What is it, can I do it, should I do it?
In normal everyday riding we are taught to brake in a straight line, once the correct speed has been obtained the brakes are realised, we turn into the corner or bend, which is the correct, safe and tried and tested route.
Trail braking is a riding technique where the brakes are used beyond the normal entrance to a turn (turn-in), then are gradually released (trailed off). Depending on a number of factors (speed, type of bend, road condition etc) the rider fully releases brake pressure at any point between turn-in and the centre of the turn (often called the apex). In applying this technique, riders approach turns applying the front brake to reduce speed. As they enter the turn, they slowly ease off the brakes, gradually decreasing or trailing off the brakes as motorcycle lean increases. Traditionally, trail braking is done exclusively with the front brake even though trailing the rear brake will effectively slow the motorcycle.
So why would you want to trail brake at all, if there’s no need?
It gives (or can give) better traction because the downward force on the front tyre is increased by load transfer. As the brakes are applied and the weight of the bike and rider moves forward, thus compressing the forks. This compression of the forks changes the motorcycle’s steering geometry, decreasing stability in a way that makes the motorcycle more apt to lean and more quickly change direction. This can help if you miscalculate the sharpness of a bend or approach the bend at the wrong speed. If you miscalculate your speed, are approaching the bend too fast and you just panic and slam on the brakes, the bike will be very hard to turn if at all, it will just sit up and go straight, which could end with you on the wrong side of the road. I know I have done it, hence why I joined ELAM in the first place. Trailing off the brakes while entering blind or tight corners allows the rider to slow if something unexpected blocks the rider’s path. Because the motorcycle is already on the brakes and the front tyre is getting additional traction from already slowing, the rider can slow even more with very little risk, depending on surface conditions (gravel, mud or anything slippery really). However, applying the brakes after the motorcycle is already leaned over is not trail braking, can be extremely dangerous and shouldn’t be done.
So should you trail brake?
Obviously there is a risk with trail braking, excessive use of the front brake can result in a loss of grip and a fall. Effective trail braking requires finesse from the rider, which can be difficult to learn, so only experienced riders are suitable to try. It should never be practised on the open roads and never at high speeds.
With the IAM Course and you becoming advanced riders, there shouldn’t be any need to trail brake at all, as we are taught though observation to read the road/conditions etc. However saying that, it can be a useful tool, for that one time you have a bad day, something you just want to learn or maybe you want to try track days and push your limits. If you do want to try to learn or practice the technique, only do it in a controlled environment like an empty car park, never practice on the road.