Riding super fast on your bike is a sensational feeling – quite addictive if you’d ask any cyclist. Now imagine cycling down the freeway at 55Kmph and then suddenly a car ahead of you stops. You slam on your brakes only to find out you can stop. Scary isn’t it? Well yes, it’s something that can happen to anyone if you don’t take care of your brakes. Arguably the most important component on your bike, apart from maybe, the tires.
The following maintenance tips are for the 2 most common types of brakes used on bikes these days- rim brakes and disc brakes. Since this is a DIY series, we suggest grabbing a set of Allen keys, two hands and in about 10-15 minutes, you’ll be able to improve your braking performance and ensure it lasts.
The golden rule of brake adjustment and maintenance, regardless of what braking system you have, is to check that the wheels are properly seated in the dropouts. Loosen the quick release on your wheels and wiggle the wheel from side to side until you’re confident that the wheel is sitting straight. Then apply mild pressure on the bike from above and firmly retighten the quick release. Now that that’s done, let’s get into it!
Currently the most common setup on road and hybrid bikes these days. It’s a simple setup that you can’t have much go wrong with. The great thing is that they also happen to be easily serviceable at home.
1. INSPECTION – Firstly, it’s important to check things out before beginning work on them. You want to check for 3 things primarily:
- Pad clearance with rim
- Tire clearance
- Pad alignment
BRAKE PAD WEAR – Visually inspect the pads for signs of excessive wear – you will notice groves on the pads, once those grooves are no longer visible it’s time to swap them out.
2. CLEANING – Start off by cleaning the entire caliper and surrounding housing. Get all the grit and grime off – there’s plenty of that with the road conditions being the way they are. Don’t forget to address the brake pads themselves, oftentimes, chunks of road debris or metallic flakes from the rim make their way into the soft rubber pads. This can over time affect braking and reduce the longevity of braking components.
After you’ve done that, clean the rim braking surface and finish off the cleaning process with an alcohol swab. You don’t want any dirt on the pads or the braking surface – this could destroy your rims over the course of time.
3. ADJUSTMENTS – It’s important to center your brakes. Are the brake pads sitting an equal distance from the rim? If you can’t see this by eye, squeeze the brake and watch to see if the brake pads contact at the same time, or whether one pad pushes the rim across onto the other pad. To straighten the brake, loosen the bolt at the back, realign the brake and firmly retighten.
Now that you’ve adjusted for brake caliper position, and aligned the brake pads. These should be positioned so that they are centered on the braking surface. They should never make contact with the sidewall of the tire, and should never be lower than the braking surface. Spin the wheel and check that the brake pads are aligned with the braking track all the way around.
Once the pad position has been set up, it’s easy to fine-tune cable tension down the track with the barrel adjuster. Turn this barrel clockwise to move the pads out from the rim, and counter-clockwise to move them closer. This is also the best way to adjust for cable stretch over time, without having to reset cable tension altogether, and allows micro-adjustment from in the saddle. You shouldn’t have to fiddle with this too much.
DISC BRAKES (MECHANICAL)
One of the more popular setups on high-end road bikes and most MTBs – some hybrids too. Disc brakes are fairly simple to work with too. If you think about it, they’re basically more compact rim brakes.
1. INSPECTION – Just like with all things mechanical, it’s important to check things out before beginning work on them. You want to check for 2 things primarily:
- Wheel alignment (QR)
- Caliper alignment
BRAKE PAD WEAR – Visually inspect the pads for signs of excessive wear – when there’s less than a Quarter inch of brake pad left, it’s time to replace them. Also listen for any skweaking or screeching noises.
Now I know we’ve already mentioned that you need to ensure your wheels are engaged into the dropouts properly – here you need to be extra cautious about this. Alignment is super important here because the brake rotor is attached to the hub of the wheel, any misalignment will lead to a misaligned rotor.
2. CLEANING- Super important to keep things clean here. Discs are incredibly sensitive to oils and moisture – be sure to cover the rotors before working with disc brakes or at least cover the rotors in some cloth. Here you could use a dedicated disc brake cleaner such as the MUC-OFF DISC BRAKE CLEANER. An alcohol swab would do too.
Watch the above video to get a few more maintenance tips. Once you’ve removed your brake pads (refer to the video) you can begin to clean those too. Grab a piece of sandpaper and start to scrub gently on the pad surface – this will get rid of any contaminants and improve the braking bite.
3. ADJUSTMENTS – Spin both wheels freely off the ground. Listen carefully for rotor rub. If you hear some rub then its time to make some adjustments. In most cases, the pads or the calipers themselves are responsible for this.
Start off by loosening both bolts on the brake caliper. They don’t need to be undone completely—just enough for the caliper to move side to side if you jiggle the caliper with your hand.
While squeezing the corresponding brake lever firmly, retighten these bolts. The wheel should now spin freely. If the pads are still audibly rubbing on the brake rotor all the way around, try this process again; sometimes it takes a couple of attempts before the caliper settles in its correct position.
If this doesn’t work, try to adjust the caliper by eye. You should be able to see that there is a gap on either side of the rotor. With loosened bolts, realign the caliper by hand, and then whilst holding it firmly in position, tighten the bolts with your other hand. In most cases, this will do it – in the rare event that it doesn’t, it could mean a bent rotor. No need to worry – your local bike shop will be able to determine this and rectify it if needed.
NOTE: We know that many of you out there have hydraulic disc brakes. We recommend not tinkering with these at home. Follow the same cleaning procedure as for mechanical disc brakes. If you face any issues such as loss of lever pressure or rotor rub we recommend heading over to your local bike shop.
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WHAT I LOVE ABOUT CYCLING
I’m an avid mountain biker and I like riding fast and flowy singletrack. As I keep riding, I continuously work on honing my riding skills. I like to ride whenever possible, especially with friends. I also like to influence folk into getting to ride more often.
Working on bicycles has also been a keen interest of mine for quite some time.
DISCIPLINE: Mountain biking and Road biking
CURRENT BIKE: RockRider 5.3 & Specialized Allez Elite DSW
DREAM BIKE: Santa Cruz 5010