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Sheldon Brown's Braking and Turning Your Bicycle page states that:

Skilled cyclists use the front brake alone probably 95% of the time

and

"Generally I advise against using both brakes at the same time."

I certainly use my front brake more than my rear brake, but not exclusively. Specifically, I pull two or three times harder on the front brake than on the rear, and as I come to a stop and feel less traction on the rear wheel, I gradually let up on the rear brake. Sheldon's advice implies that it would be better to use the front brake exclusively.

The page states cases for the exceptions where a cyclist should use both brakes together or the rear brake alone but doesn't provide a rationale for why not to use the two brakes together. In normal conditions, is using the front brake alone truly better than using both brakes, and if so, why?

(Related question: When should I not use my front brake?)

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I don't normally like to contradict Sheldon, but I recall, maybe 15 years back, seeing a video where a "skilled" (stunt) cyclist intentionally locked the front wheel. He went head-over it the blink of an eye, and I seriously doubt that the rider was not "braced against the deceleration". –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 22 '12 at 17:40
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Not being a serious racer, I can only speak as a recreational and commuting cyclist. If I'm on dry pavement, I use my front brake 95% of the time. When I'm on wet roads, loose trails, snow, or ice, that might drop to 30-50%. Really it is more intuitive than anything. You can get a sense for what the conditions are like and go from there, but I don't think you'll find anyone can give you a totally fool proof answer. –  WTHarper Aug 22 '12 at 18:09
    
I can't speak for skilled cyclists but as a skilled motorcyclist you gain incremental braking power by using the rear brake in an unskilled way. Cruiser motorcycles sometimes live the mantra "No front brake you will flip". Its not valid. Most braking power (due to weight transfer) comes from the front. Keys are not exceeding traction, weight pivot points, quickly responding to loss of traction, and when sufficiently capable, balancing it with rear brake use which might gain you about 20% braking power. –  Rig Aug 22 '12 at 22:04
    
I have been thinking of this too. My thoughts are that context if very significant. Flat asphalt is one thing, 30 degrees sloped rocky road is another. My hold is that in the second case the back brake is MORE important than the front brake. Reason: although braking distance is important, stability is imperative in this case. –  Vorac Aug 31 '12 at 15:29
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Here are some test results from a motorcycle magazine's riding safety special edition: Rear break only = 93.6m. Front break only = 46.6m. Both combined: 40.0m. (Honda CBF 1000) The numbers won't be exactly the same for a bicycle of course. –  Chris Lercher Sep 12 '12 at 9:12

13 Answers 13

up vote 31 down vote accepted

Reference - Cyclecraft by John Franklin

A cycle takes more than twice as far to stop using only the rear brake compared to using only the front brake, which will usually stop the machine just as quickly as using both brakes. Nevertheless, you should always apply the rear brake, and slightly in advance of the front brake, so that a slight skid at the rear will warn you if you get close to the hazard point at which the bike may tip.

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What does this mean? "A slight skid at the rear will warn you... may tip" What in the world does tipping have to do with it? I use the front brake. –  Tim Aug 25 '12 at 23:10
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If you apply the rear brake the rear wheel will skid just before it leaves it the ground, warning you that you're about to go over the handlebars. –  Tom77 Aug 26 '12 at 15:01
    
Ah, ok, thanks. –  Tim Aug 26 '12 at 16:49
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highly disagree with "slightly in advance of the front brake" and the reasoning behind it. If you can feel the rear wheel skidding, you can surely feel that the bike is going upwards and going to tip you over. If you don't feel the bike position, no skidding is going to help you. –  trailmax Mar 23 '13 at 22:56

I'd qualify myself as a "skilled" cyclist. I would not say that I only use the front brake 95% of the time.

When riding in a peleton it would be very dangerous to make any kind of sudden stop as you cause alarm and possible collision with people behind you. If i do need to slow in a group, I use only my back brake. It allows a far more gradual slowing and better "feathering" of your braking.

I use my front brake if I know I'm going to be fully stopping, such as at a stop light or intersection. I also use it in emergency situations - if there's a crash in front of me at a race or something darts out in front of me like a squirrel or something.

In a race, I rarely use my front brake. I almost exclusively use my back brake aside from a crash avoidance situation.

On a casual solo ride, I can usually plan ahead enough that I don't need to use my front brake, but I'd use it if necessary.

