We’re Not Talking Six-Packs or Obliques: What Is ABS on a Motorcycle

If you are researching motorcycles for the first time, you probably stumbled upon the phrase ABS in some listings or details for specific bikes. Whether you are looking at a Harley-Davidson cruiser, a Ducati sports bike, or a 3 wheel motorcycle like the Polaris Slingshot, having ABS can be, quite literally, a lifesaver.

Motorcycle values can be a bit higher with ABS built in, but considering the safety benefits they can afford you; this feature is well worth considering as a potential must-have with certain types of bikes and riders. If you are still searching for your first motorbike and have not settled on a model or the must-haves, take a more in-depth look at what ABS is and why it is beneficial to your bike.

What Is ABS?

If you have ever seen the abbreviation ABS when researching motorcycles, you might have wondered what it stood for. So, what is ABS on a bike? Just as it does on automobiles, ABS stands for the anti-lock braking system.

It is surprising for some people to find out that motorcycles can also have anti-lock brakes. If you did not realize anti-lock brakes were available on bikes, too, you might be surprised to discover it was first introduced for motorbikes in 1988 by BMW. In 1992, Japanese manufacturers followed the trend by releasing the Honda ST1100 as well as the Yamaha FJ1200 with ABS.

Anti-lock brakes are constructed to prevent motorcycle wheels from locking up during braking, often hard or rapid braking in particular or stops during slippery conditions.

How It Works

The exact point at which brakes lock up is a complicated equation and also can differ depending on conditions, the type of tires you have, the road you are riding on, and the speed of breaking versus the speed you were traveling at just before deceleration.

Rather than having to rely entirely on the feel of the bike and your rider experience, anti-lock brakes on a motorcycle take the guesswork out of cadence braking (also called pumping the brakes). Your ABS have slotted rings on the wheels that monitor the wheel speeds, compare those traveling rates, and detect these at even just the smallest fraction of a second apart.

The brakes are still a mechanical device. Anti-lock brakes will not stop you from braking when you apply pressure to them by any means. So, your brake pads will continue to apply pressure when you hit the brakes, but when the locking speed is reached (when the sensors detect a wheel locking up), valves in a hydraulic pump then release pressure on your motorcycle’s calipers. This is done so at rapid intervals to cadence break, or pump the brakes, for you at speeds you would not be able to achieve manually. This automatic cadence braking happens so rapidly it can feel like a vibrating sensation when the ABS engages, a speed much faster than a human foot and hand can step down on or grip a brake in an emergency stop.

The Purpose of ABS

Before anti-lock brakes existed, people would sometimes need to pump their brakes to prevent this lock up. ABS operates under the same principle but at that vibrating, exceptionally rapid pace. Preventing your wheels from this lockup helps to maintain traction with the road and prevents skidding. Locked brakes can cause not only slipping but even result in the bike getting overturned in an accident.

Motorcycle ABS prevents your wheel or wheels from locking while amid hard or rapid breaking. The system does so by utilizing sensors on the motorcycle wheels to monitor speed as well as when your wheels are potentially about to lock up. Your ABS system will then automatically tune the braking pressure to prevent this locking from happening and provide a better-maintained sense of stability in the bike.

Not only can the system prevent sliding, but it has also been proven to reduce the distance needed for breaking in some situations. Anti-lock brakes on motorcycles are shown to reduce the incidence of accidents on bikes.

Why Only Some Bikes Have ABS

With all the benefits that come along with having anti-lock brakes on your motorcycle, you may wonder why ABS is not standard on every bike. There are a few reasons for that, one of which is the size of any given ride. The laws regarding anti-lock brake systems and motorcycles often correlate with requirements regarding the size of the bike.

These ABS motorcycle laws are applied only to specific categories of motorbikes. For example, if an engine is under the size designated to be required, smaller bikes do not necessarily legally need to have ABS. In Europe, for instance, if the engine is under 125cc, the motorbike does not necessarily need ABS. The purpose for which the bike will be used is also a significant factor.

Anti-lock brakes do not always operate in their best capacity on dirt roads. For this reason, you will often see dual sport bikes, off-road bikes, or dirt bikes without anti-lock brakes. Those who dirt bike or compete in related sports such as trials actually want their tires to skid when desired rather than brake in the traditional sense for safety.

