MTB Dirt Skills Pt 2 - Braking

Oct 07, 2022
Cameron Allonby from Dirt Skills MTB Coaching is back with part 2 of the MTB Dirt Skills series. This article is all about building riding confidence by learning to control our braking. He covers cockpit setup, body position, comfort braking and race braking, with some skill drills to work on to improve your technique. 
The fastest riders are those who can slow down the quickest. Braking is often an overlooked topic when it comes to two-wheeled speed; riders are so determined to go fast that they seem to forget they will eventually have to slow down. Having the skills and knowledge to know that you can stop anywhere is confidence inspiring, and could be just what you need to hang it out that little bit more.
Knowing that you can slow down when you need to will help you fide faster, and with more confidence

Points to Consider for Efficient Braking Are:

  • Cockpit setup

  • Body position

  • When, where and how much should you brake?

  • Braking drills

Cockpit Setup

Confident braking begins with a comfortable cockpit setup. Hydraulic disc brakes are powerful enough that anyone will be able to stop efficiently using just their index fingers, leaving thumbs and the remaining three fingers to have a strong grip on the handlebars. Set up your cockpit so that your index finger hooks on the end of the brake lever with the lever pulling to the inside of your second knuckle.

Your index finger should sit comfortably on the hook of the lever and alllow you to pull the lever hard without your other fingers getting in the way.  

This brake lever setup allows the bite point to be close to the bar. Full braking power will be achieved when your hand is balled in a fist, a position that is strong and easy to control, helping you modulate pressure on the brake lever.
Lever angle should be somewhere between horizontal and 45 degrees - wherever is most comfortable for the rider is best. However, steeper tracks will generally see riders spending more time swinging off the back of the bike, meaning a brake lever position closer to horizontal will be the strongest and also the most comfortable for your wrists.
The perfect lever angle depends on the riding style and steepness of the trails

Body Position

When braking, you need to resist the forces of gravity as well as your forward momentum. The way you position your body will help control these forces and position them in a diagonally downwards force, ideally aimed between your tyres to give maximum traction.
A good body position turns gravity and braking force into traction 
To achieve this body position, think about pushing the bike forward. This effectively leans your weight back and prevents your body from pivoting around the front wheel and going over the handlebars. The harder you brake the more you’ll need to push the bike forward to resist braking forces.
Push the bike forward and drop the heels and wrists for a strong braking position
When pushing the bike forward, try to get your arms straight so they are strong enough to brace against the forces being applied from the trail. Also, drop your heels and wrists so they are perpendicular to these same forces. Before releasing your brakes, make sure you come back to your centred, neutral position so the bike doesn’t accelerate underneath you and put you into passenger mode.
The ideal body position will change depending on the amount of traction available. You should be able to use your arms and legs to shift your body weight forwards and backwards, adjusting where the braking forces are directed between your wheels. If there is plenty of grip and a relatively flat gradient, you’ll be surprised how far forward you can come as you direct forces through your front wheel.
Where you place your weight will vary with the gradient and the amount of traction available.  

When, Where, How Much?

In short, you should brake whenever you feel you need to slow down and wherever there is grip. This means that all of your braking should be done in straight lines so the central tyre knobs are on the ground.
Your brakes should be off anywhere you need your suspension to work freely, or you need directional grip e.g. off camber, roots or corners. This will let your suspension work at its best and your tyre side knobs will be free to claw at the ground and find grip, without having to try and slow down as well.
Look for key points where you want to brake hard, and resist the urge to drag your brakes through rough sections.
How much you brake will determine your speed down the trail and this is where you make the choice between comfort braking and race braking. The difference here is that comfort braking is an impulsive dragging of the brakes which controls speed gradually whereas race braking is aggressive deceleration for when you really need to slow down quickly.
The only reason to brake while the track is going straight is when your impulses tell you there is a need to slow down and you begin comfort braking. However, if your race braking is good enough, you’ll be able to hold full speed in straight sections and scrub speed only when you need to tackle directional changes.
Try to stay off the brakes through corners to let the side knobs do their work

Braking Drills

The purpose of braking drills is to maximise braking efficiency, helping to minimise comfort braking and improve race braking. To effectively manage braking forces, maintain consistent traction and avoid lurching down the trails; three key words to keep in mind are gradual, consistent and modulate pressure on the brake lever.
1. Slow speed challenge - Find a steep consistent slope and challenge yourself to ride it as slowly as possible with only the rear brake then repeat with only the front brake. Afterwards, you can try it with both brakes to feel the difference in your brake control. Keep your arms straight and use your legs to shift weight forwards and backwards so you can feel the correct body position for the best traction. When doing these drills, your initial application of the brake should be gradual and consistent before modulating lever pressure with the aim to minimise skidding.
The slow speed challenge gives you a feel for how your body position affects the performance of each brake
2. Recover from a skid - Skidding is not an efficient method of slowing down because a tyre that is sliding does not have traction. Sometimes skids are unavoidable, in which case it can be OK to lock the back wheel if control is maintained. A good drill to practice on fire roads is to learn how to recover from a skid. Ride along and lock up your rear brake, when you feel your tyre skid ease off the brake until your tyre starts spinning again, then gradually reapply pressure to the brake lever before coming to a controlled stop.
Skids happen, but you have more control when your tyres are rolling
3. Braking points only - With the aim to eliminate comfort braking, try riding trails you know and pick braking points. These braking points will be sections of trail with plenty of grip and are located just before corners. Try your best to resist comfort braking and use only race braking in these zones.
Practice braking hard at a designated point and resist the urge to drag your brakes through the corner

Braking properly will make you faster. With correct body positions and bracing both ankles and wrists, brakes can be applied strongly to reduce speed quickly. Feeling a gradual and consistent pressure as you modulate the brake levers will help prevent skidding and give you confidence. With this confidence you will be able to carry more straight line speed as you reduce comfort braking, knowing that your race braking will be good enough to pull you up in time for the next challenging trail feature.
More braking confidence = more fun
Cameron is available in the Brisbane area for small group coaching for 1-4 riders, as well as holiday programs for the groms. Check out Dirt Skills for more info.
Author Profile Photo
Meet Cameron

Cameron Allonby is a lifelong riding enthusiast and the owner of Brisbane’s Dirt Skills mountain bike coaching.

Dirt Skills aims to develop skilful and accountable riders who support growth within the mountain bike community by being a polite group of shredding legends.

Dirt Skills Coaching Logo

From the Blog