Understanding The Rear Brake On Your Motorcycle

Rear-braking is an important skill for street-riding

Rear-braking is an important skill for street-riding

With the dozens of riders I’ve coached over the years, it’s always a source of bemusement to me that the two most important tools for riding a motorcycle are the two I always find used the least – counter-steering and the rear brake. Counter-steering may be considered an advanced technique but rear-braking is firmly in the “basic motorcycle control” one.

I talk about counter-steering elsewhere on SCPR pages, but in this post I’ll focus on the rear-brake. The rear brake is a critical tool for low speed maneuvers, and an important one in cornering and for braking in general. And yet riders I’ve met have literally never pressed the lever. I think there’s a general lack of education at work here – it’s not helped by the fact that the MSP course makes no more than a passing mention of the rear brake and I’ve learned recently of motorcycle instructors here in SoCal that go so far as telling their students not to use it. On non-ABS bikes, granted it is extremely easy to lock the rear wheel under rear-braking and have the rear slide and step out. I think these factors combined cause most folks to simply steer clear of it, which is a problem because as I state above, the rear-brake is one of the most valuable tools for street riding.

So let’s look at some real-world applications of the rear-brake. There’s really three areas where rear-braking is important, and I’ll cover each here. First up, and most important of all is low-speed maneuvering. At low speed (less than 10mph), and especially turning at low speed, the rear brake has the effect of lengthening the wheelbase. This lowers the center of gravity, which stabilizes the bike at very low speed. It also gives the engine a force to “pull against” which steadies drive-force and helps pivot the bike around when making tight turns.

For any low speed turning, stay off the front-brake. It will pull you to the ground like a magnet. Instead, cover the rear with your foot and drag – or trail brake – the lever by smoothly modulating pressure on it. You’ll find the bike can be turned with much more control and at much lower speeds with the rear brake applied than can be accomplished without it.

Secondly is cornering. This fills most riders with horror – again going back to the days where locking the rear (pre-ABS) was easy and not something you would ever go near in the middle of a corner. But most of today’s bikes are equipped with ABS so it’s impossible for you to lock the wheels even if you really snatch at the lever / stamp on the pedal. Couple that with what I say above – the rear brake stabilizes the bike at low speed and also at high speed in the middle of a corner.  Rear-braking in the middle of a corner won’t cause the bike to stand up or wash out. It will stabilize the bike and crucially will scrub off a few MPH if you’re coming in too hot. Again – the application is the same as for low speed turning; you should be dragging the brake (trail braking) and gently modulating pressure on the lever. Don’t do a quick on/off or tempt to stab at the pedal. Smooth trail braking and modulating pressure is what we’re looking for here.

Third and last is general braking (straight line) stuff. The rear-brake accounts for 30% of your total braking power so makes quite a difference to your stopping distances. On bikes with linked brakes, both brakes are automatically applied when just the front lever is pulled, but for everyone else you’ll need to learn to apply both brakes at the same time until it becomes habit. Again – with the advent of ABS, the days of the rear-wheel locking with a sharp stab of the rear lever are long gone. I always have my students do emergency stops with rear-only, front only and both together. I put a cone down after each one. They are always surprised to see how much shorter the braking distances are with both brakes applied than the other two.

Hopefully this has demonstrated that far from being something to be feared and avoided, the rear-brake is useful in a lot of different scenarios and is a vital tool for motorcycle street riding. It’s always difficult translating the written word to practical on-bike riding so to explore rear -braking techniques more, contact me to book an advanced rider course, where all areas mentioned above are covered.

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