Thursday, July 28, 2011

If you're going to shoot, shoot........

Talking about things can serve a certain purpose. Eventually, though, the real answer is to just go out and do something. One of our mantras in motorcycle training is that students learn by doing. They will learn more from the wind passing by their ears than from the wind passing by our lips. I might also add that they'll learn more from actually doing something than by talking about it amongst themselves.

One of my all time favorite movie lines comes from the Clint Eastwood film "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly".

Very briefly, the setting is around the time of America's civil war but in the West. One of the characters is the one called The Ugly. Played by Eli Wallach. He's a bandit named Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez. Call him Tuco for short. Tuco is trapped by three bounty hunters. He escapes by shooting all three. Two are killed and one survives.

In a town that is being rapidly evacuated due to heavy artillery fire, Tuco finds a bombed out hotel and takes a bath in a claw footed tub. Sitting in the sudsy water Tuco is surprised by this third bounty hunter. The bounty hunter pauses in the doorway and tells Tuco how much he's been looking forward to catching him and turning him in. Dead or alive. While the bounty hunter pontificates Tuco pulls a gun up from the side of the bathtub and shoots him. With a shrug Tuco utters this line:

"If you're going to shoot, shoot. Don't stand around and talk about it!"

Wise words, actually. If you're going to do something you've eventually got to quit talking about it and go do it. It applies to a lot of areas of life. The two I care about here are photography and motorcycling.

As to photography I've been reading about how to successfully take photos of moving subjects while panning. I've heard people talk about panning technique, shutter speeds, aperature settings, where to focus, and so on. Good panning photos are much harder than they seem to get right. I'm not saying mine are anywhere near perfect but they are getting better. The real secret isn't that secret. You want to know what it is?

Repetitions. Do it. Do it again. Do it again. Here's a couple of photos from a class I was watching. Probably need a few more repetitions but progress is definitely being made.

Motorcycling is no different. Except for the fact that a bad photo can be deleted. Get it wrong on a bike and, well.....Let me share an example with you. This stresses the importance of actual physical practice when it comes to acquiring good accident avoidance skills.

The example is from Jay Green's blog Road Captain USA. There was a post wherein the discussion was held on the two finger braking versus four finger braking thing. Jay didn't really start it but the commenters sort of took off with it. I'll share the link to the post in a bit so hang with me.

Since the initial thrust was a sort of rebellion against convential motorcycle training that advocates four finger braking I put in a comment. You'll see it but the gist of it was that a rider was free to do what they wanted. The main concern, however, is what the rider would do in a high adrenaline situation. If a rider preferred to use two fingers in everyday riding, fine. Just guarantee me that in an emergency the rider would also use two fingers. My experience has been that a rider will often give in to our natural human reflexes in an emergency and grasp the brake lever with all four fingers. That's a variable the rider just doesn't need right then. Always using four fingers eliminates that variable.

Coincidentally, Jay had an experience with emergency braking during this time that he shared in a comment. Jay and his wife Diana were riding together. Jay in front with Diana following on her own bike. A very large dog ran out in front of them and Jay made the decision to brake rather than swerve. He was concerned that, while he might escape the dog, Diana might get bitten.

I asked Jay in a comment how many fingers he used on the front brake. His reply is the gist of this post. Jay had a moment of self discovery that is of benefit to all of us.

Before I share the link I want to set a tone. You see, I asked Jay if I could use his experience in a blog post. Jay graciously granted me permission. A person could look at the situation one of two ways. Here's the one I want everyone to use.

Jay is worthy of much respect. I've known him through blogging since he started his own blog. Jay and Diana are members of a local HOG chapter. Not only that, but Jay worked hard to become a Road Captain. I believe he also served as Chapter Director. Diana has worked to become a Road Captain in her own right. Both of these people have made a huge investment in helping other riders enjoy motorcycling and in promoting safe riding.

It's hard enough to face our own shortcomings when somebody else points them out. It's another matter entirely to be the one pointing a finger at ourselves. The very fact that Jay shared his experience on his blog speaks volumes about his character and integrity. Add to that Jay's allowing me to share his experience here and you get an idea of how much regard I hold Jay in.

