How To Adjust Bike Brakes

Whether you’re a pro-cyclist or a novice, the golden rule of biking is knowing how to adjust or fix your brakes.

When you’re on your bike, whether or not your brakes are functioning properly can often be a nagging worry. And while the act of hitting the brakes is quite simple, there’s a lot that can go inadvertently wrong and jeopardize your safety.

Several studies have been conducted to explore the different brake options to improve efficiency. Nevertheless, the major reasons for bike brake adjustment are known to be tightening/loosening, poor maintenance, replacement of brake pads, and excessive squeaking.

Here’s a detailed guide on adjusting different kinds of bike brakes.

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How Do Bike Brakes Work?

A brake is a mechanical device that stops the motion of a moving object by absorbing its kinetic energy. Brakes are used to stop or slow down moving vehicles, wheels, or axles, or to prevent their motion.

Most often, this is achieved by the means of friction. Braking systems use the friction that exists between two surfaces that are compressed together and convert the kinetic energy of the moving object into heat.

For example, a lot of the energy of the moving object can be converted into electrical energy, which can then be stored for later use. This is known as regenerative braking. There are plenty of other methods to convert kinetic energy into potential energy, magnetic energy, etc.

There are three main types of brakes — hydraulic braking system, hub brake system, and cable brake system.

Hydraulic Braking System

Fluids, cylinders, and friction are used to operate this system. The hydraulic braking system generates a considerably higher force compared to the mechanical braking system.

It is one of the most important braking systems used in contemporary vehicles. With a hydraulic braking system, the chances of brake failure are very low, as there is a direct connection between the actuator and the brake disc/ drum.

Hub Brake System

This system involves a clutch mechanism that allows it to engage and drive the bike forward. When the brakes are applied, the clutch is disengaged and the brake shoes are expanded into the steel hub when the bike needs to be slowed down. This is done by rotating the pedals in a backward motion.

Cable Brake System

These types of brakes are most commonly used for bikes that have cable pull brakes.

It has a core cable of braided stainless steel wire with an outer covering. It functions by transmitting force with the combination of tension on the inner cable and compression on the outer covering.

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How To Adjust Bike Disc Brakes

The usage of disc brakes on road bikes has made them a lot safer. They have also made all-weather riding easier, increasing the cyclist’s confidence. But while disc brakes are a significant upgrade, brake adjustment might prove to be a tad difficult.

It is necessary to align new disc brakes once they are run in to prevent tire rub. Tire rub occurs when the brake pads do not have enough clearance for the wheel to freely pass through even when the brakes are not being applied. This can affect the performance of the bike.

You can easily fix tire rub by aligning the brake pads and adjusting them to have enough clearance.

Disc brakes are located down the fork at the center. The caliper looks like a claw and is located by the dropouts, attached to the disk at the center of your wheel. The brake pads are inside the caliper. They can be best seen directly from above the caliper. Repairs and adjustments done on bikes are relatively very simple and only require a basic set of tools. For adjusting brake pads, all you need is a 4 or 5 mm Allen wrench or a Torx T25 key, depending on your brakes’ mounting bolts. The longer the wrench, the better it is to avoid jamming your hands down the spokes of the wheels. Here’s how you can adjust the bike brake adjustment screws.

Step 1:

First, you need to locate the pad adjustment screw. The pad adjustment screw, as the name suggests, is what helps us move the brake pads. Every caliper has two pad adjustment screws, one on each side.

One screw is hooked to the brake cable and is activated by the brake lever. The other screw controls adjustments on the inside pad, the one that usually causes tire rub.

Step 2:

Once the pad adjustment screw is located, insert the Allen wrench or the Torx T25 key into the pad adjustment screw and rotate the screw counter-clockwise. For every quarter rotation, you will feel a click.

Check the brake pad’s clearance after every click to make sure you don’t go too far.

Step 3:

In between each click, spin the wheel freely to check for tire rub. You should also try applying the brakes to make sure the pads make contact when the brakes are being applied. Keep repeating this until you get your ideal setting for the brake pads.

If you’re wondering how to tighten bike disc brakes, here is some information you need to know.

If you cannot tighten the screw anymore and can still notice brake rub, it is most likely that your brake caliper is off-center. To repair it, remove the bolts that hold down the caliper. While the caliper is freely moving around, apply the brake lever.

Holding down the brake lever, tighten each bolt slightly to help center your brake caliper. Once it is centered, fully tighten the bolts to fix the brake caliper.

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How To Adjust Cantilever Brakes

A cantilever is a structural element supported at one end. Around the 1980s, cantilever brakes weren’t very common and were found only on very expensive mountain bikes or touring bikes.

With changing times and the advancement in the knowledge of equipment, these brakes are now found on every other bicycle you’ll come across, be it in a roadside bicycle store, a fancy bicycle store, or a departmental store.

