I have only been riding for a short time and I remember when I was a child there was a belief that if you used your front brakes going downhill that you would fly over your handlebars.

However, my friend who is a long time rider said I should use my front brakes more often as they are more efficient and you would have to be doing something crazy to go over.

Is there any truth to the belief and should I use my front brake the most?

  • I once panicked and slammed on ONLY the front brake, and I flipped the bike forwards and nearly landed on my head (I'm at 230 lbs). Won't make that mistake again -- always use the rear brake as well. – Roy Tinker Oct 23 '11 at 3:44
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    Another easy way to flip over is to hit an obstacle. I have gone twice over the bars, and not one time because of front brake. Actually the reason was that my brakes have always been shitty and I couldn't decelerate enough. – Vorac Aug 30 '13 at 9:54
  • Yeah, I've only gone over the bars once as an adult, and it's because I veered into a ditch. When I hit the bottom of the ditch, I had nowhere to go but over the bars. Luckily no harm was done to me or my bike. Hitting an obstacle which stops you while going downhill is probably the most common way of going over the bars. – Kibbee Aug 30 '13 at 12:30
  • When i was 13 i told my father i used the front break most of the time and he told me that he did the same because it is more efficient. But one ride i slammed on the front break before arriving to a junction and my bike jerked forwards sending me flying off and breaking my arm (the bicycle then landed on top of me). I do still use my front break lots of the time but always start to break early and gently using the front. If there is an urgent need to stop, use both at the same time starting with the back. I hope this is useful to your question. – The bike pro Jun 4 at 16:39
  • It is true that it depends a lot on how quickly you apply the front brake. A good strategy is to try to apply it gradually instead of slamming it down, like you said. Another thing you can do/practice if you need to stop suddenly, is to shift your weight back by extending your arms and protruding your butt, while slamming on the brakes. You have to be deliberate about it, though, because the natural thing is to shift forward as your bike decelerates suddenly, which makes it much easier to go over the bars. – Kris Jun 4 at 17:55

15 Answers 15

up vote 24 down vote accepted

It's more dangerous as a kid to flip over your bars because there is much less weight preventing the bike from pivoting around your front wheel when you use your front brake.

The danger still exists as an adult, but using the front brake definitely improves braking performance. If you don't slam the brake there shouldn't be any problems. Additionally you might want to keep your weight on the back of the bike while braking downhill.

Sheldon Brown covers the topic of braking, you might want to give it a read.

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    TL;DR: use the rear brake any time there's a high risk of skidding the front tire (e.g., on gravel, ice/snow, or front wheel is off the ground). Use your arms to brace against the force of deceleration, and you'll be fine. – Stephen Touset Oct 20 '11 at 4:06
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    On gravel, ice and snow I am also likely to skid the rear wheel. Cycle more slowly in these conditions so that you can control your braking with both brakes without skidding either wheel. – Sam Meldrum Oct 20 '11 at 8:19
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    Ideally. Skidding your back wheel might be situationally bad, but skidding your front wheel is likely catastrophic. – Stephen Touset Oct 21 '11 at 15:59
  • There is a line drawn from the front-wheel-road contact point up and back at an angle that defines where the center of mass has to be relative to the bike to topple over. If the center of mass is above / in front of this line, you can topple, if it's below/behind, you can only slip. This angle depends only on a) tire material, b) road conditions, and c) break power. Weight of the rider is not part of the equation. So, when you scale a bike down to get a childs bike, nothing changes in its ability to topple over. – cmaster Jul 13 at 22:27
  • That said, the longer the frame relative to the height of the saddle, the more the center of gravity moves behind that line (= prefer long frames). Also, the time between the hind wheel lifting and the situation becoming unredeemable does change with the size of the bike: The larger the bike, the more time you have to release your break and save the situation. Not that that's likely to help much, you'd need to react very quickly to save a starting topple. Some people can do it on purpose, though - with motorbikes! (And, please, don't try to imitate them!) – cmaster Jul 13 at 22:34

This comes under the category of things taught to children which simplify the whole truth in order to facilitate learning and keep them safe. Late on they will be ready to learn how to use the front brake effectively.

When children are learning to ride, they are learning lots of new skills. Balance, pedalling and braking. They don't need to apply a lot of braking force as generally they are travelling slowly - whilst still learning - and also have lower mass - than most adults. So, for safety's sake and to simplify the learning they are taught to apply rear brake first, and front brake later to reduce the likelihood of going over the handlebars. In the conditions children are learning in - generally not wet slippy roads - the risk of skidding or fishtailing from applying the rear brake first is lower than the risk of going over the handlebars and the consequences are likely to be lower impact.

