As any graduate of one of my courses will tell you, some time spent in a quiet parking lot practicing emergency braking drills is an important part of the day. Why? Braking performance is where one of the biggest disparities in motorcycling is to be found. One disc (rotor) or two up-front, different makes of caliper and pads, ABS, non-ABS, linked brakes or non-linked – all contribute to a massive disparity in braking performance from bike-to-bike.
Even with ABS bikes, older systems behave differently to the newer ones resulting in different feel and what happens at the lever. The time we spend doing braking drills is to increase a rider’s knowledge of, and confidence in, the braking system on the motorcycle they are riding on the day. The result is always the same – increased knowledge and confidence in the brakes is always inversely proportional to the braking distances (i.e. the more confidence, the shorter the stopping distance!).
One concerning thing I’ve noticed is almost universal in riders’ application of the lever when braking hard, and that’s a two-finger pull of the lever, regardless of the type of bike being ridden (from sports bikes to the big cruisers). In terms of bad practice, I’d put it up there with the other bad habit that is pervasive out here in CA, which is tips-of-toes on the footpegs (more of that later).
Why is a two (and not four) finger pull of the brake lever such a problem? Let’s dive in below.
The first is a matter of simple physics. Think about how a lever works. The further you are away from the anchor point, the easier it is to apply pressure and move the lever. That’s why (for instance) door handles are on the opposite side to the door hinges. The further your fingers are away from the brake lever anchor point, the easier it is, and the more pressure you can apply to the lever. The brake lever is operated with the right hand on every motorcycle. This means the two primary fingers (index and middle) for pulling the lever are the ones *closest* to the anchor point. Consequently, it is harder to apply max braking force simply because of the location of your fingers here. Max braking force comes not from index and middle, but your two *outer* fingers simply because these are the two furthest away from the anchor point.
Secondly, and crucially, four-finger braking allows for full travel of the lever. If you are only braking with two fingers, in heavy braking scenarios, the lever often butts up against the two outer fingers still wrapped around the throttle hand-grip. The lever cannot travel full distance, meaning maximum braking force cannot be applied. This can be fatal in an emergency braking situation.
Third, your right hand on a motorcycle performs two important functions. Pulling the brake lever in (stop) and rolling on the throttle (go). When two-finger braking, half your fingers are braking, but the other two are still wrapped around the throttle. By switching to four-finger braking, there is a much stronger separation of control utilization here, which makes riders rolling off throttle for brake application easier.
Fourth, tacking on to number 3 (above), in two finger braking, half your hand is braking, but the other half is still in position for use of throttle. I see plenty of two-finger braking drills where the brakes are applied with the inside two fingers but the throttle is still being held wide open by the outside two fingers. Simply put, four-finger braking reduces accidental throttle roll-on during the braking process.
Finally, I know that two-finger braking is popular with riders at the race-track, and that is where it should be left – at the track! Most scenarios here are just slowing the bike down enough for an approaching turn so a small two finger pull is ok, particularly as you are often balancing the bike on the throttle at this point – there is more of a blending of the two right-handed controls here. For street riders though – who are not (or should not be) chasing ultimate speed and performance, and often need much more braking force due to a myriad of hazards, a full and complete four-finger pull on the lever can be life-saving best practice.