Braking techniques

I’ve mostly ignored the brake on my KH29 and KH36, but recent and future road trips will involve long sections of steep downhill. Coupled with shorter cranks, it’s either destroy the knees, nasty UPD’s or use the brakes.

I’m carefully working out techniques by myself and am getting more confident, but would like to hear how others use the brake to control speed on long downhills. So far this is what I’m doing:

  • get the speed under control first, slower than I want to go
  • pre-load the brake to allow smooth application before the hill starts to bite
  • find the brake pressure that just allows me to continue riding but does not allow the hill to take over
  • very smooth transition back to no brakes.

Sounds good.

I might try combining the first two by leaning back while lightly pre-loading the brake before the brake is actually needed.
Keep pedalling with pressure during this instead of slowing down more than needed.

Now you haven’t lost any speed and don’t need to accelerate up to a braking point.

After a while you won’t think of the brake pressure needed and it will just happen.
(even feathering between multi-pitches)

Note that nasty UPD’s and brake use are not mutually exclusive. I’ve heard of some nasty UPD’s and a couple of my UPD’s have been caused by brake use. On my 36" I now have my brake adjusted so that the lever bottoms out with a braking force about equal to the braking force needed to equal a 18% downgrade. I can pull the brake as hard as I want and still be able to pedal against the brake.

If you are willing to experiment with longer cranks, using them while learning to brake might be helpful. Practice braking on flat surfaces before doing it on a downhill. See if you can steadily increase braking pressure while increasing the pedaling force and increasing the force you’re pulling backward on the saddle…until you slow to a complete stop. Try to make the braking force and the hand-pulling-back force separate from one another.

I am able to use the brake in controlled downhill situations, but for technical downhill, forget it!

I think keeping a stable brake force is difficult when the road is uneven. I have a few sections with protruding roots. And going from using brakes to letting go of them also takes some practice. At first I let go to quickly and UPD’ed because the wheel just took off. I reckon I was still going downhill somewhat and let go too early.
Nevertheless braking very much helps against sore knees.

With some practice, you’ll just be able to use the brake any time, and at (almost) any distribution of braking through the pedals vs. with the brake.

One thing you will need to learn, as elpuebloUNIdo said, is to seperate the braking finger from the holding of the handle. It really depends on your setup, but with mine, I have my index finger on the brake, and the rest on the handle.

I started by just using the brake on longer descents, and smoothly increasing the brake pressure until I was at the point where my legs were only used for balance adjustments, and held it there. Essentially the same as you described. When you are comfortable with that, play around with it. Open the brake a bit, and go faster, tighten it and go slower, both without doing much with your legs as far as breaking goes. At the same time, you’ll likely pick up on how to balance using the brake. It’s not really rocket science, you are doing the same thing as you would do with your legs: If your weight is to far backwards, you need to brake more, if you are to far forwards, you need to brake less. I personally think a decently steep downhill, that you can still control with just your feet is the ideal place to start using the brake. On flat ground, you need to be a lot more sensitive with the brake, on downhills, you can make a few more mistakes I think.

Also, on almost every dismount, I used it to stop. Yes, you’ll fly of forward a few times in the beginning, that’s why you should start at a slow speed. But after a while, you will learn to lean back, and then engage the brake. Once that is second nature, the whole “feeding in the brake very carefully before you have reached the steep part” will become uneccessary.

A few years later, and I don’t think about it anymore.
Someone has an UPD on the trail in front of me? Grab the brake.
Ride over a drop, and I leaned to far back? Grab the brake.
I’m worried the brake is overheating on a long descent? Let go of the brake for 15 seconds or so, and get back onto it.

Brakes have a learning curve to it, but it’s so worth it to take it.

Thanks for tips everyone.

For sure, that’s why the careful practice.

Good idea, I’e made a custom brake lever for my setup, I’ll see if I can do what you have.

Understand, I have a T-bar but am only comfortable using the brake under the saddle. Here I can use different fingers for both and control independently.

I have my brake a bit further on the T-Bar on the 32". At first I felt like I had to sit a bit sideways when going downhill and it didn’t feel too comfortable, but as my riding improved, I had to twist less and I could relax a bit more while using the brake.
I think you just need a few rides, to get used to it.

When I mounted my Magura rim brake on the 24” I got used to it really quickly.

I mounted the lever under the seat handle and adjusted so that I had a pretty long “inactive” zone.
This allowed me to grab the lever, without activating the brake.
Grabbing = hook my index or middle finger under it.

Then, with the finger comfortably in place, start braking as desired.
In my case just for controlled riding downhill; never for dismounting.

Only now that I recently moved the brake to my 27.5” I realized how important the inactive zone is to me.
On the 27.5 there is no inactive zone and I find it much harder to control the brake.
As soon as I touch the lever the brake starts engaging so I don’t even dare to use it on uneven ground.

With the 24” I had no issues using it on rough terrain due to the inactive zone.

So I need to adjust the 27.5 urgently…

I also like the idea of limiting the braking force!

