Whether you are brand new to mountain biking or you’ve been riding for many years, it’s important that you have a baseline understanding of what your brakes do, why they are important and exactly how to use them. Having a solid braking foundation will allow you to build up to more advanced braking technique, and more advanced terrain!
You have two brake levers on your bike. In the US, a standard bike setup has the front brake on the left and the rear brake on the right (Think: Right Rear). In other parts of the world (i.e.; New Zealand, UK, Australia …) these are reversed!
Left Brake ➡️ Front Brake
Right Brake ➡️ Rear Brake
Your front and rear brake are arguably equally important and both serve a slightly different purpose. Let’s dive in…
Your front brake has your stopping power. Why is this? The front of the bike dips down when you apply your brakes and because of this, there is more weight on the front of the bike and thus more traction on the front tire. This means the front tire is less likely to skid. It also means, you must brake with good technique and body position to prevent being slung forward (or over-the-handlebars, “OTB”). More on body position in a minute!
Your rear brake helps you to control your speed, but depending on terrain, may not necessarily be all that great at bringing you to a full stop. You may have noticed that you rear tire is more likely to skid.
Test It Out
It can be helpful to see for yourself, how these brakes function. Try the following drill:
Grab your bike by the handlebars and stand off to the side, facing forward.
With your hands on the bars apply pressure to only your back brake and push the bike forward. You should notice it dragging behind you but the bike would still move forward.This is a good indication that your rear brake may not the best at bringing you to a complete stop!
Then, try only applying pressure to only your front brake and push the bike forward. You should notice how the bike would not move forward and your rear wheel might even lift. Bam – that front brake has considerably more stopping power!
Now, put one foot on your pedal and push your heels down to weight the pedal at the same time you apply pressure to your front brake. Ah ha! You should notice the back wheel stays down and your bike doesn’t move
In order to use your brakes effectively, it is important that your brakes are setup correctly. You should be braking with your index finger and only your index finger.
You should adjust the positioning of your brake levers so that your index finger naturally lines up with the bend in the brake lever. This will give you better bike control, a better feel for what the brakes and tires are doing and give you greater confidence in your riding. When checking for this index finger / brake lever alignment, make sure your hands are completely on the hand grips — if the side of your hand is hanging off the bars (grips) you’ll be putting pressure on your Ulnar nerve. This pressure can cause numbness in your hand and arm, fatigue, discomfort and diminished control of your bike.
For further explanation on one finger braking, checkout this article.
You use your brakes both to control your speed while riding and to bring yourself to a complete stop. Sometimes you will have the runway to gradually slow yourself down and other times, you might need to quickly and safely bring yourself to a stop (think: cliff!).
Now that we understand what each brake does and why they are important, it’s time to dive into the HOW of braking. Here are the key components:
One finger braking. The correct way to brake is using just one finger, your index finger.
Ease the squeeze. You should never grab the brake lever and immediately pull it all the way back to the grip. Rather, you should gradually squeeze the lever, or “ease the squeeze” as we like to say. Think of using your brakes like squeezing toothpaste out of a bottle. When applying toothpaste to your toothbrush, you don’t squeeze the bottle as hard as possible, right? I hope not! You gently squeeze the bottle until the perfect amount of toothpaste has been applied, and then you release.
Use both brakes. Generally speaking, you should be using both brakes when slowing or stopping. In our Braking 201 article, we will cover more advanced braking techniques and when you might use only your front brake or only your rear brake.
It is hugely important to have proper body position on the bike at all times, and especially when you are braking. The key components to good body position are:
Heels dropped + toes up
Body low (bend those knees!). Lowering your center of gravity in this way gives you more stability and drives your weight down into your tried more evenly for greater traction.
Weight in your feet and light hands on the handlebars. The more of your weight you can drive down into the pedals, the lighter you are on you handlebars.
Relax your arms (don’t lock out those elbows!)
How much and/or how quickly you want to slow or stop will determine how quickly you apply the above principles.
Need to come to a stop or reduce your speed quickly? You’ll want to apply your front brake and back brake at the same time while simultaneously shifting your weight low and back and dropping your heels to weight your pedals, in a quick “STOMP” like motion. This will help you to avoid tumbling forward!
Simply want to control your speed or slow down a little? You will still want to have your heels dropped, knees bent and weight in your feet. Rather than a quick STOMP, you stay loose in the body and adjust your body position as you apply your brakes to stay balanced and centered over the bike.