A cantilever brake stops the rim of the wheel mid-action, as each brake arm has a brake shoe and the cable attachment — both on the same side of the pivot.

Cantilever brakes on a bike hold a very unique mechanism that sets them apart from the regular rim brakes, which is why people might find it difficult to take care of such brakes or fix them. However, just like any other kind of brake, cantilever brakes also need to be adjusted when they start malfunctioning to avoid any inefficiency or accidents.

Misaligned brake pads will not only cause extra exhaustion for the rider but could also lead to the tires blowing out and causing an accident.

As with any of the automobile brakes, a hard pedal feel on a bicycle brake might mean that it doesn’t have enough mechanical advantage, whereas a spongy pedal feel means it has a high mechanical advantage, enough to deliver pressure to the brake shoes.

This pressure pushes the shoes against the rim, and thus stops the bike. As a rider, you can feel this pressure in your fingers. But you must note that while tight brakes may feel nice on a bicycle on display in a showroom, they do not hold much practical advantage when you’re out on the roads.

Thus, it is extremely important to know the right adjustment for cantilever brakes. The brake shoe held by each of the cantilever brake arms is close to the rim, so whenever the brake is applied, it pushes against the rim to stop the motion of the bicycle.

You’ll need the following tools to adjust a cantilever brake:

  • 3mm and 5mm Allen wrench
  • Zip-tie (optional)

Here’s a guide on how to adjust cantilever bike brakes.

Step 1:

The first step is to work on the alignment of the wheels. If the wheels are not aligned, all the work you put into fixing the brakes and their parts is futile.

Take your bike off its stand. On both the front and back wheel, use the quick-release levers to adjust them, then return the levers to their previous positions. You should also check the tire pressure as any imbalance in the tire pressure can cause brake rubbing.

Step 2:

The brake pads located by the wheels also require adjustment.

Loosen up the cable on the brake. Use a zip-tie on the brake pad, wind it around the back and tie it into place. This step minimizes or completely eradicates the squealing sounds that can be heard while applying the brakes. If a zip-tie is not readily available, you can also use a rubber band.

Put the cable back onto the brake pad and connect it to the bicycle brake system. Use the 5mm Allen wrench to release the locking nut.

Push the brake pad upwards when it touches the rim. These steps are to make sure that the brake pad is on a higher level on the rim of the bicycle.

Step 3:

Conduct a visual inspection to ensure everything is in order.

The back and front sides of the pad should be equidistant and aligned. Measure their alignment from the edge of the rim. Also, check that the complete surface of the brake pad touches the rim. If not, it means that the brake pads are not aligned properly.

Once all this is checked, you can release the cable and the zip-tie and then reattach the cable into the brake pads.

Step 4:

To adjust the spring tension, use a 3mm Allen wrench to adjust the small screw at the bottom corner of one of the arms of the cantilever brake (the tighter it is screwed, the more spring tension will be applied on the pad).

After applying some turns on the screw, use the brake levers to test the brake pads. Visually check if the brake pads are aligned, and make sure that the brake pads are not touching the tire as it can lead to a blowout.

You can also give the wheel a spin to ensure smooth movement with no squealing or screeching sounds.

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How To Adjust Your Brake Cables

More often than not, bicycle riders will find themselves applying more force for pulling the brake lever, yet the brakes do not stop the motion of the bicycle as they should.

If you’ve ever had to pull hard on the brake lever to slow down or stop the bicycle and it squeezes right into the handlebar, it is probably time to adjust your brake cables.

There are two components that need to be adjusted on the brake cables — one is the caliper, and the other is the barrel adjuster.

As mentioned earlier, if you see the disc in the center of the wheel, the claw-looking device that you find there is the caliper. The metal cuff on the brake cable right by your brake lever is the barrel adjuster.

The only tool you need to adjust your brake cables is an Allen wrench. Find below the steps on how to tighten bike brake cables:

Step 1:

Visually inspect the brake lever and check whether it is too tight or loose. Pull the brake lever to check the tightness of the brakes. If the lever touches the handlebars, the cable is too loose and must be tightened. And if you can barely squeeze it, then the cable is too tight and needs to be loosened.

You should be able to squeeze your brake lever for up to 1–1.5 inches before it becomes difficult to do so.

Step 2:

Here’s how you tighten or loosen the barrel adjuster. After determining whether the cable is loose or tight, turn the barrel adjuster clockwise or anti-clockwise to increase or decrease the tension in the cable, respectively.

Once you adjust that, squeeze the brake lever to check if the issue has been fixed. Tightening or loosening the barrel adjuster might not be a permanent solution to any damage caused to the brake arms, pads, or lever. However, it is a quick fix and can temporarily improve the performance of the brake.

Step 3:

You’ll need to loosen the bolt on the brake caliper to readjust the brake cable. After correcting the barrel adjuster according to the needs of your bicycle, examine the bicycle again.

