How to Adjust Bike Brakes

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Whether you’re a beginner rider or an experienced cyclist, it’s important to know how to properly adjust your bike brakes to ensure they are functioning optimally, because well-adjusted brakes are essential for both safety and performance.

In this article, we’ll guide you through the process of adjusting bike brakes, for different types: the caliper brakes, the V-brakes, the disc brakes, and the drum brakes, using simple tools and steps.

Preparation Work Before Adjusting Bike Brakes

Before you start adjusting your bike brakes, you should do some preparation jobs to make sure your brakes are in good condition and ready for adjustment. Here are some of the preparation jobs you should do:

1. Check your brake pads before you make any adjustments. The brake pads are the pads that clamp down on the rim or rotor of your wheel when you pull the brake lever. If the brake pads are worn out or cracked, replace them with new ones. You can decide if your brake pads are worn out or glazed by these methods:

  • Visual inspection: You can check the thickness of your brake pads by looking at them through the wheel spokes or by removing the wheel and the caliper. Most brake pads have a wear indicator groove or a squealer tab that shows how much material is left. If the groove is gone or the tab is close to the rotor, it means your pads are worn out and need to be replaced. You can also look for signs of glazing, such as a shiny or smooth surface on the pads, cracks or fractures, or uneven wear.
  • Noise: Worn out or glazed brake pads can make squealing, screeching, or grinding noises when you apply the brakes. This is because the metal backing plate of the pad is rubbing against the rotor, or because the pad material is hard and smooth and cannot grip the rotor properly. Noise can also indicate other problems, such as warped rotors, loose parts, or contamination, so it’s important to inspect your brakes if you hear any unusual sounds.
  • Braking Performance: Worn out or glazed brake pads can affect your braking performance and feel. You may notice that your brakes are less responsive, require more pressure, or have a longer stopping distance. You may also feel vibrations or pulsations in the brake pedal or steering wheel, which can indicate warped rotors or uneven pad wear. If your brakes are not working well, you should get them checked and fixed as soon as possible to avoid accidents or further damage.

2. Clean your brake pads and rotors with alcohol and a rag to remove any dirt or oil that may affect their performance and cause noise. You can also sand the pads lightly with sandpaper to remove any glaze or smoothness that may reduce their friction.

3. Check your brake cables for any fraying, rusting, or damage that may impair their function and safety. You should also lubricate them with a drop of oil or grease to make them move smoothly and freely.

4. Check your brake rotors (only for disc brakes) for any warping, cracking, or damage that may affect their performance and cause noise, vibration, or drag. To check if the brake rotor is warped or damaged, you can spin your wheel and see if the rotor runs true and smoothly between the brake pads. You can also use your finger or a piece of paper to feel the gap between the pad and the rotor as it spins. If you notice any wobbling, rubbing, or changing gaps, it means your rotor is out of true and needs to be straightened or replaced.

You can also measure their thickness with a micrometer, a vernier caliper, or a digital caliper and compare them to the manufacturer’s specifications. If your rotors are too thin or uneven, you should replace them as soon as possible.

5. Check your brake calipers for any misalignment, looseness, or damage that may affect their performance and cause rubbing or squealing. You should also check the pistons for any sticking or leaking that may impair their function and safety.

How to Adjust Caliper Brakes on A Bike

Caliper brakes are the most common type of brake found on road bikes and some hybrid bikes. They use a metal arm that clamps onto the rim of the wheel when the brake lever is pulled. If your caliper brakes are not performing as they should, it may be time to adjust them.

Tools Needed

  • Hex wrench
  • Screwdriver
  • Pliers
  • Cable cutter

Step 1: Align Your Brake Pads

The first step in adjusting your caliper brakes is to ensure that the brake pads are aligned properly. This means that they should contact the rim evenly and at the right angle. There are a few factors that can affect the alignment of your brake pads, such as the shape of the rim, the position of the brake pad holder, and the washers between the pad and the holder.

To align your brake pads:

  1. Loosen the bolts that hold the brake pads in place using a hex wrench.
  2. Position the brake pad so that it contacts the rim evenly. You can adjust the angle of the pad by adding or removing washers between the pad and the holder.
  3. Once the brake pad is aligned properly, tighten the bolts to secure it in place.