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"I use my front brake if I know I'm going to be fully stopping, such as at a stop light or intersection." In this case, do you use only your front brake or both front and back? If not both, is there any particular reason? –  amcnabb Aug 22 '12 at 19:09
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There's really no need for using both. I usually use the brake of the hand that isn't holding my water bottle or reaching for a snack or my jersey pocket at the time. –  Tha Riddla Aug 22 '12 at 19:58

Simple answer is no. I do mountain trail riding and depending on the terrain I would say that the results may vary. How ever I would say that with my style of riding, I do use my front brakes 95% or more.

The main reason why I use front brakes that much is because of the control you maintain. Depending on where your center of mass "hovers" over your bike, you may need a different strategy. But I find that using the back brakes cause more slipping then the front. This is because my center of mass is typically more towards the front of my bike (I have low handle bars and I stand most of the time while I ride).

I would have to say this answer is not the only correct answer. The question is very general (which is perfectly fine), but the results cannot be averaged out to be get the results desired. Each style of riding has a different style as well and each riding will ride differently.

If you were to average every skilled cyclist then I would have to say no. But there are those like me who can go weeks without even touching their back brakes

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very good point about the conditions. –  trailmax Aug 23 '12 at 13:30

I generally pull on my brakes equally while on the road and bias toward the back if I am stopping hard while offroad. I'd rather lock up the back wheel around a turn than the front wheel. The front wheel only had so much friction to spend.

I rarely need to panic stop when it really makes any difference. Under most conditions the front and rear brakes are capable of generating the same braking force.

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Umm - no. Under most conditions, the front brake is able to generate about twice the braking force of the rear. Braking moves the weight forwards, giving you more traction on the front and less on the back. –  Rory Alsop Aug 22 '12 at 22:23
    
How often do you make emergency stops that max out traction? –  Brad Aug 22 '12 at 22:58
    
-1: There is ample evidence that the front provide more stopping power than the back. –  mattnz Aug 23 '12 at 1:33
    
The question is not "which is capable of providing the most possible power" but "which do you use most". How often are you in need of 100% of the friction of both brakes? –  Brad Aug 23 '12 at 2:16
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It's true that max braking force comes from the front wheel, but I interpreted Brad's statement as I'd rather risk a back wheel skid than a front wheel skid, which seems sensible –  Useless Aug 23 '12 at 14:07

I've always used both. Among other things, if you apply both brakes you're in much better shape should one of the brakes fail suddenly (eg, broken cable, unanticipated wet rim, etc).

But then, I've never pretended to be a racer.

Added: It should be noted that, unless you're riding like a maniac (or at least like a BMX rider), 95% (at least) of your braking will occur in situations where there will be no chance at all of a wheel lockup. In such situations either brake is equally effective, and, if you use both, you spread the wear evenly between them. This means you can go twice as far before having to worry about replacing a brake pad or a worn-through rim.

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This. Even so, it's exciting when you need a lot of braking and a cable snaps on you. BTDT, lived to tell the story. :-) –  Brian Knoblauch Mar 20 '13 at 20:27

Years ago when cars started to get ABS, the argument was that a skilled driver could stop quicker with it turned off, and there was proof of it. When Traction control came in a skilled driver could go faster with it turned off. When ESP became available, ditto. We all know that an unskilled driver benefits enormously from these aids, and it turns out not everyone is a skilled driver, and most are less skilled than they think...

I believe the "Only use your front brake" fits into this same category. In theory, you should never need to use your back brake if you are any good at riding. In practice, I use mine all the time, so either I am not as skilled as I think (highly probable), or the theory is wrong (Highly improbable - who am I to contradict Sheldon). Reality is that it's been a very long time since I had an "off" because I could not stop (And I have had the need for emergency stops with Cars, Horses and a tree -OK, the tree was my fault :), so I will keep doing what is working for me.

My "style" is to use the front for stopping power and the back tells me two things - how much traction I have, and how much more I can pull on the front before I go over the bars - both these things are kind of useful to know, particularly on a MTB with disks.......

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The received wisdom has always been that, in an emergency stop, just pulling hard on the front brakes will massively increase the probability of a flip - especially if you're on a downward slope.

The back brake is generally more for minor corrections, a bit of extra control on the speed, but implicitly not about outright stopping. In a peleton or paceline, where brake usage is generally frowned upon, if you do need to dab the brakes, then using the back ones will also send a message to the rider behind when they see it clinching - almost like a car's red brake light. Contrary to that, use of the front brakes is hidden to the rider behind - but they'll quickly notice that you've slowed down (and that is the way that reputations are forged).