If the brake system still presents the same issues, then the cable might be too tight or loose on the brake caliper. Use an Allen wrench to loosen the cable from the caliper in the anti-clockwise direction. Make sure you don’t entirely unbolt it.

Step 4:

Pull or release the brake cable through the caliper. The bolt at the caliper should spring away from the wheel and cable once it is loose enough. Pull the cable outwards to tighten the brake or let it retract to loosen the brake, depending on what your bicycle needs.

Make sure that the lever on the caliper (that moves when brakes are applied) has ample room for its movement and cannot reach back so much that it hits the caliper. If it does hit the caliper, the brake pads will not reach the rotor and make it difficult to apply brakes.

Step 5:

Tighten the caliper bolt. Look for the spot where the brake pads are equally distant from the rim. Make sure that the brake cable is tight and the caliper bolt is properly screwed.

Put the bike on the stand, move the wheel, and apply your brakes. Now, visually inspect the functioning of the brakes. Make sure that the brake pads sit flat on the rim surface and do not touch the tire at all.

If the brakes still show symptoms of malfunction, revisit the barrel adjuster or the caliper bolt to make additional changes.

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How To Adjust V-Brakes

V- brakes are also referred to as direct-pull or linear-pull brakes. These brakes are embedded in many bikes, especially mountain bikes, owing to their powerful design.

In V-brakes, instead of the cable entering the brake area from the top like other common brake styles, it enters from the side.

If V-brakes aren’t maintained properly, the brake pads will function at awkward angles, which will make adjustments quite difficult. In case of extensive damage, the entire system would have to be replaced.

The V-brake cable is attached to each of the brake mount arms, which are supported on the frame of the bike. When the brakes are applied, the cable gets pulled and the brake mount arms get pulled towards the rim of the tire.

This leads to the brake pads causing friction with the rim, eventually stopping the motion.

The following tools are needed to adjust V-brakes:

  • 5mm and 6mm Allen wrenches (AKA Hex wrenches)
  • Needle-nose pliers (optional)

Pay attention to the below instructions to learn how to adjust bike V-brakes.

Step 1:

You’ll notice that the brakes are not strongly engaged when faulty. Hold the handlebar in a normal position and pull the brake lever that is to be adjusted.

Step 2:

Adjust the barrel adjuster to change the tension in the brake wire. Follow the wire down from the handlebar to the brake arms to confirm that it is the correct wire.

Find the barrel adjuster (small ring at the bottom of the wire) and screw it outwards as much as you can, to the point where it is on the verge of being completely released from the mound.

Step 3:

Use an Allen wrench to loosen up the bolt on the lever of the brake until the cable is free to slide. This will help adjust the tension on the wire of the brake at the other end.

Step 4:

To firmly push the brake pads against the rim of the wheel, you need to push the brake levers from both sides. Hold the brake levers so that the bolt that holds the brake wire in place is to be re-tightened.

Step 5:

Spin the wheel while the brakes are applied. Visually examine the wheel; the brake pads should be holding the rim of the wheel tightly, preventing it from moving freely.

Step 6:

Screw the barrel adjuster back in towards the brake lever to release the tension on the brake cable. Release the screw fully in order to make the cable tension ideal for strong braking action.

After going through the complete process, put the bike on its stand and visually examine the functioning of the brakes. The brake pads should not be touching the tire to prevent any sort of potential blowout.

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Bike Safety For Everyone

There’s no such thing as too much talk of bicycle safety; it is something that drivers of all ages must be aware of. Here are some common tips to keep in mind:

1. The first, and most obvious step, is to wear a well-fitting helmet while riding, regardless of whether you are a child or an adult. It is your main protective equipment.

2. Bicyclists are not exempted from adhering to traffic and road rules. Make sure to ride with traffic, not against it. Statistics show that there were 1,089 bicyclist deaths in 2019, of which 712 died in collisions with motorists.

3. Cleaning your bike regularly is imperative. Dirt and mud accumulation wears down the metal on the bike chain, cassette, and chainrings, greatly reducing bike efficiency.

4. People often don’t check the performance of their brakes or care for them regularly. Ideally, they should be inspected and properly positioned before every trip, as well as serviced regularly by a professional mechanic.

5. In properly functioning brakes, the rotors should be straight and centered between the brake pads, and make full contact with them when the brakes are pushed. The rotors should NOT rub on the pads otherwise.

6. Brake pads and levers should be regularly cleaned before they start showing signs of wear. Check for signs of leaking brake fluid in the case of hydraulic disk brakes.

7. While riding descent, avoid braking continuously, as it is not only bad for your arms but spoils your brakes in the long run. Practice riding on different types of roads and terrains to get the hang of when to brake and how much.

Once you learn how to adjust your bike brakes efficiently, you can enjoy bike rides without having to worry about safety or discomfort. Additionally, you can save extra costs by simply maintaining your bike well!

Happy biking!