How To Properly Brake and Downshift Your Motorcycle

Proper braking and downshifting is something that you will really have to learn the intricacies of through action. This is what motorcycle safety courses and closed course training are for. Many people, myself included, learned braking and shifting on off-road bikes. The skills you learn in class, or off road, are directly transferable to the road, you just have to learn to handle the higher speeds and additional hazards of other drivers.

I will explain how to properly apply brakes in conjunction with downshifting to slow your motorcycle properly. Please keep in mind that nothing can replace the value of real-world experience when riding though.

Emergency Braking

This will likely require sudden action, hence it being an emergency. Some scenarios I have personally encountered include: a deer ran across the road, a car suddenly cuts over in front of you, or your rear axle just came loose and now your rear tire is wobbling it’s way out (true story).

Now is the time to employ both the front and rear brakes. Yes, the rear tire might be loose, but hopefully, the caliper is still on the rotor. With a purposeful and gradual pressure, the weight of the bike will transfer forward allowing the front brake to increase its grip. Simultaneously, pull in the clutch to disengage the engine. There are instances where using the engine to slow is advantageous, an emergency is not one of them as it actually increases stopping distance. Disengaging the clutch will keep our stopping distance at a minimum. Only when we can predict the stopping distance should we utilize engine braking to slow the motorcycle.

Approaching Designated Stops, i.e. Stop Lights, Intersections and Stop Signs

These are non-emergencies. We have sufficient time and distance to plan and execute a proper stop and we know that we need to stop. To properly brake for designated stops, let off the throttle, and take advantage of natural engine braking. As you approach, begin to downshift, with each shift allow the bike to brake itself via engine braking, repeat until you find first. Once you hit first, as the bike continues to slow, apply both brakes and then engage the clutch while coming to a full stop. I recommend keeping the bike in first at all stops in case you need to make an emergency move. If you are in neutral then you have one more step to complete before you can clear the path of incoming dangers.

There have been many documented cases of motorcyclist killed at intersections by drivers behind them simply not paying attention and the motorcycle taking a sudden impact from behind. Stay alert, pay attention to vehicles all around you, and be prepared to move into an escape route.

Approaching Turns and Curves

Ideally, when you approach a curve or turn you also have sufficient time and distance to plan and execute. Turns and curves should not be emergencies but they can be if you don’t plan properly.

As you approach, let off the throttle, allow the engine to provide breaking for the motorcycle and begin to downshift. You will repeat downshift and braking as you would at a designated stop until you reach the proper safe speed to enter the turn.

If, you realize you have not applied enough braking or achieved the right speed for the turn, do not panic. Attempt to apply additional braking before the turn. If you enter the turn and realize you are still too fast, first remember to always look where you want to go. Don’t fixate on the opposite side of the road as that is a sure way to end up there. Then you have three options to slow the motorcycle.

  1. Try to maximize your lean angle to tighten your turn.
  2. If simply leaning isn’t enough, apply gradual pressure to the rear brake. The rear brake is weaker with less chance of it affecting the balance of the motorcycle. The rear is at a less slip angle than the front, which gives it more traction generally and provides a wider bigger contact patch.
  3. The front brake should be your last option. You can still brake with the front, but you have to be very careful. The front brakes are more powerful, so you can’t apply it much without risk of destabilizing the bike in the turn, as the weight shift of the bike will be more dramatic. The additional contact patch loading will affect the handlebars, and will make the bike want to steer into the turn which will make it want to stand up. Generally, if you don’t have experience with front braking, its best to brake with your rear.

Hope this clears things up a little, ride safe!

A Web Developer by trade, find me on Github
A motorcycle enthusiast at heart.
Most days I’d rather be in the woods anywhere.