I really want everyone reading this to come at it from that same level of respect.

So, here's the short story. Jay found that he didn't reach for the front brake at all during his experience. He's not alone by any means. Think about the reasons manufacturers came up with linked braking. The reason we teach braking in our training classes is that a huge number of riders were using too much rear brake and not enough front brake. Or any.

We can discuss proper technique ad nauseam. Seems like every rider has their own strong views on several subjects. I guess that's one of the things that make us so interesting, eh? However, when the fecal matter hits the fan and we don't use the front brake, or stare at the side of the road when we are a little hotter than we intended to be in a corner, or any number of things, the discussion is pretty much moot, isn't it?

I've written about the value of constant practice and developing muscle memories before so I won't go into it again here. Just take away the idea that the only way we can be sure we'll do the right thing is to do it. Over and over again. Embed it deeply into our responses. Remember that amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can't get it wrong. You don't have to be a professional rider to train like a professional.

Now, in the words of one of my favorite newscasters, the late Paul Harvey, if you click here you can read the "rest of the news".

Remember, if you're going to shoot, shoot!

Miles and smiles,



RichardM said...

No flame from me. I've run into a similar situation as I used to only use a couple of fingers on the front brake. A few years back, I caught up to an old land yacht with it's left blinker on in the left lane. Imagine my surprise when he proceeded to dive right onto a small dirt road. I managed to barely stop in time but was surprised that I still only used two fingers. From that point on, I made a point of using all four.

SonjaM said...

Having small hands, four finger braking is not always an option for me depending on the bike. But I prefer all available fingers over two-finger braking. Only using foot brake would scare me to death, as the front brake is much stronger (at least that's what I have been told in training.) Nice posting, a good opportunity to reflect on one's braking skills, and how to improven them.

bobskoot said...

Mr Iron-Gran-Dad:

I'm unusual, I put all four fingers over the front brake lever but only "pull" using one or two fingers, depending . . . the other two pinkies are resting on the lever in ready mode.

I do not grip the throttle, I use the cramp buster and push it down for throttle so my fingers are always resting on the "lever" so I gather this is a bad move to not have a firm grip on the right handlebar

the clutch hand controls the camera

Riding the Wet Coast

Trobairitz said...

I use all four fingers over the front brake lever. That is what I was taught at my Team Oregon class back in 2002 and I still do it today.

I find I always use both brakes when coming to a stop unless I am in gravel or on a corner. And even on gradual corners still use both brakes but more rear brake until stopped.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

The golfer yells the phrase before using the club to strike the small ball.
The motorcyclist should use all four fingers to pull the brake lever. Mind with my enormouse hands three fingers might be better; still and again, as long as the machine stops in the reguired distance, no harm is done.
As I wrote this was thinking back to an incident that happened some three years prior. My brakes front and rear were applied approaching a stop sign, on a slight downhill slope, it was dsisconcerting to feel the rear wheel slide on the slowly melting road surface and then it tried to psss me. Releasing the rear brake level solved the sliding problem although I was later annoyed at myself for not realizing riding on a rural road constructed of melting tar and gravel can be very dangerous.

BeemerGirl said...

Good discussions from you, Jay, and the commentors. My husband tends towards two covering the brake simply because he did learn on dirt bikes. However...he was also aware that missing two fingers could reduce steering and stability on those single tracks. So we used to have this discussion regularly in my first year.

I was taught four and definitely employed four for "panic" braking. As I practice and gain experience I try to gauge it. But I do have to use four because of level travel and my short fingers. :)

Circle Blue said...

When riding I have my first two fingers covering the brake lever at all times even on the highway, and when I practice my panic stops I use two fingers. When real world riding has demanded an all out stop, I've used just the two fingers.

These two sentences were the meat for me:"Remember that amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can't get it wrong."

Again, thanks for the share. Really good stuff.

Jaty Green aka Road Captain said...

Thanks for posting this article Dan. It is very good and I am not offended.

