Know Your Motorcycle: Brakes Maintenance 101

What to check, when and how

By Jasmine Bluecreek Clark
It matters not what speed you’re actually traveling—on a motorcycle, it feels fast. For all that love of fast that motorcyclists share, the ability to stop quickly is important and often highly overlooked.
Along with taking a motorcycle training class to hone our braking skills, we should all learn how to check the braking system on our motorcycles. On a regular great day of riding with no particular challenges, we rarely need the full braking potential our motorcycles offer. But what if it’s one of those other kinds of days—you know, the days where every car seems to be trying to run you over or off the road, or the days where every wild critter on the landscape seems hell-bent on forging a suicidal connection with your motorcycle? Those days are the ones when your brakes (and skills) need to be at maximum efficiency.
There are two primary styles of brakes used on virtually all two-wheeled vehicles: the old-style drum and shoe brakes, and the more modern disc braking systems, including ABS (anti-lock braking systems).
Drum brakes are still used on smaller displacement motorcycles and on some dirt and dual-sport motorcycles.
motorcycle brakes maintenance 101
Drum brakes can be mechanical or hydraulic. A lever attached to a spring and shaft applies manual or hydraulic pressure to the brake shoes to actuate the braking.
motorcycle brakes maintenance 101 drum brakes
Drum brakes may require minor maintenance, like lubricating the pivot joints a couple times a year.

Most large cruisers use some variation of disc brakes. These include the large brake rotors—or discs, as they’re often called—that can easily be seen on most motorcycles.

motorcycle brakes maintenance 101 harley disc brake
The rotor (round disc) spins with the wheel. The caliper (metal piece clamped around the rotor at about two o’clock in this photo) houses the brake pads.
motorcycle brakes maintenance 101 brake line
Hydraulic fluid inside a brake line applies pressure through the calipers to the brake pads. The brake pads subsequently squeeze against the brake rotor, causing the bike to stop.
You’ll often find larger discs and multi-piston calipers (up to three or four pistons) on custom motorcycles with powerful engines because more pistons are needed to push the brake pads against the rotor for increased stopping power.
Generally speaking, brake systems don’t require a lot of upkeep, but they should be checked for leaks or wear and tear often.
motorcycle brakes maintenance 101 master cylinder harley
This is the master cylinder on a Harley-Davidson. What appears to be a round black hole is actually clear glass called a sight glass that allows you to see the level of the brake fluid.
motorcycle brakes maintenance master cylinder
The same things that could damage a wheel or tire, like flying road debris or dropping the motorcycle, could also cause a braking component to develop a crack that could lead to a leak or other problem.
Things to check include: brake lines (check that they’re not frayed or coming loose at the connections), master cylinders (check that fluid is not leaking), brake pads or brake shoes (a technician will need to check the wear on these), and caliper bolts (check that they are not loose, or instruct a technician to check).
Rubber brake lines and seals can age, dry out and crack. Occasionally, a small crack in a brake line can allow air into the system, causing a spongy feel when braking or even a total failure of the applied brake. Brake fluid can age and accumulate too much moisture or become less efficient at stopping. For all these reasons and more, you will want to do regular spot-checks of your brakes and have a professional technician check them on a regular basis.
Ask your mechanic to check your brakes every time you take your bike to the shop. Many reputable dealerships and aftermarket shops will take a quick look at their customers’ brakes, wheels and tires every time as a matter of policy. One of the shops I wrenched for in the distant past always had us check each vehicle. This way the shop helps ensure your safety and your return business, and sometimes finds more work for their crew to do if there’s something that needs repairing. It’s a win-win situation for all involved.
Learn more about checking your brakes in chapter 11 of my book, “ABC’s of Motorcycle Wrenching,” which can be ordered by clicking on the banner at the end of this article. Read the WRN review of the book here.

motorcycle brake maintenance 101 Jasmine Bluecreek

About the Author
Jasmine Bluecreek Clark first threw a leg over a motorcycle at age 12. She took time off from riding to raise a family, starting back up in 1995 and logging more than 100,000 miles on her street bikes. With a background in auto mechanics, she became ASE certified in automotive brake systems in 1999. She is an MSF instructor and became a specialist in teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing persons to ride, garnering two MSF national awards for her efforts. She is the owner of Bluecreek Motorcycle Training, located in Colorado. Jasmine is also the author of two books, “ABC’s of Motorcycle Wrenching” and “Women In The Wind: Fearless Women of the 20th amp; 21st Centuries.”

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