Braking Bad – A Real-World Guide to ABS On Your Motorcycle

ABS is standard on most modern motorcycles

ABS is standard on most modern motorcycles

We all know that ABS on motorcycles has been around for a while, but what it might surprise you to know is just how long it’s been around. According to the Wiki, BMW launched an 11kg (!!) ABS system on its K100 series way back in 1988. I was only 13-years-old back then and am in my forties now…. Because the system has been around for a long time and is becoming a standard feature on most bikes nowadays, a long-held assumption I’ve had is that the vast majority of today’s riders are au fait with the system…

As I moved into advanced rider coaching a few years ago however, my experience with riders attending the courses I run has caused me to sharply revise this assumption. Here’s a typical snippet of conversation:

Me: “Does your bike have ABS?”
Student: “Yes” [proudly points to ABS light on bike instrumentation panel]
Me: “Ok great. Do you know what it stands for?”
“Advanced Braking System?”
“Automatic Braking Setup?”
“Able Braking Sequence?”

… are some of the more popular guesses (along with blank stares) that greet me. Surprisingly, in the three years I’ve been asking that question to my rider students, nobody has ever answered correctly. Following this question are equally blank stares or wrong guesses to the next one “Do you know what it does or how it works?”

I’m not saying lack of knowledge of ABS is pervasive throughout the riding community – there are plenty of folks who know what the systems is, what it does and how it works, but if the riders I coach represent a larger sample of the riding community, then I’m pretty confident saying that knowledge of ABS among many riders is poor to non-existent. I don’t coach entry-level, MSP folks either. My students are all fully licensed, have their own bikes and most have been riding for a while.

It’s become such a concern that I’ve started adding ABS training into the courses I run in order to build up people’s knowledge and confidence of this powerful safety feature. I thought I’d share a few tips on how it works, how to trigger it and what happens when it engages here SCPR.

Firstly, let’s deal with the question once-and-for-all, what does ABS stand for?

Anti-Lock Braking System

This does what it says on the tin and prevents your wheels locking under braking. The added benefit for motorcycles is the increased stability under braking the system provides over non-ABS-equipped bikes. On those machines, locking a wheel is extremely easy and can lead to the bike sliding or overturning. Bear in mind the system only activates when the lever has been pulled hard and quickly enough to lock the wheel. It is possible to brake extremely hard and effectively on a motorcycle and not have the ABS system activate at all.

How Does It Work?
We’re not doing a deep technical dive here, and various systems all work slightly differently, but conceptually, the system works by using sensors on both wheels to determine wheel speed and when a wheel is about to lock. When a wheel lock is imminent, the system reduces pressure on the brake disc. Once the wheel is out of this “locking danger zone”, the system reapplies optimal brake pressure and the cycle starts over. If it senses the wheel is about to lock again, pressure is reduced and then reapplied. In real-world situations, this entire cycle happens exceptionally quickly and explains why, when the ABS system on a motorcycle activates, particularly on loose gravel or ice, riders will feel and hear a “pulsing” or clicking sensation from their brakes as the system reduces and applies braking pressure in extremely rapid succession.

Why Practice With ABS?
Building up knowledge and confidence in the brakes and ABS system on your bike is an important and often life-saving skill and fortunately one that only takes a few minutes.
The point of the following exercise is to give you experience of the ABS system stopping your bike as quickly as possible. It can be quite difficult to do this exercise, especially if you’ve been riding a while and are from the non-ABS world where snatching a handful of brake lever was always a recipe for an instant wheel lock, skid and probable crash. That’s why this practice is important – it’s a mind-over-matter exercise that gets the brain to reorient its braking knowledge in emergency situations.

