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Often in a review of brakes, or an article talking about braking the author will use the term "modulate." E.g. "The brake modulates well" or "Modulate your front brake."

What exactly does this term refer to?

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It simply refers to how much force is applied and how that translates into braking action. Verb: 1) Exert a modifying or controlling influence on: "the state attempts to modulate private business's cash flow". 2) Vary the strength, tone, or pitch of (one's voice). – Daniel R Hicks Sep 12 '12 at 17:17
up vote 31 down vote accepted

Brake modulation how much fine control you have to apply a range of braking power distributed over the pull of your brake levers.

No modulation is basically no braking vs wheel locking. Having low modulation will mean it's hard to feather the brakes and you can only really lock up the pads. Too much modulation means you will bottom out on the levers before you lock up on the wheels. Ideal modulation gives you access to the whole range of braking power desired and allows you to apply it evenly across the range of the brake lever, giving you fine control over feathering the brakes, stopping firmly, or locking the wheel.

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Perfect explanation and great graphic showing what proper tuning looks like. – Glenn Sep 12 '12 at 17:12
Except that that's not the definition of modulation, but rather of the ability to modulate. – Daniel R Hicks Sep 12 '12 at 17:18
Thanks for going beyond the definition and explaining it in practice. – user973810 Sep 12 '12 at 18:28
Besides the principle of "modulation by displacement", as shown in this answer, I think another useful one is "modulation by FORCE", in which stopping power would be proportional to the force applied, disregarding displacement (the possibly non-linear relation between force and displacement then would define the "feel" of a brake system). This is often the difference I feel when comparing long-lever V-brakes (evenly distributed displacement- related modulation) and high-end hydraulic discs (evenly distributed force-related modulation without wide variation in lever displacement). – heltonbiker Sep 13 '12 at 11:43

Lightly feathering the brakes. Hard braking often locks up a tire causing a skid or to break free from the ground. This is uncontrolled and damages both tires and trails.

So to modulate the brakes, slowly squeeze the brake lever, and pausing mid way once the brakes are working, you probably have more you could squeeze, just dont need to.

Different brake set ups will offer differing levels of available modulation.

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and if you lock the front wheel, especially on a downhill slope, you stand a pretty good chance of damaging your face! – GordonM Sep 21 '12 at 9:48

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