What is trail braking on a motorcycle?
Trail braking is a motorcycle an advanced motorbike riding technique where the brakes are used beyond the entrance to a turn, the rider gradually releases brake pressure between turn-in and the apex of the turn.
Why is it called trail braking?
The term trail braking refers to the practice of “trailing off” front-brake pressure gradually as you progress into the corner.
Many riders feel trail braking is an advanced technique & that new riders, and roads riders should not worry about. I absolutely do not agree.
As you see in the image above – trail braking could be described as part of a cornering transition.
As a new rider, without being taught trail braking, my ability to control my machine was impaired. I starting trail-braking myself naturally and I would go so far as to say that it improved my riding so much that it has probably saved my life.
Trail braking is an ESSENTIAL part of having full control over your motorcycle. I feel that fact that the CBT course (UK – Compulsory Basic Training) and the MFS course (USA – Motorcycle Safety Foundation) do not even discuss this is a shocking oversight.
[Another shocking omission from the UK CBT course is that I was given no real explanation of counter steering. I had no instruction on how to deliberately counter steer around a tight corner, I can testify that learning how to purposefully counter steer has almost certainly saved my life through a number of turns – I’ll discuss that in my next article]
Is it any wonder that it the new, low-mileage riders that are crashing the most, when they are not even aware of techniques to control their machine at the corner entrance; the brakes are a control, and riders that crash rush into the corner without full knowledge and competence of this control.
Whatever experience you have a street rider (most track riders at least have had some guidance around trail braking), please do read the rest of this article.
Is trail braking dangerous?
Riding well is difficult, riding poorly is easy and painful because mistakes can be catastrophic.
Abrupt braking mid-corner WILL collapse the geometry of the forks and make the bike ‘stand up’ potentially ending in a high-side crash OR it will cause a lock up and your front tyre, which will tuck under possibly leaving you in a low-side crash.
Remember, trail braking requires a light touch, a gentle release of the brakes, NOT another grab of the brakes mid corner. Think of trail braking as fine-tuning your entrance speed. The majority of your entry speed is STILL knocked off while straight-line braking in same you are told in training courses.
The trail braking force must used even more judiciously when traction is limited (in the rain).
Why should I be using this trail braking technique?
Trail braking will help you survive on the street and fully enjoy the sport of motorcycling on the track.
Trailbraking puts more load onto the front tire for increased traction to handle steering inputs. Trail braking can actually improve your bike’s steering geometry, helping it turn better. A slightly compressed front fork tightens the bike’s rake and trail numbers and allows it to turn in less time and distance.
Trail braking is enhances stability and control. Trail braking helps minimize forward and rearward chassis pitch (the rocking back forward motion) that occurs when applying and then releasing the brakes. When you trail brake (instead of just releasing the brake entirely) your suspension stays compressed as the bike leans and then rebounds gradually as the brakes are released slowly.
Trail braking with both brakes helps slow, but also increases stability even more. The rear brake also increases stability by “pulling” the rear contact patch in line with the front contact patch, controlling any side-to-side fishtailing effect.
How can I practice trail braking, it trail braking too dangerous to try on the road?
Hop on your motorcycle, with it switched off and begin to slowly squeeze the front brake. After just a little bit of squeeze you should hear a click sound. That is the sound of the switch that activates the tail light. Now with the brake lever squeezed to that position see if you can roll the motorcycle forward and backwards. What you want to do is ‘feel’ the pressure that needs applied to allow you to roll the motorcycle back and forth but still feel the slight resistance of the brake pads. That is an indication how much (how little) pressure is needed to trail the brakes into the corner. Too much pressure and you may cause the tire to tuck or lose traction in the corner causing an accident.
So how do I practice trail braking on the street?
Again, as I’ve said above, you must understand that the majority of your braking should be done before you tip your bike into the corner. Don’t get confused and believe that you are going to add brake pressure as you add lean angle. Just the opposite: you want to give away (release) brake pressure as you add lean angle because your front tire can only handle so much combined braking and lean angle.
Brake feel is a learned skill that includes understanding the dynamics of load transfer on traction as well as developing a feel for how your motorcycle’s brakes respond to subtle inputs.
Trail braking is the art of learning the importance of how to release the brakes progressively to prevent abrupt rebound of the suspension, which can cause the tires to lose traction.
By mastering trail braking, and gaining experience, it is possible to slow the bike down even when leaned, in some instances this skill might give you the tools to salvage a corner. If you think this skill will magically appear when you need it, you are wrong!
Start in a dry car parking lot, progress from there to slow speed corners on streets where there are no surface hazards. Then refine and solidify the technique, even consider to a novice track day and asking an instructor to help you work on this technique.
Mastery of your brakes, is equally (if not more) important as your mastery of throttle control , both go hand in hand. Regularly practice emergency braking and refine your corner trail braking technique to remain sharp.
Ride safe, Ride Smart
Smart Motorcycling Guide