Once you have learnt the balance and pedalling and can ride the bike reasonably well. You can move on to more advanced skills to become a really competent rider. One of those is how to stop more quickly when going at speed and with more weight on the bike (i.e. you're bigger). Now the risk of skidding the rear brake, or just not stopping in time due to inadequate braking force applied for the speed and mass is greater and needs to be dealt with. If the front-brake is used properly it can apply much greater braking force, without the risk of skidding associated with the rear brake. The most critical things is to ensure you keep your weight behind the front wheel and not over the top when applying the front-brake. To do this, ensure your weight is toward the back of the bike and that your arms are braced against the handlebars to absorb the force and keep you on the bike.

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    This is a great answer! I developed the habit of leaning back a bit when braking - years before I realized why I was doing it. – Neil Fein Oct 21 '11 at 15:30
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    I've been using my front brake (on dry, solid surfaces) for years now by itself. There's absolutely no question that it's more effective than the back brake, and there's also no question that if your brakes are good that you won't need the back one at all under good conditions. Sheldon brown is spot on. – John Hunt Aug 5 '16 at 15:43
  • Good answer, so only a small nitpick: Weight is not a factor for either skidding or toppling. All the involved forces scale with the weight to eliminate it from the solutions. Geometry and tire/road material is. – cmaster Jul 13 at 22:38

Basically you just have to get a feel for it, depending on your bike, the brakes, your weight, what you are carrying (eg rear panniers), and the road conditions (loose surface, wet, downhill etc).

The two main things to beware of when front braking are:
1. Not going over the bars.
2. Not front braking through corners.

You can get away with the second one when traction is good, but you only need a little gravel, a little oil (middle of lane at lights is full of oil) that can cause your front wheel to lose traction under front braking. So #2 still holds! Avoid it! You should brake before corners.

When braking in a straight line you should use your front brake mostly, as it is your most effective brake, being wary of going over the bars of course.

For slow manouvering, or one handed riding (sometimes you have to indicate whilst cornering), or if you have to brake whilst cornering, use the back brake smoothly.

  • I have alleged the opposite in my answer: that when braking through corners, only use the front brake. – ChrisW Aug 30 '13 at 12:06
  • @ChrisW Motorcycles are similar to bicycles in braking dynamics. A motorcycle safety course will teach you that the front brake is the most effective brake to stop you in a straight line but the most dangerous brake whilst cornering. A skilled rider may be able to control rear wheel slide in corners or on loose surfaces but once the front starts to slide no amount of skill will save you. Controlling speed before corners is the most critical factor though. It can save your life. In Australia around 50% of motorcycle fatalities are simply due to going too fast into a corner. – Jason S Aug 31 '13 at 3:46

If you ride only paved surfaces, there is not much problem to use front brake, I think.

The main problem (from my extensive off-road background) is braking on curves or slippery terrain, where you should take a bit of care not to block your front wheel and fall from the bike.

I am not saying the front wheel should not be used on curves, or on unpaved terrain, only that extra care should be taken to modulate front and rear brake forces so as not to block and slip the wheels (unless, of course, you want to skid the rear wheel on purpose to correct your trajectory, which is a very useful menoeuver sometimes).

Also, when you go down a curb, specially when going down a slope (for example, going from sidewalk to street), brake modulation and demodulation might be useful too: when each wheel is "in the air" between the two different height surfaces, the brake on that wheel should be quickly released, and just AFTER that wheel hits the ground it should be used again. It helps not to tip over the front wheel, and not to skid rear wheel (I care about my tires).

Hope it helps!

PS: and just to answer your last question, FOR SURE you should use your front brake abundantly! It is the front brake that saves lives (yours and others')

It is remarkably easy to flip over the front wheel (I have done this as a child and as an adult) but far more commonly what happens is that if there is a slight turn on the handlebars and the surface is at all slippy the front wheel will fire out sideways extremely rapidly and you find your face at ground level!

I learned a lot of my control on a bicycle from motorcycling as a child, and a lot of the teaching is directly appropriate:

The way use of the front brake is taught in motorcycling is that you use the back brake a lot, and only ever use the front brake when braking in a straight line, and slowly increase pressure on the brake as the front wheel loads up (so you get more grip due to the additional load rather than braking traction.) In reality you can use light front braking any time you have reasonable traction, but the recommendation is to avoid it becoming a habit as in an emergency situation you might just grab the brake lever!

Losing traction on the front wheel is generally unrecoverable on a bicycle, whereas losing traction on the back wheel doesn't even really impact your ability to steer so it is always preferable to use the back brake more.