Step 2: Tighten Your Cable

Proper cable tension is essential for responsive and smooth braking. If the cable tension is too loose, you may experience a spongy lever feel, while if it’s too tight, the lever may feel hard to pull or the brake pads may rub against the rim.

To adjust your cable tension:

  1. Locate the barrel adjuster near each brake lever. This is a small cylindrical device that allows you to fine-tune the cable tension.
  2. Turn the barrel adjuster clockwise to tighten the cable or counterclockwise to loosen it. Make small adjustments and test the brakes after each adjustment to find the optimal tension.

Step 3: Center Your Brakes

Centering your brakes ensures that both brake pads are equally spaced from the rim. If your brakes are not centered, you may experience rubbing or uneven braking.

To center your brakes:

  1. Locate the small screws on each side of your caliper. These screws are used to balance the spring tension.
  2. Use a Phillips screwdriver to adjust the screws. Turn them clockwise or counterclockwise to increase or decrease the tension on each side of the caliper. Make small adjustments and test the brakes after each adjustment to achieve even spacing.

Step 4: Test Your Brakes

Once you have completed the adjustments, it’s important to test your brakes to ensure they are working properly. Find a safe, open area where you can perform a few simple tests.

To test your brakes:

  1. Squeeze the brake levers firmly to check for any unusual resistance or noise.
  2. Ride your bike at a slow speed and apply the brakes gradually. Pay attention to the responsiveness and stopping power of the brakes.
  3. If you notice any issues, such as excessive noise, poor stopping power, or uneven braking, recheck your adjustments and make further adjustments as necessary.

How to Adjust V-Brakes on A Bike

V-brakes, also known as linear-pull brakes, are a common type of brake found on mountain bikes and some hybrid bikes. They provide reliable stopping power and are relatively easy to adjust. To adjust the V-brakes on a bike is quite similar to adjusting the bicycle caliper brakes, but there are some minor differences. We walk you through all the details in the following

Tools You’ll Need:

  • Hex wrench
  • Screwdriver
  • Cable cutter
  • Pliers

Step 1: Align the Brake Pads

The first step in adjusting V-brakes is to ensure that the brake pads are properly aligned with the rim of the wheel. To do this, locate the bolt that holds the brake pad in place. Loosen the bolt slightly so that you can adjust the position and angle of the brake pad.

When aligning the brake pads, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, make sure that the brake pads are parallel to the rim of the wheel. This will ensure even contact and optimal braking performance. Secondly, ensure that the brake pads do not touch the tire when engaged. Lastly, it’s important to have a slight toe-in on the brake pads. This means that the front part of the pad should touch the rim slightly before the rear part. This helps with modulation and reduces squealing.

Step 2: Tighten the Cable

Next, you’ll want to adjust the cable tension. This is what controls the amount of force applied to the brake arms when you pull the brake lever. To adjust the cable tension, locate the barrel adjuster on the brake lever or the cable clamp on the brake arm.

To tighten the cable, turn the barrel adjuster or tighten the cable clamp. This will increase the tension and result in a firmer brake lever feel. To loosen the cable, turn the barrel adjuster counterclockwise or loosen the cable clamp. This will decrease the tension and result in a softer brake lever feel.

It’s important to find the right balance of cable tension for your riding style and preferences. Too much tension can result in a grabby brake feel, while too little tension can lead to a spongy or unresponsive brake feel. Experiment with small adjustments until you find the sweet spot.

Step 3: Center the Brake Arms

Once you’ve aligned the brake pads and adjusted the cable tension, it’s time to center the brake arms. This is important for ensuring that the brake pads engage the rim evenly and that there is proper clearance between the pads and the rim.

To center the brake arms, locate the spring tension screws on each brake arm. These screws control the tension of the springs that pull the brake arms back when the brake lever is released. Use a screwdriver to turn the spring tension screws clockwise or counterclockwise to adjust the tension.

The goal is to have both brake pads equally distant from the rim when the brakes are not engaged. This will ensure that the pads engage the rim at the same time and with equal force.

Adjust the spring tension screws on both brake arms until you achieve this balance.

Step 4: Test the Brakes

Now that you’ve adjusted the brake pads, cable tension, and centered the brake arms, it’s time to test the brakes. Find a safe and open area where you can ride your bike and test the braking performance.

