Emergency motorcycle braking: A few thoughts

By | December 6, 2016

This post came into existence due to a question asked by a friend on Facebook, and also due to this interview of a multiple motorcycle world champion.

As much as I’d like to make my life simple, and try to generally simplify my thoughts, behaviors and emotions, the more I think about anything, the more I realize how complex everything is. Here’s the question that I was asked, which looks rather benign, straightforward, easy.

Let’s say I am on full throttle, suddenly spot an animal on the highway, and wish to stop in the least possible time, on a bike without ABS. Any tips?

The first thought that came to mind was “Brake like hell and pray to God!”, but that’s not very useful. I then slowly organised my thoughts based on a large number of factors, and here’s the answer I came up with, which has actually become even more elaborate with thoughts that came into my mind after I had ended the discussion with the friend.

Factors that affect braking on a motorcycle

Not all motorcycles brake equally well, neither does the same motorcycle brake equally well in different conditions. Here’s a small list of factors that might affect the way your bike behaves under braking. It must be added that ABS makes everything better, even if it robs you of one sensory input that makes riding what it is.

1. Tires:

Different tires from different brands offer different levels of braking. An MRF Zapper will not give the same braking power as a Pirelli Supercorsa. Braking grip also obviously depends on how old or new the tire is, with both of those extremes providing less grip than ideal. Generally, grip also depends on the tire pressure, lesser tire pressure provides a bigger contact patch between the rubber and the asphalt and hence helps you slow down faster. However, keeping the tire pressure too low creates its own set of problems.

2. Braking system:

On bikes like Dukes and RCs, the default brake pads and even the front master cylinder isn’t too good, the brakes are weird and can have a spongy feel. EBC brake pads make a huge difference, so does upgrading the master cylinder. This is true for a number of bikes, although it is also true that some OEM braking systems can be remarkably brilliant, for example the one on a Triumph Daytona. The point here is that not all bikes come with braking systems of equal quality, and it may be a good idea to upgrade them, if you feel the need for it.

3. Brake you are using:

This is common knowledge, but important to note. Rear brake is far less effective in stopping a motorcycle as compared to the font one. This is basic physics, the more you brake at the front, the more it gets loaded, and the more braking force it generates. This rule does not apply to all two-wheelers though. Old scooters used to have ridiculously bad front brakes, touching them meant instant death. Today’s scooties also tend to work better with the rear brake, since the engine is at the back, but it depends from model to model.

4. Lean angle:

Naturally, if you are leaned over to a side, the tire contact patch is smaller, and also your suspension is not in a position to be able to handle a large braking force. Hence, you’ll either use a very small amount of braking force to get your job done, or pick up your bike and bring the center of the tire into play if you need more braking. Some people in some situations are able to handle sideways tire slippage, and even use it to their advantage, but we’ll ignore them for the sake of this discussion, since this is centered more around road users than racers.

5. Surface on which you are braking:

This is again rather obvious, your braking technique on track would be different from one on a dirt trail. Your braking technique on a wet road would be different from one on a dry day. Your braking technique on a concrete road would be different from one on the black asphalt. It also depends on whether you are going uphill or down, since you’ll either get assistance in your braking, or resistance to it, both of which will require adjustment on your part. It’s all about what the tires can do and how much you want to push them, but experience plays a huge role in such a decision.

6. The bike:

Braking on a cruiser like Avenger or a Harley would feel very different when compared to braking on a sporty bike like a Daytona or an RC. This is dependent on a number of factors, like how far out the front tire is from the steering, the weight, and the bike’s dynamics. For example, in case of hard but progressive braking, an RC200 is more likely to stoppie, while under the same kind of braking a Bullet’s front is more likely to wash out.

7. Additional items on the bike:

This should also be obvious, but your braking distance with pillion is far more as compared to when you are alone. The added weight gives you more momentum, and it takes you longer to stop. This holds true for other weight additions as well, for example luggage in the shape of saddle, tank, or tailbags. Not only do you have to compensate for the added weight of these items, you might also need to compensate for their movement under braking.

8. Skill:

Skills comes from practice, to know how quickly a particular bike would stop on a particular surface takes time and judgement to understand. My first time on a slushy mountain trail at Rajmachi was horrendous, I folded the front twice because I was so used to using the front brake all the time. This is why it is important not to let yourself be confined to only one kind of riding. Don’t just be a tourer, experience track, trails, slush, dirt, and whatever else you can.

Is emergency braking always a good idea?

This is an important question, and one that not a lot of people ask. Consider the following scenario.

You are happily riding on a highway, cruising at 120 kmph on a bright, sunny day. There are cars, buses, and trucks on the highway too, but you aren’t really bothered.