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    What may be good advice on a motorbike really isn't on a bicycle. The front brake is far more powerful than the rear on a bike and knowing how to use it a vital skill. Not only does over use of the back brake increase stopping distances it also cuts up the trails when riding off road as people inevitably skid. – Jackson Oct 20 '11 at 14:01
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    @Jackson - the front brake being far more powerful is exactly the same problem on a motorbike. The only difference is around mass and velocity, generally. I agree knowing how to use it is vital, which is why I have explicitly discussed its usage in my answer. – Rory Alsop Oct 20 '11 at 14:03
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    In NSW, Australia, to get a motorcycle license you have to do a course. They tell you that for an emergency stop you should brake in a straight line and 70% on the front and 30% on the rear brake. You have to do an emergency stop as part of the test to get your license. Depending on the brakes on your bike, it is easy to fail the test if you're not hard enough on the front brake. You would fail if you only used the rear. You have to do slow manouvering as part of the test in which case you can use only the rear. They do say though that only use the front brake in a straight line. – Jason S Oct 21 '11 at 6:07
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    @Jason, and increasing the front brake as the weight loads up on the front is essential, as you need the weight onto the front wheel before you can really use it. – Rory Alsop Oct 21 '11 at 11:37
  • As with the above, I ride MTB like I ride a motorcycle, and that's to the rule of hard braking in straight lines, applying greater ratio of braking to the front wheel, and controlling risk of locking up through feathering. Also exactly like a motorbike, you can control cornering through use of the back brake alone, where controlled forward momentum will help your slow ride abilities (road bikes in traffic, MTB's through risky log crossings etc). – ddri May 6 '12 at 13:51

In 30 years of riding in hilly cities and in the mountains, I use both brakes.

As for the front brake... I don't jam on it heading downhill. Also, it's most always the secondary brake when negotiating tricky downhill curves.

This is the type of thing that one has to develop a "feel" for. At times, I may be on the front at 20% and the rear at 80%. Or maybe 50/50 in other situations. In emergency braking situations, sometimes my butt is actually behind the seat and over the back wheel.

Suggestion... find a moderate, low traffic hill and practice, so that you understand how braking feels when heading downhill. Practice shifting your weight to the rear of the bike; and practice with varying degrees of pressure on each brake. After a few jaunts up and down a hill, you'll have a good idea.

Anecdotally, A while back, I had a rear brake cable that broke on a long descent out of the mountains... basically, I had to use the front brake only to slow down and stop. Probably one of my scariest situations.

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    When I'm on a long downhill where I must use my brakes occasionally to control my speed, I alternate between front and rear, to keep one brake cool. – Daniel R Hicks Oct 21 '11 at 22:19
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    @Daniel - Describe the Minnesota "downhills – user313 Oct 21 '11 at 23:19
  • Certainly not Alpine. But it may be 3-4 miles of steady downhill. – Daniel R Hicks Oct 22 '11 at 3:02
  • @Daniel R Hicks, doesn't that provide less control than using both brakes? That is, see my answer below. – Vorac Aug 30 '13 at 9:51
  • @Vorac - When I'm just controlling my speed on a long (highway) downhill, there's no loss of "control" using one brake at a time. The other brake is there if needed. – Daniel R Hicks Aug 30 '13 at 11:11

Yes you can most definitely flip over if you press your front brake too hard. But also it's the most powerful brake as when you brake, your body weight will push/pivot onto the front wheel causing it to transfer most of the force from/to the ground.

  • The angle of your front fork, a steep angle will cause you to flip over easier compared to a downhill bike where the fork almost points straight forward.
  • Is your front fork suspended. This in combination with a not so steep fork angle will allow you to notice easier where the limit goes as the suspension will usually contract fully before you start pivoting.
  • Is your front wheel wryly and you've got rim-brakes(v-brakes)? This can cause uneven braking and suddenly and unexpectedly lock your front wheel causing you to flip over.
  • How high up and how far back you sit. Higher => Easier. Further in front => Easier

So, conclusion: TRY where your flip-over limit goes and learn how to use the brake most efficently.

I've seen a video of a guy going head-over while braking. It happens amazingly fast. (Similar, BTW, to how rapidly a farm tractor will flip over backwards if you tow by wrapping a rope or chain around the rear axle.)

Going head over this way is pretty much inevitable if the front brakes lock -- weight transfers to the front wheel, multiplying its traction, so the front wheel simply cannot skid (on a dry surface). And, as I said, it happens too fast for you to react.

