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How to improve emergency braking

Emergency braking
(By Mark McVeigh, former International Motorcycle Road Racer and MotoGP Engineer, now moto journalist and director of coaching at the motoDNA Motorcycle Academy.)

Emergency braking causes more confusion and trepidation for riders than anything else, according to Mark McVeigh of the motoDNA motorcycle training course.

  • How hard can I brake?
  • Will the front wheel lock?
  • Will I go over the handlebars?
  • How far can I lean over on the brakes?

As a motorcycle instructor I am continually amazed at how many of our students, who have generally had some training and are licensed, come to us with inadequate emergency braking skills.

It’s super important to understand and regularly practice emergency braking on your bike. Normally I recommend a quiet carpark with a slight up hill.

Maximum grip

tyre pressures Emergency brakingTo understand braking we must first understand grip. The main contributor to grip is the weight or load on each tyre. The ratio between the maximum possible grip and the vertical load is called the co-efficient of friction.

Slide an eraser across your kitchen table. Now try the same thing pushing down hard on the eraser.

This same thing happens when you brake on a motorcycle. The bike pitches forward transferring weight on to the front wheel, increasing front tyre grip. More so with sports bikes, tall with short wheelbase compared to cruisers, which are long and low.

Also consider the significant increase in grip experienced as the front tyre contact patch pressure multiplies due to the load transfer when braking.

To understand this, simply push a tyre with your hand and see how it flattens out. This is happening between the tyre and the road as weight transfers to the front tyre, increasing the contact patch and grip as you brake.

Also, as the brake is applied, torque is transferred through the wheel to the tyre contact patch, which creates a horizontal force at the road surface. The road pushes back on the tyre and equally the tyre pushes forward on the road. You can thank Newton for this mechanical grip; as for each force there is an equal and opposing force.

Front or rear or both

2014 Yamaha Stryker Launch Gasolina - South Wharf Melbourne Wednesday 14 May 2014 © Sport the library / Jeff Crow emergency brakingOn a motorcycle, the major braking power comes from the front. Consider how much power the rear brake contributes to a sports bike when the rear wheel can be in the air. Zero.

Other bikes like cruisers don’t pitch as much on the brakes and the rear wheel will not come off the ground. Thus the rear brake has some braking performance. However, the lion’s share remains with the front brake.

The majority of motoDNA students will lock the rear brake in initial emergency braking drills. This can put the machine out of control and the rider will be required to regulate the rear brake to regain control. Why bother with the rear brake if it’s easy to lock up and contributes little braking performance?

It depends on your bike. Good training and practice is the best way to understand your braking performance, your own reaction times and improve your skill.


Obviously in an emergency the primary goal is to stop as quickly as possible. However what about the distracted car driver behind texting on their phone? Make sure when you have stopped that you are in first gear and ready to get out of the way of any four-wheeled chaos that might come your way.

Engine braking

Nothing will slow you down faster than the front brake. Make sure you get the clutch in nice and early. Another good reason for whipping the clutch in is the tendency to keep the throttle on in a state of panic. I regularly reassure guilty motoDNA students that as long as the clutch is disengaged this doesn’t matter as the bike will not drive forward.

Trail braking

Kawasaki Team Green Australia's first track-day event is on April 8 emergency brakingTrail braking is a technique which is generally reserved for racers, used to slow the bike as quickly as possible from one speed (on the straight) to another (corner apex speed).

In applying this technique, a racer will approach a turn and at their braking marker apply full braking force, normally with the bike being upright. As they begin to turn in, they reduce brake pressure, easing off the brakes, decreasing or trailing the brake lever force as the bike lean angle increases until they get to the apex when they release the brake and apply the throttle.

Sounds easy enough in theory, but proper execution is complicated because it comes down to feel and remember these guys are doing this seamlessly, every lap on the limit! Trail braking is a handy skill to have and can be useful on the road in an emergency. Get training before you try this one.

Braking and turning

When emergency braking, you are asking a lot from the front tyre. If you need to swerve, best to get off the brakes and on them again. Again this is a highly skilled manoeuvre. Seek training and practise hard.


I have seen plenty of examples of the front brake lever not properly adjusted or simply too far away from the rider’s hands. This means the rider has to stretch to reach the lever delaying the braking process. This is especially important for women who generally have smaller hands. Make sure your front brake lever is in the ideal position. 

Road surface

Other factors such as road surface characteristics and other elements between the road and the tyre such as water, gravel and oil play an important part in braking efficiency. In the real world it’s a big ask to emergency brake on these surfaces. Experience, skill or ABS will define your outcome. Improve the first two with training. 

Anti-lock brakes

It’s questionable whether anti-lock brakes can out-perform a skilled rider. However on the road, with the unknowns in grip levels, anti-lock brakes are simply one of the best safety additions for riding a motorcycle. 

Real world

CFMoto 650NK Emergency brakingIn the real world you don’t know when you will need to emergency brake.

Thus, your total stopping distance will include a couple of extra elements such as perception and reaction times.

Perception time is the time taken to realise you need to react to a potential hazard. Reaction time equates to the distance travelled from the time you become aware of a hazard until you apply the brakes.

Perception and reaction times can vary with age and are typically 1-2 seconds.

Higher speed equals more distance travelled. At 100km/h, one second equates to nearly 30 metres! That’s almost 60m before you even start braking.

Tips for braking

It’s possible to lock the front tyre by grabbing the brake lever too quickly, before the bike has had time to pitch.

So first get off the throttle and initiate braking; this causes the bike to pitch transferring weight and grip to the front tyre. Then squeeze the front lever progressively until you come to a stop. At the same time you will whip in the clutch, tapping down the gears until you are in first gear ready to escape from following four-wheel hazards, all this while applying light pressure on the rear brake.