As you take a slight left corner, out of the bushes you see a group of black buffaloes sitting majestically in the middle of the road, blocking it completely. At the same moment, you also notice in your rear-view mirror that a speeding Volvo bus is right behind you. 

Let’s assume that there are only 2 possible things you can do at this moment. 

  1. Brake as hard as possible to stop just before the buffaloes, but possibly get hit from behind by the Volvo.
  2. Slow down just enough to hit the buffalo as slow as you can, and possibly avoid the Volvo. 

Let’s also assume that there are no other vehicles after the Volvo, and no other dangers on the road except the buffaloes, and that only one of these 2 situations will happen, in the sense that the bus driver will avoid you if you hit the buffaloes and vice-cersa.

What will you do?

This scenario can also be applied to other road hazards, like potholes, speed bumps etc. On a busy highway where you have cars tailgaiting you, should you risk bending your rim by going straight into that pothole, or should you risk braking, which might bump you into someone else?

Such questions can never be accurately answered, they depend on a large number of indeterminate factors, things you can never know for certain. The bad thing here is that you do need to make decisions of such sort on the road, and when you do, you don’t really have time to rub your chin and contemplate what you should or should not do. Hence, it makes sense to be constantly aware of your options, and to understand beforehand what would be a better outcome for you.

For example, I’ve always risked going into potholes rather than braking and hitting someone else. My reason for this behavior is simple, I’d rather spend the money getting my rim fixed than to fight with someone else on a highway. This choice however, isn’t always that straightforward either. If it becomes a choice between life and death, that’s a whole other dominion.

The problem is that if you see an animal on the road, the correct action is NOT always to just brake like hell. For example, if you are on the Yamuna Expressway, where people regularly go above 150 kmph, sometimes even 250 kmph, if you brake hard abruptly, the chances of someone hitting you from behind are very high. If you had just kept accelerating and had hit the animal and fallen, the damage could actually have been lesser when compared to a Fortuner ramming you from behind at 150.

The point of what I’m trying to say is that emergency braking isn’t always the best thing to do. There are many situations where acceleration would save you, there are other situations where you might have to go with the lesser of two evils. One thing which is certain is that emergency braking is something that you should definitely know, even if you may never be able to properly apply that knowledge in real life.

A few thoughts about different animals:

Different animals require different techniques, not all of them react the same way. The 2 main points of consideration in this regard are the following.

1. Ability to make a decision:

When you have only a second to decide what to do, you need the animal to go with you in that decision. The contrast in this situation is real easy to see between dogs and donkeys.

If you see a dog on the road, and the dog sees you, chaos ensues. You decide to go left and miss him, he decides to go left and miss you, then he notices you are going left and he panics, starts running to the left, which is even worse since you looking at the dog going left had decided to go even more left, and the story ends in disaster.

If you see a donkey on the road, you are the decision maker, because the donkey doesn’t give a single fuck about you. You can go left or right, he doesn’t care. This is good, this is what we want, to be in control of the situation and to be able to predict the outcome, based on which we can make a decision. This also works for cows, buffaloes, and to a lesser extent, pigs.

In short, if you have the option to be a dog or a donkey in your life, be a donkey. Decide, do, die.

2. Possibility of going over the animal without harm:

This is an interesting thing to consider as well. I once hit a dog close to its rear legs, but I was lucky that he bounced off the front tire, rather than getting caught under the bike. Such a scenario is impossible with a cow, or a fat pig.

What I’m trying to say, in spite of the feelings this might raise in people who love animals, is that you have to decide if you can save yourself at the expense of the animal. This is possible with dogs, as sad as that might make you, and maybe with piglets, but not much else.

The most important thing is what happens to your front tire, if the animal comes under it and moves it to a place from where you can no longer recover, you are done. Generally, going over a dog with your rear tire will not make you crash, although it’ll certainly give you one hell of a jolt.

With this painful knowledge, it can be said that with dogs, it makes more sense to keep going rather than brake for them. Dogs are not good at making decisions, so you have to make one for them. If you keep going, they’ll either run away, or run back. Slowing down leads to confusion.

Cows, buffaloes, pigs are in a different category, they don’t give a shit about you. In their case, slowing down is the only option. You might be able to go over a dog without much damage, or without even crashing, but you can’t go over a cow without flying out of your seat.

As a general rule of thumb, it’s better to cross an animal with its ass towards you, rather than its face. This is because most animals run forward when they get frightened.

An ideal case emergency braking scenario:

So, let’s assume an ideal case emergency braking scenario.