Just like Mr BeemerGirl I learned to cover the brake with two fingers and hang on to the handlebar with the rest of my hand while riding offroad as a kid. I cover the brake like this 70% of the time and feel better prepared to handle an emergency than if I didn't cover the brake. I don't see this as a bad habit but an advanced skill. This was confirmed in my readings from the late Larry Grodsky, an expert in motorcycle safety which lead to my post on the matter. True, if I am not covering the front brake and am startled myhands will clench up and I will not grab the brake. I would like to improve. I would like to be the best I can be.

I will practice. I will take classes. But I don't think I will "train" like a police motor officer or MSF Rider coach. I would like to hear more about "training" as opposed to "practice". How much "training" does it take to develop muscle memory and is that much "training" realistic among recreational riders and commuters?

Orin said...

This two-finger front-brake lever thing seems to spring from the belief that squeezing the lever with all four will SEND YOU FLYING OVER THE HANDLEBARS!!!!!!!!

A while ago, I was riding the GTS on a flat, straight, empty road at ~45 mph. After confirming that the road was indeed empty, I grabbed the front brake lever as hard as I could. The GTS just slowed down, to about 20 mph; it didn't come to a full stop until I (gently) squeezed the rear brake lever (remember, this is a CVT scooter, so no foot pedal). The front brake pads are still pretty thick, and the brake fluid was fresh and clean. I'm not the strongest guy in the world, but can grip pretty tightly with my right hand.

There seem to be a lot of memes in motorcycling...

Scootin' Old Skool

irondad said...


It's interesting how we don't really know how we'll react until we find ourselves in the actual situation.

You're on the right track by building an ingrained habit, though.

Take care,


irondad said...


All available fingers works! I'm sure you've checked into what adjustments are available on your bikes?

The front brake is the strongest for sure. It's all about how the weight transfer works.

Take care,


irondad said...


You are, indeed, unusual in many ways. That's meant to be complimentary. You hoe your own row. ( that's farmboy talk! )

I really like to use a cramp buster on long rides. It gets in the way most of the time even though I use the narrow one. So most of the time the piece of plastic sits in a storage box on the bike.

The other side of the coin with covering the front brake all the time is that we can be tempted to use it at the wrong time.

Like when we're startled in the middle of the corner and the grasp reflex kicks in. Not good timing.

Take care,


irondad said...


You are officially teacher's pet for this post! Model TEAM OREGON student!

Take care,


irondad said...


Only you would think to connect motorcycle braking to golf! :)

I've had both ends of a bike slide. I remember thinking,

"So that's what that feels like!"

Take care,


irondad said...


Very thoughtful comment. Thank you. Another consideration when using two finger braking is where the two fingers are that aren't squeezing the lever.

Usually the two finger brakers use the first and middle fingers while the ring finger and pinkie are still wrapped around the throttle.

The combination of lever travel required to active full braking, the size of the rider's hands, and the bulkiness of the gloves ( think winter ) can work against us.

Ironically, the difference between stopping in time or going to the hospital could be our own two fingers keeping us from fully applying the front brake.

Just another thought.

Take care,


irondad said...

Circle Blue,

Like I say, if a rider uses two fingers and knows they will ALWAYS use two fingers, go for it.

See my comment to Bobskoot about a possible drawback to covering the brake all the time, though. Great for reducing reaction time in high risk situations. Not so much when it might not be a good time to be grasping the brake in surprise.

Thanks for the comment on training differences. I train motor cops so subscribe to the latter.

Take care,


irondad said...

Road Captain,

Firstly, I'm glad this worked for you. Like I wrote in my direct e-mail to you, my main concern was making sure you were still respected like I respect you.

The question of training versus practice is a great one. I'll address it in the next post.

Take care,


irondad said...


You hit the nail on the head. There are many dogmatic ideas out there not based on fact. Much to the detriment of riders they get passed on over and over.

Really pleased to see you still reading. I'm honored. I read your blog but don't often comment. Scooter rallies and such aren't my world so I read in silence. I do like to keep up with you, though, my friend!

