ABS versus Conventional Brakes on Cruisers

Them's the brakes

ABS versus conventional brakes
ABS versus conventional brakes on a cruiser.Photography by Dean Groover

A few years ago we were taken to task for praising the only anti-lock braking system (ABS) on a cruiser, the one on BMW's R1200C. Our loudest critic claimed ABS was a crutch; it wouldn't get you out of trouble and didn't work as well as conventional brakes. We challenged him to a stopping contest on otherwise identical bikes—ours with ABS, his without. The contest would be conducted on a course with oiled patches, puddles, sandy sections, etc. We never heard from him again.

Our belief that ABS is a good thing has been reinforced by some comments from speakers at the recent International Motor­cycle Safety Conference. Riders with ABS and other braking enhancements like linked-braking systems (LBS), are apparently doing a better job of avoiding crashes out on the street. The sentiment at the conference was motorcyclists should demand manufacturers offer ABS and/or LBS as standard equipment or options on their bikes.

If you have become proficient with standard brakes, why would you want to further lighten your wallet to get different technology next time you buy a new bike? In the case of a linked system, I'm not sure you would. This technology, which causes both brakes to be applied with one control (usually just the rear brake pedal), is most valuable for riders who do not use the front brake effectively. Presumably, linking the brakes also helps new riders learn to use a motorcycle's brakes and makes the stand-on-the-pedal reflex (learned in cars) more effective. However, when traction is less than ideal, the majority of experienced riders prefer independent braking systems because they can test traction with the rear brake and also attenuate front-wheel braking if they must brake across an area of reduced traction. One advantage LBS has over ABS is that it's relatively inexpensive. In the cruiser category, LBS is currently available only on the Honda VTX and some Moto Guzzis.

Good ABS, on the other hand, can benefit anybody who needs forceful braking in a hurry. The more dangerous the situation, the more valuable ABS becomes. If you have to make a panic stop on slippery pavement, it is much easier to stop to the bike's fullest capability with ABS. If the surface changes—say you need to brake across one or more wet or greasy spots—a good ABS can outperform virtually any rider. I credit ABS with saving me in such an instance. A driver turned left in front of me, then, as such bonefish are prone to do, saw me and stopped, blocking both lanes. Fortunately, the Yamaha GTS I was riding had an excellent ABS. I was comfortable with it and knew exactly how hard I could brake on dry pavement; the ABS meant that I did not have to attenuate the brakes—it did it for me, and I stopped with room to spare.

A driver turned in front of me, then, as such bonefish are prone to do, saw me and stopped, blocking both lanes.

You do need to practice braking with ABS. You want to be able to consistently and immediately get to the point just before the ABS starts cycling, which reduces braking force slightly. The cool thing about ABS is practicing does not involve the risk of crashing (assuming you do it in a straight line). You can learn what a bike’s braking limitations are instead of learning how brave you are.

There is one other benefit to ABS. I was told about a recent fatal accident. It was a situation somewhat like mine, where a car pulled in front of the motor­cyclist and stopped. The accident investigator said the rider did an admirable job of braking with his skid mark indicating impending lockup (in other words, maximum braking) almost the entire way. But as he approached the car, apparently the rider realized he was not going to stop in the remaining distance and made what was probably a fatal, but perfectly natural, mistake. He tried to brake harder, locked up the front wheel and fell. As a result, instead of colliding with the car while still upright and hopefully flying over it, he now could not avoid impacting the car fully with his body. ABS would not have prevented the collision with the car, but it probably would have meant he was still on his wheels, which might have meant the difference between life and death.

Cruiser buyers pay a premium price for their rides. For most of us, that extra cash buys great looks and finish. Most of us don’t want or need a lot of horsepower or technology-for-its-own-sake. But some technology is worth having, especially if it can save your life. So next time you are shopping for a new bike ask, “Which one of these has ABS?” When you get the response, “None,” ask, “Why the hell not?”