Start by gently applying the brakes to ensure that they engage smoothly and evenly. Gradually increase the force to test the braking power and responsiveness. Pay attention to any squealing or rubbing sounds, as these may indicate that further adjustments are needed.

If the brakes feel too soft or unresponsive, you may need to increase the cable tension slightly. If the brakes feel too grabby or harsh, you may need to decrease the cable tension. Make small adjustments until you achieve the desired braking feel.

How to Adjust Disc Brakes on A Bike

Disc brakes are a type of brake system commonly found on modern bicycles. Unlike traditional rim brakes, which use friction pads to grip the wheel rim, disc brakes use a metal rotor attached to the hub of the wheel and a caliper that clamps onto the rotor when the brake lever is pulled.

Tools You’ll Need

Before you begin adjusting your disc brakes, make sure you have the following tools on hand:

  • A bike stand or a way to lift your bike off the ground
  • A hex wrench or an Allen key (usually 4mm or 5mm) to loosen and tighten the caliper bolts
  • A Torx wrench (usually T25) to loosen and tighten the rotor bolts
  • A clean rag or paper towel to wipe off any dirt or grease
  • A brake pad spacer or a folded business card to set the gap between the pads and the rotor
  • A disc brake cleaner or isopropyl alcohol to clean the rotor and pads
  • A torque wrench (optional) to apply the correct amount of force when tightening the bolts

Step 1: Check the Alignment of the Rotor and the Caliper

The first step in adjusting your disc brakes is to check the alignment of the rotor and the caliper. Lift your bike off the ground and spin the wheel. Look at the gap between the rotor and the pads on both sides of the caliper. The gap should be even and about the thickness of a credit card. If the gap is uneven or too wide or narrow, you will need to adjust the alignment of the rotor and/or the caliper.

Step 2: Adjust the Rotor Alignment

If the rotor is not aligned with the caliper, it may rub against one or both of the pads, causing noise, friction, and reduced braking power. To adjust the rotor alignment, follow these steps:

  1. Loosen all six bolts that hold the rotor to the wheel hub by turning them counterclockwise about a quarter turn each. Do not remove them completely.
  2. Spin the wheel and check if the rotor is still rubbing against the pads. If it is, gently bend the rotor away from the pad using your fingers or a flat screwdriver. Be careful not to damage or scratch the rotor surface.
  3. Tighten all six bolts by turning them clockwise in a star pattern. Start with one bolt and then move to the opposite one, then repeat with another pair of opposite bolts, until all six are tightened. Do not overtighten them, as this may warp or crack the rotor. Use a torque wrench if you have one and follow the manufacturer’s specifications for the correct torque value.
  4. Spin the wheel again and check if the rotor is aligned with the caliper. If not, repeat steps 1-3 until it is.

Step 3: Adjust the Caliper Alignment

If the caliper is not aligned with the rotor, it may cause uneven wear on the pads, reduced braking power, and noise. To adjust the caliper alignment, follow these steps:

  1. Loosen both bolts that hold the caliper to the frame or fork by turning them counterclockwise about half a turn each. Do not remove them completely.
  2. Insert a brake pad spacer or a folded business card between the pads and the rotor. This will help set the correct gap between them.
  3. Squeeze and hold the brake lever firmly. This will center the caliper over the rotor.
  4. While holding the brake lever, tighten both bolts by turning them clockwise until they are snug. Do not overtighten them, as this may damage or strip them. Use a torque wrench if you have one and follow the manufacturer’s specifications for the correct torque value.
  5. Release the brake lever and remove the spacer or card.
  6. Spin the wheel again and check if the caliper is aligned with the rotor. If not, repeat steps 1-5 until it is.

Step 4: Clean the Rotor and Pads

The last step is to clean the rotor and pads using a disc brake cleaner or isopropyl alcohol. This will remove any dirt, grease, or contamination that may affect the braking performance and cause noise or squeaking. Follow these steps to clean the rotor and pads:

  1. Spray the disc brake cleaner or isopropyl alcohol on a clean rag or paper towel.
  2. Wipe the rotor surface with the rag or towel, making sure to cover the entire area. Do not touch the rotor with your fingers, as this may transfer oil or dirt to it.
  3. Spray the disc brake cleaner or isopropyl alcohol on another clean rag or paper towel.
  4. Wipe the pad surface with the rag or towel, making sure to cover the entire area. Do not touch the pad with your fingers, as this may transfer oil or dirt to it.
  5. Let the rotor and pads dry completely before using them.