All Together Now
Braking is not as simple as ON / OFF. There is an art and a science to using your brakes effectively and believe it or not, “good” braking can make you a faster rider. Yup, that’s right; smoother is faster. So start by dialing in the key principles detailed above and you’ll be well on your way to tackling more advanced braking techniques and more advanced terrain with confidence.
Are you still feeling a bit unstable when you use your brakes? Nervous about going over the handlebars? Looking for in-person feedback on your braking technique? We can help! Join us for a Fundamentals clinic where we cover the foundations of braking and check out a 2-Day Camp to progress to more advanced technique and terrain.
I felt so confident that I recently signed up for the Catalina MTB Gran Fondo!
I participated in the beginner skill clinic at Malibu Creek last Saturday, because I'm truly a beginner who couldn't stop...
Ninja Mountain Bike Performance
I participated in the beginner skill clinic at Malibu Creek last Saturday, because I'm truly a beginner who couldn't stop falling down during each mtb ride. The class was small and super fun...and the instructors (Richard and Kris) were informative and dynamic. The clinic was small enough for each member to practice each learned skill and receive immediate feedback. I learned many new skills on that day and felt much more confident with my bike-body connection. I felt so confident that I recently signed up for the Catalina MTB Gran Fondo...the 55 mile route! Woohooo!! The next day, as I was road biking (training for the Solvang Double Century), I dodged a bullet on the Snake/Mulholland by applying my learned mtb skills--a long towing truck went over almost half of our lane on a blind turn as we were descending. Instead of fixating on the truck, I remembered the importance of looking for a clear path and keeping my eyes on where I want to go....Now I understand what people meant when they said that mtb will help improve my road riding skills too! I'm grateful for the opportunity to learn, and I look forward to the next clinic! ~ Uyen N.
I was so happy I could transfer what I learned in Sedona to my own trails.
I just rode on my local trails today after taking the Ninja clinic in Sedona. I was so happy I...
Ninja Mountain Bike Performance
I just rode on my local trails today after taking the Ninja clinic in Sedona. I was so happy I could transfer what I learned in Sedona to my own trails. There is one drop and one off camber downhill section I never have had the courage or skill to ride until today. It was so fun to ride them and not get off and walk. Richard La China and Courtney Cowan were fantastic instructors. Not only did I up my technical skills in Sedona it was also a ton of fun! ~Patty Elliott
Took the mini clinic on jumping skills because I can't resist the urge to get in the air even though...
Ninja Mountain Bike Performance
Took the mini clinic on jumping skills because I can't resist the urge to get in the air even though I always knew I didn't really understand the mechanics of it, so it was a kind of "huck and hope" affair. The result was that I didn't land about 1 in 5 attempts. The clinic with Aaron was great! He explained the mechanics of how the bike is handled coming into, through and out of the jump and starts with individual small skills progressing step by step in a very manageable way (even for me, and I started this stuff at 45 and I'm not very coordinated). What I feel sets Aaron apart is his ability to communicate his explanations and demonstrate movements in a way that makes them easy to learn even for someone with little experience. He is also very patient and encouraging, which helps when one is starting out and struggling a little with some movements. I definitely intend to do more clinics with Ninja MBS. I feel like it will save me a lot of time and frustration as well as possibly a lot of money in medical bills! ~Jill M.
I would encourage anyone of any ability to take a class with these guys.
I recently attended one of the Intermediate/Advanced Efficiency and Flow clinics. Even though I have been riding for many years...
Ninja Mountain Bike Performance
I recently attended one of the Intermediate/Advanced Efficiency and Flow clinics. Even though I have been riding for many years I learned a lot from this clinic. The techniques covered ranged from reviewing basic skills such as basic body position to practicing more advanced techniques like switchbacks, bunny hops, and cornering. I was able to recognize, get instruction, and practice some skills where I was weak and instantly improve them. Even skills I thought I was pretty good at I was able to pick up useful tips. I also realized that deliberate skills practice is not something I incorporate into my riding, but now that I understand what I should be doing I will make sure to add this in! After taking the course my comfort on the bike has improved and I am more aware of my body position and movement of the bike. I would encourage anyone of any ability to take a class with these guys. The instructors are knowledgeable and easy to work with. There is a lot of one on one help and they will make sure you understand the skills being taught and are able to perform them successfully. Plus the clinic was lots of fun! I highly recommend and hope to work with these guys again soon. ~ Michelle A.
We are a group of passionate, dirt-loving, community oriented, world class mountain bike skills instructors committed to helping you reach your personal riding goals through clinics and camps. We are excited to work with riders of all ability levels and share the joy (STOKE) of mountain biking.