Take care,


bluekat said...

Gotta love those Old Clint Eastwood films...I can hear that music now.

Had an opportunity to test out the braking today. I use all 4, but the pinkies are pretty useless. I tried two finger braking in the past and found it very awkward.

Have to confess I still struggle to use the rear brake in a quick stop situation. Thought I'd gotten better about that, but apparently not. In day to day riding I use the rear brake more than I used to, but in a quick stop today, I didn't use it. Sheesh! When we rode gravel I had to constantly remind myself, rear brake, rear brake...

Great post, Irondad! Love this stuff!

on a different note...
If you want more moving targets to shoot, August 7 there is a criterium in downtown Albany. Lots of bright jerseys and more spandex than you ever want to see. They ride a little faster than me! :)

Jay Green aka Road Captain said...

Great post and great comments. I thank everyone for not making me feel like a complete moron.

I look forward to the future post answering my question about training.

I believe that we all have different styles and different machines and you sometimes have to thrink past what the text books and trainers say to the masses and consider what works for you. On the other hand self doubt creeps in and maybe whats work'n for me actually is a bad habit and thus my original post. I was happy to find supporting documentation that using two fingers works well if the lever does not come into contact with the remaining fingers. The same documentation went into detail about proving that one will not flip the bike using the front brake. If anything I use two fingers out of fear of a front brake skid or too much brake in a turn, but not a flip.

Glad I'm not the only person who over thinks this stuff. My wife tells me I think too much. She is right.

DHBirren said...

I sometimes ask my students who had dirt bike experience what would happen if they're right hand grip hits the asphalt or concrete? The two fingers between the lever and the grip can get severed.

I also ask my students if they simultaneously use both the brake and accelerator in their cars using just one foot. And why the heck would they want to do that on their bike? You wouldn't pedal your bicycle and brake at the same time either, would you?

Mrs Road Captain said...

Irrelevent, but I once drove a car that required me to use my left foot on the clutch and my right on both brake and accelerator at the same time whenever I came to a stop...otherwise the car would stall out. The quicker the stop, the more gas needed! :o

Stepping on the clutch in this situation meant that I was not fighting against myself by using both brake and gas because the car was "in neutral." This is what confuses me about your bicycle's like comparing apples with mangos.

Besides, braking while throttling is a routine practice on a motorcycle (though it would generally be the rear brake). Gently easing the clutch while throttling and dragging the brake is an effective way to increase stability at low speeds. It is amazingly effective while riding across a gravel parking lot, or if you are trying to win a "slow ride" competition!

DHBirren said...

Mrs. Road Captain:

You say my comments are irrelevent, but you mention your poorly maintained car as if that's part of the conversation about braking. We must assume properly operating equipment when we talk about riding habits. Remember T-CLOKS?

My bicycle reference referred to pedaling and braking would be a waste of energy. Braking a motorcycle with two fingers so your other three digits can operate the throttle while performing a quick stop on a street bike is a similar waste of energy, and, as others have pointed out, a dangerous habit to develop. That's why MSF promotes four fingers.

The subject of the blog post is emergency stopping, not the use of the rear brake in low-speed maneuvers, which leaves all four fingers of your right hand available to operate the throttle.

Lastly, riding on gravel and slow-speed competitions were not the topic of the conversation.

Irrelevant? Indeed.

Mrs Road Captain said...

I apologize, I did not mean to offend. I meant that the condition of the piece of crap car I drove in college was irrelevant, not that your comments were. You do make some very good points, I was just answering your question "why the heck would you want to do that (brake & throttle at the same time) on a bike?"...on its most literal level.

Road captain said...

