Are Anti-lock Brakes Good or Bad on a Motorcycle? (Myth Busted)

There are hundreds of thousands of motorcycles on the road, some have ABS and some don’t. The question is, do you really need them to be safe on the road?

In my opinion, if you ride on the street, it’s a must. It’s true, a skilled rider may still be able to outbreak some of today’s simpler ABS systems when conditions are perfect, but it’s not about how hard you can brake when the road is dry and clean, and you are ready for the challenge.

Questions Answered In This Article

Anti-Lock brakes, some folks swear by them, and some people still think they’re an impediment. This article will explain how ABS works, how the current systems on the market differ, and what you can expect ABS to do for you.

When a car’s tires lock up, the car just skids, but when a motorcycle’s front or rear wheel locks up, you might fall.

Thankfully there’s technology available to help you avoid unintentional slides and help you stop quickly and safely even when the road is wet, dirty, or otherwise Slippery.

How Does ABS Work?

On a non-ABS-equipped bike, when you squeeze the brake lever, the pressure is fed from the master cylinder directly down to the brake caliper. On a bike equipped with ABS, there are a few more components.

Pressure goes from the master cylinder to an ABS pump and then down to the calipers.

There’s also an ABS computer, which is often piggybacked onto the pump, and that monitors brake pressure and front and rear wheel speed using stationary sensors on the fork in the swingarm and slotted tone rings on the wheel hubs.

When the ABS computer sees a discrepancy in front and rear wheel speed, it sees a skid or an impending lockup.

It will trigger solenoid valves in the ABS pump to reduce brake pressure and restore traction.

ABS first appeared on motorcycles in the late 1980s, and up until about the mid-2000s, the systems were pretty crude with untimely, course intervention.

The systems were also quite heavy and expensive. Experiences with these early setups are why lots of riders today still think that ABS sucks.

Like smartphones, lithium-ion battery technology, and Snapchat filters, ABS has come a long way in the last few years.

These days ABS intervention is far more refined and subtle, even on the whole systems you’re going to see on beginner bikes. But here’s the cool thing. ABS has evolved to a point where there are two tiers of technology.

You’ve got your basic setup, which is similar to what I described earlier and is all about safety.

It’s supposed to keep you safe during upright straight line breaking. And then you’ve got your performance systems.

These will be a lot more advanced, and they’re often geared towards track riding or sport riding, or even off-road riding.

They’re going to be adjustable, and they’re going to use a lot more data streams so that it can have a more refined, precise ABS intervention that cannot only help you ride safer but help you buy it faster.

Ducati’s cornering ABS is a great example of the latest technology. In addition to using wheel speed sensors and a brake pressure sensor, the ABS set up on our scrambler 1100 uses data from an inertial measurement unit that knows how far over the motorcycle is leaning.

Based on that data, the ABS computer might intervene earlier or more gently based on the motorcycle’s lean angle to account for the fact that a bike has less stability and less traction while cornering.

Getting data from an IMU and other channels also allow more advanced settings for the racetrack.

That will allow you to lift or drift the rear tire, or even off-road ABS modes where you can fully lock the rear tire but maintain ABS functionality upfront.

Impressive stuff, right? It is, but you’re probably wondering about a lot of things, so let’s do a lightning round of questions, shall we?

Are There Aftermarket ABS Kits?

No, not that I’m aware of, and if they do exist, they’re probably really expensive and complicated.

Can You Get ABS on Bikes With Drum Brakes?

Unfortunately, no. drums are too crude, they’re too mechanical, there’s no way to integrate ABS technology.

Do They Have ABS in MotoGP?

They do not because Dorna doesn’t allow it; guys like Marc Marquez save for an inside in their elbow. I don’t know how they do it; the guy’s a magician.

Does ABS Affect Normal Braking?

That’s a little bit of a tricky question, and it depends on what normal braking is for you. Here’s the thing. ABS isn’t going to intervene unless the system sees a slide.

However, some systems are so conservative that if you were to break very hard on the front and the rear tire comes off the ground, it’s probably going to intervene and reduce brake pressure even though you have plenty of traction at the front tire.

Does ABS Give You More Traction?

It does not. But what it does do is allow you to exploit whatever traction is available to stop as quickly and safely as possible.

Are ABS Bikes Uncrashable?

