Two or four-finger braking?

Two or four-finger braking?

Two or four-finger braking?

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, size and weight of motorcycle – 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.

6 thoughts on “Two or four-finger braking?

  1. Conrad de courcy

    I look and passed my motorcycle driving test some years ago but was reprimanded by the examiner for not having all four fingers on the brake. I have to say that was fifty years ago in UK and riding a Triumph Tiger cub!

  2. Robert

    Its not a matter of being able to get max braking force easily. Most braking systems exhibit a mechanical advantage so that you dont need to squeeze that hard. If you need to sqeeze with 4 fingers you have badly designed brakes. You already mentioned anti-lock brakes. Why do you think a moto or any vehicle needs that? Its because of downforce (or lack thereof – you are light) and the coefficient of friction dont allow you to generate braking forces that high before you just start skidding. Its all about modulation and bringing the braking force right up to the threshold of skidding and then lifting off (known as threshold braking). This requires being smooth and having good feel, hence why using two fingers is better. Furthermore, you arent compromising your grip on the handlebars to grip the brake lever with more force. This could cause a problem if you hit a bump or perhaps if anti-lock braking system starts jerking on and off – your hand might come off. Especially on a dirtbike or mountain bike this is even more crucial and you will notice that all the serious top riders only use their pointer fingers to brake even under max braking conditions.

  3. Daniel Reed

    I’m new to this blog, but I did have had the opportunity to read several entries. I’ve found them to be informative and inspiring. You’re providing some very valuable and useful information to those who visit regularly or who like me, happen upon this site by chance. I must disagree however with your assertion that four finger braking is safer and more effective than two finger braking. Perhaps, if you are riding an older bike with drum brakes up front, or one equipped with early (70′s era) disc brakes, four fingers in an emergency braking situation might be more effective than using two fingers
    I absolutely concur with the statements made by the two previous commenters. Modern dual disc braking systems are very powerful and efficient, Applying two fingers to the the brake lever and leaving two on the bar, in order to maintain steering control makes a lot more sense to me. Those riders who are potentially still rolling on the throttle while braking w/two fingers need to add at least one more very important item to their practice regimen.

  4. Nadas Akos

    I have changed my levers to good quality 2 finger levers, this way i can use the 2 fingers and have full travel of the lever in case i need it.
    When i started to practice emergency braking(2 years ago) i noticed that it was way smoother(and shorter stopping distance) with 2 fingers. 4 fingers just gives me the feeling that i will grab a fist full in a “oh shit” situation.

    Would also like to add that if you brakes are well maintained, double disc, one finger can stand the bike on it’s front wheel, or even lock it up, i don’t need 3 more to make sure it happens.
    But to each their own.

  5. David Yeski

    I disagree. Every action, every input, made to the controls of your motorcycle should be smooth. That means both on and off, the gas and the brake. Every action upsets the current operation of the motorcycle. So being smooth in those actions is key to stability. This is true in all situations, on and off the track, motorcycle operation does not differentiate by location.

    The use of four fingers on the front brake lever makes it entirely too easy to “ham fist” the action of braking when it should be finessed. Additionally, because you will probably be pulling the clutch in a panic stop, you will experience something called “sympathetic reaction” with your right hand and grab full handful of front brake as you do the clutch. This will cause a lack of control and finesse.

    I understand the ABS argument but even with ABS, not locking your front tire is not a guarantee and depending on an artificial intelligence instead of relying on it for a backup plan is a recipe for disaster.

    Additionally, adjusting your levers so that you can effectively use two finger braking ensures that you will not hit your fingers with the brake lever at full travel. Plus it allows you to have at least two fingers on the handlebars in order to MAINTAIN CONTROL OF THE MOTORCYCLE. For instance, what if during your panic stop, your front tire hits something and deflects the wheel, thus turning the handlebars? Wouldn’t you want at least a couple fingers on the grip to control the bike or at least hang on?

    Bottom line, I don’t agree with this advice.


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