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Braking Bad[ly] or : The [Un]Expected Shame of Never Checking Your Pads

Harley Davidson, 1200 Sportster, Motorcycle, Washington DC, DIY Garage, DUNN LEWIS

At the same time that you’re comfortable enough to lace up a pair of ratty Van’s [w/ no socks on], and pull on a pair of 3-week unwashed Levi’s to blast down the highway on your bike, you can still be so paralyzed by fear that you let your brakes deteriorate to the point that the screeching becomes only audible to dogs.

I know this because I’ve done it.

In June, while riding my Harley up to The Race of Gentlemen, my friend pointed out to me that I should look into replacing my back brake pads before they

“start to mess up my rotor.” In August, we rode out to Ohio for Fuel Cleveland and, as you can probably guess, I did nothing about my brakes.

It started to become a running joke:

“Ha ha, yeah you can hear me coming from a mile away.”

“Ha ha isn’t Whalen so kooky. His back brake is so gone he needs an extra 10 minutes to stop.”

“Oh my god Isaac, fix your damn brake! I can hear it over my open pipes.”

And I still did nothing.

The problem wasn’t that I didn’t want to, or that I thought everyone was wrong. I KNEW I needed to fix my brake pads. Hell, it was getting physically harder and harder to stop!

Yet still, I did nothing.

The idea of taking my bike apart -like, physically apart- was terrifying. I was afraid of failing. So afraid that I was willing to risk crashing, rather than possibly looking like an idiot in front of my friends.

Harley Davidson, DIY Garage, 1200 Sportster, Washington DC, DUNN LEWIS, Motorcycle Parts

I was afraid that if I started taking my brakes apart, I would get confused and then not be able to finish or put the damn thing back together. My roommate fixes other people’s bikes. Some of my friends buy project bikes and then flip them. One friend even changes his car’s brake pads. And so I let that anxiety fester. I became so embarrassed to ride my motorcycle that I couldn’t scroll through my Instagram feed, or even listen to my friends talk about their bikes.

I’m not sure what exactly flipped the switch, but one day I just had enough. I decided it was finally time to fix my brake pads. I marched into DUNN LEWIS, walked right up to counter, looked Mason right in the eye and said,

“Hey…did you get a hair-cut?” I chickened out.

It took three attempts before I was finally able to ask him to help me order the parts I needed. A set of rear brake pads, front brake pads, and a new rotor. After I paid I ran home and paced back and forth till the adrenaline finally worked it’s way out of my system.

I had committed.

It was either go through with this project or leave DC and never come back.

When the Sunday finally came for me to put socket-wrench to bolt, I asked my good friend Nick to come for moral support. He heartily agreed, but like the sneaky son of a gun he is he kept finding excuses to leave.

Oh, he had to go buy breakfast.

Oh, he had to take a phone call.

Oh, he had to go outside and yell at me.

Even my roommate Tyler, who was at DUNN LEWIS doing the exact same thing, kept avoiding direct eye contact. In retrospect this was a stroke of brilliance on both their parts. Nick and Tyler played “tough love” and it totally worked. It forced me to read the instruction manual line by line, and figure the work out myself.

Zarkin Froods, Fuel Cleveland, DUNN LEWIS, Washington DC, Motorcycle,

It was somewhere around the time I was sitting on my -now fully disconnected- back wheel, wrenching off the horribly grooved rotor, that I realized I was having the time of my life. Even when we finally removed the old pads, and found that one was completely bare, I couldn’t have been having a better time. Yes, I was now the inaugural face on the new DUNN LEWIS Wall of Shame, but a weight had been lifted. My hands were coated in bike grime, I was sweating profusely, and probably looked like an idiot - but none of that mattered because I was finally facing my fear head on.

It’s quite satisfying to face your fear of messing up. Because you will. You totally will bungle some part of the process, but the point is that you’re actively doing something about it. There were several moments where I would catch myself worrying about what might happen if I broke something, not realizing I was currently holding in my hands the tool I would use to fix the imaginary problem. Not to mention the four other people in the room willing to jump in with advice if I but simply asked.

The brain does funny things when you push it out of it’s comfort zone. It will kick and scream and invent things to keep you from stepping outside of what it’s used to. The key to this scenario is not to deny that it happens [this only gives the panicking brain more power], the trick is to acknowledge it.

Yes, I let my brake pads become dangerously worn down, I did nothing about it, and I currently have no definite idea about what the next steps will be. So what though? I’m here trying to figure it out.


The strangest moment of the entire day came as I sat holding my dismantled front brake assembly in my hands. I had hit a wall. The Harley Davidson manual only had pictures of different brake models, and the instructions were vague as to what my next steps should be. So there I sat, staring at the grease covered assembly, willing it to tell me what to do next. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a DUNN LEWIS member walking over to me to say hello.

“I don’t want to disturb you as you’re performing surgery on you bike, just wanted to say hey.”

“Oh, I’m not performing sur—“ Then it struck me. He had no idea I don’t know what I was doing. What I think of as me banging a wrench around à la Derek Zoolander accessing a computer, this guy sees as me delicately and purposefully re-working a bike. This epiphany filled me with pride. Followed immediately with shock that a large portion of people might just be like me. All it takes to be considered a “wrencher” is time, a good manual, and the willingness to look like a fool once and a while.

I’m still not out of the woods yet. Turns out I ordered the wrong type of pad for my back brake, so it’ll take me one more weekend to button everything up. Then it’s stop lights and stop signs as far as the eye can see. However, now when I think about..I get a tingle of anxiety when I think about my tires. Probably a good sign, though. I can’t wait to look like a idiot in a garage with my friends again.


Words by Isaac Whalen - Isaac lives in DC & increasingly maintains his 1999 Harley Davidson 1200 Sportster. Check out his work at ZARKIN FROODS : A DC Moto Zine, @ZarkinFroods, @WhalenDude

Photos by Scott Bradley

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