What To Do When Your Motorcycle’s Brakes Go Out

How To -


What To Do When Your Motorcycle’s Brakes Go Out

Controlling Your Speed Without The Front Brake

Unless you’re barreling toward a brick wall and don’t discover you’ve got no brakes until the last second, this really isn’t an insurmountable problem. Resist the urge to lay ‘er down and instead roll off the throttle and, when the revs are low enough, downshift until your speed is under control. Your back brake, if it’s still working, will obviously help here too. Just try to avoid downshifting or hitting the rear brake if you’re leaned way over in a corner. Easy peasy, you already know how to do this.

What To Do When Your Motorcycle’s Brakes Go Out

If You Can’t Stop In Time

Well, ask yourself what you’re approaching. If it’s an intersection full of cross traffic, borrow a trick from fixed-gear bicycle riders and, after doing what you can to shed speed, turn with the traffic. Doing so eliminates the perpendicular trajectory with moving cars while minimizing the speed differential between you and that traffic. That also has the effect of maximizing the gaps — you should be able to find one.

If you’re approaching a tight corner, now’s the time to use all that look where you want to go, trust the bike stuff. Again, shed as much speed as possible, then just tell yourself you will make it around. 99 percent of the time, on the road, engine braking will be enough to slow you down in time.

If you’re approaching a stationary obstacle — stopped traffic or whatever — again try to shed as much speed as possible, then just focus on avoiding whatever is there. We’re small, use it to your advantage.

What To Do When Your Motorcycle’s Brakes Go Out

How To Prevent It From Happening

Say it with me: “Pre-ride check.” Aircraft pilots do it and what we do is much more dangerous, so we should too. I’d never have had the brakes go out in that episode of our show if I’d taken the time to examine the bike ahead of time. Old Man Teller really should have noticed the slashed brake lines before needing to emergency brake. A mechanical failure like this will never catch you by surprise if you thoroughly familiarize yourself with your bike’s condition every time you ride it.

Have you ever lost your brakes? What other mechanical failures have you overcome in a riding situation?

  • Brandon Mussman

    I had a brake pad fall out of the front of my EX500 last year. Luckily i was only a few miles from home and could manage it with engine braking and the back brake, but man were those few miles a big wake up call for a newbie rider. Now every ride i do a T CLOCS inspection, even if i just did one on the way to the store.

    • Joe Bielski

      Woah, that’s brutal… Is that a common thing on EX500′s?

      • Brandon Mussman

        I dont think so, it was right after i purchased it and it had been neglected. Turns out one of the shims or whatever holds the pad in was just plain missing, i wouldnt have noticed even i had checked though cus at that point i really had no idea what i was even doing. Thanks to places like http://www.ex-500.com and Ride Apart i have become not only a better motorcyclist but better at maintenince as well.

  • Michael Howard

    Whenever my brakes fail, I just lay ‘er down. What is ya, ignorant?

    • Mugget

      Yup, gotta lay ‘er down to avoid an accident!

    • gravit8ed


      Really, guy?

      • Michael Howard

        * There was a recent article about bad advice given by riders to other riders. One of those was about having to “lay ‘er down”.
        * Notice the “up” votes and that one of them was from the author of this article?
        * Might want to research “sarcasm” ‒ there’s a lot of it in the world and some of it’s pretty funny.
        * But, yeah, I really do drop my bike any time I’m in a panic situation or just want to stop faster. And sometimes when I’m just too tired to use the sidestand.

  • Mike McCall

    I would much rather have one of my brakes go out than my clutch.

    • Michael Howard

      If I was riding and suddenly found out that something wasn’t working, I think I’d rather it be the clutch than the brakes. Not being able to shift seems pretty minor compared to grabbing a handful of brakes that aren’t there.

      • zedro

        Potehto, potahto?

        • stever

          hey that’s a violation of harley davidson’s copyrights, trademarks, and patents.

    • Mugget

      My clutch cable broke once when I was approaching a stop sign at a t-section of a busy road. I was already braking for it, so the engine stalled as I stopped.

      If the brakes had gone instead of the clutch I would have been rolling into traffic. It was basically a blind corner until you get to the stop sign (hence the stop sign, I suppose), so trying to turn with the traffic and find a gap would just put your survival down to blind luck.

