How to Upgrade Motorcycle Brakes

Mastering the fornt brakes allows you to get stoppie kisses 1 photo
Brakes are probably the most important safety device when it comes to riding a motorcycle, and this goes without saying. Wherever you may roam, from running city errands and grocery shopping to off-road adventures and track days, the brakes are the one thing that keeps your riding safe… provided you use them sensibly and your style is not aimed at self-destruction.
However, bikes’ brakes can be upgraded for more performance, and the goal of this short guide is to provide you with the basic understanding of the whole affair. It’s common sense that, the newer the bikes are, the better brakes they have, so upgrading them for a 2013 or 2014 model would be pretty much useless and a rather hard task, simply because premium, new-generation materials and technologies have already been used.

When it comes to older machines, things are much different: the older the bike, the poorer the performance its braking system can deliver, and the more efficient any upgrade will be. Due to constructive and aesthetic limitations, really old motorcycles will not be able to accommodate the latest in brake technology, but certain improvements can still be made.

Retro and vintage machines are usually equipped with drum brakes, and loading Brembo radial calipers on them would definitely look as wrong as it gets. However, you could think about newer-generation sealed multi-disc units that can be found in some ATVs. These brakes look a lot like drums and retrofitting them would be an interesting idea, even though solid engineering skills are definitely a must.
In the end, when it comes to really old bikes, restoring them to top-notch performance usually involves a lot of machining, modifications, even prototyping of bespoke parts. Without replacing the old system entirely, performance upgrades are maintained within certain confines… which aren’t too generous. With cable- or rod-actuated brakes, replacing the shoes is pretty much all there is to be done.

Steel braided lines

Brakes with hydraulic actuation rely on pressure to convey the force you generate by pulling the lever and transform it into force pushing the brake pads/shoes. The system involves a closed loop to maintain a certain amount of brake fluid and a fairly constant capacity to maintain pressure.

Even though common brake lines are made from a specially formulated type of rubber, they still expand a bit and flex, and these elastic deformations negatively affect braking performance. Basically, the lines give way just a little when you squeeze the brake lever or pedal, and this reduces the pressure your master cylinder produces, actually requiring more effort for the same result.

The whole active principle pf hydraulic brakes relies on the fact that the brake fluid does not compress and conveys the force generated by the master evenly throughout the mass of liquid. Still, while the master and calipers are made from metal and are almost impervious to flexing, the lines are not. In fact, they have to be flexible to cope with suspension movement and steering direction changes… and this is where these (technical) imperfections tend to lessen the brake performance.
Braided hoses counteract the expansion of the lines, forcing more pressure towards the end, which gives way: the caliper and the piston. Replacing your brake lines with high-performance braided ones will result in a crisper, more precise feel for your braking, also helping you improve your braking technique and adding to the overall safety of the ride.

A word on caution, though! When switching over to braided lines, it’s wise to exercise caution when braking until you get acquainted with the new feeling and the new way your brakes react. It’s more than often that fellows who have been riding bikes with poor-performing brakes swapped to racing-grade brakes and spilled because of applying excessive force to the lever and pedal.
Mind your riding until you “reset” your muscle memory and brain patterns, and then enjoy your new bike.

High-grade brake pads

Braking force is essentially the rotors of your bike grinding against the brake pads. Friction is the keyword and the one phenomenon that allows you to slow down. Even if your braking master, lines, and calipers are fine, the braking power is directly related to the type and quality of the braking pads.

This assertion stands true regardless of the caliper type or number of pistons. Of course, better calipers with more pistons and even more than only 2 pads will perform better than their lesser counterparts, but loading low-quality pads in the best brake system will invariably result in poor performance.

Brake pads are largely separated into organic and sintered categories, each with its pros and cons. Choosing them is a matter of rider experience, riding style, purpose, and financial power. There is no right or wrong in choosing either type, at least not in terms of black and white, but a common sense rule says that one should use the best products one can afford.
Since a quick reference guide for these two types of brake pads is a very useful thing to help you decide which way to go, here we go:

Organic pads

First off, organic brake pads are the softer option. The materials used for their manufacturing and the very technologies make them so, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Being made from a softer compound, these pads will be gentler to your disc brakes.

The initial feel will be more gradual and emergency brakes will definitely need more effort from the rider. Still, they provide better performance “right off idle,” meaning good stopping power when cold. Racing-grade pads offer excellent braking power, of course, but they need to get to their specific working temperature.

If you are obsessed with a spotless bike, you’ll kind of hate organic brake pads because they generate more dust, which will stick to your caliper, hub, spokes, and all. At the same time, depending on what brand or type of pads you plan to use, it’s also a good idea to check with the price of brake rotors and see which is cheaper to replace more often. Usually you’ll go through several pad sets before having to change brake discs, but it’s better to know where your money will go.

