Emergency Stop on an Adventure Motorcycle (Gravel Roads)

You never know when you will need to do an emergency stop on a motorcycle. That is why it is important that you practice it until it becomes second nature so that you can perform the emergency stop as well as possible when that day comes, even on gravel.

An emergency stop on tarmac, where there is a lot of traction, is one thing. But how do you stop an adventure bike or dual sport motorcycle as fast as possible on the gravel?

To perform an emergency stop with a motorcycle on gravel, position your weight over the rear wheel, look up to find a safe path around the obstacle, stomp on the rear brake to lock the rear wheel, and progressively pull in the front brake lever. If the front wheel starts to wash out, release the brake lever slightly before squeezing it again.

I know, this is a lot to think about in that split second before you hit the deer in the road, so it is best to practice these steps one-by-one until it is taken over by muscle-memory. Then you can combine the steps and practice stopping your adventure bike or dual sport in as short a distance as possible, even on loose gravel.

An emergency stop on gravel takes practice

Let’s break it down into the 7 steps:

1. Position Your Weight as Far Back as Possible

When you spot the obstacle in the road that you are trying to avoid hitting, the first thing you need to do is stand up slightly and lean way back on your motorcycle. The idea is to position your weight over the rear wheel for increased grip, but also to compensate for the weight transfer to the front when you start applying the brakes.

If you stay neutral on the bike when you initiate the stop, the forward momentum and weight shift to the front may send you over the handlebars. You can remain seated, but by lifting your backside off the seat you can increase your visibility of the road ahead and you are also in a better position to move around on the bike, getting ready to change direction quickly.

You knees should be bent and your arms outstretched in front of you, with your bum as far back as possible.

2. Look Ahead Down the Road

A common mistake riders make is to close their eyes or look away from the thing they are trying to avoid. Keep you head up and look ahead to scout for a clear path around the obstacle. If it is an animal in the road, chances are it is not going to stay still. If it runs off, you need to be ready to go in the opposite direction.

If you are trying to avoid a stationary obstacle, don’t fixate on it. Rather look for a clear track around it. Your whole body will want to go toward where you are looking. Look as far ahead as possible to ensure you adjust your course in time. If a crash is imminent, you want to be looking for a safe place to land once you’ve hit the obstacle in the road.

3. Pull in the Clutch

It may seem counterintuitive to pull in the clutch. I mean, don’t you remove the effect of engine braking? While that is true, if you need to come to a stop fast on your motorcycle, engine braking will only assist for a few seconds. If you are still in a high gear when coming to a stop, the engine may even push a little as it tries to stay running at very low rpms.

By getting used to pulling in the clutch immediately, your brain (which can only focus on one thing at a time) can pay attention to stopping the bike without it sliding out from under you. The added benefit from disengaging the clutch is that your bike’s engine will still be running once you’ve come to a stop, which means you will be ready to move off or out of the way if necessary.

4. Lock the Rear Wheel

While I’ve numbered this Step 4, this needs to happen at the same time as steps 1, 2 and 3. Stomp on the rear brake as hard as you can! Yes, it will lock up your rear wheel. That is okay. Since you are positioned as far back as possible, the slide should be controllable.

The reason why we don’t try to modulate the rear brake to avoid a skid is because it is impossible to pay close attention to both the front and the rear brake independently in an emergency. You want your brain’s processing power free to focus on the front brake in the next step as that is where most of the stopping power is.

An added benefit of a dragging rear wheel on a gravel road is that a small heap of dirt will pile up in front of the wheel, assisting in stopping the bike. Before we chat about the most important element of an emergency stop on an adventure bike on a gravel road, let’s recap what has happened so far.

As soon as you notice an emergency stop is called for, simultaneously stand up, lean back, look up, grab the clutch, and stomp on the rear brake as hard as you can. By practicing this until it happens instinctively, you can free up all processing power in your brain for the thing that will make you stop the fastest: The front brake.

5. Practice Locking up the Front Wheel

Before we combine the front and rear brakes, it is important that you get a feel for when the front brake starts to lose traction and slide. Ride slowly in first gear and grab the front brake until is skids a few inches. Repeat this process until you are comfortable with the feeling of the front giving way.

You want to get used to the sensation of losing grip at the front and you want to practice easing off the brake lever to regain grip again. This is how ABS works and what you will be consciously focusing on during the next step when we combined all the actions.

6. Progressively Apply the Front Brake

Now comes the important part. You may have heard that the front brake on a motorcycle is responsible for 70% of the stopping power. Well the exact percentage is not important, but the majority of the deceleration is as a result of the front brake. Therefore, you need to focus all your conscious attention to applying as much front brake as possible without losing traction.

It is okay for the rear wheel to lock up and skid, as you can still control to motorcycle and keep the bike upright. But a sliding front wheel can quickly for you and your bike down in the dirt. That is exactly what will happen if you simply grab a fist full of front brake immediately.

What you need to do instead (while sliding the rear wheel), is apply a bit of front brake initially to shift the weight of the motorcycle forward. The extra weight on the front wheel will dig through the loose debris on the surface of the road until your wheel pushes against the hard pack beneath it. You can then progressively apply more front brake until you are squeezing it all the way in.

As you apply progressively more front break you may feel the front end starting to lose traction. At this point, let off the front brake lever slightly until you can feel the wheel regaining traction and squeeze again. Using two fingers instead of all four will help you apply the front brake more gently initially and modulate the braking power more finely to compensate for the differing grip levels. Remember, your clutch is still in and your rear is still fully locked.

7. Try to Avoid Hitting the Obstacle

Remember we said in Step 2 above that you need to look up? Hopefully you are still looking a head at this stage, scanning the road for a clear path around the obstacle you are trying to avoid.

If it is a stationary object, you either need to try and go around it or get ready for a planned fall. Getting ready for a crash may mean the difference between ducking and rolling and walking away with a couple of bruises or breaking all the bones in your body.

If the obstacle is an animal or a person, you need to try and anticipate its movements and aim for a miss. This will only be possible of you are looking ahead with open eyes.

What About Adventure Bikes With ABS Braking?

Anti-lock Braking Systems (ABS) on a motorcycle will only work on pavement where the tires have more grip. In low traction environments like loose gravel, the ABS system will simply let go of any braking force when the wheels lose grip which will result in the bike just riding on.

That is why it is critical to switch off ABS when taking your adventure bike off-road. More modern adventure bikes have off-road ABS that allows some locking of the wheels to avoid a runway bike.

NOTE: This is very important! I’ve heard of riders getting seriously injured or killed when their bike failed to slow down due to the ABS kicking in on a gravel road.

Practice, Practice, Practice

These step are easy to memorize, but you won’t have time to recall it in the split second before you ride your adventure bike into a parked car or a deer jumping across the road.

In emergency situations like these, most people instinctively close their eyes and look away without braking at all. You cannot prepare for every emergency situation, but you can practice these steps until they become second nature. Practice until you can rely on muscle memory to take over while you try to avoid impact.

Even on a bike with ABS on dry pavement, it will only save you if you react immediately and apply the brakes as hard as you can. Closing your eyes and looking away won’t activate the ABS!

Practice, practice, PRACTICE!

Francois Steyn

I've been riding motorcycles since I was in school and have traveled thousands of miles on various bikes through more than 10 countries. For more info, check out my about page: https://www.adventurebiketroop.com/about-us/

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