      At least with no clutch I still stopped where I wanted to. Take my clutch out any day, don’t touch my brakes!

    • tobykeller

      It is possible to shift without a clutch. Tricky, but not a bad emergency skill to have.

    • Mike McCall

      You guys, definitely have a point. I am just uncomfortable with the idea of stalling in gear. However you are right, both of those examples below are more terrifying.

  • Ken Lindsay

    My buddy had his front brake pad crack while we were riding off-road after hitting a big rock. We didn’t know what to do so we pushed it back in place with the handle of a screwdriver since it didn’t come all the way out. We thought it might keep the disk from getting ruined. He used his back brake the rest of the way down the mountain and on the way home. It was only, maybe 5 miles, but it was pretty steep!

  • Steve Bennett

    Chinese junk?

  • Rameses the 2nd

    Why not use “engine braking” to slow down or stop the bike? Is that a bad idea?

    • tobykeller

      “roll off the throttle and, when the revs are low enough, downshift until your speed is under control” — that’s engine braking

      • Piglet2010

        Why not downshift at high engine rpm?

        Jason Pridmore will teach you this (and other things, of course) for $300.

  • BillW

    When I took the MSF basic course back in the mid-80s, the instructor suggested one action when you know collision is imminent and unavoidable: jump! Jump straight up as hard as you can. He, of course, had anecdoctal evidence of one student for whom this was a lifesaver. The idea is that you may hit something less solid than what you were about to hit, or hit it a more glancing blow (e.g., leap over the car and land on the shoulder). You could just land in another lane and be run over.

    I’m happy to say I’ve never had occasion to try it.

    • eddi

      Abandoning the bike is never a good idea. At the absolute worst, it will take at least part of the hit for you reducing your speed when you do get thrown off. Or you could surprise yourself and just barely miss if you’re still on the brakes or stalling out in first gear.

    • nick2ny

      I used to think about this type of accident all the time, and even tried to visualize the best timing.. On-coming turns left in front of you and I jump at the perfect time off the pegs… Would be even better if you were wearing heelies.

      Has anyone ever jumped over a car they were about to T-Bone and been better off for it? I’d love to know–thanks for bringing it up.

      • BillW

        Well, the absolute best case for this sort of thing is that you still hit the ground from whatever altitude you were able to jump to, at whatever forward speed you were traveling when you jumped (minus a small amount for aerodynamic drag). But that might be preferable to the sudden deceleration of slamming into a car or truck. I don’t recall the details of the instructor’s example, but I recall that it ended with the guy waking up lying off the side of the road, relatively unscathed but for the concussion, and thinking or saying “I jumped!” But as eddi points out, there’s a very fine line between the last moment of effective control and knowing you’re going to crash no matter what. Everything else I’ve been taught says that you keep riding the motorcycle until it becomes impossible to do so, because you never know when evasive action or recovery may be possible (see various videos of Grand Prix racers recovering from highsides). Still, the point where you would give up and jump is a whole lot later than the point where you’d give up and “lay ‘er down”. I don’t know. It could give a better outcome, or a worse one, depending on circumstances, judgment, and timing.

        • eddi

          My one serious accident, I stayed on the brakes until they locked just before impact. I had turned 90 degrees already, still mostly upright.The brake locking turned me completely backward to the direction of travel. I was thrown over the car (small sedan) and hit the road mostly somersaulting then rolled to a stop. I have a suspicion that jumper took a similar header on impact, managing to avoid hitting the vehicle himself but recalls it as a controlled maneuver. Please note that is only a guess.

  • atomicalex

    I have a habit of grabbing the front brake as I’m pushing the bike out of the garage before a ride. Never thought of it as a safety check, but I guess it is.
    The downshift thing is a critical skill from Bernd Spiegel’s perspective, and the fastest rider I know has a very unique downshift habit on the track that I try to mimic – use the engine braking. It’s there for you. It’s free. It works. Also, in the Alps, the compression braking of my big single is so strong that I almost did not have to brake at all on grades of less than 8%. That is basically the rear brake under normal usage. So, yeah. It works.

  • ThinkingInImages

    “Performance” means being able to reduce speed in a controlled manner, too.

    Some riders will spend time and money to add a pulsejet for that extra bit of speed (and flames) but the brake system is so old, feeble and neglected that they can barely stop the motorcycle in the garage.