Older bikes with lesser-quality rotors are usually using softer pads. Upgrading the pads may require net, modern rotors, as well. Organic pads also come with a shorter break-in time.

Sintered pads

Sintered pads are made with metal compounds and other materials fused together under high pressure and heat. The result is a higher-performance, harder product, which performs better than organic pads at higher temperatures and in wet conditions. They will last longer than organic pads, but their prolonged service life is extended at the expense of the rotors: being harder, they will “dig” more easily into the discs’ metal and reduce their life span.

Racing-grade pads are even more aggressive on the rotors, and choosing to use them must also involve the acceptance of the fact that high performance comes with high costs, so you’d better be ready to replace both pads and rotors more often than you would with casual parts.

Again, the harder compound will take more to break in, and when installing new pads on old discs, you should mind your speed before they reach the optimal shape, perfectly complementing the rotor profile. At the same time, the raised amount of metal in the pad conducts heat better, and this means heat dissipation will involve the caliper more. As opposed to organic (resin) pads, which force the heat back into the disc, benefitting from the drilled holes for cooling.

Needless to say that the more aggressive the riding style, and with more violent brake use, the better-performing pads are recommended.

Brake discs or rotors

The quality of the brake discs affects stopping power, just like any other component in the whole system. Going for discs made from better steel, with optimized dimensions and cutaways will improve your bike’s performance. A lot of brake component manufacturers have aftermarket product lines for older bikes and replacing the old rotors with the better ones is usually a matter of swapping.
Clever disc brake designs help dissipate heat better, disperse water quicker, eliminate brake pad dust, and offer longer service life. Some of them may come with higher prices than what you’d normally pay, but performance was never cheap.

Now, bigger rotors (and updated position for the calipers) surely offer more braking power, but there’s also a negative effect to adding more weight to the bike’s wheels. It’s called rotating mass, and in fewer words, it makes a spinning mass feel heavier than it would feel when inert. The faster the said mass is spinning, the heavier it gets. Now, unsprung mass inversely affects handling, as we explained in the Quick Guide to Motorcycle Rake, Trail, and Offset guide (Part 1 and Part 2), so you should do some research before making dramatic changes in this department.

While engineers are aware of this phenomenon, petal/wave discs are also used to keep mass as low as possible while providing the same stopping power and brake performance. Still, installing bigger rotors takes us to the next chapter.

Better calipers, radial masters

Higher-grade calipers are obviously going to provide you with better braking. Most modern bikes are not equipped with radially-mounted calipers (autoevolution guide dedicated to radial brakes here), but older models can also receive a radial brake upgrade.

However, retrofitting radial calipers on an axial system is much easier said than done, as adapter brackets must be sourced from dependable manufacturers. We’re talking high-precision safety systems here and the tolerance in such cases is very small, leaving little to no room for imperfections.

Replacing the calipers of older bikes will definitely boost brake performance, since we’re dealing with less internal friction, better heat dissipation, lightweight materials, and all the technological advances made since the bikes were built.

Some of these parts may cost you several hundred bucks, but they will add a lot of precision and safety to your every day rides. Even more, if you choose 4-pad calipers, you should also be prepared for higher maintenance costs, but once more, performance doesn’t come cheap.

Radial brake masters are also a most welcome addition to your bike’s braking capabilities and will provide you with a much more precise feel. The piston is actuated in the same direction as the lever, and this makes everything feel more natural and progressive, ultimately leading to better braking force modulation in all scenarios.


All in all, if you start with better brake lines, you can slowly go up the performance scale even if you’re riding an old, beat-up GPZ. Adding more modern brake components to your machine WILL make it safer and more fun to ride, so these changes will really pay off. Before I leave you to ponder on your machine’s next upgrades, here are the final things you should remember:

Verify the level and color of the brake fluid regularly. It will degrade over time, accumulate water, and reduce braking performance. Dark-colored brake fluid must be changed. Don’t spill it on painted surfaces, as it will ruin them. Handle with care, use latex gloves.

Verify pads visually to make sure there’s life left in them. When you hear metal on metal, you’ve already gone past the replacement point.

Visually check your brakes for leaks. Things can go wrong with any bike, but it’s much better to drive than to ride a bike with leaking brakes. If you see leaks, call your mechanic.

Take your time to replace serviceable parts regularly. Seals are made from rubber and will degrade over time. Debris and water might accumulate in your braking system, causing rust, and this might jam your masters or caliper pistons. They’re usually dirt cheap and worth changing every several years.

Now… what are you waiting for, an invitation to go out and ride? Just go!
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