I’m not a fan of being hunched over while riding.
I don’t understand why everyone insists on bending/hunching over to ride.
Maybe for wind resistance on a large wheel and a large distance ride but other than that I would rather be upright and comfortable for any other type of riding.

Anyways, I keep my brake easily accessible and symmetrical so both hands can use it. I use my middle fingers which leaves the rest of my hand to grab the handlebars.

An exercise to separate grabbing from braking could be holding the seat/bars with one hand and use the other hand for braking while not touching the seat/bars. Just hover your fingers below the brake ready to apply light pressure.
Of course, switch hands to learn both sides.

Thanks for the photo of your setup, Ted.

My hands feel stronger when they are situated closer to my core. I can support more of my weight on the bar ends when they are lower, and I can pull up/back harder on them when they are lower. I think the same applies to bike riding. Bending forward makes you stronger, better at applying force around the entire 360 degree pedal cycle. I would not be able to climb the hills in my neighborhood with the bars ends high up. I did a lot of experimenting with my bar setups during the first couple years of using them. At some point, I migrated from using the upward curving Shadow T to the straight one. That put my arms down lower and put me more in a “hunched over” riding position. For me, bars are not about comfort but strength and control.

Spot on. T-bars are not bicycle handle bars. I find no support at all with them. You can only put small down force, as there is no wheel holding you up, and then riding position has to change to balance. Very little impact on saddle comfort.

They do however provide a wonderful means on control for cruise, uphill and downhill (still working on the downhill) and high speed (bicycle like) turns. I find them a hindrance for confined and tight turns, probably more in my head then any physical reason. For really steep uphills, I still need a hand under the saddle bracing my myself and pulling up (to push the legs down). Smooth surface uphill grades to about 10% are much easier with the T-bar, the long extension from the CG allows a lot leverage to control the unicycle and so allows me to lean along way forward will only small pull up on the T-bar. At first, leaning so far forward, and pulling up, was a fine balance but getting better with practice. This allows for more efficiency in long climbs. Yesterday I was practicing on the longest smooth hill in my area, only about 1.2km, but a continuous 4%. Cruised up at 19km, the same speed as level ground. Ideal T-bar road.

Braking needs practice/experience

When I started riding in 2000, unicycles very rarely had brakes. When I tried a brake on someone else’s uni for the first time, it was weird and kind of hard.
Now I’m used to using a brake, and it’s quite natural and not difficult.

I’m not sure if it is wise to rely on brake force limiters or other ‘making brakes easier’ adaptations. Rather invest time in using a brake as it is, that way it is more versatile. It takes some time to get used to, but that is time well spent.

One important thing, as mentioned by some people already, is to support the hand that does the braking on your handlebar or seat handle (wherever your brake handle is). I use my left hand on the seat handle, and my left middle finger on the brake handle. In my case, my right hand/arm is for holding out if needed for balance. If I hit a bump or so, the brake isn’t jolted (is that even a word?) because my hand is supported by the seat handle, and I can continue to brake evenly.

By the way, I’ve been using rim brakes for many years. Recently switched to a disk brake on my new muni. The disk brake is slightly easier to feather, but the difference is less than I thought based on what I read or heard from others.

Agree. It’s only hard until you are used to it. The only modifications I would make is ones that make it more ergonomic to use. What I personally recommend for people that use the regular seat handle is picking up one of these:

Topic on where to find them here. Much better than starfighters etc. in my opinion, because it let’s the brake work in the part of the levers range of movement it was designed for, while still letting you grip properly without “reaching down” to get the brake.

I agree, more ergonomic is better. Also a stable base for the hand is good and that is part of the reason I added the braces between the seat and the handlebar. Without the braces the seat could flex quite a bit and negatively effect the brake control.

Why brakes are not ergonomic?

It’s 3 years since I learnt uni, but I’ve never had particular issue with the brake position: I used a normal brake lever and used the small adjustable screw inside the lever to get the perfect reach distance (it is its intended use).
Tried T7 handlebar, DIY handle bar, Mad4one handle saddle, kh brake mount, nimbus brake mount, kh rail brake … never had any issues using shimano cheapest disk brake.
Find useful a KH starfighter or similar but removed all. Only the lever and two fingers works better for me

Brake ergonomics

I was happy with my Spooner on my rim brake handle, and on my new Shimano disk brake I have a Starfighter which I am equally happy about. I put it quite near the end of the original brake handle, so that the range remains as intended. With my middle finger I have no problem to reach it.

I have short fingers, so that may be the issue for me. It’s very hard to get the brake close enough for me to where it is really comfortable. I can always reach down with any brake, but then the rest of the hand is not as good on the handle. With starfigher of spooner, it takes the brake away even more, and doesn’t feel secure on my hand. On most brakes, if you adjust the pressure point closer to the handle, you get a lot of free stroke. So while without the attachment I mentioned I can get that to where I want it, if I let go of the brake and want to get back on it, it’s far away.