Dear MOby,

I’m proud that I caught on pretty quick that people who say “Never use the front brake or you’ll go over the handlebars” are FOS. But now that I’ve been riding my new (to me) ’08 SV650 about six months, some pretty experienced people I know are telling me never to use the rear brake. They say it’s too easy to lock up and send you into a skid and into the weeds, and why risk that since the rear doesn’t contribute much stopping power anyway? What do you think? Why is it there if you’re not supposed to use the rear brake, is it just an emergency back-up system?

Rear Curious


Dear Rear,

Although it is true that the vast majority of total decelerative force is provided by the front brake in the vast majority of pavement situations, the only time you shouldn’t use the rear brake is when it’s in the air, like Dani Pedrosa’s is here. How much rear brake you can use depends on the kind of bike you’re riding: The more weight you have over the rear wheel (big cruisers and touring bikes), the more rear brake you can use of course, without locking up the tire. Sporty bikes, with their shorter wheelbases and higher center of gravity, pitch forward during braking much more dramatically, reducing the effectiveness of the rear brake.

I was never much of a rear brake guy until I started riding dirt bikes a little, specifically TT-R125 Yamahas at the local vet track. On dirt, the rear brake’s almost indispensable, as you use it to kick the rear end out going around tight corners, for slowing down with your weight slid onto the back of the seat on downhill sections, et cetera. Since the rear’s usually sliding around anyway on dirt, the rear brake is very effective, and you get used to applying it in conjunction with the front to balance the bike when you’re back on pavement.

Later, at Colin Edwards’ Texas Tornado Boot Camp on yet another TT-R, the great Joe Prussiano answered the rear-brake question by stating, “When I wanna stop, I want all the brakes I can get.” Well, that’s racing on dirt, and you probably seldom need to stop with maximum decel on the street on your SV. For serious sport riding, though, the rear brake is still a great tool for controlling your motorcycle. It’s important enough that Mick Doohan had a thumb-operated rear brake built for his NSR500 Honda after his ankle got smashed up, and used it to win five straight 500cc championships beginning in 1994. On those 500cc beasts BTC (Before Traction Control), they’d use the rear to control wheelspin and wheelies, and without it Doohan said his Honda was unrideable.

In the real world, the rear’s most useful when you find yourself (or perceive yourself to be) in a corner too fast. Applying a little rear brake will slow you down and tighten your line, while eliminating the danger of too much front brake locking the front wheel. Aggressively trail-braking into corners (turning while braking) is smoother and more natural if you use both brakes; applying a bit of rear brake helps the rear of the bike stay settled.

In flat-track racing you’re not allowed to have a front brake. This huge rear Wilwood disc, on a Lloyd Bros. Ducati, was glowing red at the Sacramento Mile a couple year ago.

In flat-track racing you’re not allowed to have a front brake. This huge rear Wilwood disc, on a Lloyd Bros. Ducati, was glowing red at the Sacramento Mile a couple year ago.

The reason you’ve only got one small rear brake is by design; the manufacturer is trying to help you not lock it up. You can help them help you by adjusting the pedal so that you’re not applying much pressure until you’ve got some real ankle flexion happening; in other words, adjust the lever a bit low. (One of the lesser benefits of ABS is the ability to drag the rear around corners with zero danger of locking it up.)

On the road, the rear brake is kind of a finesse tool. You don’t have to use it, but if you learn to use it, you’ll ride smoother and safer.


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  • Jon Jones

    Fine advice, indeed. Use of the rear brake on the street also helps with a passenger to keep from knocking helmets when slowing.

  • Junker

    Agreed, but I think you left out a very important use: At slow speeds especially while turning handlebars, to keep the front from diving with front-braking and taking you and your pride to the ground faster than you thought possible.

    • Brent S

      Good point – I use the rear brake exclusively in slow speed maneuvers.

      Also, as a comment to the overall article, I think the fear of the rear brake being really easy to lock up is a bit over done. I know it depends on the motorcycle but I use the rear in conjunction with the front all the time when I’m stopping at red lights/stop signs and I’ve only had the rear lock once in the probably thousands of times I’ve used it and that was trying to stop super quick at a light that changed and I realized I was just a little to late and needed to stop quickly.

    • Douglas

      Amen to that, verified by a hairline ankle fracture incurred at barely walking speed in a parking lot when a periferally-blind shopper backed rapidly out of a parking slot, and yours truly instinctively pulled the bar hard right and hit the front lever. Musta looked like the tricycle-mounted, yellow rain-slicker goof from Laugh-In tipping over for no apparent reason (you won’t get that unless you were born before about 1960). The non-folding footboard on my almost-800lb Vulcan Nomad pinned my ankle to the asphalt, but didn’t even put a nick on the front & rear crash bars. Result?….a month on crutches, which really sucked!.

  • 12er

    My Multi has one but its there more for looks. It may keep you from rolling back on a hill, may…

  • john phyyt

    I think those who say “never” are generally FOS. Times and situations seem to change at lightning speed. When practicing wheelies on your SV make sure you cover it , actually practice bringing it down with a crash just to survive it. Also low speed turns are sometimes easier . What the hell . I use it to slow rear wheel ( No slipper Clutch) even when it is in the air. .. I have a dirt bike background, but even without don’t children lock the rear brake of their bicycles to skid anymore?

  • Alexander Pityuk

    Rear brake is an extremely useful control. Unless the bike is leaned over, you can do whatever the hell you want with it and be almost 100% safe. It inspires the confidence to explore its limits, to understand the physics of braking and the edge of grip, which is not possible with front brake. Mastering the rear brake leads to a completely new level of motorcycle control. You’ll be able to execute slow maneuvers, reapply throttle mid-corner, slow down with passenger and do other things in a much smoother and safer way.

  • SRMark

    Nothing like a rear brake for use in a parking garage or any other slow place with turns. Take that bike out into an empty lot and practice panic stops and slow maneuvering. That rear brake will come in mighty handy.

  • guymacher

    I used rear brake in my KLR to change my line in a corner.

  • Mad4TheCrest

    I use the rear brake in downhill sections, just a little to keep stable and keep all the weight from shifting too far forward under braking. I also leave the rear on a little after I ease off the front when braking hard(ish) into corners; I get a little more stability without making the steering slow as much (it seems). Of course every bike is different – the unit on a previous ride (Ducati 1198) was nearly useless, where the rear brake on my ZRX1200R has real effect (to name the two extremes I’ve experienced)

  • Max Wellian

    Bike dependent. Cruisers get a LOT of extra stopping power from the rear. Sporty bikes tend to lighten the rear to the point that it’ll lockup and fishtail very easily. If it’s in the air, you can brake on it all you want, it just won’t do anything.
    Agree completely about using it to set corner line and speed on the street.

  • symun buuntw

    Im on nnja250 non abs .most of my braking_on in progressive braking.alternatively,i also experiencing on trail braking together wth little throttle into tight curve on wet road.this given me total controllable n smoothly cut through curve.
    Sudden or panic braking sure turn into somewhere else skidding…