But unless your brakes are exceptionally "grabby" this doesn't happen in anything short of a panic stop -- ordinary downhill braking to control your speed is not a hazard.

I've seen it recommended that you apply about equal force to both brakes, and when you sense the rear wheel skidding, let up on both (since the rear wheel WILL skid). I have no idea how hard this is to do in practice -- I'm not so aggressive a rider that I want/need to find out.

  • I have no idea how hard this is to do in practice Some places have as a legal requirement that your bike must have sufficiently-effective braking that you can skid the back the wheel. You could try it on an empty street, using only the back brake. An argument for trying it is that you may need to emergency-stop some time. – ChrisW Aug 30 '13 at 12:13
  • There is a second way to avoid the possibility of toppling over: Ride a long frame. The longer the frame, the more front wheel traction is needed to unload the rear wheel. Up to the point where your front wheel starts skidding first on any ground. – cmaster Jul 13 at 22:53

If I need to brake I want to brake. The front brake is far more effective than the rear. Thus, I use the front brake.

I have never come close to going over the bars due to front braking. Going downhill, hitting items combined with braking will possibly get you in that situation.

Mostly this is a function of riding, getting comfortable on the bike and being prepared.

I think the admonition for kids (or anyone) 'not to use the front brake" is stupid and dangerous. It makes people think they should not use it and in cases where full braking power is needed they either are not able to do so or reluctant and get into trouble.

Use the front brake. It is where most/all your stopping power is.

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    I do not agree, the back brake is as well able to stop you, if adjusted right. I can stop on either brake and test that regularly. (And so should you.) – Willeke Jun 4 at 19:56
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    You can disagree all you like, but the fact is, the rear brake is not as effective as the front. – Tim Jun 5 at 5:55
  • The rear brake might be less effective, if properly adjusted it can easily stop your bike and so it should be. Not useless like you would say from your answer. – Willeke Jun 5 at 17:12
  • It depends on your weight distribution. I tend to ride with my center of gravity far enough to the back that, even with it going forward somewhat as a result of the physics of breaking, the rear wheel still has, at minimum, close to half the load, and often still has more than the front. Thus, the front break is not only not overwhelmingly more effective than the rear, it is not even somewhat more effective, instead ranging anywhere from about even to substantially less effective than the rear break. – Matthew Najmon Jun 12 at 18:25

Applying the front brake only on a mountain bike with a soft front suspension is very dangerous. As the front brake is applied the forks compress, now placing the riders center of gravity forward. If the forks bottom out, WATCH OUT! Trust me. I went over the handlebars 8 weeks ago. I broke both arms and now have a metal replacement elbow and extensive recovery time.

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    I'm sorry to hear about your accident. However, you went over the bars because you applied the front brake too hard, not because of anything you did with the back brake. If you'd pulled the front brake that hard at the same time as the back brake, you would still have gone over the bars. Best wishes for your recovery. – David Richerby Jul 13 at 14:09
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    @DavidRicherby - No, he went over the bars because the bottoming out off the fork was so sudden and unexpected that there was no time to modulate the front brake. The problem with using front brakes is that the border between being (of at least feeling) completely in control vs being totally out of control is vanishingly thin. The suspension fork only makes matters worse. – Daniel R Hicks Jul 13 at 19:10
  • "Sum of Vectors" I know someone who was accustomed to riding an upright rigid dutch bike. She was riding a borrowed a hard tail for some reason, and had to hard-stop. Due to combined turning and loading of the suspension, the sum of vectors threw her off the bike unexpectedly, resulting in elbows/ground injury. Summary: unfamiliar bikes are increased danger. – Criggie Jul 13 at 21:28

If for some reason you are riding using only one hand.

Other good answers have not mentioned group riding. If you are riding in a pace line, club group, charity ride, etc., you should not use your front brake except in emergencies. In short, any time you have someone riding behind you, you need to slow gradually whenever possible and your front brake slows you much more quickly.

Since I do a lot of group riding, I wear my rear brake pads out first, which is not typical.

The basic tactic for using your front brake is to shift your weight backward on your seat as you grab the brake. It takes a lot of experience to make this habit automatic, but it will keep you from flipping even in emergencies. You may still have the rear wheel hop if you grab very hard but you won't go over the handlebars.

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    So why not front-brake gradually? – Vorac Aug 30 '13 at 9:43

Poor traction.

When the front wheel is bouncing up-and-down-to-the-rivers-of-Babylon, engaging the front brake is

  • ineffective at decelerating
  • reducing traction and increasing chance of slipping.

