As avid motorcyclists know, the bits and pieces that make up your vehicle tend to be, shall we say, a little more vital on bikes as compared to 4-wheeled vehicles. That is, if you get a flat in your SUV you’re probably going to have a mildly-annoying day; if your tire explodes on your bike while going 70 miles an hour, calling your day “annoying” would be a bit of an understatement.
Thus it is with motorcycle brakes. Not to be too heavy, but your life literally depends on them, so it’s important to keep them in tune. You can always go to your favorite neighborhood grease monkey to have a swap done to optimize motorcycle safety, but it’s also completely possible to do it yourself.
What Brakes Should I Buy?
Like with many modifications, this depends on your wants and needs with your bike. If you’re happy with how your bike’s braking performance is as it stands (other than simply needing new ones), then the obvious answer is to stick with what you already have.
If you’re looking to switch it up, broadly speaking, there are two different kinds of brakes: organic and sintered. The organic vs. sintered brakes debate can keep motorheads occupied for hours, easily. However, sintered brakes tend to do better with those who like a more aggressive braking style. They also tend to kick up less dirt, so if you’re concerned about the appearance of your wheels, sintered may be the way to go. They are made by fusing a soft metal (like copper) with a lining material, and then pushing the metal onto the backing plate of the brake. It fuses as it cools.
Sintered brakes can be harder on your rotors than organic brakes, however, so you’ll need to keep a closer eye on the state of your rotors if you use them. Overall, if your motorcycle is big (think a huge cruiser) or extremely fast, you’ll probably want to look into a sintered-style brake.
Organic brakes are basically a catch-all for brakes made of any other material, which could include kevlar or rubber or carbon fiber or any other number of materials. The quality with organic brakes ranges wildly, but like with many things in life.. you do tend to get what you pay for. Basically, we don’t recommend the cheapest brakes off the shelf.
Check Your Rotor Performance
The best way to check your rotor performance is to start off with a visual inspection. If your rotors have deep grooves carved into them or are noticeably uneven, then they probably need to go the way of the dinosaur. If the backing pad material on the brake has been worn through enough to get to the rotor, the rotors probably need to be replaced. If you feel any strange pulsations through the lever or pedal… guess what, you probably need to replace the rotors.
Basically, variations of thickness is bad on a rotor. Sometimes the variations can be nearly imperceptible to the human eye, and this is where you’ll want to have a few specialized tools on hand to check. Some people like to use a dial caliper for this, while others go for a micrometer. It’s up to you, but make sure that you look at your rotor for a stamped thickness indicator. The thickness of the rotor needs to be greater than what is indicated in the stamp. If it’s thinner, the rotors need to go.
If the thickness of your rotors pass muster but you’re still getting strange pulsations, it’s possible that you may have run into an issue called “lateral runout.” You can sometimes physically feel the runout, but if you suspect this you’ll want to use a dial indicator. Most do-it-yourselfers aren’t going to have this on hand as it’s a pretty expensive piece of equipment, so you may want to run your bike by a professional to have them check it for you. It’s a reasonably quick and inexpensive process.
Rotor problems, thankfully, are relatively rare. It’s likely that your rotors will outlive a few rounds of brakes at minimum, though, as noted above, sintered brakes are harder on rotors as compared to organics.
Which Lubricants Work Best?
Like with many things, there is an element of preference involved with lubricants, but overall silicone lubricant is going to be a safe bet. The other main option is petroleum-based lubricants, and petroleum products don’t necessarily get along well with rubber, and rubber plays a big role in your braking system.
What Else Should I Know?
Front and rear brakes tend to wear at different rates, so it’s possible that you won’t need to do an entire brake swap on your bike at the same time. Also, unlike brakes sold for other vehicles, expect to pay per caliper for your bike brakes, not per axel. Essentially, expect to buy three sets of brakes to replace both front and rear brakes, even though that might not sound especially intuitive.
Take out your owner’s manual and look at what you’re working with. If you have twin disk brakes on your front wheel, make sure that you change both of them at the same time even if one is more worn than the other.
Keep brake fluid in mind. The brake fluid in your bike is going to decrease naturally as you use your brakes more and they wear out. If you have been topping off the brake fluid as you go, you’ll want to be careful with pumping up your brakes while changing them, as you might accidentally overflow the reservoir if you do so… and this can end up with you fixing the paint job on your bike as brake fluid tends to eat through paint.
And if you are wondering… yes, you can definitely change your brakes yourself even if you’re not especially handy and you’ve never done it before. Many motorcycle enthusiasts prefer changing brakes over changing oil, even. Just make sure that you have your owner’s manual, a little common sense, and take your time. If you’re especially nervous, having an experienced friend help you out the first time can take a lot of the pressure off.
For ultimate piece of mind, make sure that you’re replacing your old brakes with the best motorcycle brakes you can find.