Tips and Tricks for Adjusting Disc Brakes on a Bike

Here are some tips and tricks that may help you adjust your disc brakes on a bike more easily and effectively:

  • Avoid touching the rotor and pads with your fingers, as this may transfer oil or dirt to them. If you do touch them, clean them with a disc brake cleaner or isopropyl alcohol before using them.
  • If your disc brakes are noisy or squeaky, try cleaning them with a disc brake cleaner or isopropyl alcohol. If that does not work, try sanding the pads lightly with fine-grit sandpaper to remove any glaze or contamination. If that does not work either, try replacing the pads with new ones.
  • If your disc brakes are not responsive or powerful enough, try bleeding them to remove any air bubbles from the system. Air bubbles can reduce the hydraulic pressure and affect the braking performance. Bleeding disc brakes requires a special kit and procedure, so you may want to consult a professional mechanic or follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully.

How to Adjust Drum Brakes on A Bike

Drum brakes may not be as common on modern bikes, but if you own a vintage bike or a cargo bike, you might still have them. These brakes use a metal drum attached to the hub of the wheel and a pair of shoes that press against the inside of the drum when the brake lever is pulled. If your drum brakes need some adjustment, don’t worry. I’ve also got you covered with a step-by-step guide on how to do it.

Tools You’ll Need:

  • A bike stand or a way to lift the wheel off the ground
  • A wrench or an Allen key that fits the brake cable bolt and the brake arm bolt
  • A pair of pliers or a cable cutter
  • A cable end cap
  • A rag or a paper towel
  • Some grease or oil

Step 1: Check the Brake Lever

The first thing you need to do is check the brake lever and see how much travel it has before it engages the brake. You want the brake lever to have about 10 mm of free play, which means it should move about 10 mm before you feel any resistance. If the brake lever has too much or too little free play, you’ll need to adjust the brake cable tension.

Step 2: Adjust the Brake Cable Tension

To adjust the brake cable tension, you need to loosen the brake cable bolt that secures the cable to the brake arm. The brake arm is the metal piece that connects the brake shoe to the frame. Use a wrench or an Allen key to loosen the bolt. Once the bolt is loose, you can pull or release some of the cable until you get the desired amount of free play on the brake lever. Then, tighten the bolt again and make sure the cable is not frayed or kinked.

Step 3: Check the Brake Shoe Alignment

The next thing you need to do is check the alignment of the brake shoes and make sure they are contacting the drum evenly and firmly. Spin the wheel and apply the brake lightly. You should hear a smooth and consistent sound when the brake shoes rub against the drum. If you hear any squeaking, scraping, or uneven sounds, you’ll need to adjust the brake shoe alignment.

Step 4: Adjust the Brake Shoe Alignment

To adjust the brake shoe alignment, you need to loosen the brake arm bolt that secures the brake arm to the frame. Use a wrench or an Allen key to loosen the bolt. Once the bolt is loose, you can move the brake arm up or down, left or right, until you get a good alignment of the brake shoes with the drum. Use a rag or a paper towel to wipe off any dirt or grease from the brake shoes and the drum. Then, tighten the bolt again and check if the sound is improved.

Step 5: Test and Fine-Tune Your Brakes

The last thing you need to do is test your brakes and fine-tune them if needed. Ride your bike in a flat and safe area and apply your brakes gradually and firmly. You should feel a smooth and powerful braking action without any noise or vibration. If your brakes feel too loose or too tight, you can repeat steps 2 and 4 until you get them right.

Over to You

We just finished all the detailed steps for how to adjust bike brakes, for different types, i.e. the caliper brakes, V-brakes, disc brakes, and even the uncommon drum brakes. Now it’s time for you to apply them on your bicycles, ensuring your safety and better performance on a ride.

Hopefully, you can get what you want from this post. And if you find somewhere we have missed, please share your feedback and suggestions in the comments section below.

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AUTHOR

Randy Joycelyn

Randy is the founder and editor of Cycling Soigneur. He has been passionate about cycling since he was a kid. He has been riding bikes for over 10 years. Cycling has just become a part of life.

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