How ABS on motorcycles work

New motorcycles are so much safer than their predecessors. Not only are they fitted with better components like suspension, tires, and lighter construction for better performance and handling, some may also come with electronic aids that make them safer to ride.

Easily one of the most important innovations in a motorcycle is the addition of ABS in many new models. Many of you may already know that ABS means Anti-lock Brake System, yet the reason why this is so vital is often forgotten.

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Without ABS

Unlike cars, it’s harder to slow down bikes safely. Besides pulling the brake lever, we also have to regulate the pressure on the front and rear brakes individually, all while maintaining balance. During the few seconds we have to react to a situation ahead of us, like a car suddenly stopping or a pedestrian suddenly crossing, it’s not always easy to manage all these tasks to stop safely.

Chances are, many of you have already locked your tires at some point while riding. For those who have experienced it, we don’t need to tell you how scary it is. For those who haven’t, imagine riding a cardboard box sliding along the floor. There’s no real way to steer to avoid danger. Once you've locked your tires, you’re just a passenger.

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Some riders who have come from bikes without ABS may have gotten used to pumping the brakes themselves. This is a technique where riders pull the brake lever, release it, and pull it again in rapid succession. This is exactly how ABS works, but only slower.

Thankfully, on bikes fitted with ABS, computers take care of much of the thinking. This lets the rider simply focus on pulling the brake lever as needed and steering to a safer direction.

ABS should not be confused with Combi-braking. While combi-braking is another system that can improve a bike’s braking ability, it does not prevent the wheels from locking up.

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How it works

ABS is usually fitted on disc brakes. Bikes with ABS use sensors constantly monitor the wheel’s speed. It usually starts working when the rider pulls the brake lever hard. It uses algorithms or compares with another wheel’s speed to determine the wheel has stopped spinning or locked up. If it has stopped spinning and possibly locked up, even for just a millisecond, it sends a signal to the brakes to relieve the pressure applied just a little bit so the wheel can spin again. Once it spins again, the system allows the brakes to reapply pressure while it monitors for another lock up. The system works so fast that this can happen hundreds of times a second.

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How it feels

ABS systems vary from brand to brand but they work in pretty much the same way. It doesn’t work when you apply the brakes lightly because there’s not enough pressure to lock up the wheels. You’ll only feel it during emergency braking, when you have to slow down from a high speed very quickly.

When activated, some systems emit vibrations you can feel in the wheel or lever to let you know they’re working. Others are more subtle and hardly return any vibration at all. You’ll hear several short screeches in a row. This means the system is working, preventing the tire from locking up and allowing you to brake as hard and as safely as possible.

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How to use it

ABS only works during emergency braking, when the brake lever or pedal is pressed hard while traveling at medium to high speeds. If your bike has ABS, do not hesitate to pull the brake lever or press the brake pedal hard. The system will worry about keeping the wheels from locking so that you can focus on balancing and steering. If you’re only pulling the lever at, say 25%, then ABS won’t activate because the system will think it’s not an emergency.

Do not pump the brakes on bikes with ABS. Doing this technique will only confuse the system and make it less effective. The best way to use ABS is simply to pull the brake lever or step on the brake pedal as hard as possible. Let the onboard computers and sensors take care of the rest. With ABS equipped, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can stop.

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When to fix it

ABS systems are typically turned on by default. In most bikes, they can be turned off, but it’s a complicated process, varies from bike to bike, and we don’t recommend it. The only time turning it off can be an advantage is in off-road situations where a locking tire may actually provide more grip in slippery surfaces.

You’ll know your ABS is working when the ABS light is on for a just a few seconds after you start the bike. This light usually turns off after you begin rolling. When activated during hard braking, the ABS light may come on and blink rapidly, or stay on while the brake is applied.

The only time the ABS may have a problem is when the light stays on, even while applying the throttle or cruising. At this point, you should bring your bike to an authorized service center and have it inspected. Do not attempt to fix it on your own.

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We hope this explanation clears up any confusion about ABS. It’s truly a life-saving safety feature and we’re glad that we’re slowly seeing it being fitted as standard on a number of motorcycles.

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