Of all the controls on a motorcycle, the rear brake is perhaps the one that’s most misunderstood and misused or indeed overused.
If used purely for scrubbing off speed the rear brake is hugely ineffective compared to the front - the transfer of weight when reducing forward momentum makes it physically impossible for it to do anywhere near as much work - but slowing you down isn’t all the rear brake can and should be used for. Rather than simply something you use to reduce speed, think of your rear brake as an aid to bike stability. Of course, it does also serve a purpose by showing a brake light which may be of use to following vehicles when entering a lower speed limit
Learning when and how to use it properly can improve the way you ride. Here’s how
Settling the bike
When you apply only the front brake your motorcycle pitches forward rapidly, compressing the front forks. This has a subtle effect on the bike it ever so slightly shortens the steering angle, making it turn in quicker and feel much more sensitive to steering inputs.
Both those things can be disconcerting, particularly for newer riders, and can end in the rider panicking mid-corner, overcorrecting, and unsettling the bike even further still.
Applying a little rear brake just before the front, pulls the back of the bike down. This helps counteract and slow down the pitching / dive caused by the application of the front brake, making the whole bike feel much more stable, level and settled.
Tip: Don’t apply too much rear brake, just a light touch - or leave it on too long - as you risk locking the rear when the weight shifts off the back tyre.
Holding the line in a corner
We’ve all been there: running too fast into a corner or the corner tightens up on you mid-turn. Your first instinct is to chop the throttle and/or grab the front brake. This upsets the bike and if you grab too much of a front brake handful, that can cause the front to tuck under; not good!
A light touch on the rear brake not only scrubs a small amount of speed without the risk of locking the front, it, effectively turns the rear wheel into a pivot point. The bike ‘rotates’ around the axis, helping the bike to hold the line or indeed pulling the front into a tighter line and encouraging it to turn. Of course, you should always be using the LPOV (Limit Point of Vision) to judge the corner speed and to see if the bend does tighten up or opens out as you go round the bend. Using the LPOV correctly and looking where you want go will all help you and the bike to get safely round the bend.
Again, we’re just talking a light touch on the rear brake, if it’s only a small amount of speed you need to correct. This will reduce speed by a small amount and allow you to maintain a positive throttle through the bend.
Tip: Don’t wait until your mid-corner going too fast to try this out, find somewhere safe to practice - like a large car park - starting at low speeds until you’re confident.
Feet-up U turns
The same technique can help you make those U-turns - and nothing says I’m a confident rider quite like doing a 180º in a tight space without dangling or dabbing your feet.
A tight 180º is difficult even for experienced riders, but add a heavy bike, a passenger and luggage into the equation and it can have you coming out in a cold sweat - followed by a hot one as you try and manhandle all that through a three-point-turn.
As you approach the turn keep your speed at a steady walking pace, slip the clutch if needed, and ‘drag’ the rear brake to get that pivot point and tighten the turn. Keep yourself and the bike upright and use the bars to tun the bike to the left or right. Keep your head up and your eyes looking to where you want to go - don’t look down at the road / tarmac!
It is usually easier to do on left turns, because of the position of the brake lever, but practice makes perfect; you’ll be amazed how tight a space you can turn in.
Tip: Again, practice in a car park and take some cones /soft objects with you so you can practice tighter turns safely.
Carrying a passenger or luggage
As we know, the rear brake isn’t as effective as the front at scrubbing speed due to weight transfer but add a pillion and / or luggage on the back of your bike and all that changes.
1. There’s more weight over the rear tyre, so the back brake instantly becomes more effective.
2. There’ll be more weight to shift forwards under braking, causing the forks to compress more and the bike to become even less stable.
When you have weight on the back you should be using the rear brake more. Not only will it be more effective at slowing you, it will also help to reduce that forward pitch / dive and keep you, the bike and your pillion stable.
The technique is the same as above: applying a little rear brake just before the front so it pulls the back of the bike down and reduces weight transfer.
Tip: Although there's more weight over the rear tyre, it can still lock up easily, so take it easy.
Finally –‘it depends.’
If you have read his far you would be expecting these two words – It depends!
“It depends” on several factors, the bike you are riding, the traffic conditions, the road surface, the weather, the visibility, etc.
Regarding the bike you ride, you need to know its capabilities and the way it works. Some bikes have “linked” brakes (many Honda models have this function) so they will engage some rear brake, usually only a small amount, when you apply the front brake, so they provide a balance of front and rear braking as described above. Some “cruiser” type bikes have more weight over the rear by design so the rear brake will be more effective at losing speed. Modern bikes will have ABS (Anti-lock Brake System) and some may have Cornering ABS that is controlled by the IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit) – don’t ask how!
Weather, traffic, road conditions speak for themselves as should use of the LPOV to ensure that you are at the right speed and in the right gear for the approaching bend / hazard.
Finally remember that the IAM Test Examiner will want to see any Figure of 8 or U-turns completed with the bike and rider vertical and the turn executed by moving the handlebars, not leaning the bike!
Keep riding (practice makes perfect) and keep safe.
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