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July 19, 2011  |  Power Braking  |  7162 hit(s)

I took my motorcycle in for a 12K service not long ago, and when it was done and we were going over the "inspection points," the technician noted that I had about 50% left on my brakes. "How much should I expect to be able to get out of set of brakes?" I asked him. "About 12,000 miles," he said. Then after a moment, he realized what we were talking about and said "Oh!"

The fact is, I use my brakes sparingly. One of the habits I've developed as a motorcyclist is to leave plenty of space between me and the guy in front of me. My favorite way to slow down is just to ease off the throttle. That, and I downshift a lot; unlike cars, you can't skip gears down or up on a bike, so you have to click your way down to first anyway.

But the most profound reason I avoid using the brakes on the bike is that it kind of terrifies me. Braking on a motorcycle is a fraught proposition. The physics are against you — when you hit the brakes, the bike's weight transfers forward, meaning that it is easy, easy for the back wheel to lose traction.

Then things get interesting indeed, as per the MSF Basic RiderCourse(tm) manual:
The biggest danger in any rear-tire skid is releasing the rear brake when the rear wheel is out of alignment with the front wheel. If the rear wheel stops skidding and resumes rolling when it is out of line with the direction of travel [i.e., if you release the rear brake], the motorcycle will immediately straighten and could result in loss of control. You could be thrown off in what is commonly called a "high-side" fall, and it is very likely to produce serious injury.
Not to mention braking in curves, where the basic advice is "try your best to straighten up before you brake."

Learning to brake effectively is one of the primary motorcycle skills. (Along with curves.) Old-time advice was to lay the bike down (literally) in order to avoid a crash, although David Hough observes that "Frankly, I've always assumed that laying it down is a crash."

Hough is also no fan of my strategy of simply avoiding situations that require braking:
Rather than think of smooth as never using the brakes, I prefer to think of smooth as being able to brake right up to the limits of traction without upsetting the bike or getting excited, whether rounding a corner or negotiating traffic. [...] If you intend to ride fast on public roads, you should be as good at hard braking and quick stops are at cornering lines and rolling on the gas.
To this end, as a minimum I have to practice hard stops, which Hough recommends along the lines of what they taught us in the initial safety class. I work with a guy who used to take his sport bike to the track and practice doing really high-speed stops.

I've also considered enrolling in a more advanced proficiency class, which tend to have names like Ride Like A Cop!(tm) (Example) At least in theory, that way someone's around to tell you what you're doing wrong. (I mean, besides if you flip off the bike, which might be another clue.)

Either way, if I'm ever going to both consider myself a proficient rider and feel totally comfortable on the road, hard braking is a skill I'm going to have to learn.