TRAIL BRAKING ON THE ROAD
Rapid Technical Series information sheet
Numerous YouTube videos are telling road riders to trail the front brake all the way to the corner apex (trail braking). But is that really such a good idea?
John Westlake is one of the UK’s most experienced motorcycle journalists. The former editor of Bike and Ride has road tested almost every bike made since 1991 and is a contributing editor for Bike and Classic Bike.
Gary Baldwin is a crash investigator, ex-motorcycle cop, former racer and director of Rapid Training. He’s a blisteringly fast road rider and the man behind Rapid’s no-nonsense approach to fast, safe road riding.
JW: Trail braking on the road seems to be an internet fad. Is it something I should be practicing on the road?
I don’t think it’s necessary to, no. Riders would be much better off mastering braking in a straight line rather than trying to do it in corners. Many riders severely underuse the braking capacity of their bike and haven’t developed the finesse required to get the most from them. There is far more to be gained from mastering these skills than introducing trail braking. So for me, trail braking is a red herring.
One argument put forward for trail braking is it tightens your line and helps stop a bike from running wide. Is that not the case?
Going wide on a corner is a common crash that usually ends up being quite serious. But these crashes are because the rider has made an error with bend assessment or has panicked and target fixated on something they might hit, rather than looking at the corner exit. Trail braking isn’t going to help that. I think it’s far more important to learn to use your brakes as the manufacturer intended, and to hone your bend assessment skills. If you get these two things right, then trail braking on the road is simply not needed.
But Marc Marquez does it, so it must work…
Of course. On track it can gain you valuable seconds a lap. I'm not disputing the principle of it – and if I was on a circuit, I would be trail braking. But on a circuit, things are predictable, lap after lap. Because of this, we enter corners at speeds far in excess of the speed at which we could stop in the distance we see to be clear. However, when you’re riding down a new bit of road, everything is unpredictable, so we need that extra bit of safety margin just in case something goes wrong. This requires us to approach at a lower speed. If we then trail brake, we lose more speed than we need to. Raising your entry speed just so you can scrub it off again does not usually add to stability, safety or speed on the road.
What about the argument that you're less likely to panic brake in a corner if you’re already braking? So if something unpredictable happens, you’re primed to slow down…
Trail braking necessitates carrying more speed into the corner than you need, and I don’t think that’s sensible on road. As a crash investigator, I see a lot of people who simply don't get enough speed off before they go into corners and then crash. That's very common. So, it's counterintuitive to coach people to carry extra speed into a corner which means they need to scrub it off as they go in. I want to be going my slowest as I tip in that corner and from then on, I'm thinking about going faster, not slower. Let's just learn to use the brakes to their maximum and learn how to feed them in and taper them off – that’s far more beneficial to progress and speed than trail braking.
So how do I improve my braking in general?
The safest way is to go to a circuit. There’s always a hairpin bend which you can charge up to and get a feel of what the brakes are doing. You can do a similar thing on the road but obviously you've got to be careful who's around you. Practicing braking in a straight line would be far more useful for almost every road rider than starting to trail brake on the road.