It’s best to practice using the front brake and clutch to begin with, then introduce the rear brake and downshifts.

Emergency braking is a must-have skill that motorcyclists should regularly practise. However, what about preventing the need to emergency brake in the first place?

* Improve your riding level and book a motoDNA advanced training course.

  1. Given the quality of advice on this article I can now rest easy knowing I will never do a course run by this mob – this advice ranges from wrong to downright dangerous

    1. Please be more specific. What is “downright dangerous”? Also, please note that all these techniques need to be displayed by a coach and then practised.

      1. I’d like to know what the other David means by wrong? The only thing I would question is the need to have a section on Trail Braking under a title of Emergency Braking. Even when he makes the statement “nothing will slow you down faster than the front brake” it is under the section of Engine Braking so it is not contradictory to the use of both brakes. The only thing I would criticise is the sequence he teaches people to stop and be in first gear for an emergency stop.

    2. David – Please do fill us in on your extraordinary insight into this subject.
      Having carefully read the article and with 30 years riding experience I cannot find too much to warrant the comments that you make.
      Perhaps you are an expert on this subject and are able to fill us all in on your extraordinary knowledge, but without any further evidence it is difficult to accept your assertions as anything other than the ramblings of a keyboard hero.

  2. Good article but a few minor points on how I see it. I know everyone has their reason for teaching what they teach and it is always good to get another perspective on things.
    It is proven that the rear wheel does lock up way too easy as soon as you suck that clutch in during emergency braking. In a real emergency you probably won’t have time to gear shift down… Personally I prefer to – Apply both brakes, progressively firmer on the front brake and clutch in just before stop ( the one time we snatch the clutch).
    I would be concerned if someone hit brakes and clutch at the same time and started jumping on the gear shift as soon as the proverbial sh** hit the fan… When they took off again they would more than likely still be in either a false neutral or still jammed up in the incorrect gear as they have not loaded /unloaded the gear box correctly.
    I ride both sports bikes and Harleys and I am a little more careful with rear brake on the sports bike because of that weight transfer forward, but I still set up with both brakes every time I stop.
    The Harley however I’ve used front, rear and compression braking all together in a bad ” oh sh** ” moment!

  3. About 2 yrs late, sorry. If Lin ever actually got on a motorcycle then my condolences to Lin’s family.

    Never read anything from Mark Hinchliffe, good article.

    For you newbies out there, please don’t think you’re going to learn how to ride by reading articles.

  4. Good article.

    I’d also mention the need to keep looking up, rather than down at the controls or front wheel, and the importance of bracing yourself so as not to move too much of your body weight forward.

    The other thing would be linked brakes, and the importance of knowing how your bike’s braking system works i.e. there’s little to be gained by applying the rear brake via the foot pedal if your bike has linked brakes.

    One thing’s for sure, you need to practice on any new bike that you’re riding as the reaction of the bike can be very different to hard braking.

  5. I’m no expert but with 40+ yrs riding 2 points come to mind.
    1. Since the geometry of the bike changes so much under hard braking, only practice will alert you to how your bike behaves under these conditions. Water, oil, fixed objects and road camber come into play.
    Spacial awareness and avoiding target fixation become critical.

    2. It’s more important to avoid collision than to bring the bike to a complete stop. That said, somewhat counter-intuitively it’s often better to accelerate out of trouble where you have better control of the geometry of the bike.

  6. Good article, but couldn’t look past all of the spelling errors. “Tyre”, “manoeuvre” *shudders*

    1. Hi Teresa,
      You must be in North America.
      In Australia, we spell tyres with a “y” and manoeuvres” with an “o”.
      While spelling may vary from North America to Australia, the laws of physics explained here don’t change.

  7. Hey, I actually have a personal question I am curious about regarding a problem in my breaking.

    I recently came off my bike performing an emergency breaking manoeuvre. What i actually found was that when I applied the front brake I had complete control at the begining. I applied a little harder to stop and found that the force of the breaking cause my front wheel to angle left and topple the bike.

    I was wondering if anyone can give me advice to if my breaking is incorrect or if there is a reason the bike wheel locked and went left (noting this has happened to be before going left – but did not result in accidents)

    1. Hi Harrison,
      It’s difficult to know why the front wheel lost traction based on the information.
      There could be a number of influences: Was it a loose surface, were the tyres correctly inflated, was it cold or wet?
      Progressive and smooth braking should not result in locking the wheels. But you need to practice ad get to know the threshold of traction.

  8. My 2 bits worth…
    To begin with, I would rather find a quiet stretch of road than a parking lot. The road camber plays a huge role in how your bike will perform under heavy braking in the real world.
    A problem for experienced riders is that they are often a bit too relaxed in traffic. This tends to slow the initial reaction time where the lack of stopping time is the enemy.
    The way I grip the brake is a forward action so I’m immediately off the throttle. I’m not skilled enough to be focusing too much on clutch, my thoughts are on the transference of weight and spacial awareness..
    My first consideration is whether it’s possible to rather accelerate out of the situation because the geometry of the bike is far easier to control.
    Most common emergency braking situations are someone cutting in front of you or you realize you’ve overcooked a corner or an unexpected obstacle ahead.
    Common lock-up situations are light bikes with small wheels (eg scooters) at an intersection in the wet. You would need to know to brake before reaching the intersection where you often find deposits of oil and small stones. (rookie mistake)
    When I’m hard on the brakes I’m acutely aware of front lock up and am ready to release and try again much like ABS would do. If the bike starts fishtailing, I’m thinking if I get in early can I use the change of direction to accelerate out of trouble. This has kept me alive in 35+ years of riding.
    I’m sure you need a totally different skill-set on the track where speed is much higher, conditions are controlled, you have braking markers and drift is expected.

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