You are on a highway, there’s nobody behind you, nobody in front you. You suddenly notice a group of cows sitting in the middle of the road, blocking it completely, and you understand that you must shed speed as quickly as possible if you want to stop your bike before them. There are no other road hazards, it’s not wet, and your bike, a KTM Duke 200, is in good shape. 

This is the procedure I would follow in such a situation.

  • Roll off throttle immediately.
  • Simultaneous to the throttle roll off, move my weight forward.
  • Simultaneous to the throttle roll off, pull the front brake as hard as I feel comfortable with.
  • Simultaneous to the throttle roll off, engage the rear brake.
  • Simultaneous to the throttle roll off, downshift as quickly as possible to engage engine braking.

All this would happen simultaneous, without any delay between the different actions.

Now, each one of these actions has complexities of its own. Let’s go through them one by one.

Moving the weight forward must be done without upsetting the bike. This is possible by gently sliding your ass forward until you can feel the inside of your thighs is pushed against the fuel tank. If you lift up your ass too high while braking hard with the front, it is very easy to find yourself flying over the handlebars.

There are 2 reasons for moving the weight forward.

  1. To load the front as much as possible, which’ll help increase the braking power, while also reducing the chances of skidding. When the front is loaded, a bike like the Duke 200 is more likely to stoppie than to fold the front, and arguably, a stoppie is easier to handle. This logic wouldn’t work for a cruiser.
  2. To use your thighs to hold tightly onto the bike, while your hands and feet and head remain stable to do what needs to be done. You don’t want any unwanted throttle inputs, or sudden release of brake pressure, or a missed downshift at such a moment, and keeping your hands, feet, and head stable is the key.

How you engage the front brake is also extremely important. In the heat of the moment, if you panic and grab the front, that’s the end, especially if your bike doesn’t have ABS. Generally, I try to apply roughly 70% of my brake pressure at the start, and then progressively increase it as the front loads up and as I get feedback from the handlebars. This depends completely on your experience, as a motorcyclist in general, and with that bike in those conditions in particular.

The rear brake will not do much, but it’s an emergency, and you need all the help you can get. The same principle applies to engine braking, although on bikes like KTMs, their engine braking can feel very strong and capable. It’s also important to understand that the rear is very easy to slide, so that’s something you should be comfortable with, and should know how to deal with when it happens, which it will.

If you feel the rear end fishtailing, it could either be because of the rear brake, or engine braking. If it’s because of the rear brake, you could simply release and reapply. If it’s because of the engine braking, I’d suggest just hanging on a bit, since it’ll grip back real soon, and pulling the clutch in to ease the engine brake may make things rough.

You will also have to decide what downshift method you want to use. I use the rev-matching method, in which you downshift one by one, while disengaging and reengaging the clutch, and blipping the throttle. You can also use the clutch slip method, in which you pull the clutch in, downshift all the way down, and then slowly let the clutch back out. Both will require time and practice to master.

It is also important to understand that in this ideal scenario, you are not using your steering at all, in the sense that you are trying to stop before the cows, rather than slow down enough so that you can avoid them and then carry on your way. Such a scenario will have a number of additional factors, which’ll need a separate article to discuss the skill of object avoidance.

Things you can do to improve your emergency braking skills:

  1. Use the rear brake often: A lot of people have told me that I use the rear brake too much on the highway and the city, that I should just relax my legs and use the front one. The problem here is that your emergency response needs to come naturally, you won’t have the time to think “Oh I’m not slowing down fast enough, wonder what I could do to make it quicker, oh I know, I’ll just use the rear brake, where’s the damn thing”. As my friend Mr. Anoop Pamu says, riding is all about your muscle memory, and muscle memory isn’t gained by resting them all the time.
  2. Learn and practice downshifting: It’s a lot of fun, I can tell you that for sure. I tried both the methods, and decided to go with the rev-match one, simply because it felt awesome, and sounded even better. It certainly is more complex than slipping the clutch, but I like my actions to have an aesthetic touch as well.
  3. Do emergency braking simulations: This is not easy, you first have to find such a place where you can brake abruptly without the danger of hitting someone else, and then you have to create imaginary obstacles on the road and practice. You’ll make lots of mistakes for sure, in my first braking exercise at Motovation Track Days, I remember sliding my rear for some 20 feet, I was almost sitting on the rear brake.
  4. Know your bike: Handling an emergency situation requires confidence, and confidence comes with knowing yourself and your machine. Do track days, that’s the easiest way to understand what you are capable of, and your bike too. Take your bike off-road, do stupid shit, slide around, stunt, crash. As long as you are in full gear, nothing is going to happen, and the knowledge of finding the limit will make a huge improvement in your overall riding.
  5. Try different kinds of biking: There are 4 basic kinds of riding you can do in India: Touring, track, trails, and city. Touring and city don’t teach you much, not technically at least, they are more a test of endurance and patience. Track and trails teach you far more, on a per-kilometer basis. Both bring very different items to the table, and give you a big opportunity to better yourself as a biker.
  6. Learn how the technical aspects of a motorcycle work: Read books, watch videos, watch others who are better than you. Twist of the Wrist is a popular reading option, although without applying it on the track, that knowledge can cause more harm than good. You can watch MotoGP videos, or other stuff on Youtube that talks about the technical aspects of braking, including tires, chassis and suspension. Cycle world and Life at Lean are good sites to read for this. Understand what preload and damping is, what is chatter, what is soft rubber what is hard rubber etc. If you don’t want to do a track day yourself, it’s always a good idea to just sit by the side and watch others go around, you can learn so much from their engine noises only.

