We receive many questions from new students, regardless of their level regarding brakes: “What brakes are good?” Are they the ones with the best reviews? The ones that cost the most (“get what you pay for”)? The brand? Or are they the ones that feel best when you ride? Having a good relationship with your brakes is definitely a key to enjoying your mountain bike rides. Here are a few tips from our BICP Instructor Trainer, Zoae Spackman, from MarchNorthwest and WMBC JoyRiders, that can help you and your students have a better ride.
When do you feel that threshold of stopping power? Does it happen as soon as you lightly pull your lever or are you holding on for dear life in hope that your brakes will grip and stop before that cliff? Personally, I like my stopping power to come sooner rather than later when I apply my brakes. When you ride with beginners and children like I do, being able to make gradual changes in braking (*think “Modulation”*) is great. When I first got my bike and was learning what felt right for my bike, the brakes it came with required pulling the lever down to the handlebars just to maintain a slow crawl downhill while coaching children. Not only did it give me serious finger cramps, my rides were shorter and not very enjoyable because of the hand pain. After suffering through a few sessions, I switched to a brake that has stopping power sooner and does not pull all the way to the bar. I like how the lever feels and as a bonus, they give me extra confidence in my riding and stopping power. Problem solved! Now, for your clients, if you see the death grip when reviewing the ABC Quick Hand Check checklist with them, that would be a great time to make a few adjustments or suggestions.
Another important piece of braking is the placement of your brake and levers. A few common errors are highlighted below:
- If your levers are too close to the grip causing you to want to pull with 2 (or more) fingers so they engage, adjust them so that your index fingers rest lightly on each brake 100% of the time. Ideally, the end of the lever should be 2.5-3.5 inches (approx. 6-9cm) from the end of the handlebars.
- Do you find yourself constantly reaching for or straining to hold the brake lever? Your levers are likely too far away from the handlebars. Placing the outside of the rider’s palm at the end of the handlebar, wrapping 3 fingers around the bar, you should be able to more naturally reach for the end of the lever with the index finger.
- Your levers look like they are “kissing the sky” (they point upwards and you have to reach up to modulate your brakes), keeping you from being able to have a deeper bend in the elbow for a proper ready position. And, ergonomically, it’s not a very sustainable position for the wrists.
Always check brake placement on your clients’ bikes, paying special attention to children’s bikes. I recommend carrying a full set of Allen wrenches so you can adjust the set screw and make any adjustments as-needed to the levers. If you don’t feel comfortable working on the student’s bike or your employer guidelines do not permit it, do refer them to an appropriate shop or mechanic to address. #safetyfirst
Who’s Number 1?
Now, just how many fingers should be on those properly-adjusted levers? ONE FINGER! I tell students they only need one finger because:
- Modern hydraulic disc brakes (even good V-brakes) are powerful enough that they don’t really require more than one finger
- Your index finger moves differently than the rest of your fingers and can move independently
- Having more fingers on the handlebars with one to operate the brake lever gives you more stability
- Here’s the caveat: For children, especially those with V-brakes or cable disc brakes, two fingers are acceptable because, let’s face it, their hands are small, the levers are big, and the cable is hard to pull. For everyone else, 1 finger once you’re certain the level is correctly positioned and the brake system demonstrates adequate stopping power.
I have them experience the second bullet by making a fist, then extending their index finger and wiggle it about, feeling how the other fingers are relatively undisturbed. Then I have them extend their middle finger, and they can feel how the ring finger will start to pull away from the palm of the hand, and feel tension in the back of the hand. This can compromise the integrity of their grip on the, uh, grip. Also, when they feel that their index finger can reach out and not disturb the rest of the fingers, this makes it easier for them to always “cover the brakes”.
Along with the bracing feet, which we’ll cover in another post, your equipment, technique, and proper set-up will help build confidence and open the door to other advanced braking techniques on the bike!
Let’s hear your experiences, your questions, and comments below!