No, it does not. Modern-day ABS, especially the more advanced systems like the cornering abs you can get on our Ducati, are closer than ever before to keep you from falling.

The really big question is, who needs ABS?

It’s about how quickly you can slow down or stop when it’s raining, when the road is dirty, or when your tires are cold, and some fool pulls out in front of you.

Emergency braking is what abs are all about, and I find it very reassuring to know that I can grab that front brake lever full force and let ABS manage my threshold braking while I take evasive maneuvers.

That being said, I prefer a system that you can turn off because Zack Quartz isn’t the only guy that likes to back it into the office parking lot.

People think that ABS is only for beginners or safety fanatics, not the case.

ABS is an important safety feature, and it has been proven to reduce accidents. I, for one, am a big fan; despite what you’ve might have heard, I don’t enjoy crashing.

Pros and Cons of ABS on a Motorcycles

I have three reasons why people might be opposed to ABS. Two of them are what I would call pragmatic, and one of them is more philosophical. Let’s talk about the practical.

The first is riders who are performing at a very high level.

If you have clean, dry pavement where you are a very accomplished rider, you may be able to outbreak ABS brake and bring the bike to a stop faster than an ABS equipped bike can.

This happens a lot to off-road riders. You will see off-road riders lock up the rear wheel to change the direction of the motorcycle very quickly.

There are several ways that ABS manufacturers sometimes mitigate this. Sometimes abs can be turned off entirely; sometimes, it can be turned off on the rear wheels.

If abs are stuck on all the time, some off-road riders object to it, and I think that’s a valid viewpoint.

Now there’s a second practical reason: someone might not be interested in ABS, and that’s simply because it adds cost and complexity to a motorcycle.

There are more pieces on an ABS bike than on a bike with standard conventional brakes, and those pieces do cost money, and the manufacturer is not going to absorb that cost.

You’re going to pay for that When you head down the deal – and you pick up a new motorcycle.

The issue of cost gets a little bit fuzzy when you start considering economies of scale: the manufacturing and the ability to offer an abs bike and a non-ABS bike.

However, just on a one bike basis, abs is more expensive than non-Abs. This is going to make the bike more expensive.

It’s also going to make it harder to work on. It’s a bit more complex, which translates to a motorcycle that takes more time to repair the abs or pay a tech to do it.

There are some motorcycles to where the additional cost maybe doesn’t make so much sense.

It’s easy to hide ABS on a twenty-five thousand dollar bike as a little additional feature; however, if you’re looking at a motorcycle in the $2000 price range, that represents a much bigger increase in the cost the motorcycle.

Now we get to the philosophical point. I think this one is kind of difficult to wrap your head around, and it’s also probably the most ethereal to understand.

Consider for a moment American motorcyclists are generally a pretty independent lot.

However, when they walk into a dealership, fewer and fewer motorcycles have a non-abs option.

There’s no American law in the books when writing this article that says that a motorcycle has to have ABS. However, other countries do demand ABS on motorcycles.

The motorcycle companies don’t want to make 87 different regional variants of a motorcycle, so many have moved to offer abs as standard on a motorcycle and jacking up the price and all of them just a little bit.

Some riders are opposed to ABS, not necessarily to be subject to a law of America, but this isn’t an American law.

They’re subject to a law that another country might put in place, which we don’t necessarily fall under the jurisdiction of.

It might be a rider opposed to the laws of economics, strange though they may be.

It’s cheaper for the manufacturers to make all the bikes ABS, even though it’s more expensive for an individual rider to purchase that motorcycle. Does that make any sense?

I know that sounds probably a little bit deep, but I think people would like a choice as far as buying a particular motorcycle, even though they know that abs will help them.

Hopefully, now you understand what abs are if you didn’t previously. And you might understand why some riders don’t want ABS on their motorcycles.

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Keith Mallinson has been a motorcycle enthusiast for the past 20 years. He has owned a variety of bikes during this time, ranging from sport bikes to cruisers. Keith has a passion for all things motorcycle related, including riding, maintaining, and customizing his bikes. In addition to his personal experience with motorcycles, Keith has also kept up to date with industry news and trends. He enjoys sharing his knowledge and insights with others through his motorcycle blog. When he's not out on the open road, Keith can be found tinkering in his garage, planning his next road trip, or spending time with his family.