Price is also a factor, as it is with so many things in life. Anti-lock braking systems can be more expensive and also add weight to the construction of a motorcycle. The heft of ABS on bikes is pretty low these days, though. In the 1990s is added roughly 10 pounds, whereas now they will only add about four or five pounds to your ride.

While it may not seem imperative to many riders, aesthetics can also play a role in the decision over whether a bike gets anti-lock brakes or not. ABS can clutter the design, and some demographics of bikers hold the look of their bikes in high regard and prefer a motorcycle with a sleeker design.

The Benefit of ABS

The benefits of having anti-lock brakes on your motorcycle are that is can save both money, and your life. Just as having airbags or seatbelts in a car may never be needed but are absolutely necessary for a severe accident, ABS on a bike can be the difference between your brakes locking up and you falling in a skid, or that of you being able to stop quickly and safely when needed.

Another benefit is that it can potentially save you money on your motorcycle insurance. Along with having features such as an anti-theft system on your bike and taking a motorcycle safety course, having a bike with ABS is something some insurance companies will ask about, knowing that is a built-in safety feature.

The Difference Between ABS on Cars and Bikes

Hitting the brakes can be more complicated for motorcycle riders than it often is for drivers of automobiles. Anti-lock brakes are designed with the same concept regardless of the vehicle, but the results can be different. In cars, ABS helps prevent slipping when brakes lock up.

When this happens on a motorcycle, skidding is not the only result. Locked-up brakes can also end up causing a motorbike to flip, lose balance, or slip along the side as it falls. Anti-lock brakes on a motorcycle help to keep you upright and can significantly lower your speed even if they crash does result.

Control and Training

If you have never operated a motorcycle with ABS, you might wonder if it will take away from some of your control or if you will need to learn how to ride with this braking system. The good news is that anti-lock brakes do not take away from any rider control.

The vast majority of the time, you will not even notice a difference. Anti-lock brakes can have a subtle vibrating sound and sensation when they engage, but otherwise, you are control of your bike.

Anti-lock brakes also operate the same way traditional brakes work and automatically engage when needed. If you have the necessary training for a motorcycle, you can ride a bike with ABS, but bear in mind the braking will happen more rapidly with ABS engaged.

Sometimes the sensation of stopping with anti-lock brakes can be a little different, and training is available if you are interested in familiarizing yourself with it. It is imperative to keep the brake lever pulled in if your ABS does engage, and keep it pulled hard. Do not let up until you come to a complete stop, and never try to pump your brakes along with the ABS. Just let it do its work—modern anti-lock brake systems are faster than any human could do cadence braking anyway.

Looking for ABS on Motorcycles

If you are taking a motorcycle class for the first time, ask the instructor if the bike you are riding has anti-lock brakes. If it does, check whether you can get a quick training lesson on the feel of ABS and how to handle them once they engage.

While you need to remember that your braking will be far more rapid when the ABS comes on, it is worth giving some thought to whether you want to get a bike with ABS. The safety aspect tends to far outweigh most downsides, especially for inexperienced riders. Furthermore, if you are selling a motorcycle that has ABS, it is absolutely a feature you should mention in the listing.

Installing ABS on Motorcycles

If you are already the proud owner of a bike, but it does not have anti-lock brakes, you can have them installed. Depending on your motorcycle and the location you live, the cost can be a bit high—and varies a lot with different models of bikes.

If you have the means and are sure you would like ABS on your ride, the good news is that it is doable. Be sure to check around and compare prices on a couple of shops and look into purchasing parts yourself to get the best price on an ABS to install.

Anti-Lock Brakes Assist You, and That’s All

At the end of the day, even if having ABS is generally safer than braking without, you never want to use anti-lock brakes as a crutch. Just as they are a backup safety feature in an automobile, that is all ABS acts as on a motorcycle, a backup in case of an emergency stop.

Never rely entirely on your anti-lock brakes. Nothing substitutes smart, safe riding and knowledge of how to operate a motorcycle correctly. Even if a situation occurs when you need the ABS and they engage, being aware of your surrounds, applying enough pressure to stop in time, and maintaining your balance will be your job.

Nothing can do that for you when you are on your bike, so only consider your anti-lock brakes as a backup, the way a seatbelt is in a car. You certainly do not want to go crashing into objects just because you have seatbelts. Always pay the utmost attention to the conditions you are riding in, changes in the road, any potential wear on your brakes, and your surroundings. Avoiding the need to utilize your anti-lock brakes is the goal. If they never need to engage at all, you are probably doing something right.