This article, as always, spiraled a bit out of control, and there’s still a lot that could be said about this topic. It goes without saying that all this is just my opinion, learned through experiences in a very narrow field of motorcycling. Take my opinion, combine it with other opinions, and then make your own opinion, based on experiences, empirical data, and intuition, for as Bertrand Russell said.

I would never die for my beliefs, because I might be wrong.

  • Rajat

    My 2 cents on things you can do to improve your emergency braking skills:

    – Be aware of your left foot position relative to the gear shifter… most folks up/down shift and then move the foot under the lever and relax the foot. In case of emergency braking in my experience it increases the time it takes to start the downshifting process, you need to first move your foot over the shifter and then press down. Also the muscle memory to move the foot under the shifter after each downshift interferes with rapid downshifting. Keeping the foot over the shifter makes rapid downshifting possible. Since its not very comfortable/practical to keep the foot at the ready over the shifter at all times, being able to judge in advance that emergency braking might be required (for e.g. turns/curves, passing through villages, crossroads, very high speed relative to general traffic etc.) and accordingly adjusting foot position over the shifter in advance helps a lot in case you need to shed speed fast…

    – Engaging the clutch during downshifting in an emergency braking situation is imo a bad choice. You loose the engine braking every time you disengage the clutch and since there is really no time to think about many things in an emergency situation figuring out and practicing clutchless downshifting on your bike is essential to commit it to muscle memory, especially if you are driving like you have a death wish…

    • Akhil Kalsh

      That’s an interesting idea, I somehow have never felt comfortable with clutchless downshifting, feels lumpy and rough. But yes, theoretically it might help you shave off a few extra meters.

  • Rahul Sen

    Hmm… I kind of want to point something out… You left the most idiotic animal out of consideration…

    Scientists call them https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_sapiens

    I call them assholes…

    Have you ever noticed these animals crossing…

    They never bother to look in any way while on the road , using their eyes to glance at a electronic device , with lights emanating from such said device , while their ears are covered with strange bits of plastic and wire.
    The rare few times that this species stops glancing at the aforementioned device of electrical origins is to generally , glance at the butt or boobies of the female gender of the same species , if the glancer is a male , or if the glancer is a female , generally , at the butts of other male members of the species.

    The rare few times you catch their attention by honking and flashing lights and shouting it is highly likely that such said animals will turn aggressive and are likely to kill or maim you , even if it is them who have casually walked into a high speed section of a highway . Some rare and strange members of the species look up , apologize , and cross into the opposite section of the highway , whilst still looking at you , and get run over , even if you are shouting and pointing at a car hurtling down the road.

    And unfortunately killing such animals or running them over is considered a severe offence.

    • Akhil Kalsh

      True, I missed them.

  • Siddhant Pati

    Thank you very much for the very informative article.All your articles make serious sense than reading shit from various other renowned sources(trust me, I read a lot).You Sir have an ardent fan in me.
    I have had my fair share of experiences(almost 18 years) with bikes having all possible braking alternatives.Just switched over from a CBR250R C-ABS to a Benelli 600 GTS (No ABS Here 🙁 )

    With Animals I have classified them broadly in to two categories (assuming I am not having ABS on my ride)
    1. Dogs + Cats+ Small Animals Alike: Brake Hard if you have enough stopping distance else run over.Absolutely no two minds.They are nimble hence no instant preventive measures are enough to dodge.
    2.Bovines n such animals: These kind of animals cant turn 360 deg. quickly hence it is always wiser to pass them from their back side.Never pass them from their front as they may panic if they see you and run into you.