DH, I would put any 12 year old motocross rider up against your best brainwashed middle aged student anyday of the week and On Any Sunday. I learned to ride fast over bumpy terrain while holding on the right hand grip and operating the front brake at the same time when I was 13. You don't have to hang on to a car for dear life... however holding onto your motorcycle while braking is important thus the car analogy is apples to mangos just like my wife said. Dirt bike riders are pretty good at falling and would most likely not hit the ground while still holding onto the handlebar and losing their fingers. MSF promotes 4 fingers partly because they teach to the masses in a short one or two day class. It's the safest thing to teach in that short time frame. Everone's adherence to what MSF teaches in their short classes to new riders and the masses drives me nutty. It's a fast food formula that can be taught quickly. Automatically anything other than what MSF promotes is wrong? It's not like they teach advanced techniques that racers use. The technique is not wrong because MSF doesn't promote it. Please look into what technique advanced road racers are using before we shoot down the two finger technique.

irondad said...


Thank you for visiting and commenting. I know most of the folks who comment here. I would like to know a bit more about you. Are you and instructor? Where do you hail from? You know, the usual.

If you care to share drop me a line at

Take care,


irondad said...

We need to remember here that we are talking two distinct scenarios.

This post was really about what we actually do in an emergency situation, not restricted to braking.

The "more advanced" braking techniques are usually associated with cornering. Not many riders should be doing it that way, actually, but that's fodder for a couple of posts from now.

Take care,


Jack Riepe said...

Dear IronDad (Dan):

I use four fingers on the brake to stop, and three fingers on the clutch if necessary. I reserve the fourth finger from the clutch to gesture to the person who made me stop short in the first place.

Fondest regards,
Twisted Roads

DHBirren said...

RoadCaptain: Again, the topic really isn't dirt racing or off roading. It's about street riding. Your experience was the basis of the post, correct? I assume since the topic is "emergency braking" you were on the street when the dog appeared, correct? Not that it's relevant, but you were traveling in a straight line, perhaps? The four-finger braking style is the most correct braking method for those conditions. Four-finger braking has nothing to do with hanging onto the bike ... it has to do with maximum braking (not throttle) and steering control. There are other styles, sure, but FFB is what has been tried and found to be the best and scientifically safest. I cannot attest to dirt riding, but I've watched enough films to know that dirt/mud/grass is a lot softer than asphalt/concrete. What I can do is show that I can stop your motorcycle in a fraction of the distance you can by using the style MSF teaches without performing a stoppie. So, I'm not brain-washed. I can walk the walk.

Y'know, if you want to brake the way they do in India and Pakistan, that's your choice, but I've had a number of students from those countries and they come away from the BRC amazed and wondering why they rear-only brake back home.

The vast majority of motorcycle riders are street-only riders, therefore, the best street-braking style should be taught, regardless of the number of hours of the class. A great percentage of those street riders are weekend riders who only take their bike out if the word "rain" doesn't appear once in the 5-day forecast. These are exactly the people who must be trained to use four-fingers, otherwise they're going to be flying over their handlebars and onto the roof of the car in front of them. And how many of that kind of rider would not think to let go of the grips as they plow head-on into a wall, truck, sign, etc. It's hard enough to find the time during an emergency stop to react correctly to a skidding tire.

I can't make you change your ways, but I can debate this forever. :^) I can't tell from your post whether you've ever taken an MSF course. Your characterization that MSF releases new riders out onto the road after a 1-day course is inaccurate. They offer 1-day courses for intermediate and experienced riders only! (In Illinois, anyway.)

Motorcycle riding is an activity of the eyes and mind. The more we can teach others and train ourselves to REACT correctly during the start of emergency situations, the more time we have to make adjustments as the situations play out.

Krysta in MKE said...

"Jay found that he didn't reach for the front brake at all during his experience"

I've read about many Harley riders who don't use the front brake at all.

In fact, one guy picked his bike up after service, they'd forgotten (!) to hook up the rear brake, he never used the front brake, & pulling out of their parking lot (unintentionally) he "couldn't" stop & ran into traffic & had a crash.

Tried to blame it all on the shop, but IIRC the judge didn't fall for it. (I think they had some liability, but it wasn't much.)

I don't understand why Harley riders wouldn't use every tool available to control those big, heavy bikes?

DHBirren said...

Perhaps they have to use all four fingers tightly wrapped around the throttle to keep the engine running! (hee-hee)