Techniques – Mastering gravel trails part two

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In our last Masterclass, we looked at the qualities of gravel, what can make it slippy, and how you can ride in control. To further help you conquer the trails, in this issue we look at how to bring you to a stop, safely and in control…

Unless you include the ‘sphincter brake’ or the ‘Flintstones brake’, neither of which we find to be too effective, there are only three brakes on a motorbike, the front, rear and engine.

The front and rear brakes have a general tendency to affect bike balance (either by diving the bike forward or squatting it down at the back). This can be mitigated somewhat if the rider applies the brake smoothly and progressively (the way every rider should). If the surface is slippy, you don’t want the motorbike being any more off-balance than necessary.

Front and rear brakes both can lock up either wheel if over-applied, and if you don’t pick up on that happening, and immediately let off the brake pressure, you could end up on the deck, injured or worse.

Engine braking, compared to the front and rear brakes, keeps the bike’s balance more level and, if applied correctly, will not lock up the wheels.

To engine brake, we are initially going to presume you are in the middle of the bike’s rev band (this is where we recommend you should normally be). This position allows you to both accelerate or decelerate effectively. To engine brake in this position, simply, smoothly roll your throttle off and your bike will decelerate smoothly and in a more balanced stance.

The amount of engine braking is likely to depend on the type of bike you are riding, how you roll off the throttle, how many cylinders the bike has, the bike’s gearing, weight, etc. Some bikes, e.g. most single and twin-cylinder motorbikes, have superb engine braking. Other bikes may have less, but will still engine brake to an extent.

Use your engine brake when trying to slow down in slippy surfaces for the reasons already given. As your bike proceeds to the lower area of the rev band, deceleration may be less effective. To gain more engine brake deceleration, drop a gear (where possible) but be particularly careful when letting out your clutch. If it is let out sloppily, it could lock up the rear wheel and induce a skid.

Contrary to what some people believe, you can apply front and rear brakes, if essential, on slippy surfaces. As long as you apply them smoothly and progressively, this can be done safely.

A caveat to using front and rear brakes on gravel surfaces is they can lock up the wheels and could lead to an off. When applying your front/rear brakes, ensure you are looking at the balance point (described in our last ABR Masterclass) so you can identify if the bike is starting to fall over. If it is, then immediately get off the brake pressure on whichever wheel is locking and re-apply it more smoothly.

As the surface becomes grippier, the degree of front and rear braking can be proportionately increased with the engine braking supporting these in the background. Remember, if you experience a front/rear brake lock up, even though it may slow you down somewhat, it is not effective braking and could lead to an off if not released in time.

So, in summary:

  • When braking on slippier surfaces, use mostly engine braking.
  • When braking on gripper surfaces, use more front brake along with engine braking and a bit of rear braking.
  • When braking on surfaces that are in between the two above, e.g. dry mud, smooth dry surfaces, use engine braking along with evenly applying front and rear brakes.

If you over apply the rear brake and lock up the rear wheel, if your clutch is out, then your bike will stall and your engine could induce a rear-wheel skid. Engine braking will be lost and you could risk a low or high side.

Pulling in the clutch could prevent the low/high side but it will mean that you are now coasting. If this happens on a downhill, you could suddenly start picking up speed unless you got the bike restarted and carefully re-engaged the engine brake and/or applied front/rear brake safely. So, on a downhill in particular, try to avoid this situation.