How to care for your motorcycle brakes
A motorcycle working correctly is an orchestra playing a symphony to make us smile.
In a sentence, this is how we would define a bike.
Now, as in an orchestra, a symphony only plays out perfectly if the maestro is leading correctly. On our bikes, we are the maestros.
We are the ones dictating how aggressively our exhaust notes are "sounding," as we are the ones that make sure all the "musicians" in our "rolling orchestra" are in top shape, and that is where things get a bit out of hand for many.
Some of us are mechanically savvy, and maintenance is not a scary subject, for others, either due to lack of skill or just sheer interest, mechanics and maintenance is something for their mechanic of choice.
There is nothing wrong with not wanting to get your hand dirty. However, there is something to be said about not keeping an eye out for your safety.
At the end of the day, it's not your mechanic that is riding your bike; it's you, so you are the most interested party in making sure all is working, and your safety is guaranteed.
Does this mean you need to get your hands dirty after all? Not necessarily, but it does mean you should pay attention to what is happening daily.
Tire degradation and chain lubing and stretching are amongst the two main things most riders know how to inspect, however when it comes to brakes, the same does not happen at scale.
Not that brakes are a hard instrument to evaluate, but lack of basic theoretical knowledge forces our empirical one to misguide us.
With this in mind, let us share some guidelines on how to make sure your brakes are hitting all the right notes every time you call them to the stage.
- Brake discs
Brake discs can suffer from a few different problems, however, and being that they are "just a slice of metal," it's quite a straight forward mechanism.
- Common issue 1 - The bent disc
Anything that hits your disc may bend it, and that will reduce your braking ability.
The same way, overheating your disk may produce the same result.
How to check for it?
Lift the wheel and rotate it by hand, if your disc is bent, you will see it wobble out of alignment.
- Common issue 2 - The worn out disc
Braking works as the brake pads squeeze the disc forcing the wheel to stop spinning.
Although brake pads tend to wear out faster than the disc, the latter is not impervious to deterioration, so you will need to replace your discs from time to time.
- Common issue 3 - Greasy fingers
May it be from touching the discs to check if any screw is loose, to verify if it's worn out, or to replace a wheel, there are many reasons why our hands can touch the discs, and that is something they shouldn't do.
Our skin is not oil/grease free, and even if we are using gloves to work, the chances are that we won't use new gloves every time we touch our discs.
Any grease that touches the discs - or brake pads directly - if not cleaned will sink into the porous pads.
What is the worst enemy of traction? Any slippery substance between the contact surfaces.
This means that a greasy, dirty disc will prevent you from having the best braking possible.
Want to try a cool test?
Grab a piece of paper or cloth, soak some isopropyl alcohol or brake cleaner on it, and pass it on your "clean" brake discs.
Most likely your paper/cloth will come out completely black even if the disk seemed clean, and that is natural and normal as there is debris on the road that attaches itself to our bikes.
What we shouldn't do is add to it by touching our discs and pads with our bare hands or greasy gloves.
- Brake pads
This one is quite straight forward. As the pads wear out, you need new ones.
How fast do they wear out?
That depends on the pads/disc combo you are using, and how much you brake, however one thing is relatively coherent amongst riders, no one likes to bend over to check them.
Luckily, you don't need to every single time, but we will get to that in a bit.
- Brake oil
Our brake oil, like our engine oil and all the others our bikes uses, is built to last.
However, it has its kryptonite, and that is called water.
Nine times out of ten, when you see your brake oil change color, the culprit is humidity, and that means a deterioration of its abilities to work correctly.
Another thing you might see your oil do is to lower its quantity on the reservoir, and this is where our empirical knowledge fails us.
In many aspects of our life, if we see something disappear, like money from our wallet, we assume that it's gone and we need more. Brake oil is not like that.
Brake oil works in a closed system, so when you install new pads and verify your oil level, your system is set.
As your pads wear out, or in other words, thin out, your caliper will require more oil to fill the piston, as there will be more space for it to travel until the pad reaches the disc.
This is the reason why your oil level goes down on the reservoir. The remaining oil went to your caliper.
If we follow our instinct and add oil as the level goes down, once we install new pads, the extra oil that was in our caliper will return to the reservoir, but as we added oil, the reservoir will overflow, and that is far from perfect.
The same way, when adding oil you will be decreasing your "air gap" and space for your oil to move. This will help to increase the pressure on your lines, o-rings and all around system, raising the possibility of leakage.
Brake oil is a nasty thing to work with as it will corrode everything it touches, so overflowing brake oil into our hands or bike is something we should avoid at all cost.
If we do not add oil as the level goes down on our reservoir - assuming there are no leaks - when we install new pads, the oil will return to the reservoir and we now have new pads and a correctly filled and primed system ready to ride.
Now that we know that adding brake oil isn't necessary or useful in the long term, we can use that to our advantage.
Instead of bending over to check our brake pads, we can check our oil level.
It will not be 100% accurate as there is no oil level for "you need new pads," but it will give us an excellent benchmark as a guideline for our brake pads life span.
Be preemptive on your maintenance, be active on your safety, be smart on your inspections, and always keep on learning new things about your motorcycle, regardless if you decide to get your hands dirty or not.
Check our infographic on the subject.