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Signs your motorbike brakes are on the way out

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Motorcycles have come a long way from the early days of drum brakes: the stopping technology of the time was horribly prone to fading when hot; and offered heart-stopping moments when water in the linings meant no braking power at all.

Most modern motorcycles are equipped with at least one hydraulically-operated front disk brake, and another at the rear.

In the sports segment expect even fancier options including radially-mounted multi-piston monoblock calipers gripping a pair of large floating disks at the front. It is racetrack technology for the road and the stopping power is immense – little more than one or two fingers’ pressure at the lever is enough to make a rider fear going over the handlebars.

The temptation may be to upgrade to ‘branded’ braking systems, though there is little need. While the original equipment brakes may be built down to a price, they are engineered for the weight of the machine and the expected braking requirements. Unless you’re planning to take your Harley-Davidson to the racetrack, the original equipment brakes should be just fine. Why fix something that isn’t actually broken?

Maintenance, however, is something that many motorcyclists overlook, in part because brakes are so reliable these days. Here’s what to look for:

  • The easiest and most basic thing to do is inspect the pads for wear. Brake pads have grooves cut across the surface touching the disk as ‘wear indicators’ – as long as you can see the grooves, the pads are still okay. Waiting for them to squeal is leaving things too late.
  • Check the brake lines for any cracks or leaks – either is a sign of trouble, and should be seen to straight away.
  • The brake lever should feel firm. If it feels spongy, or comes all the way back to the handlebar, the brake system needs attention. The rear brake, likewise, should feel firm and not travel too far when pressed. The most likely culprit is either a leak or air in the lines. Either way it requires urgent attention.
  • If the brakes fade when they are hot, it is a sign that the fluid is old and needs replacing – make sure the new fluid is the type specified for your bike, and that it comes from a freshly-opened container. Both points are important: some different fluid grades are not compatible; and all but the relatively rare DOT 5 fluids are hydrophilic, meaning they absorb moisture from the atmosphere and become more prone to fading.
  • Check the brake fluid levels – most reservoirs have inspection windows with upper and lower limits marked. If the fluid needs topping-up, it is best to replace it with fresh fluid and have the brake lines bled to ensure no air is trapped.
  • Replacing the brake fluid is a regular maintenance task – check your owner’s manual for recommended intervals.
  • Note that some new motorcycles are fitted with drum brakes at the rear, and mechanical, rather than hydraulic, operation – in this case there is little to do other than ensure they’re adjusted correctly. When all the adjustment is used, then the linings need replacing. Some drum brake systems feature a wear indicator – check your owner’s manual. 


Wherever you go, whatever you do, remember it’s vital to have good
Motorcycle Insurance.

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