We all like to talk about our motorcycle’s acceleration and handling capabilities, but when you really think about it, being able to stop efficiently is probably the most important thing your motorcycle has to do. Your brakes are critical, but unfortunately brake componentry is often where manufacturers skimp on quality to help keep a motorcycle’s MSRP down. The result can be a soft lever, poor initial bite, crummy modulation, fading under hard use or just plain lack of stopping power.
Not all issues are caused by less-than-ideal componentry, however, which is why the first suggestion for addressing underwhelming brake performance is to bleed the system.
Bleeding your brakes is actually just regular maintenance that your owner’s manual will probably suggest doing every 24 months, and if you ignore it then brake performance may suffer as a result. That’s because over time, brake fluid will absorb moisture out of the atmosphere and air can creep past the seals, making the fluid more compressible and lowering its boiling point. Both of those are bad things for your brakes and can lead to a brake lever or pedal that feels squishy or cause the brakes to fade as they get hot.
So if you’re not satisfied with your bike’s brakes, it might just be time to bleed the system. Make sure you’re using the appropriate DOT fluid — it’ll be printed on the master cylinder lid — lay down plenty of paper towels to protect your paint, and keep pumping that lever until every last bubble is pushed out and you see fresh, clean brake fluid.
If bleeding the brake doesn’t do the trick, the next step is to start replacing parts. And the easiest components to upgrade are your brake pads. Many stock pads are of the semi-metallic variety and designed for general use with a gentle bite for a friendlier feel. That’s fine if you’re primarily commuting or touring, but if you ride your bike hard on twisty roads and want more bite and power when you pull the lever, upgrading to sintered pads is going to increase the friction rating which will net a strong initial bite, more stopping power and better resistance to fading. For more in-depth info on sintered pads, check out DP Brakes’ website. It specializes in sintered pads and has a robust FAQ section online.
Sintered pads will likely be a little pricier than OEM replacement pads, but they’re a simple upgrade and easy to rationalize if your stock pads are worn out. It’s always a good idea to scrub your rotors with 400-grit sandpaper or Scotch-Brite pads before installing new brake pads so the friction material has a fresh surface to bed into. Also keep in mind that new brake pads will need to be broken in with a series of progressively harder stops over the course of 50 to 100 miles.
Another potentially beneficial mod is installing adjustable brake levers. The more the piston in the front brake master cylinder strokes, the more pressure is applied to the back of the brake pads. Installing an adjustable-reach front brake lever can enable you to reposition the lever for increased lever stroke as well as a more comfortable reach. Installing a matching set (brake and clutch levers) boosts your bike’s aesthetic as well as your comfort on the controls.
After bleeding your brakes, swapping pads and upgrading your levers, things start to get increasingly expensive and complicated. One popular modification is to replace OEM rubber brake lines with braided stainless steel hoses, but you’re not likely to notice any improvement unless you regularly brake in the 90th percentile. Riders that say stainless lines made a big difference are usually just experiencing the benefits of having fresh, bubble-free fluid in the brake system. Additionally, brake lines can be a pain to install, especially on bikes with ABS which often have complicated hose routing.
Likewise, you can upgrade your master cylinder to one with a larger, radial piston or slap on some full-floating rotors, but those are pricey parts, and probably not a good investment for most street riders.
One final — and free — recommendation for squeezing more performance out of your brakes is to practice squeezing the lever — hard! The fact is, lots of people don’t know the limits of their bike’s current brakes, which — even if the lever feels squishy or there’s crummy feedback — are likely pretty powerful if you really bear down on them. So go find a clean, dry parking lot and practice some hard braking. It’s great training and a good way to learn what your brakes are actually capable of.