Motorcycle Brake Light, Safe Motorcycle Braking | Cycle World

Brake Light Initiative: Braking Properly

How to use your motorcycle brakes properly

Brake Light Initiative artwork

The Pace 2.0 challenges riders to add this statement to their riding portfolio: “I can go to the brakes at any time during my ride.” The Brake Light Initiative (BLI) will take this challenge much further as I illustrate that a rider’s ability to use the brakes anywhere, anytime will significantly improve his or her riding.

Each and every brake application begins with the first movement of a brake lever or pedal, typically the point where the motorcycle brake light flashes on, and that initial squeeze begins the forward weight transfer to load the fork springs and front tire. This initial squeeze can happen relatively quickly, but it shouldn’t happen abruptly. Big difference.

If grip is good, meaning you aren’t leaned over very far and the pavement is solid, warm, and dry, you can continue to add lever or pedal pressure and aggressively reduce your bike’s speed. But someday you’ll find yourself on a gravel road or in the sleet on the commute home, and the only motorcycle braking forces the tires can handle at that point is just enough lever or pedal pressure to light up the motorcycle brake light. Let’s say the cold, wet tire will only handle 4 percent of a bike’s total braking ability. Because you squeeze on the lever gently, you will be able to sneak up to 4 percent rather than grab 10 percent and crash instantly. “But it was the gravel’s fault!” No, it was the brake-pressure engineer’s fault. We engineers must be linear while increasing our brake and throttle pressures.

More Speed More Brakes illustration

As you ride more quickly on the street or track and approach the next corner faster, you must realize the corner won’t change for your new speed; you must change your speed for the corner. From this realization, you will begin to mumble, “More speed, more brakes,” in your helmet. Good mantra. Rather than rolling off the throttle and hoping your speed slows, roll off the throttle and light up your motorcycle brake light to guarantee your speed slows.

If you’re riding slowly on a perfect trackday, grabbing at the brake lever in an adrenaline-filled rush of aggression is just fine. But as you progress and ride faster in the same environment, you will need to carry increasing amounts of lean angle. If you understand that a tire’s grip is divided between lean angle points and motorcycle braking points (or acceleration points if we’re talking about throttle), it becomes clear how the light squeeze we’re talking about is the difference between a lap record or sliding off the track.

There is no penalty on the street for entering a corner too slowly. Riders of all ages, please read that sentence again. The penalty for entering a corner too quickly could be leaving your lane and then dealing with whatever you encounter after that. The single-bike crashes that plague our sport are a direct result of not necessarily too much speed but a lack of speed control and geometry control at the next corner entry.

“More brakes” doesn’t just mean earlier and more pressure; it also means leaving the brake light on farther into the corner if necessary, trailing off braking points as you add lean angle points. In The Pace 2.0 I asked you to experiment with how speed affects a bike’s radius by riding in a parking lot at a given lean angle and speed then gently accelerating or decelerating at the same lean angle. You discovered how your bike’s radius tightens as the speed decreases, at the same lean angle, or the same “risk level.” As you trail gentle brake pressure into the corner, just leaving your brake light on, the bike’s radius will continue to tighten.

riding on a motorcycle cruiser

The BLI refers mostly to front-brake use due to its more-immediate effect on fork travel, but speed control can be greatly affected by linear rear-brake use too, especially on longer-wheelbase bikes.

#1 BLI TENET: Leave the brake light on at the tip-in

The difference between entering a blind corner with the brake pads touching the rotors or entering without any brake pressure at all is like entering a burning room with the fire extinguisher full or empty. A full extinguisher gives you a chance to put out the flames, while an empty one only gives you the hope that the fire will burn itself out.

Riders who light up their brake lights at corner entries put their pads against their rotors, and that move makes it so much easier to build or maintain brake pressure in case of an emergency, such as a car blocking the lane. Riders who enter a blind corner without the pads touching the rotors will often stab at the brakes when they finally see the car. Remember: A tire will take a tremendous load, but it won’t take an abrupt load.

Riding into the corner with your brake light on puts weight forward and enlarges the contact patch of your front tire at a critical time. The increased size of the rubber patch offers more grip at turn-in, and you can think about trailing off the brake pressure in this way: You enlarged the contact patch at the turn-in with a little brake pressure, and now you are coming off the brakes as the lean angle pressures take over to keep the contact patch large.

motorcycle riding in snowy conditions

Entering a corner without your brake light on is riding out of control, literally. Cruising slowly? No problem. Riding quick or in low-grip conditions is when everything the rider does counts.

Realize that how slowly or quickly you release the brakes is how slowly or quickly your fork rebounds and how slowly or quickly your contact patch reduces. If we’re always and forever going to squeeze on the brakes in a linear fashion, let’s apply that same technique to how we release the brakes. We are the fork-rebound engineers and the contact-patch engineers.

We’ve all run into corners too hot and found the bike won’t turn when the brakes are mashed on. The fork is mechanically bottomed, and the front tire is flattened under the braking forces, and that’s why braking later and later never works to reduce lap times significantly. You want to have your fork slightly collapsed at tip-in, so any necessary hard braking comes earlier in the corner entry, yet you leave the brake light on as you turn into the corner to maximize your geometry and continue to control your speed.

Your challenge for your very next sporty ride or trackday: Every time you close the throttle because your brain says slow down, pick up just enough brake lever to light up your brake light. Force yourself to do it all day, even if you know you don’t need the brakes for the upcoming corner or intersection. You’ll see that it’s okay to enter a corner too slowly, and you will build this vital habit with muscle memory.

riders in a racing line

The best riders in the world—a group I believe we should emulate—turn their bikes in a linear fashion and have insanely smooth brake and throttle movements. This smoothness with initial throttle, brakes, steering, and body movement needs to permeate a rider’s life.

#2 BLI TENET: Be able to light up your brake light midcorner

The reason you’re shaking your head right now and grumbling, “This guy’s an idiot. My bike stands up when I grab the brakes in a corner,” is because you are practicing the wrong verb: grab. A grab loads the forks quickly, and the bike wants to stand up as the front tire bites. If this same grumbler can eaaase on the brakes, the fork and tire will load smoothly, the bike will slow, and the radius will tighten.

Because you practice this smooth initial squeeze on every ride or drive, you will be able slow your bike midcorner, tighten the radius, and miss the truck in your lane. You will save your life, have more fun, ride in more control, and help grow our sport. Grabbing, stabbing, hammering, throwing, flicking, flopping, tossing… Those verbs need to be eliminated from your motorcycle-riding vocabulary because they add lean angle, braking, or throttle points too suddenly, throwing you past the limits of a tire’s grip.

We have a problem in this sport. Bikes and tires are better than ever, yet riding at trackdays and on the back roads isn’t improving. My friend Ray Ochs, head of Rider Training at the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, plans to work with me on this Brake Light Initiative, for all the reasons stated in this article. The BLI is aimed at giving veteran riders and new street riders one more tool to enjoy motorcycling and to survive this immensely satisfying but potentially risky sport. I leave you with this simple premise: By better controlling our motorcycles, we will enjoy riding more and grow our sport.

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