How do Brake Calipers work and what can go wrong with them

(Last Updated On: November 10, 2022)

One of the most important components of your motorcycle are the brake calipers. When something goes wrong with the brake caliper, simply put, your motorcycle is not safe to ride and either it needs to be fixed or replaced so you can get back on the road and not worry about hitting something if you need to stop.

In this article we go deeper into how brake calipers work, the different types of designs and how you can tell when there is a problem with your caliper.

How do brake calipers work?

Your motorcycle wheels are attached to metal rotors that are circular and these spin along with the wheels when you ride. The brake caliper then sits on top of this metal disc rotor that’s spinning as a clamp. Squeeze the brake lever and the clamp holds on to the rotor by pressing the brake pads onto each side of the spinning rotor. What slows you down is the friction that is produced between the rotor and the brake pads.

Types of Motorcycle calipers

Floating brake calipers

The floating brake caliper has a piston only on one side and brake pads on both sides that make contact with the brake disc rotor. The caliper moves or slides back and forth on bushings or pins. When you apply the brakes the piston pushes the brake pad on one side (usually innerside). The caliper will then slide on the bushings/pins and push the outerside pad closer to the disc rotor making contact with the other side and creating friction that initiates the braking action.

You will also see sliding brake calipers on some bikes; the only difference between the two is that sliding calipers are mounted in a slot of the caliper adaptor. Now it’s all the same when you apply the brakes with the inner side brake pad, what changes is the outer side where the full caliper body puts pressure on the outer side pad and brings it closer to the disc rotor creating friction.

Fixed Brake Calipers

Like its name, a fixed brake caliper is mounted to a bracket and it does not move. These types of calipers have an equal number of pistons on the inner and outer side of the caliper. They usually contain 2 or 4 pistons on each side. They are known to have better performance as there is an equal distribution of force on both sides of the disc rotor. Hence used on mostly high-performance motorcycles.

So what can go wrong with a bad caliper?

Brake calipers have a lot of moving parts and if not maintained or cleaned there is a high chance of these parts seizing. When brakes seize it can be because the piston becomes stuck within the caliper or the pads become stuck to the disc or on single-piston calipers the slide pins seize.

If the brakes seize when the vehicle has been unused then the symptoms are fairly obvious: you can’t get the motorcycle to move.

To unseize this you will have to get a rebuild done of your caliper where all the parts are taken apart and inspected. Once you find what has gone wrong it can be fixed most of the time.

Tips to get the most of your braking system

  1. Rely more on the front brakes to reduce speed
  2. Brake caliper overhaul is a maintenance task done at the time of replacing brake pads where you change the brake fluid, clean the caliper and pins and apply fresh grease to the sliding bushes
  3. Replace brake fluids regularly
  4. Carry out a proper brake bleed procedure that will remove any air from the system
  5. Replace your brake pads before it reaches the minimum thickness recommended by the manufacturer
    1. There are different types of brake pads that you can install as per your use – check out blog on choosing the right brake pads
  6. Always keep the rotors clean

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