Ride With Confidence: A Guide To Upgrading Your Motorcycle Brakes

Brakes are the most important safety component on your bike. They not only let you come to a stop but also allow for the shortest and safest braking distances and adjust your speed according to traffic and road conditions.

And they need to do this consistently, with minimal fuss. Those with more bite can additionally be seen as a performance part, as the less time you’re on the brakes, the more you’re on the throttle. If your stock brakes aren’t up to scratch, there are a few inexpensive mods that can liven up any bike. 

This can be 50-cc scooters, or colossal Harleys tuned for endless touring. In between, dozens of sports bikes muster a good dose of speed and need the best possible braking performance.

Regardless of what you ride, the brakes need to deliver the right stopping power specifically for your bike. This means they’ll significantly differ between different models, and take into account specifics like total bike and rider weight, power and top speeds, and where and how the bike spends most of its time.

Upgrading The Brakes On The Harleys

brakes

Harley-Davidsons are meant for mile-crunching fun. And they’re some of the most modified bikes out there, with more aftermarket goodies available than for any other bike brand. This also means braking components, and here you get to pick between part longevity or braking performance, or a nice balance between the two. 

Most riders will change out worn Harley brake pads, upgrade discs, callipers, and brake lines, and swap out the brake fluid. Most brake components are about function over form, but rotors, calipers, and neater-looking brake lines also add a bit of visual appeal. 

Replacing Brake Pads

Pads are the business end of braking. They bring the bike to a stop by being thrust against the discs. In Harleys that have seen a bit more mileage, there are two choices, either getting an OEM pad replacement that delivers much of the same braking performance as when the bike was new, or aftermarket Harley brake pads from an assortment of respected brands. They’ll improve braking performance as well as brake feel when pulling the lever or stepping on the pedal. 

There are two flavours, differing in the compounds. Organic pads are made of a mixture of organic materials, such as glass, rubber, ceramics, and fibres and bonding resins keep things together. They’re perfectly adjusted for leisurely cruising in dry conditions with little changes in speed. 

Where they fall short is with low friction coefficients, meaning more work with levers and pedals in coming to a stop. Additionally, they wear out faster and can leave a mess on the discs and wheels. The upsides are that organic pads are often cheaper and put less wear on the rotors. 

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    There’s more bite with sintered pads. These are a mix of metals and other compounds which is attached to the back plates with hooks or fused using high heat and pressure. Sintered pads are popular because they offer better braking performance consisting of shorter stopping distances and improved brake feel across different conditions, so are ideal for typical UK weather. They also don’t get as hot and sustain less wear under harder riding, so pair well with bikes with beefier engines and more weight. 

    A decent compromise is semi-sintered brake pads. These have both organic materials and metals, slot in the middle ground in terms of both price and performance and offer a few benefits of their own. They wear less than organic pads, but aren’t as hard on the brake rotors as sintered variants nor as noisy. So no interruptions to the sweet rumbling sound of the V-twin. 

    Gutsier Callipers

    gutsier callipers

    Calipers are the components sitting on the rotors and house the brake pads. They can have one or several pistons that engage the pads against the rotors with the help of hydraulic brake fluid supplied by the master cylinder. 

    They come in different designs, either as two preassembled halves bolted together or more expensive monobloc callipers CNC machined out of a single piece of metal. The use of better materials, billet aluminium in entry-level monoblocs or titanium in high-end options, as well as the precision and strength of the billet machined to tight tolerances means the best braking performance. 

    When replacing the callipers on your Harley, you can go with fixed or floating callipers with varying numbers of pistons. Floating or sliding callipers have pistons on one side only, so when pressing on the brake, the caliper must float (or slide) to bring the opposing brake pad toward the disc. The simpler design makes these cheaper without skimping on braking performance. This is in most cases. 

    Where you need the best possible braking force, the multi-piston fixed callipers have no peers. These have pistons on either side of the rotor, so evenly distribute the pressure from the brake fluid across a larger portion of the rotors. And they generate less heat, so related issues like brake fade are less likely. 

    If you’re concerned about looks, callipers come in polished steel, chromed, or matt-black coatings. 

    Cooler Rotors

    cooler rotors

    Rotors are all about clamping force and dissipating heat. There are two distinct types to choose from: floating and fixed. Floating rotors are preferred for increased braking force, as they can to some extent conform to the brake pads, meaning more consistent and predictable braking. And they expel built-up heat easier. Fixed rotors consist of a single piece of metal, and while less effective, can be preferred in specific riding conditions, such as dirt trails. 

    Newer rotor designs get rid of heat much better. And they look cool too. There are different designs on offer, from solid discs like you’ll find in older Harleys, to drilled, slotted, drilled, and slotted, and wave or petal discs on newer bikes.

    What’s of note is that discs with larger diameters and a larger surface area offer the best braking performance. Petal and wave designs also benefit from being thinner and lighter, so there’s less mass that needs to be turned. What you end up with will be based on personal preferences and what goes well with the bike. 

    Braided Brake Lines and Uprated Fluid

    Getting the hydraulic force generated from the master cylinder to the calipers and pistons is possible with brake lines. These carry the brake fluid. Commonly, you’ll find two types in different price brackets. Cheaper and less durable rubber lines and hoses are seen in older and entry-level bikes.

    While they usually cope with the heat and pressure each time you pull the lever or press the pedal, they can swell and rupture. And in times when you’d least expect it. This leads to potential safety risks and damage to other braking components.

    Braided steel lines consist of inner hoses wrapped in stainless steel and often include an outer PVC layer for additional protection from moisture, abrasions, engine heat, and sputtering oil. They can handle more heat and higher pressures in modified brake components tuned for higher brake force, and they last longer in both everyday and more spirited riding. 

    The last mod to consider is going for performance brake fluid with the right DOT ratings. This is what creates the initial push of the calliper pistons against brake pads and then onto the rotors, so swapping out the fluid can deliver better braking. The fluid also lubricates the parts and adds to longevity.

    The DOT rating is printed or etched on the master cylinder with different variants (3.4. 5 and 5.1) having different compositions (either silicone or glycol) and different boiling points. DOT 3, 4, and 5.1 are compatible with the ABS systems on newer Harley bikes, whereas DOT 5 fluid is often used with non-ABS bikes. 

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