Personally, my commuting fixed doesn't even have a back brake, so I'm hovering around 100% usage of the front brake, that's if you don't count the drivetrain as a brake - and I know that almost all speed control is done without that front brake at all, the only time the brake is engaged is in the last few yards before junctions and lights when legs alone can't do the job quickly enough.

It feels to me that usage of 95% seems high - but that could just be my style, maybe a little more defensive born of so many commuting miles!

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your fixed-gear bike might not have a brake, but you can still "brake" with it. When I ride a fixed gear, the majority of my braking is done through exerting pressure backward on the pedal. –  David Aug 23 '12 at 21:12
    
@David that's exactly what I said: that's if you don't count the drivetrain as a brake [...] almost all speed control is done without that front brake –  Unsliced Aug 24 '12 at 8:00

I've ridden several thousand miles a year for the past several decades, so I consider myself a skilled cyclist, or at least an experienced one.

I usually (80-90% of the time) apply both brakes equally. In a downhill situation, or one where I might have to turn sharply while braking, I might use the back brake more than the front. Having had more than a few over-the-handlebar incidents back in the day, there is no situation in which I would ever even consider using only the front brake again.

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That's interesting--was there anything unique about the situations where you went over-the-handlebar using the front brake? –  amcnabb Aug 24 '12 at 17:34
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Only that had to stop quickly, and I chose to squeeze hard on the front brakes as per the previously mentioned conventional wisdom. –  Brrr Aug 24 '12 at 17:43
    
Just my thoughts! However, this answer seems to be unorthodox. Reading all the other answers in this thread above yours (including the question) are on the same opinion - use the front brake. –  Vorac Aug 31 '12 at 15:41
    
I have had several similar incidents. The worst left some scars on my chin. Ugly thing when flying over the handlebar is that your legs are trapped on both sides of the frame and behind the handlebar. Then you can not roll to reduce the damage (at least I never manage). –  Vorac Aug 31 '12 at 15:43

After reading the other answers, there are a few questions to adress here, but I must say in advance I'm an inexperienced road driver (2 1/2 yr on a road bike, with about 2k-3k per annum). There is no correct answer, but it depends on the situation. Mayor factors affecting the situation are speed, steepness, wetness, curviness and your positioning on the bike.

On flat, straight and dry patches with your derrier on the saddle there is no harm also giving the back brake, next to the front brake, a tighter clinch. If the rear really starts skidding you won't loose control.

If your going downhill on a dry part with curves on a road bike, I can't really move my ass behind the saddle because I tend to drive wider curves, therefore I only use the back brake a little bit, so that it won't start skidding. If your back wheel starts skidding while going 60 downhill in a curve, you're lost...

When watching rookie mountainbikers going down hill, they tend to hang over the handlebars. If they then apply strong force on the front wheel they may really tend to topple over the front. On the road bike you are alot lower and therefore don't go over the front quite as quickly. I only once tested how much force it would take to lift the back wheel with a regular braking position: I was going about 35-40 and hit only the front break really hard on a roadbike in normal undergrip position. I could feel the rear wheel slowly lifting, but could reduce the breaking power long before I started to topple. The speed reduction was massiv.

Now the more interessing situation: I was road biking downhill on an up to 20% step road, with some wet patches. Without doing anything you excelerate up to 30-40 in an blink of an eye. Because I was hitting too high speeds on a wet and curvy patch I cliched the front brake harder, but noticed that it wasn't really slowing me down, therefore I panicly pulled the back break. It started skidding, and I nearly lost control, lost my concenration and had to let go of both breaks shortly and so on... Leason learned: On difficult and fast patches only use your back brake for minimal speed reduction, everything else endangered me.

In all cases I never noticed the front wheel loosing grip, which would certainly involve a crash. But I think this is only true for road bikes, strong disk brakes may well be able to block the front wheel so that it starts to skid.

To get back to your question: If you are skilled and don't panic and are able to dose the front brake quite strongly and the back brake really softly you will stop faster than only using the front brake. But most people are not able to "feel" the grip of both wheel and adjust both clinshing presures simulatiously, resulting in backwheel skidding or to weak breaking on the front wheel or some other really weird shit. Therefore I understand Sheldon's advice, even if I don't know his rational.

Conclusion: Learn your skills on safe parts, but don't risk doing experiments on dangerous slops. Only pulling on brake while learning also helps you understand how much only the front or back brake can recude your speed.

