How To Tell If Motorcycle Has Bad Brakes? (Explained)

Every rider should know when they might need new brakes.

Brakes not only bring us to safe stops, but they can also help riders gain speed and leverage through turns.

There are numerous types of braking systems and components, but if you understand the basics of brake systems, you can learn which signs mean you may have bad brakes.

How Can You Tell If You Need New Brakes?

There are several telltale signs that you may notice if your brakes need replacement.

Regardless of the type of brake system you have, here are some general signs that show your motorcycle’s brakes need repair:

  • Squealing sound from wheels when brakes are applied
  • Brake levers feel spongy or take multiple squeezes to build pressure
  • Brake fluid leaking
  • Excessive brake dust on wheels
  • It takes a long time for the bike to stop

If you’re experiencing any of these issues while riding, inspect the bike as soon as possible. You might need new brakes.

Brakes 101: How Do Brakes Work?

Before we go into the detail of the signs of bad brakes, we need to understand the major components of a braking system and how they work.

There are also several types of braking systems, like drum brakes, linked braking and ABS, but for this article we’ll focus on disc brake systems. This is the most common type of brake systems found on modern motorcycles.

If you use disc brakes on your motorcycle, there are some key components you should be familiar with, including:

  1. Brake pads
  2. Rotors
  3. Calipers
  4. Brake fluid and brake lines
  5. Master cylinders

You may know what some of these parts are and maybe some of these parts are unfamiliar. Either way, let’s briefly discuss how each of these components helps you slow down and stop.

Brake Calipers

Calipers do a lot to help your bike stop. These big chunks of metal on the disc that hold the brake pads also house a piston that forces the brake pads against the rotor.

When you squeeze your brake lever, activating your brakes, a small amount of brake fluid is released into the brake lines that lead to the caliper piston.

The piston on the caliper then builds pressure and pushes the brake pads against the brake disc, or brake rotor, causing the bike to slow down.

The harder you squeeze the lever, the more fluid is released, causing more pressure and more friction from the pads to slow the bike down.

Brake Pads

We know the calipers help squeeze the pads against the brake disc, but how are those little pads able to stop the bike?

The brake pads are made of soft, compacted metal that are heat resistant. When they are squeezed around the brake disc, they bring the bike to a stop, similar to the way you might catch a piece of paper in the air between your hands.

Even though the soft metal of these pads are heat resistant, they do slowly wear down. When the metal on the brake pads is too low, it will no longer be able to grab the brake rotor to stop the bike.

Master Cylinder

You can find the master cylinder connected to the brake lever. The master cylinder houses the brake fluid.

As we’ve previously mentioned, when you squeeze the brake lever, brake fluid is released that builds pressure and pushes the brake pads against the rotor.

The master cylinder contains items like gaskets and springs. If one of these components goes out, you will experience braking issues and will need to repair or replace the master cylinder.

Brake Fluid and Lines

At this point, we know that the brake fluid is the component that causes pressure and pushes the brake pads against the rotor.

However, you can’t replace the brake fluid with any kind of fluid.

Brake fluid has specific properties that allow it to apply such pressure to the pads. The fluid is low viscosity, highly heat-resistant, non-corrosive, and non-compressible.

The brake fluid is carried by the brake lines which are made of nylon or reinforced with steel or kevlar.

Over time, brake lines can crack and cause leaks, which would reduce your braking power. It is also important that you make sure you have the correct brake fluid in your bike, as we’ve explained that brake fluid is a very precise liquid.

Please also read our article about common problems with the Honda Shadow 750.

3 Signs Your Motorcycle Needs New Brakes

Now that we know the basic components of a disc brake system, let’s talk about what you may experience when one of those parts begins to fail.

1. Squealing Sound When Braking

This is one of the most common and severe symptoms of faulty brakes. You reach for the brakes and as your bike is slowing down, you hear a squealing or whining sound from the wheel area.

The noise is made because your pads and rotors are not making contact correctly. It could be because the pads are worn too thin; the pads have been glazed over; the rotor is glazed over; or the rotor has a gash in it.

Luckily, this problem is fairly simple to diagnose and can be repaired easily with new pads or rotors.

2. Brakes Feel Spongy

If you feel like your brakes are spongy or your bike just isn’t stopping as quickly as it should, you may want to inspect your brake pads for wear.

There are two main reasons for spongy brakes. The first reason is low brake fluid pressure. If you don’t have enough brake fluid in your reservoir, the right amount of pressure can’t build up and create the proper stopping power needed.

This can happen if there is not enough brake fluid due to a leak in the lines or it was previously inadequately filled. It can also happen if there is air in your brake lines.

The second reason is worn brake pads. Brake pads are not designed to last forever and therefore will wear out and need replacing.

To resolve this problem, first determine if it’s the brake fluid or brake pads. If your brake pads are worn through, replace them promptly and check to make sure damage was not done to the rotor.

If the brake pads look good but the brakes still feel spongy, bleed your brakes and check your brake fluid levels.

Bleeding the brakes will eliminate any air that may have been trapped in the lines and it provides a perfect opportunity to check and top off the brake fluid level.

3. Vibration When Braking

A less common symptom of brakes needing repair or replacement is feeling vibration in the front or rear when brakes are applied.

This usually happens when your rotors are warped or damaged. If a rotor is warped, the caliper cannot apply even pressure to the brake pad. If this problem is not addressed quickly, it can cause more damage to your brake system.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to “fix” a warped rotor other than to replace it. If this is the case, hopefully the damage caused is minimal and repair cost can stay relatively low.

If you feel a jerk when shifting gears, it could be due to issues with the clutch and oil systems, chains and sprockets, or the shifting equipment.

How Long Do Brake Pads Typically Last on Motorcycles?

The lifespan of brake pads will depend on the quality of the material, the weight of the bike, and the riding style of the rider.

Most riders should be able to get a few hundred miles out of their brake pads before needing to replace them. For riders who like to use brakes aggressively, expect changing brake pads more frequently.

The material of brake pads also contributes to their longevity. Brake pads made of soft, organic material will wear out faster than brake pads made from synthetic metals.

The weight of the bike is also a contributing factor in determining how long brakes will last. Heavier bikes tend to wear through brakes quicker than smaller bikes. This is because it takes more friction, and therefore more material, to bring a heavy bike to a stop.

Make sure to also check out our article about common problems with the Honda Magna.

How Much Does it Cost to Replace Brakes on a Motorcycle?

It’s difficult to give exact quotes for repairing motorcycle brakes as no one shop charges the same and no one bike takes the same time to work on.

However, the chart below should help give you an idea of how much repairs will cost you.

Job Parts Needed Parts Cost Labor cost
Brake bleeding Brake fluid $20 1.5 hours = $180
Brake pad replacement Brake pads $34.50 .3 hour = $36
Brake rotor replacement Brake rotor $360 .5 hour = $60
Brake caliper rebuild Rebuild kit $57 2 hours = $240
Brake line replacement Brake lines $109 1 hour = $120

*These prices are only estimates based on average prices. Call your local dealer for pricing and details.

When riding on two wheels, it’s important to make sure your equipment is always in peak condition.

Brakes are one of the most important components of any motorcycle. If you ever feel your brakes aren’t up to par, stop and inspect them for a problem. Taking a chance on brakes is a risk you shouldn’t take.

Also read our article about how long Honda Valkyries last.


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