    It doesn’t take a lot to maintain your brakes. It’s just not a “fun” thing to do. Start with just looking at the system, from the brake reservoir(s) to the wheels. The fluid shouldn’t be dark. (It’s a good time to look at your radiator coolant, too.) If you live in a damp environment, or ride a lot in the rain, change the fluid annually. Rotors shouldn’t be grooved or rusty, nor should they glow red or smoke. You shouldn’t hear or feel brakes (other than smooth stopping power).

    I’ve owned and worked on old motorcycles where I’ve had to tear the old brake system down, top to bottom and end to end, because of brake neglect. It’s not inexpensive. The rest of the motorcycle was meticulous, including every bauble and questionable “go fast” gadget.

  • Ayabe

    “Or, maybe you’re in a biker gang and a rival cut your brake lines.”

    A guy in my dad’s club made an enemy somewhere along the way and had his lines snipped, combined with a few beers too many the man lost his life on the ride home from the bar.

    Don’t drink and ride and do peek for fluids under your bike, pump the brakes and make sure you have no floppiness before setting off.

  • PeteN95

    I lost them in a race on my Katana 1000 when it tank slapped a little coming out of the last turn onto the straight, which caused the pads to back away from the rotors. If I would have pumped the lever while going down the long straight, I could have pumped them back up, but I didn’t. I waited for my normal, late brake marker and got the sickening feeling of the lever just pulling to the bar! I pumped a couple more times before I was in the grass at about 100, but never got them back. I flat tracked the big pig with the rear brake and managed to skid to a stop a couple feet from the tire wall. I always pumped the brake lever on the straight just a little after that day!

  • Joe Bielski

    LOL Crap, I totally cheaped out and got a set of pads from China off ebay….
    Looks like it’s back to ebay to find those EBC HH brakes :S

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      Holy crap, do not buy cheap brake pads!

      • Joe Bielski

        I hear yeah. Ended up getting a set of EBC HH pads and tossing the cheapo’s in the garbage.

  • Ayabe

    No, they never got anywhere.

    It sucks too, guy was a retired middle school teacher who was pretty respected in the community. It’s not a 1% club or anything but some odd crap goes on.
    First time I went to hang out with them I was given pointers on who to avoid….this guy used to be a hitman for the mafia, he’s ok, just watch what you say around him.

    Pretty interesting times.

    • HellomynameisAG

      That’s terrible man, you know what sucks is that it was probably over something trivial. Or maybe the middle school teacher was a clever cover and he was a Russian spy that was looking for the lost ark or something. Regardless still terrible. Sorry.

  • Arno

    I had a whole caliper come loose on me (bolts fell out thanks to the mechanic who forgot to tighten them), I just downshifted and used the rear brake to come to a stop

  • Denis

    I once had my front break rotor button pop out of place and got lodged in the spokes bringing the bike to a dead hault, thankfully it had happened at low speeds as i was starting to ride. Confused i got off the bike and when i had found the problem i nearly pooped a chicken, i cant imagine what would have happened if it were at highway speeds. I spoke to the dealer after and all of the mechanics looked at me in dissbelife saying that theyv never heard of such a thing happening especially on a BREMBO rotor. Anyone else ever have that happen?

  • mustangGT90210

    I’ve never had a brake failure, but I have had a float bowl gasket fail while riding. As long as I was riding it was just a real slow drip, but if I stopped it would just pour out of the left carburetor. So every time I stopped I had to damn near lay ‘er down on her side just to keep gas from spilling all over the air cooled 500 between my legs… Got the stream of gas to hit the sprocket cover and not blow me up.

    Yes, I should of called the tow truck. Yes, it was stupid. And I most definitely did not ride my little 500 19 miles home like that…

  • gravit8ed

    This is mind-numbing dumbfuckery. The cost of decent brake pads vs. the cheapo knock-offs is literally a few dollars in most cases.

    To put it in context: when doing your own work/labor, it’s more than worth it to spend your ‘saved’ cash on upgraded parts and components vs. doing everything as cheaply as possible. It’s (literally sometimes) worth your a** and health in the long run, not to mention the extended lifetime use of ‘better’ parts compared to the questionable quality of the cheapies.

    True facepalm moments here. I mean…just…why?