EDIT: On normal boring straight flat were I have to slow down because of traffic or such I use both to reduce wear on the breaks and rims.

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I think the reason for this is precisely the "safety" danger in it -- when you use the front brake, most weight shifts to the front wheel.

With more weight on the front wheel, the front wheel gains better traction (due to increased downforce on it, greater friction). Thus the wheel can "brake harder" without slipping (more friction on the front wheel means it can provide a greater braking force before slipping).

Of course, if you conditions are right, you could flip over the handlebars this way.

Is stop speed maximized this way versus the rear brake participating? I don't know.

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I use the front brake as the primary brake 95% of the time, but the rear brake does get used a bit too.

The key with any braking is applying pressure to the levers slowly. When you apply brakes slowly and are prepared to reduce brake-pressure the moment you feel slippage, flipping over the front or uncontrolled sliding of the rear really aren't problems. Flipping over the front of the bike due to front wheel-braking should only be a concern if the rider's reaction is to "grab" at the breaks rather than slowly applying them.

While I often use both brakes while road and mountain-biking, I never apply much rear during hard breaking and emergency stops. I apply the rear mostly for minor speed control or for attitude correction while mountain biking (forcing a skid, lowering from a wheelie, etc).

When tackling steep downhills on a mountain bike I exclusively use the front brake and modulate its pressure so that it is right on the edge of traction. When I feel the front tire begin to skid out or I feel the back wheel lift off the ground I reduce the braking pressure. On steep downhills I intentionally let completely off the rear brake so that the rear wheel can roll freely and keep me tracking straight downhill rather than sliding sideways uncontrollably.

Slight tangent: one of the best things about today's disk brakes is that they have a great usable range of braking pressures. Unlike V-brakes which come on quickly and hard, with disks it's very easy to modulate the pressure, even to the point of riding a front-wheelie downhill in a very controlled fashion.

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I strongly believe this statement is valid for only some of the many cycling disciplines that exists, most surely for conmuting and road cycling. For strict XC, maybe. But for All Mountain and Downhill this ratio must be out of true.

Diferent bikes have diferent geometries, thus locating the rider's center of mass at different heights. This alone makes a huge diference. In a mountain bike where you sit more rearwards and relatively lower than on a road bike, the rear brake can except a little more force before skidding than on a road bike. This also means you can brake harder with the front before going over the bars.

The rear and front brake serve slightly different purposes, while front brake is mostly for strong speed reduction, the rear brake is more for "speed control" and in some cases for stability.

Simply put, there are trails where the terrain would simply not allow use of the front brake while turning, these make ideal scenario for rear brake use. Consider a sumatory of forces aproach. If the steering force required is near the limit of the friction the terrain-tire interface can provide, braking force is very likely to exceed the available friction. In this kind of situation even the limited braking that the rear can provide is very useful.

Purposefully locking the rear wheel can also be a technique. I sometimes use a strong pulse to the rear to induce a short skid in order to align the bike to the exit line of a very tight curve. While this is not stopping or speed reduction, it is certainly a form of use of the rear brake and it requires some skill to be performed.

The first time I rode a hardtail mountain bike (suspension fork, rigid frame) i noticed that applying the rear brake alone caused the fork to compress roughly the same than the front, this without skidding the rear. From that I concluded that the rear brake helps increasing downforce over the front wheel, thus allowing even more braking force to be effectively applyed to the front. Diverse tests I performed led me to confirm this. (I tried the best as I could not to be biased).

Normally my wear ratio between front tire/rear tire is almost 50/50, particularily on my DH bike wich uses exactly the same tire front and rear. In my XC bike the ratio changes a little, but I use different tires, the brake pads, however, wear almost 50/50 (V-Brakes, double susp.). I also commute on a hardtail, in a very hilly city. This bike has the same tire model front/rear and uses really cheap V-Brakes. Rear ratio 50/50 for both, tires and brake pads, and for me is really easy to descend faster than cars and motorcycles.

I know this is more anecdotal than scientific, but I consider myself a succesful descender, both DH and XC, and for the terrain variety I have ridden, I would never dare to travel certain trails front brake alone, at least not as fast.

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On my commutes (most of my miles) I routinely use the rear brake.

Often I simply want to scrub off some speed, not come to stop. In such cases, I use the rear brake only.

I understand the "95 percent" theory, but in practice, not the case at all.

In a hard stop, yes, but even then, I use both brakes, especially if I am carrying a load in the panniers.

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