Trail Braking: An Essential Technique Beyond The Racetrack

Contrary to what some believe, trail braking isn’t exclusive to racetrack riders; in fact, it’s arguably even more crucial for those riding on the streets.

As a rider myself, I can attest that understanding and utilizing trail braking dramatically improved my riding experience and efficiency.

Trail braking not only aids in better cornering but also provides riders with several options when facing unpredictable scenarios and unfamiliar corners.

When approaching a corner too quickly, you have two options: increasing your lean angle, heightening risk, or slowing down.

Yet, braking during a corner is often considered dangerous. This is where trail braking becomes essential, offering a different, safer alternative.

Defining Trail Braking

So, what exactly is trail braking? Within the realm of motorcycling, trail braking involves gradually reducing your front brake pressure as your motorcycle begins to lean into a corner.

This technique carries braking past the tipping point of the bike, primarily focusing on the front brake. Utilizing the rear brake when the bike is leaning can be risky; trail braking is mainly a front brake technique.

Whether your motorcycle has linked brakes or you ride a sport bike, cruiser, touring bike, adventure bike, or even a scooter, trail braking is applicable and beneficial.

Problems with Traditional Techniques

Many beginner riding programs emphasize completing most of your braking before the corner and then gradually accelerating through the turn.

American riders may be familiar with the “Slow, Look, Press, and Roll” mantra. However, this technique isn’t without its issues.

The first problem arises when dealing with blind corners. How can you gauge your speed and acceleration if you don’t know the tightness of the turn? And why would you want to accelerate when you’re uncertain about what lies ahead?

Additionally, attempting to accelerate and turn simultaneously can lead to a tug-of-war between opposing physics forces.

Understanding Motorcycle Physics

When we decelerate, the motorcycle’s weight shifts forward, causing the forks to compress. This action shortens your wheelbase, decreases your rake and trail numbers, and makes your motorcycle eager to change direction—essentially, your motorcycle, regardless of its type, behaves more like a sport bike when you brake.

On the contrary, when we accelerate, the motorcycle’s weight shifts backward, the forks extend, the wheelbase lengthens, and the motorcycle becomes more stable, preferring to maintain a straight line. It becomes more like a cruiser when you accelerate.

The beauty of this understanding is that it allows us to manipulate the motorcycle’s geometry to our advantage. We can control how our motorcycle behaves based on our actions.

Making Use of Physics in Cornering

One of the enlightening moments as a racetrack teacher was when a student asked me about finding a faster line through a slow corner.

I had to clarify that there is no “fast” line through a slow corner. In motorcycling, the broader or gentler the corner’s arc, the faster you can navigate through it. Conversely, the tighter the corner, the slower you need to be.

Aside from counter steering, we can utilize braking to assist us in changing direction. By compressing the forks and modifying the rake and trail, we help the bike to alter its direction.

This combined with slowing down, allows us to navigate tighter corners until we see the exit. If the corner is tighter than anticipated or something unexpected appears, we are already braking, giving us more control and options to react accordingly.

As slowing down modifies the bike’s geometry and aids in changing direction, the next exciting part is using the throttle to straighten the bike, expand the turn’s arc, and power out of the corner.

This is the safest place to accelerate as we have a clear view of our path and are attempting to maintain a straight line.

Ideally, you should use the throttle to accelerate out of a corner, expanding your trajectory just enough to reach the outside of the corner without running wide on exit.

If you try to accelerate through an entire corner, you’re sending conflicting signals to the bike. Accelerating changes the bike’s geometry, telling the bike to go straight. Not to mention, accelerating when you can’t see what’s ahead is quite risky.

Trail braking, in contrast, leverages the design and strengths of the motorcycle to navigate corners with less risk and more precision.

The Correct Approach to Braking in a Corner

Contrary to what past instructors or fellow riders might have told you, braking in a corner is risky, especially if you rely solely on the rear brake once the motorcycle is over. However, trail braking differs in this regard.

With trail braking, we initiate braking earlier, albeit lighter, and maintain the brakes longer. As we approach the corner entrance, we ease off the rear brake and continue to apply lightly, or trail, the front brake.

Ideally, we maintain this trail braking, even with as little as one percent of total front brake usage, until we reach the apex and can see the corner exit.

The Transition from Coasting to Trail Braking

You might think you already do this by coasting into corners and accelerating. But, what happens when the corner is tighter than expected?

Can you add more coast? Braking puts us in control; we decide whether we need to brake more or less, maintaining optimal control over our forward momentum.

Coasting is similar to engine braking, which is akin to braking with just the rear brake—not the best approach. Moreover, engine braking cancels out the benefits we receive from using the front brake.

If trail braking is a new concept for you, start by practicing with a squishy ball, gradually squeezing and releasing it.

Apply this technique to every input you give your motorcycle, whether moving it around in the garage or heading into a blind corner.

Easing into Trail Braking

As you begin to incorporate this into your regular rides, don’t go all out with heavy braking up to the corner’s apex.

Instead, ride as you usually would, slowing before the corner, but start to release the front brake lever slower than usual.

This method allows you to learn how the brakes affect the motorcycle and become comfortable with these techniques gradually rather than all at once.

Remember, tires can withstand a lot of force, but sudden changes can be problematic. If we become proficient at adding and subtracting brake force in small increments, we’ll become better at never overshooting a corner or crossing that double yellow line.

We’ve included links to the excellent book, both available from Amazone. “Sport Riding TechniquesOpens in a new tab.” and the highly detailed “Motorcycle DynamicsOpens in a new tab.” if you wish to delve deeper into the science and maths of riding. Additionally, we’ve linked some reputable performance riding schools that teach these skills.

Feel free to comment if you have any queries or if there’s something you’d like us to cover more extensively.

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