A bicycle needs two independent brakes to be safe on the road. In fact, in England, Scotland and Wales it's a legal requirement. These brakes are usually hand brakes, with the right-hand lever operating the front brake and the left the rear. You can set them up differently, and in countries where they drive on the right they do: so be careful if you hire a bike abroad!
Some bikes have a coaster brake, operated by pedalling backwards. Fixed-wheel bikes do not freewheel, so the rear wheel can be slowed by back pressure on the pedals; it's a brake of sorts.
Setting up your brakes
Brake levers need to be in easy reach of your hands. If your hands are smaller than the male average – like most women's – they might not be. Better quality levers are adjustable for reach. Tightening a small screw puts the unsqueezed lever closer to the handlebar.
You can also move the levers on the handlebar to put them in more convenient position. On a drop handlebar, you probably want the brake hoods level with, or just above, the flat top of the bar. That way you can rest your hands on the brake hoods while riding, and the levers will always be at your fingertips.
On a flat handlebar, it's common to have the brake levers butted up against the grips. You'll get better leverage with your braking fingers – the index and middle – if you move the clamps a few centimetres inboard of the grips. Setting flat-bar brake levers at less than 45 degrees, so that they're more horizontal, will make emergency stops safer. You will automatically rotate your wrists back to reach the levers.
Test your brakes
Brake performance deteriorates. Brake pads wear, cables stretch and fray, and pivots stiffen. Check your brakes regularly.
Standing next to your bike, push it forward and apply the front brake hard. This should lock the wheel, stopping the bike and starting to lift the rear wheel off the ground. Then do the same for the back brake. It should lock the wheel, which will start to skid.
As well as revealing whether the brakes need attention, this test shows which brake stops you quickest – as well as demonstrating the pitfalls of yanking on either brake.
Front brake or rear?
The front brake is your primary means of slowing down and stopping. Some cyclists are nervous about using it, but you will only be pitched over the handlebar if your body position is wrong and you snatch at the lever.
The rear brake is useful for moderating your speed but not for reducing speed in a hurry. Because then it will lose traction and skid. Once you're skidding, you're no longer in control.
In normal circumstances, you will use both brakes. Reach for the front brake first and apply more force through that. On slippery surfaces, such as ice and gravelly descents, leave the front brake alone: keep your speed low and use your rear brake with care. If the back wheel slides, you can usually stay upright. If the front wheel slips, you will fall.
Slowing and stopping
Scan well ahead so that you don't have to brake suddenly. As you approach junctions or traffic lights, brake gradually and change down into a gear that you can easily accelerate away in.
Stop-start cycling is more tiring. You'll save energy if you're able to glide up to give way markings and then, if there's nothing to give way to, continue through the junction. Don't compromise your safety or break any rules. Be ready to stop.
Unless it's an emergency, aim to brake as gently as possible. Keep your weight on the saddle so that your centre of gravity is sensibly low and so that there is more weight over your rear wheel, which will help prevent it skidding. Be aware that other vehicles can stop quicker than you can. Do not tailgate cars.
Keep your feet on the pedals until you come to a stop, and then put one foot down. Leave the other resting on the pedal with the crank in a forward position. That way you can easily start off again.
Sooner or later, someone will do something stupid: for example, a car will pull out of a side road right in front of you. Your natural reaction will be to slam on your brakes. You might be better off swerving or accelerating. If you're too close, you won't be able to stop quickly enough.
That said, emergency braking is sometimes the best or only option. Since your weight will get thrown forward, you need to counteract that by pushing yourself off the back of your saddle. As you straighten your arms, drop your wrists by rotating your hands (a bit like you're twisting a throttle). And drop your heels down. You will now be able to brace the heels of your hands against the handlebar and your feet against the pedals. Squeeze the front brake hard and apply the rear brake too. If the rear wheel skids, let go of that brake lever and then re-apply it.
It's well worth practising emergency stops away from traffic, so that you know what it feels like, how hard you can pull the brakes, and how far you'll travel before your stop. It's not a skill you will need often, but you will need it.
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