How To Trigger ABS In Training
We’ll set general (cadence) braking practice aside as it’s not the topic of this article and instead focus purely on how to trigger the ABS system on your bike in controlled conditions. For a bike with linked brakes, you only need bother with the front brake lever. For bikes with non-linked brakes, both front and rear should be applied in this exercise. Assuming you have an ABS-equipped bike (please check your user manual or for the universal ABS light on your dash), to trigger the system, find an empty parking lot or quiet side street, accelerate in a straight line from a stop up to about 40mph and grab the front brake lever as hard and as quickly as you can. This will also include stamping on the rear lever for non-linked bikes. Remember – you are trying to lock the wheels so it’s important that you really snatch / stamp on the levers. The system won’t activate if it doesn’t sense an imminent wheel lock. Remember to pull the clutch in so you don’t stall and put your foot down as the bike comes to a halt so you don’t topple over. Practice this as many times as you need until you are comfortable with the brakes and the behavior of the ABS system. Do this exercise for each bike you own or ride – brakes and ABS vary greatly from bike to bike.

What Happens When ABS Cuts In?
A few things to note here. ABS, coupled with modern brakes mean the bike is going to stop extremely quickly. Take note of the (extremely short) braking distances. Be mindful when emergency stopping in a real-world scenario of the car behind that cannot possibly stop as quickly as you can.

Secondly is the noise and vibration the system causes. As mentioned earlier, this is a rapid pulsing or clicking sensation that is not only quite loud but that also causes an unfamiliar vibration to emanate through the handlebars and the brake lever. This is quite normal and nothing to be alarmed about.

Lastly, it’s worth mentioning what doesn’t happen in an ABS-assisted stop. The wheels don’t lock, no matter how hard or quickly you snatch at the lever(s). Subsequently, the bike won’t slide, the wheels won’t move out from underneath you and the bike won’t spill or overturn. It will be a stable, controlled, extremely efficient emergency stop, even with an obnoxious snatch-grab of the lever. Building up knowledge of this is a useful weapon in your riding toolbox.

ABS Do’s & Don’ts
The most alarming thing I’ve noticed from ABS practice with my students is the tendency of folks to be alarmed when it cuts in and the knee-jerk reaction that follows which is to release pressure on the brake lever. Not only does this turn the system off, but the consequences of releasing the brake lever at the very moment you need maximum braking power don’t bear thinking about…

The most important tip I can give when you need to stop (which does require practice) is this:
When ABS cuts in, keep the lever pulled in as hard as you can and let the system bring the bike to a stop. Once you are at a dead stop, then (and only then) is it ok to let go of the lever. DO NOT attempt to pulse or modulate the lever as the system is working. Just pull it in hard and hold it there until the bike stops.

I Hate ABS. Why Does Any Of This Matter To Me?
The safety advantages of motorcycle ABS have been well covered so I’m not going to regurgitate them here and this article is not a dive into the argument for and against the system. ABS is a feature on most modern motorcycles and whether you like it or not, it can’t be turned off or disabled. It’s there and it’s here to stay. It used to be possible for experienced riders to “out-brake” early ABS systems, but those days are long gone. Advances in technology mean today’s systems easily out-perform anything a human is capable of. It’s a braking safety net that is never startled and overrides any panic, snatch-grab of the lever, saving the rider from a wheel lock and an almost certain slide and spill. Experienced riders may not need ABS in 99 out of 100 braking situations, but investing time building up your knowledge and experience of the system, and how it behaves on your bike in extreme braking situations may well one day be a life-saving few minutes of your time.

One thought on “Braking Bad – A Real-World Guide to ABS On Your Motorcycle

  1. Gabriel

    ABS on my 07 Triumph Tiger 1050 feels annoying and archaic. Even if it does stop me faster (sure don’t feel like it). Reminds me a lot of the 1990 ABS equipped BMW K Bike I bought on a whim. (Great bike for lots of reasons, but boring as all hell wasn’t one of the great ones.) Auf Wiedersehen

    Clink Clunk Clunk what the hell is breaking down there? Oh, it’s braking? No, please.

    That said I absolutely CAN stop the ABS on the Tiger. Just separate the thingy from the hub/disc, Takes a minute. Think there’s a fuse I can pull as well. Dash is gone but the info it has is dumb anyways. “Oh look I have 221 miles til empty. 5 minutes of throttle later. Damn 121 miles. I ain’t making it Suzies house after all. Good thing she doesn’t actually exist.

    Multistrada is a bit better. I kind of like that one.


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