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The Pros and Cons of Disc Brakes

Snapshot: Does the availability of disc brakes on your two-wheeler ensure your safety every time or does it have a flip side too?

I had been listening to this proverb from a long time and like most of the good sayings, this one also has been coined by some 'Anonymous' guy. It goes something like this: A good motorcycle should stop as fast as it goes.

So was this the reason why the legendary Rajdoot-Yamaha RD350 died a slow death in the 80s? Was it just the braking that made RD stand for 'Rapid Death'? Well, in a way, YES. The 2-stroke, twin-cylinder masterpiece from Rajdoot-Yamaha did launch like a missile every time someone pulled the throttle and the stopping was done by the drum brakes on both the ends. Yes they were bigger in size but nevertheless drums after all. Which, meant that they had to rely on the friction and the heat generated to stop a motorcycle that could very well do 170kmph with ease.

The first time disc brakes were used on a motorcycle was the Enfield Fury, which debuted roughly around the same time as the Rajdoot-Yamaha RD350; though the bike did not fare well and died a quiet death. Then Hero MotoCorp (Hero Honda in those days) introduced the Hero Honda CBZ with a disc brake in 1999. Later, disc brakes were introduced by Bajaj in its ever successful Pulsar series almost 15 years ago. I remember riding a friend’s Pulsar 180 sometime in 2003 when a cow appeared in front of me out of nowhere and I slammed both the brakes as told by the instincts. The rear tyre using drum brakes kept on rolling but the front tyre jammed and it threw me over the handle bar by a few feet. I kept on thinking for many years to come about what could have been done that very moment and after thousands of such question-answer sessions, I can now surely say that one gear should have been lowered and then both the brakes should have been used proportionally.

But are disc brakes actually so bad that they become a threat to your life when they are supposed to do just the opposite? Well, not at all, if you ask me. Just two things should be kept in mind:

1) We live in a nation where people love to surprise you by jumping in front of your scooter or motorcycle.

2) We still need to have disc brakes at the rear wheel in all of the production motorcycles and scooters. These two propositions leave us with quite a few things that must be kept in mind while braking.

If you ride a motorcycle that has a disc brake only at the front end, DO NOT jam the wheel by clinging onto the brake lever. Doing so will just lock the front wheel whereas the entire rear portion of your motorcycle, which also has you on it, is in motion which will end up bouncing you off the motorcycle or will cause the motorcycle skid. Both the situations are never pleasant unless you are jumping straight into a swimming pool.

The disc brakes work on a hydraulic platform where the level pressed creates a pressure on the pistons which in turn creates pressure on the disc plate resulting in the two-wheeler coming to a standstill. This mechanism is highly effective as compared to the drum brakes which are, on most of the occasions, are not so effective as the process of stopping the bike is like following an algorithm. So the time it takes between applying the brakes and your bike stopping is more or less like an eternity.

If the speed is higher than you can actually control, in an emergency, try to use engine braking (lowering a gear) followed by using rear brakes first followed by applying the front brakes gradually. I know it sounds very much mechanical here, but like everything else in life, it is all about getting used to it and once you do, there is nothing to worry about.

If you have one of the fancy motorcycles that have a disc brake at the rear wheel too, you need to be cautious too, because in that case the rear wheel, if locked can also prove to be a risky affair. If a cow decides to jump in the middle of your racing line, DO NOT PANIC. Instead, apply and release both the brakes in quick succession. This will result in the same phenomenon that the ABS does but with a little less efficiency, but good enough to be effective.

On a corner, it is sheer stupidity to jam the front wheel. If your instincts ask you to slam both the brakes than you need to improve them. If need be, use the rear brake and let the rear wheel skid out of the corner which in most of the cases can be managed, and if mastered can look very stylish too.

However, disc brakes also need some care even though it is less than what the drum brakes need. The brake pads need to be regularly inspected and replaced if they start to dissolve away. Even though it is way more hassle-free than the drum brakes in terms of time and effort. With the weather conditions we have in India, the brake lines that carry the brake fluid also tend to wear and tear which can reduce the efficiency of the brakes.

Like everything else Disc brakes also need to be taken care of, but it is lot easier to maintain them over drum brakes and also are more efficient than drum brakes can ever be. And like everything else, it also has its repercussions too, but they are not much in number as compared to the benefits it offers. 

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