    But the most horrific situation is Oxen fighting on the road.Believe me its thousand times better if you can spot them at least 50 meters ahead.Turn and run.Period.If you wait providing an audience, get ready for a hefty repair and medical bill.Saw a poor BMW helplessly smashed few days back( I was driving a XUV 500 and luck on my side).

    • Akhil Kalsh

      Damn! I haven’t seen that happening till date, but sounds gnarly.

  • Vishnu Kumar

    Very useful article. The most ignored factor is the tires ! You can see so many of these idiots on the road with bald tires (literally like slicks!). Coming from TVS tires to MRF’s, I can feel the difference! Instead of previously ice skating on the road, I now come to a complete stop in a few metres with the MRF’s!
    What I am doing from sometime is pulse braking (not even sure if that’s a word!), where I dab both the brakes intermittently all the time. So it looks like I’m humping the bike :/ but I feel this emulates ABS to a bit and doesn’t lock the wheels. But, the stopping distance is a bit more.. What do you feel? Is it right? Coz it looks quite bad from another person’s view point 😀

    • Akhil Kalsh

      That kind of braking cannot be used in an emergency situation, and I don’t really find it to be useful otherwise either. Random braking may trick the guy behind you into hitting you. The most important thing to me while riding a bike is smoothness, and this method would not add to that.

  • N Sharma

    the comparo between dogs & donkeys was too good..the west NCR is littered with cows and recently with monkeys.. with monkeys its the god doing the decision work.. even before one does anything with braking, either the monkey has crossed the road or is on the cross 😉

    and when i have volvo (or 4 wheeler) on my back at high speeds, i just ’em pass.. even a little nudge from behind in high speed braking scenario would be bad for bike(r)..

    btw, subdued usage of words in this article 🙂 .. cheers !

    • Akhil Kalsh

      Subdued indeed 🙂

  • Aashish Mohammed

    A great article. Will help lot of new riders. I used to get up at 5:00 am and practice braking. Had a breaking marker set in my brain and braked hard from different speeds. Did lot of stopies(Rc 200 so no ABS) had a fall managed to break my mirror and foot peg but was worth it learnt a lot obviously riding gear saved my ass. Had lot of close calls managed to survive all of them. What’s your thought on two fingered breaking vs all fingers on the break.

    • N Sharma

      it’s emergency braking man, all fingers and nails if need be ..lol..:) no really, in such situation two fingers setup on the L/RHS will not help in balancing the bike through the process and after, IMO & experience.. cheers !

    • Akhil Kalsh

      Number of fingers is irrelevant, it’s all about force and feedback and stability. On my Duke 390, 1 finger braking is not an option, since the brakes are shit, and 1 finger is not able to apply enough force. On a bike like the Himalayan, 1 finger braking works, but I did not get enough feedback with just 1 finger, I was not able to tell if I had reached the bite point, or that I was close to sliding. On a bike like the Daytona, I had to do 1 finger braking, simply because 2 finger braking was painful. 2 finger braking was painful on the Daytona first because of the riding position, and second because of the braking power. I was hunched so far forward that trying to use 2 fingers in braking put too much pressure on my palms. Also, the braking power on that thing is so intense, that anything more than 1 finger is overdoing it.

      However, like the N Sharma says, it also depends on stability. If you use 4 finger braking, or that weird 3 finger braking that Sagar from Powerdrift does, your throttle control, and more importantly, steering control, might be compromised. Since you are not holding on to the handlebar with most of your fingers, the chances of making a wrong move are higher. This obviously does not work in all situations, if you have done 4 or 3 finger braking all your life, you would have naturally developed techniques to mitigate the disadvantages.

      However, logically speaking, I always use 2 fingers, both for braking and the clutch, and then I might change it to 1 finger for the braking, depending on the bike.

      • Aashish Mohammed

        Your right Akhil I’ve been using two fingered braking since I bought my bike simply because I used to apply too much pressure while engaging the brake with all fingers and lock up my front often(courtesy the MRFs). I felt comfortable with two fingers with my bikes setup. I get what you said with daytonas braking I had a chance to ride a street triple and only a tap on the lever with one finger was enough to slow down. I was curious to know this after watching the braking technique used by motogp rider as rossi used all four fingers lorenzo two and marquez one finger I know their bikes are very different and advanced in setup to the road going ones but I realised that it’s all about understanding our bikes and what setup we feel comfortable and safe in.

        • Akhil Kalsh

          MotoGP is not a great place to learn about road riding 🙂

          • Aashish Mohammed

            True that. I totally agree with you. I just observe it.

  • rishabh kaushik

    Totally worth the wait 🙂

    • Akhil Kalsh

      🙂