This is the ideal case, of course. Use the front brake, but modulate it. When in the above-mentioned conditions just have in mind that the above results could happen from too much pressure on the front brake (basically if stopping only with the front brake).

The practical advice: at rough terrain, consider shifting the breaking balance a little to the back wheel (for example 60% front 40% back).

I have hydraulic disk brakes: which feel like they could stop a truck; and I ride on paved surfaces.

If I ever squeezed the front brake as hard as I could, I have no doubt that I'd flip.

When I squeeze both brakes semi-hard, e.g. for an emergency stop, then the back wheel starts to fish-tail. The back wheel will begin to skid before the front one ever will: because weight is thrown forward when braking, so there's more 'weight' on the front wheel than on the back, and friction or grip is proportional to downward force. The back wheel's beginning to skid is therefore a warning that too much weight is coming off the rear wheel, and so a warning not to be braking quite so hard.

The back wheel's fishtailing slightly isn't too bad, when coming to a straight-line emergency stop.

Once however I used both brakes, when going around a bend: and the back wheel slid out from under me, and I went down.

So now when I am braking while going round a corner, I only use the front brake: it's always less likely to skid than the back wheel is, and I find it hard to imagine it ever skidding at all (in the extreme it would be IMO more likely to flip me over the handlebars than to skid, except when the road surface is compromised by ice or dirt).

  • Braking only with the front brake in turns is quite a risky thing to do. Of course it is best to not brake at all while cornering but if you can't prevent it, you should do it with your rear brake. If your rear wheel skids or slips this situation is easily controllable – front wheel losing traction is not. And in sharp turns where you would need nearly all your traction to keep your wheel on track, additional braking forces on the front wheel may make the difference between rolling and skidding. – Benedikt Bauer Aug 30 '13 at 12:07
  • @BenediktBauer I understand your argument. My theory is that skidding the back wheel is not controllable while cornering (i.e. when you are already leaning over and with your feet clipped to the pedals), and that the front wheel (although equally uncontrollable if it skids) is much more difficult to skid. – ChrisW Aug 30 '13 at 12:17
  • An up-voted comment elsewhere says, "and increasing the front brake as the weight loads up on the front is essential, as you need the weight onto the front wheel before you can really use it" ... which may be true. – ChrisW Aug 30 '13 at 12:25
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    The problem is that on a turn the dynamics are completely different -- weight transferred to the front also increases the outward thrust on the tire, and if the surface is at all "iffy" the likelihood of front-wheel skid-out greatly increases. – Daniel R Hicks Aug 30 '13 at 14:48
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    From motorcycle to bicycle and even to car, braking through corners is generally not a good idea. Braking should be done before cornering. A motorcycle safety course will teach you not to front brake in corners and to brake before corners (around 50% of motorcyle fatalities in Australia are simply going too fast in corners). I'd be concerned for your safety and others with the advice to use the front brake in corners. A rider may be able to control a rear wheel skid (and back off the brake), but no amount of skill will save you if your front wheel loses traction whilst cornering. – Jason S Aug 31 '13 at 3:34

Actually you can always use front brake but you should never lock your front wheel if handlebar is not in straight position. You definitely do not want front wheel skidding because you cannot control it. Plus this applies a twisting force to handlebar and can pull out of your hands.

FYI: despite the other answers said, inertia pushes you from the saddle toward the handlebar when you decelerate whichever brake you use, front, rear or both. One could fly over the handlebar because decelerating too hard, regardless of brake used.

Also, adult have more mass than kid, and therefore have more chance to fly over due high centre of mass of bicycle-cyclist.

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    You should never lock your front wheel, period. If you do, you WILL go head-over, because the front wheel basically can't skid when on dry pavement. And it's pretty well impossible to be thrown over the handlebar using only the rear brake, unless you're really being stupid -- the rear wheel will skid well before enough force is generated to throw you over. – Daniel R Hicks Oct 22 '11 at 3:00
  • @Daniel R Hicks, more like comma. Locked front wheel slips, and if it slips right in the direction of bicycle movement and grips held firmly - bicycle stops. Your impression what braking by rear brake is milder does not make any sense and actually causes by worn out shoes. Physics is the same. – Premature Optimization Oct 22 '11 at 6:16
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    When the front wheel locks, the weight of the rider is transferred to the front wheel. More weight means more traction. On dry pavement with normal tires the physics of the situation (as described by several authorities) is such that the front wheel CANNOT SKID, so a head-over is inevitable. With the rear wheel the physics are exactly opposite -- weight is transferred to the front and the rear wheel is lifted off the ground, until it loses traction and skids. – Daniel R Hicks Oct 22 '11 at 11:46

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