Tips for safe cycling #6: brakes
It might sound obvious, but having proper control of your brakes is essential for safe cycling. Here are a few tips to make sure you get the most out of your brakes.*
Use both brakes
It’s best to always use both brakes, gently, at the same time. If the front brake is applied too hard, there is a risk of being jolted over the handlebars. If the rear brake is applied in isolation, there is a risk of skidding. There is a science to the percentage of each brake to apply if you want optimum control over your bike, and while this is helpful when undertaking highly-skilled riding such as mountain biking or road racing, for a regular commute and for general road riding, both brakes equally is recommended.
Keep the brakes covered
Keep the fingers of both hands hovering over the brake levers at all times, so you’re ready to engage should you need. In the cycle training industry we call this ‘covering the brakes’. If you need to stop in a hurry, it can significantly reduce your stopping distance if you already have the brakes covered. Another bonus is that opening your hand encourages you to relax, which is good for your overall biking experience.
There are many reasons why you might need to stop suddenly, especially when riding in busy traffic or in town centres. Pedestrians might step out into the road without checking (relying on ears rather than eyes), a driver or another cyclist might stop suddenly in front of you or pull out unexpectedly, or a dog might dash across your path (dogs love chasing bikes). In all of these scenarios, without time to think, you’ll be relying on instinct. When slamming the brakes on while travelling at speed, even if you engage both front and rear, there is still a risk of you flying over the handlebars. In order to prevent this from happening:
- Brace your arms by locking out elbows in a straight line
- Ensure your weight is fully over the rear wheel by pushing yourself backwards on the saddle
- Keep your feet on the pedals
It’s best to keep seated the whole time while you are riding on the road. You never know when you might need to pull the brakes, and if you are standing at the time, you will have very little chance of remaining on the bike. Your control is best when there are five points of contact with your vehicle: two hands, two feet and a bottom.
Finally, make sure your brakes work properly! Most conventional pads have a ‘wear line’ which indicates when it’s time to replace the pad. Brake pads are much cheaper and easier to replace than a wheel rim which has become damaged because you’ve been riding on worn-out brakes. If the pads are fine but the brakes aren’t fully engaging, you’ll need to tighten the cable. This can be done using the barrel adjuster on the brake lever (unscrew the barrel adjuster to tighten the cable, then secure with the locking nut), or by pulling through the cable at the calliper end. If the levers feel sluggish, it’s probably a cable issue and a new cable will sort things out.
Your brakes will be less effective when it’s wet, so make sure you are braking early in the rain. Wet weather will also make surfaces slippery, so try to keep moving in a straight line while applying the brakes – any turn will become slippery, especially metal surfaces such as drain covers, and braking will further destabilise the bike.
*On UK-manufactured bikes, the right hand lever controls the front brake and the left hand lever controls the rear. This is opposite on European and US bikes, which means US or Euro bikes are not strictly legal on British roads. If your brakes are the non-UK way around, take to a bike shop to get them swapped over.