An oft-overlooked skill, effective braking is vital for those who want to go fast
Let’s face it: Braking isn’t the sexiest aspect of riding. Pro riders don’t drop Red Bull edits of their awesome braking technique, but their ability to control speed allows them to pin downhills, slash corners, and boost sweet airs. For us normal folks, great braking improves our:
Safety. You can slow down when you want to. You can stop when you need to. Whether it’s a crazy descent or heavy traffic, good braking saves lives.
Confidence. You don’t have to admit this in public, but I know you sometimes pull your brake levers when you don’t want to. You inner lizard knows you’re not so good at braking, and it won’t let you go fast. The result: involuntary braking plus uncontrollable worrying. When you know that you can slow down as needed, your lizard sees less danger, and everything feels better.
Speed. Most endurance racers I encounter expend countless hours (and, in some cases, several marriages) honing their climbing fitness but they drag brakes for 50 feet when they can slow down in five. This wastes time, which, when you consider the cost of carbon parts and testosterone therapy, is money.
Those sound like pretty good improvements, eh? Add the following drills to your Cul-de-Sac Kung Fu practice to boost your safety, confidence, and speed.
Location: Find a clean, safe cul-de-sac, parking lot or another practice area. Start on pavement, then work up to various types of dirt. Add downhills later, when you’re ready.
Bike: Ride your normal rig. Drop your seat. The shorter your stem, the more range of motion you’ll have.
Other Materials: Use cones, chalk, roadkill, etc… as your “start braking” marker.
Level 1: Brake in Balance
Today you start braking perfectly, which means braking with all of your weight in your feet.
1. Speed up. We’ll look at sprinting technique another time. For now, pedal hard.
2. Assume the attack position. One-hundred percent of your weight in your feet. Hips hinged back. Torso level. Shoulders low. Eyes on the prize. Imagine a pendulum hanging from your belly button through your bike’s bottom bracket.
3. Gradually squeeze both brakes. Gradually. Both. As the pendulum swings forward, rotate your whole body back around the bottom bracket.
4. Squeeze hard and get it done. At the point of highest braking power, your heels should be down, your body should be back and your pendulum should be drilling directly into your bottom bracket, perpendicular to your cranks. Your feet should feel very heavy. Your hands should feel nothing except your brake levers.
5. Gradually release both brakes as you return your body to a neutral position.
In this video, watch how the whole body—feet, knees, hips, torso—rotate back around the bottom bracket. The entire on/off cycle should be smooth and balanced. Make this automatic.
Level 2: Smash Your Bike
The above technique works great, but we want to be better than great. Think about this:
The heavier you make your bike, the more traction you have. The more traction you have, the harder you can brake. The harder you can brake, the less distance you need to slow down. The less distance you need to slow down, the faster (and more confidently) you can ride.
Until further notice, you should brake like this:
1. Crouch down to get heavy as you approach your braking point. All tension should go from your hips into the pedals. Hands stay dainty!
2. Let your body rebound upward and get light.
3. Press smoothly but powerfully into your feet, as your body starts to fall and get heavy, while you’re applying both brakes and rotating backward. This is a complex move, but also a rad one.
4. Brake very hard and make sure all the violence is in your feet at that moment of maximum weight. Get as heavy as you can. Brake as hard as you can.
In this video, watch how my body moves up and down. It’s like bouncing on a trampoline: an easy way to get light and heavy. The approach speed was the same as in the above video, but I got twice as heavy—and I stopped in half the distance!
This is a game changer! In the old style of riding, there’s a fixed amount of traction, and you’re supposed to figure out how to use 99 percent of it, but no more or you’ll crash. That’s a timid and stressful way to ride. When this drill becomes second nature, you can create as much traction as you want. The looser the surface, the heavier you should get. That’s a confident and fun way to ride!
Level 3: Hop to Heavy Braking
The ultimate expression of light-heavy might be hopping into the air, then landing on the ground.
1. Approach at a comfortable speed. No need to hit the nitrous on the first go-around. You can add more speed with practice.
2. Hop into the air as you approach your braking point. Use any technique you know; we’ll talk about hopping another time.
3. Gradually increase the downforce while you apply your brakes and rotate backward as you land. This is a double complex move! But it’s double rad.
This drill teaches insane levels of body integration and how to generate massive braking forces. In this heavy moment, I’m using about 90 percent of my suspension travel, which indicates several times my bodyweight is crushing my tires into the ground.
In this video (filmed in a real cul-de-sac, in the snow) behold the smoothness and watch how quickly the bike stops.
This is another game changer. When your lizard owns these drills, you can generate tons of traction, slow down in tiny spaces and, ultimately, use the lightness of dropping, hopping, and jumping to make even more braking traction and shred even harder.
Remember, the less traction there seems to be, the more traction you should create! All of this radness can be learned in a cul-de-sac. Go forth and build some kung fu!
Cul-de-Sac Kung Fu: At-home drills for on-trail mastery