Thursday 9 January 2014

Shorty Brake & Clutch Levers

I often wonder how things work, whether they do actually work, and if they can be improved upon. I was like this as a child - it's just the way I am.

Mercenary Garage - Shorty Brake & Clutch Levers
Cut-down brake lever on my CBR1000F.

So I've often wondered why clutch and brake levers are so long. Most bikes have levers long enough to be operated by all four fingers with room to spare. On the face of it, that seems legit - you've got four fingers so you might as well use 'em all. But the reality is, most people don't use all four fingers. I use three fingers, I know other riders who use only two. So why the long levers?

Mercenary Garage - Shorty Brake & Clutch Levers
Kawasaki Z1 brake lever - long enough for two hands!

I have a theory about this. In the late '60s and early '70s with the advent of the multi-cylinder Honda CB750 and the Kawasaki Z1, bikes suddenly got simultaneously much heavier and much faster. Braking technology attempted to keep up with this giant leap but didn't quite get there. The nascent hydraulic brakes with a single, solidly mounted front disk and a single-piston caliper could handle speed or weight, but not both. Motorcycles of this era had super long brake levers installed to allow the terrified pillion passenger to get in on the action. It also allowed a solo rider to use both hands if things got really desperate.*

(*This is just a theory. Like Evolution. Or Gravity. It may not be entirely and fully resolved...)

It wasn't until the latter half of the '80s that brakes became something that could be taken for granted and four-piston calipers acting on large twin, floating disks were adopted as a general standard for fast bikes. So by the '90s, two-finger braking was a reality but nobody ever thought to reconsider the length of the brake and clutch levers. 


So what? Well there are a couple of issues with long levers. The first is one of robustness. 
Mercenary Garage - Shorty Brake & Clutch Levers
Courier CX500 - Note the cut down levers.

When I was a courier I learned very quickly that long levers were very vulnerable to breaking if a bike falls over. Sometimes, the lever would just bend and sometimes the end would snap off leaving the lever still useable. But more often than not, the lever would break near the root, putting the lever beyond use. On a number of occasions I came out of a drop-off to find my bike mysteriously lying on it's side in the street with one or other lever snapped off. 

This is problematic if you're depending on the bike for your living. Obviously, it's possible to drive without a front brake lever, but it's not a good idea. Driving without a clutch lever is also possible, but it's not an easy thing to do in traffic. In either case, I would have to stop what I was doing and go and drive to a motorcycle shop and replace the broken lever. Sometimes, this meant giving away urgent work to another courier and a consequent drop in earnings. All in all, it was a pain in the hoop!

So after this happened a couple of times I declared war on clutch and brake levers (and motorcycle robustness in general). I started to carry spare clutch and brake levers in my tool kit. This helped somewhat, in that I no longer needed to drive anywhere before executing a repair, but it didn't actually solve the problem of the breaking levers. 

So my next step was to use a hacksaw to partially cut through the lever to create a weak spot an inch or so from the end to encourage the lever to break there, rather than near the pivot. This proved to be only partially successful, so the next step was to just cut the ends off the levers and file them smooth. (I found that if the lever wasn't filed smooth it would wear a hole in my glove fairly quickly.)

This has generally worked pretty well. I can't remember ever breaking a cut-down lever.


There are another couple of issues with long levers concerning health and safety. Because the levers are apparently designed to be used by all four fingers, and because most people only use three fingers, the little-finger is vulnerable to being trapped between the lever and the handlebar in a crash. This is a very common occurrence in motorcycle racing and quite a number of racers have missing little-fingers as a result! Mick Doohan and Joey Dunlop spring to mind but there are many, many more.

Mercenary Garage - Shorty Brake & Clutch Levers
Titax folding brake lever. Tasty, but a bit spendy...

There are folding brake levers available on the after-market to prevent this from happening. They're also supposed to fold up rather than break if the bike falls over so in theory they should solve the problem of the snapping levers too. They're a bit expensive though. I've never used them so I can't say with any authority, but I can imagine a situation where they could still tear off a little finger (if the bike slides in such a way that the lever is pushed directly back towards the bar with no upward force to fold the lever up and away). And I can also imagine a situation where a force is applied directly up the length of the lever causing it to snap at the folding pivot rather than fold. 

Like I say, I've never used these levers so I may be wrong. But in any case, cutting down the standard levers so they're just long enough to accommodate three fingers mitigates against both of these risks and it's not very costly. I like solutions like that.

There is however, a second risk associated with clutch and brake levers that should be considered. Have you ever wondered why your clutch and brake levers have a ball at the end? 

That ball is there to help stop you being stabbed by the lever. I used to think that was a pretty remote risk until one evening I high-sided and got hit by my own motorcycle. I didn't get stabbed and I wasn't really injured but as I slid down the road on my ass with the bike tumbling behind me, it did give me cause to think about all the pointy bits on a motorcycle. It's a real risk. There was a motorcycle racer killed recently after being stabbed in the spleen by a lever...

Mercenary Garage - Shorty Brake & Clutch Levers
In light of the above, you might reconsider fitting levers like these to your streetfighter...

I only mention this as a consideration. I still choose to cut down my levers to protect my little-fingers and to prevent the levers from snapping if the bike falls over, but I finish the ends of the levers in such a way that the remain fairly blunt (see top pic).

On a courier bike, a touring bike and particularly on a desert bike, breaking a lever during a trip is very inconvenient. And on a stunt bike or a dirt bike, falling over isn't so much a risk as a certainty. So it just makes sense to me to cut-down the levers. 

I don't really understand why they don't come like this from the factory...

#ShortBrakeLevers #Mercenary #MercenaryGarage

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