How Late Is Too Late For A Motorcycle Brake Job?

If you have ever been unfortunate enough to experience a brake lever go limp in your hand, I assure you haven’t forgotten it. After getting your bike started and rolling, proper brake performance is the most critical function of your motorcycle.

The brake systems on motorcycles are fairly simple and most repairs can be done yourself, but a lack of awareness and maintenance can get you into trouble.

Maybe you’ve had your bike for a while or you just picked up your first bike and you’re thinking to yourself, “Why is my brake lever so mushy all of the sudden?” or “What is that awful screeching noise?”. This would be an ideal time to inspect your brakes and consider when the last brake job was performed.

In general, the front and rear brake systems of your motorcycle should be thoroughly checked at every oil change interval. This inspection should include pads, rotors, fluid, and related components. The brake pads typically won’t last beyond 20,000 miles or roughly 4 maintenance intervals.

How Do I Know If I Need New Brakes?

Brakes can be visually inspected without having to perform any major mechanical operations. The brake pads are accessible for viewing inside the caliper adjacent to the rotor.

Take a look at the photo to the left. You can see the tiny gray sliver next to the brake disc (rotor) inside the black brake caliper. This little exposed portion of the brake pad is what can allow you to make a quick visual inspection to determine if your brakes are safe to ride on before you head out.

As a general rule, brake pads should not be used after they measure less than 2 millimeters. Anything beyond this level can compromise brake performance and rider safety.

Brake pads typically start their life around the 10-millimeter mark, which is about 3/8″ for comparison sake. If you are unable to make a judgment from a visual inspection alone, a tool called a brake gauge will allow you to be sure of the thickness of your brake pads.

Check out the link here to see a photo to get an idea of what I’m talking about. You simply hold the gauge up to the exposed brake pad and choose the matching thickness to get your reading.

In addition to brake pads, your brake rotors might need service as well. The most common failure from a brake rotor is generally warpage. This occurs when the rotor gets really hot then cools down repeatedly and is no longer perfectly flat.

The issue this creates is excessive vibration under braking and typically occurs on the front. The only fix for this is to replace both discs and start over fresh. Riding with warped brake rotors is very dangerous as stability, especially under hard braking, will be dramatically compromised.

Rotors don’t necessarily have a lifespan, but have to be inspected and felt. Also check for any abnormal grooves being cut into the discs as this indicates a brake system issue.

Depending on your brake setup, you should always keep an eye on your brake fluid or brake cable. A hydraulic brake system will have brake fluid that needs servicing over enough time and mileage. Leaks may also occur which would require repair.

There’s another handy tool for this because it’s not always obvious to identify bad brake fluid. Check out these test strips that you dip in the brake fluid to determine if it has been contaminated or broken down too far.

For a cable-style brake setup, inspect for any frays in the cable as well as proper adjustment. The lever shouldn’t be too floppy to where you have to pull all the way to the bar for tension.

As a wrap-up, make sure you are consistently inspecting the following items:

  • Brake Pads (for thickness)
  • Brake Rotors (for warpage)
  • Brake Fluid (if applicable)
  • Brake Master and Slave Cylinder (if applicable, check for leaks)
  • Brake Cable (if applicable)
  • Brake Lever (for damage and adjustment)

How Long Are Brakes Supposed To Last On A Motorcycle?

This all depends on riding style and I suppose rider mood. I’ve seen a set of brakes last anywhere from a couple of hundred miles over one weekend to tens of thousands of miles over multiple years.

The friction material bonded to a brake pad is simply designed to most efficiently stop the momentum of the wheel and convert the friction to heat. This will happen faster or slower depending on the velocity of the bike and the frequency of braking.

Let’s look at two examples to get the point across.

Track Day

  • The highest speed you will likely ever achieve on a motorcycle
  • This rider is ready to rock and let the big dog eat
  • Maximum braking force will be applied consistently at various intervals for multiple sessions
  • If the bike has the option it will be in some sort of race or sport mode which will adjust all settings to more aggressive parameters

Commuting

  • Average speed of 70 mph with limited variability
  • This rider just wants to get to work alive with minimal chance of injury
  • Brakes are only applied a few times and with minimal force
  • This style of motorcycle will typically be a lower powered touring bike with softer settings making it more efficient and economical
The Ducati Panigale is an AWESOME track weapon

I don’t want to leave this point saying “it depends” regarding brake longevity. Obviously, if you’re constantly hammering then you will be doing about ten brake jobs for everyone the commuter does.

In my experience, if you are riding both mountain roads and highways at an above-average aggression level, you will need to replace brake pads every 15,000 miles.

How Much Do New Brakes Cost On A Motorcycle?

To break down costs for a standard brake job, I have itemized typical parts on two very different machines. I’m using a dual front rotor setup and quoting aftermarket brake brands. I’ve ridden many bikes with both OEM and aftermarket brakes…I cannot claim a performance or longevity difference unless you are using for race applications.

Part2021 Honda CBR600RR2021 Kawasaki Z125 Pro
Front Pads$66.70 (set)$39.05
Rear Pads$39.05$31.49
Front Rotors$440.22 (set)$109.80
Rear Rotor$110.05$109.80
Calipers (OEM)$739.10 (set)$165.58
Information gathered from motosport.com

The first bike listed is one of the most popular and common supersport bikes ever made. The CBR600RR is a great benchmark to measure the cost of repair and maintenance. As you can see, compared to the mini Z125 Pro, the cost for a brake job varies dramatically.

In general, a full front and rear brake job for a standard sport bike will cost about $650 if you do the labor yourself. Add more on top if you take it to a service center, exchange the brake fluid, or foolishly damaged your calipers.

Why Should I Replace My Brakes?

This may sound like a needless question, but I have known people who didn’t think there was an issue with running brakes down to metal-to-metal and then doing a pad slap 500 miles later. Therefore, it is worth touching on some surface-level ideas behind brake wear and maintenance.

Brakes should be replaced at a proper interval to avoid catastrophic brake failure as well as collateral damage to adjacent components.

When brakes wear down, there are several consequences and chain reactions that occur.

Your brake fluid level or brake cable adjustment is typically set when the brakes are new. As brakes wear down, the calipers have to push the pads a longer distance to press against the rotor. This changes the parameters governing the fluid or cable on your bike.

If the brake pads wear down too far below 2 millimeters, you run the risk of overheating the brakes and damaging the entire system.

Gradually moisture from the air will get into the brake system and mix with the brake fluid. This will lower the boiling point of the brake fluid and increase the chance that the brake fluid will boil during heavy braking. As a result, the brakes will “fade” under such conditions causing reduced performance.

The last thing anyone needs is their brake fluid boiling like oil in a fryer…

If you wear the pads down so far that no more friction material remains, the metal backing plate will be directly contacting the brake rotor. At this point, the internal components of the calipers can be damaged. Items like seals and push pins can seize to function and leave you with no choice but to “lay her down”.

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