a little more instead of staring at their power meter numbers all the time, or that they should make sure their tires and chains are in good shape before they drop $4000 on a set of carbon wheels or $10,000 on a new TT bike (although there were certainly many examples of both of these). I am talking about basic things like braking and shifting... skills that most people don't think much about or work on, yet can be a little more complicated than they appear.
"If you brake, you lose" - Mario Cipollini
Did you ever think about why track bikes don't have brakes? It's because if riders had the ability to quickly decelerate, there would be many many more crashes. To be fair, there are also a few crashes that could be avoided if brakes were allowed, but all in all track racing with brakes would be much more dangerous. It's tempting for new riders to think of their brakes as something that saves them from danger, yet forget about how much danger brakes can cause. If you hit your brakes when riding in a pack, there is always a chance that the rider behind you might ride into you. Not to mention, the thing that caused you to hit your brakes is still in front of you. Experienced riders learn to accelerate around problems, putting them in the rear view mirror.
You don't have to be riding with other people to have a braking related crash though. If the road surface is wet or loose, a simple touch of the brakes could have you skidding along on your side before you know it. When you are riding on gravel, dirt or a wet road, the coefficient of friction between the tires and the ground is reduced. Braking creates force in the opposite direction as the forward movement of the tires. If that force is greater than the friction between the tires and the ground, your tire will begin to slide. Once sliding, your tires can slide easily in any direction. Now, you may be able to let go of the brakes and adjust your center of gravity in time to save yourself from crashing if your rear tire "fishtails" a little bit, but if your front tire slides sideways, you will be on the ground.
The other problem that brakes cause is that they can cause you to work harder. This may seem like a no-brainer but it's something a lot of people don't think enough about. When you are riding along, the bike is propelled by your power, but there are also a lot of opposing forces working against you. I like to use this equation:
Speed = Power - [Aerodynamic Drag + Gravity + Rolling resistance + Drivetrain resistance + Braking force] *
I've seen a lot of riders conveniently forget the braking force part of this equation. They train to improve power output, they diet and buy expensive bikes to be as light as possible, they buy aero wheels, helmets, skinsuits and frames to make themselves more aero, nice tires to reduce rolling resistance, ceramic bearings and special chains to reduce drivetrain resistance. All of that advantage is negated if your increased speed is only met with increased braking. As your power improves, your technical skill must improve in accordance. Otherwise whatever speed you gain through increased fitness is lost whenever you go around turns, on descents or anytime you get into tight situations in the pack.
One thing I notice a lot on the bikes of less experienced riders is what I call "hair trigger brakes". In essence, riders set their bikes up so the slightest touch of the levers can slam on the brakes with maximum force. There are a few problems with this: a) This type of setup does not allow for much modulation (light or moderate braking). b) If the riders wheel is out of true or they hit a pothole their brakes will rub against the rim and c) This type of setup encourages nervous riding. The next time you see a pro's bike, try squeezing the brake levers. Chances are you will have to almost bottom them out on the bars to apply maximum force. This is because, for the most part, pros realize that their brakes are something to be used judiciously. I have told some riders that have a problem with this to imagine that their brake pads were made out of gold. Chances are, they would be a little thoughtful about how they use them if they cost $500 a pair!
Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to argue that brakes are unnecessary. There is a reason we have brakes on our road, cyclocross and mountain bikes and proper braking can actually help you go faster in the long run. I'll give you a couple examples:
Example 1: You are going down a steep descent with sharp, blind turns. Even the most technically proficient riders can only take these turns so fast. If you attempt to take these turns without braking, you will only be able to go so fast on the straighter sections. Having the confidence that you can safely slow down whenever necessary means that you can confidently fly down the side of the mountain, scrub as much speed as necessary before the turn, set yourself up to take the proper line, then let go of the brakes and accelerate through the apex of the turn.
Example 2: You are riding in a paceline, tucked nicely in the slipstream of a really good draft. The riders at the front of the group decelerate and if you don't do something you will run into the rider in front of you. If it's a slight deceleration, you can just slide out into the wind a little bit and the extra wind will slow you down to where you need to be. However, if it's a big deceleration, you will slide out into the wind and go flying up the side of the pack. Now, unless you were planning on attacking at this time, this may place you in a position you don't want to be in. Suddenly you are right at the front and exposed to the wind. If you stay there, you will have to do some work. If you slow down and try to move back where you were, you may find that someone else has taken the wheel you wanted and won't give it up. So before any of this happens, you should consider lightly hitting your brakes and staying in your position. You can still slide out to the side a little bit if you want to combine the slowing effects of the wind and the brakes and make the re-acceleration a little less severe when the speed picks back up.
Front Brakes vs. Rear Brakes
The most common braking mistake I see riders make (on the road at least) is that they use too much rear brake. This could be because a) They are afraid of going over their handlebars if they hit too much front brake, b) Their right hand is stronger or most likely c) They just aren't thinking about it. Unfortunately, even though a little rear tire slide won't usually cause a crash, under normal road conditions, it takes a lot less braking force to slide the rear tire than the front. This is because when you decelerate the center of gravity shifts forward due to momentum. In fact, it's very difficult to flip yourself over the handlebars without running over something unless you absolutely slam on your front brake and make a concerted effort to shift your weight forward.
If you are looking for a good/fun way to practice your braking skills, use 4 cones or water bottles to set up a square that is approximately 10' x 10'. Come into the square as fast as you feel comfortable with and hit your brakes hard. The goal is not to hit your brakes until you enter the square and slow to a stop before the end without sliding the rear tire at all. Spoiler alert: the key is to keep your weight back (really far back) and use mostly front brake.
Under normal conditions, you should see your front brake pads wear out approximately twice as fast as your rear brake pads. If you see your rear pads wearing out faster, or even at an equal rate, you are most likely using too much rear brake. Some have even argued that rear brakes are unnecessary. This is why many motorcyclists looking to save weight remove their rear brakes entirely and many fixed gear riders (who can scrub speed by applying reverse pressure to the pedals) use only a front brake. I would not go quite that far because there are a couple situations where the rear brakes are very important. If you are riding down a very steep (>20%) grade or descent with extremely low traction (e.g. sand, gravel, rocks, ice), you will want to use your rear brake exclusively. In these situations, some tire slippage is unavoidable. You just want to make sure that it's the rear tire, not the front that slips. It should be noted that these situations are very common in mountain biking and cyclocross. Although rare on the road, you will learn the hard way if you forget what to do.
Next up in this series, I will talk about shifting. If you have any other requests for topics in this series, I'd love to hear them.
Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Team Young Medalists. If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments section or email us. Thanks for reading!
* A pre-emptive apology goes out to my college Physics professors on this equation. I know it's not technically a viable equation I didn't put any thought into the units at all, I'm just trying to keep things as simple as possible to illustrate my point in ways that every cyclist can understand. If you would like me to send you the full equation, I can.