How many times have you come out of a corner and said to yourself, “I blew that one!” as you slowly roll away? If you are an avid rider, we are willing to wager that phrase has been voiced more than a couple times. In mountain biking, we do not often have the time to pedal and accelerate out of a corner. Instead, we rely on gravity and momentum to carry ourselves down the hill. This makes your brakes the most important driver of speed, which is why we are going to share some of our braking expertise from years of research and development with our professional athletes on World Cup tracks in this column and those that follow by diving into Part 1 of Braking Points. By the end of this you’ll have a better understand of what they are, why they are important, and what you gain by having them.

In literal terms, a braking point is a fixed position on the trail subconsciously derived by the rider as the best area to decelerate the bike with the goal of maximizing momentum and traction through a corner or technical area. You want to be able to track the terrain and check speed at the same time, so this point usually lands on a smooth section of trail before the corner or technical area. This point can differ based on variables such as trail conditions, steepness of the slope, rider weight, the braking equipment being used, and even how much tread is left on your tires. However, one thing is for certain, every professional racer on the World Cup circuit has them mapped after the first track walk for a reason: jump for show, corner for dough.

Before we get into the technicality and importance of braking points, you might be wondering what different sections of trail that we think the rider can benefit from the use of braking points look like. Below we have selected some photos from past World Cups to serve as examples, but they mainly fall between corners, rock gardens, jumps and heavy G-outs.

A sweeping double corner in Vallnord. Photo by Dave Trumpore

A sweeping double corner in Vallnord.
Photo by Dave Trumpore

 The YT Mob riders looking over a challenging rock garden in Maribor. Photo by Issac Paddock

 The YT Mob riders looking over a challenging rock garden in Maribor.
Photo by Issac Paddock

A traction testing rock garden battered by the rain in Fort Williams. Photo by Dave Trumpore

A traction testing rock garden battered by the rain in Fort Williams.
Photo by Dave Trumpore

A challenging network of roots in Snowshoe, WV. Photo by Dave Trumpore

A challenging network of roots in Snowshoe, West Virginia.
Photo by Dave Trumpore

The perfect table to scrub in Lousa, Portugal. Photo by Nathan Hughes

The perfect table to scrub in Lousa, Portugal.
Photo by Nathan Hughes

Identifying areas like these on your local trails and creating a strategy of how to efficiently brake through them can make all the difference in how much momentum you can carry out of a corner, how your bike operates over the rough terrain, and how confident you are to push the limits.

So, what happens when you actually apply the brakes? Answer – A LOT! The entire chassis and geometry of the bike will change, thereby altering the bike’s cornering dynamics, changing how the suspension reacts to bumps, and varying the tires’ ability to hold traction. When the front brake is applied, the fork will naturally compress as the rider’s weight shifts forward, thereby steepening the head tube angle and decreasing the wheelbase slightly to create a tighter turning radius under braking. This can result in the front wheel turning in on a tighter angle and in some cases, pitching you right over the bars.

Regardless of how the geometry of the bike changes, it is important to know that once the bike is touching the ground, the axles become a key pivot point for how the wheel reacts in relation to forward movement and this can be one of the main influences on where you set your braking point. Over rough terrain you want the wheel to be rotating without any resistance from braking so it can roll over the obstacle and allow the suspension to do what it was designed for, keeping the wheel on the ground.

The moment the brakes are applied, the wheels will want to skip over the terrain instead of following it. This is because the wheel is locked in relation to the natural movement of the suspension which is like tightening a pivot bolt to the point of creating suspension resistance. Therefore, dragging or pulling your brakes over rough terrain will bind the suspension up and inhibit it from its natural movement causing the wheels to skip over the terrain and cause an overall decrease your momentum.

Your tires, however, are where it all comes together. When going in a straight line, it is not necessary for your tires to bite into the terrain, but in corners or over rocky sections they are under compression and fighting to bite into the dirt or rock to transfer that forward kinetic energy into a different direction. As you initiate a turn, your body will change position, your suspension will activate, and the friction at the tire and ground juncture increases. When you hit the brakes in a turn (the front especially), you are increasing the friction of the tire in the old direction and this eventually exceeds the available usable traction to roll in the new direction. Once this happens, you will skid in the direction of the current kinetic energy (mass of body and bike at speed). Along with this, activating the front brake will unweight the rear wheel and decrease rear tire traction. When the rear brake is applied at the same time as the front, the rear tires traction decreases even more as the rear wheel is further unweighted and the rotation of the tire slows compared to forward momentum of the bike which can cause the wheel to lock up and skid out. A brakeless turn, therefore, allows the tires to use all the friction at the contact patch for a change of direction.

It does not end there though because at some point, you will be releasing the brakes. When this happens, your fork will rebound quickly to the ride height position and your rear suspension unloads and becomes more active again. This rebounding effect can unweight your tires, once again decreasing traction. Many crashes actually come from the point where a rider abruptly releases the front brake causing the front tire to instantly unload and lose grip. This is important to know because you do not want to quickly release the brake, you want to do it slowly. Applying and releasing the brakes for a corner needs to be a slow fluid motion where you can feel consistent modulation in the clamping force (and you need good brakes to help with this).

So, what do you gain by developing accurate braking points? Well, likely a podium spot or at the very least some bragging rights with your friends. But in all seriousness, you’ll also improve speed, active suspension movement, and the traction to help you do so. When grabbing a handful of brake too late into a corner of technical section, traction decreases, exit speed decreases, and suspension movement is compromised. The earlier you brake, the lighter you can apply the pressure and the slower you can release it thereby comfortably maintaining speed and traction through these areas. Along with this, there will be less of a geometrical change on the chassis and suspension, allowing the suspension to do a better job of keeping the wheels on the ground and putting the rider in a more balanced position.

Now that we know the importance of braking points and the overall effect of pulling that lever, let’s learn how to best map them on track with Aaron Gwin in Part 2, dropping soon!