Trail braking is a skill that requires practice and keen attention to detail. Many who've learned the technique did so by either practicing on a race track or by attending an advanced riding school.
Simply put but complex in nature, trail braking is the art of using the brakes from the initial braking point, all the way through to the apex. It's often discussed at the Basic Riders Courseoffered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF); however, this is not a basic skill. It's not until the MSF Advanced Rider Course do they try to put this method to pavement, and even then it's limited. It's a progressive skill that every rider should eventually try and master, but be cautious.
[EDIT NOTE: Practice on a road you know, or better yet a race track, not some canyon twisties you've never been on before while simultaneously trying to keep up with a bunch of buddies you've never ridden with.]
Why you should learn it
[EDIT NOTE: For those of you who drive cars as much or more than motorcycles the same theories below apply for both]
There are two main reasons the skill is learned and then applied. One, it provides a contingency for emergencies on the street while going into a corner on the road. Two, it helps a rider get around a racetrack faster. Neither venue alone are exclusive to proper cornering technique—a rider can corner just fine by using the tried and true method:
See braking point and entry point, brake (set entry speed), look through the corner, turn in, steady throttle to reference points or apex, find exit point, accelerate to exit point while coming out of your lean, and stand the bike up.
[EDIT NOTE: Same way novice car drives are taught on the race track: complete braking while pointed straight, coast through the turn, then apply gas as exiting the corner.]
This algorithm (or something very similar) is taught at every riding school on the planet. This technique requires the braking to be completed while the bike is vertical; however, it creates conditions where the entry speed must be spot on in order to negotiate the turn correctly.
Photo by Doug Schnell.
If a corner is entered with no brakes and at too high of a speed, you've basically reduced your options to adding more lean angle. In this scenario, you risk grabbing the brakes when you see an unexpected surprise, or standing the bike up and running off the road. Connecting the dots through a corner should be a fluid motion—too much or too little entry speed negates this.
Trail braking offers several benefits. First, it dials in entry speed and allows a rider to fine tune corner speed. Second, it stabilizes the motorcycles chassis by sharpening steering and controlling load on the front tire. Third (on the street especially), it gives a rider the ability to increase lean angle without running wide, and helps to avoid obstacles on the road. Lastly (on the track especially), it's essential for overtaking another rider going into a corner or protecting a line to the apex.
Not Just for Motorcycles
[Edit Note: These theories and principles are the same for car driving as well. Watch the above video to see me experiencing trail braking around 8:45. It's a similar idea with motorcycling: gradual movements, as you shift the vehicles' weight forward onto the front wheel(s), because they're doing the most amount of work during a turn.
This can cause problems, as your releasing the weight off of the rear wheel. If you're too aggressive with this theory in a car, that's when you can feel the rear tires try to pass the front ones, oversteer. The same on a motorcycle, think "backing it in."
There's also the chance of locking up the front wheel(s), which on a motorcycle is far scarier than a car. Remember we said be careful?]
How it's done
First off, proper use of the front brake while vertical is key to trail braking successfully. Jabbing, clamping, or jerking the front brake lever will not end in fun times. Remember: Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. It's just like pulling a handgun from the holster to present to a target—the mind may be going fast, but the dexterity of deliberate motion is slower. This method, when practiced at brake points, leads directly into the next step of trail braking.
From the initial brake point onward, the brake lever is gradually released as the lean of the motorcycle increases to its maximum point. Once the bike reaches maximum lean, the brakes are slowly and completely released. The throttle is then slowly and smoothly applied after. This all needs to happen in one fluid process. Feel and finesse is key to mastering this.
Mechanics and Stability
Releasing the bite from the front brake pads off the rotors will abruptly cause the front fork springs to rebound at speed—whether the bike is vertical or not. Braking deep and hard the proper way, while transitioning for corner entry will (most of the time) cause weight to be lifted from the rear tire. Depending on how aggressive the brakes are being released from this state dictates stability, but it's definitely manageable while vertical.
If you abruptly release heavy brake pressure while dragging knee, the springs will again push down and then back up inside the front fork tubes on rebound. This can move the front tire in undesirable ways, creating more instability or a low side crash.
The physics are much more pronounced while leaned over in a corner. If there is one place where being a smooth operator counts, it's here. The suspension and tires are not at their optimum angle for taking sudden changes in movement or stress while in a corner. Again, remember: Smooth is fast.
Applying gobs of brakes results in similar outcomes and is much more dangerous at turn in or mid corner. If a rider is on the gas to the apex (at a lean) and abruptly applies the front brakes, this will disrupt the chassis and put the motorcycle in the worst geometry for steering. Collapsing the front fork will suddenly stand the bike up and push a rider wide out into a place he or she doesn't want to go.
Let's not forget that the front tire's contact patch shrinks or enlarges very quickly when a rider abruptly releases or applies front brake while leaned over. Grip comes into play, and a low side crash ensues if the change is drastic.
Coasting is the worst possible way to negotiate a corner. Diametrically releasing the brakes into gradual acceleration from the apex keeps the suspension compressed and creates bike stability throughout the entire turn. Here's an interesting nugget: Trail braking changes the geometry of a motorcycle by shortening its wheelbase, allowing for tighter turns—even for a cruiser. A Harley-Davidson Dyna Wide Glide can corner amazingly well with an apt pilot at the helm.
Things to Consider
Trail braking can fix little mistakes. The front tire of a motorcycle can only handle a certain amount of lateral stress. The dearth of usable grip comes when the front tire has met it's max load, which is based on a couple of factors. Track surface temperature, tire temperature, and too much front brake together will spell disaster. The technique is gradual and steady release of the front brake, and not the application thereof. Other factors to consider is the roadway or a race track's grip levels, gravel, sand, oil, and black top patches that can be encountered while cornering.
The last thing to consider is that trail braking is highly corner and situation dependent. The ability to utilize this technique allows you to make mid-corner adjustments in order to fine tune speed and direction. There are times when even on a race track trail braking is not required—like conducting a quick turn. Easing into practice is key, feeling how the front tire reacts is what sets the threshold for both comfort and confidence.
Lead photo by Ryan Skut.
This article was written by Justin Mendenhall.