I am not what you’d call a classically-trained cyclist. You could fairly call me an “informally-trained” cyclist.
Or, if you were in the mood to be accurate, you could possibly call me an “ad-hoc, hard-knocks trained” cyclist.
The truth is, I haven’t every read a book on improving my riding position or technique, and the few times I’ve spoken with experts about these things, well…my mind has wandered.
And in short, practically everything I know about riding — and especially about mountain biking — comes down to this:
- You go faster when you pedal faster. Especially if you pedal faster in a harder gear.
- If you avoid something, turn.
- If you want to stop or slow down, use the brakes.
There you go. My twenty-ish years of riding experience, summed up. So I suppose I should stop writing now.
Except there is one — seriously, just one — thing I actually have considered and made a conscious change in with the way I ride, and I made it just a few years ago:
I brake with my middle finger. I have photographic proof and everything. Check it out:
Photo by David Kutcipal, 303Cycling.com
Here’s a closeup, for some reason:
Of course, the most surprising thing about this photo is that I apparently wear my wedding ring on the outside of my mountain biking gloves.
The second most surprising thing is that I keep a Strawberry-Banana PowerGel tucked into each leg of my shorts, where I can easily absorb nutrition through my skin, saving valuable seconds during the race.
The absolutely least surprising thing about this photo is that I’m obviously braking with my middle fingers (and middle fingers only). This should be totally non-surprising because I just said this is what I do a few paragraphs ago. And because of the title of this post.
What is surprising — or at least, would be surprising if I hadn’t tipped my hand a few minutes ago — is that I actually trained myself to brake this way, and I’ve got what I consider to be a pretty good set of reasons for why you might want to consider doing the same thing yourself.
The very best reason you should train yourself to be a middle-finger braker is that by doing so you will subtly be flipping the bird in pretty much every photo of you going downhill on a mountain bike, for the rest of your life.
And that’s reason enough, probably.
However, if you’re looking for a (somewhat) more practical reason for being a middle finger braker, how about this: a wider span, as well as more of your hands, stay on the handlebars when you’re descending.
Think about it. If you brake with your index fingers, the part of your palm below that finger is — best case scenario — unweighted, and is probably not even touching the grip. If you brake with your index and middle finger, about half of each hand is off the grips when you’re braking. Which is kind of unfortunate, since — generally speaking — when you’re braking you’re definitely interested in having as much control of the bike as possible.
When your middle finger is on the brake, however, the widest possible span of your palms are on the grips: from the palm to the pinky. To me at least, it feels a lot more stable.
The other thing I like about middle-finger braking is that by setting my brake position up to be natural for the middle finger, I’m also automatically set up for index finger braking and two-finger braking.
Here, take a look at this closeup of me braking again:
What this tells you — apart from the fact that I’m so darn lazy I use the same image over and over in the same post — is that my hands are pretty much against the inside stop of my grips. This is because even with the brake levers butting up to the grips, my hands have to come to the inside for middle-finger braking.
To move to a position for index-finger braking, I just have to shift my hands to the outside edge of the grips. This can come in handy on a really long descent (Like, coming down Columbine), when a finger can start to get tired.
And if I need to switch to two-fingered braking (such as when I’m doing a truly enormous descent), the brake lever’s in a good position for that, too.
But What About Power?
There was a time (side-pull brakes era) when single-finger braking was an awesome, alluring marketing promise, but — at least for people without big ol’ slab-o-meat hands — the reality was a lot different. If you wanted both control and the power to stop, you needed to use two fingers to brake with.
Those days are gone. Huzzah!
Disc brakes — at least, really great disc brakes — mean that your pinkie is powerful enough to lock up your brakes whenever you want.
So the question of power kinda disappears. But even if it didn’t, for me at least, the middle finger is every bit as powerful as the index finger. And pretty much on par in terms of dexterity, too. Which is to say, since switching to middle-finger braking, I haven’t started being any more of a klutz on my bike than I was previously.
Gotta Make Adjustments
The thing is, if you want to try out middle-finger braking, you’ll need to move your brake levers from where you’ve got them for index- or two-finger braking. Specifically, you’ll need to move them toward the outside of your handlebars. In my case, it means moving the levers so they butt right up against the inside edge of the grips.
I didn’t have to change the angle of the levers, which is good, because I fear change.
Your Mileage May Vary
Of course you are no doubt now asking yourself, “Is Fatty asserting that this is the best position for braking for everyone?”
The answer to that question is, of course, “Yes. Totally.”
Or it might just be that it works for me, so I thought I’d pass it along.
It’s also possible that this position would be a total non-starter for you. Like, I can imagine if you — for some very sad reason you should describe in gruesome detail with accompanying photographs in the comments section — lost one or both of your middle fingers, this braking technique probably isn’t going to be your cup of tea.
Also, if your hands are so meaty that squeezing the lever with your middle finger will crush your index finger, don’t use this technique. For crying out loud.
And, if you’r'e a six-fingered man, this position may not work great for you because you might be confused as to which finger is your “middle” (my take on this: discount your thumb and go for the finger that is in fact in the middle).
And finally, it’s possible that you have a compelling reason why middle-finger braking makes no sense whatsoever and is just compounding my descending mediocrity (or whatever it is that hopes to someday aspire to mediocrity). In which case, let’s hear it.