Your Guide to the Different Types of Bike Brakes

Up until recently I paid little mind to bicycle brakes.

To me, they were simply the levers attached to handlebars that I’d squeeze in hopes of not crashing into a car. Now, I am here to tell you they are so much more than that.

They have a lot of little moving parts, so it’s easy to get confused—especially since every bike is slightly unique in design.

But it is helpful to understand what type of brake you have and how the braking system on your bike works. This primer on the different types of bike brakes will help you know where to look if yours are malfunctioning, and how to describe their components when you communicate issues for a mechanic to address.

Who knows? You might even learn to adjust your brakes yourself!

How brakes work

Brakes are operated by the rider applying pressure to either brake levers on the handlebars or drum brakes connected to the bike pedals. This pressure is transmitted through cables, rods, chain or hydraulics to engage the bike’s brake pads. These in turn press against a part of the bike that’s in motion—the wheel rim, drum, disc or the wheel itself.

Hand squeezing the brake lever on a bike's handlebars
It all starts with the application of pressure to the brake lever on the handlebars.

This causes friction and converts kinetic energy to heat. The broader the braking surface, the higher its ability to dissipate the excess heat. Combined with a tire’s grip, these forces act to slow down and stop your bicycle.

Brake system components

Every braking system has three components:

  1. The way in which the rider applies the brakes, through either brake levers or bike pedals.
  2. The mechanism used to engage the brakes. This is usually through cables, though in the past rods or bike chains have been common. Currently, hydraulic hoses are the most powerful mechanism.
  3. Brake pads and the piece they make contact with to slow your roll.

Types of brake pads

The four most common types of brake pads are:

  • resin
  • semi-metallic
  • metallic
  • ceramic

Resin brake pads

Also known as organic, these are the most common type of pads. As the name implies, they are made of organic material such as glass, rubber and fibrous binders bound together with resin. They tend to generate less noise but do wear out relatively quickly, especially in wet and muddy conditions.

A brakepad poised above the rim of a bike wheel
You’ll find resin brake pads on most bikes. (Morgan Strug | Pedal Street)

Semi-metallic brake pads

Semi-metallic brake pads have improved stopping power over resin brakes and don’t wear out as fast.

Metallic brake pads

Metallic brake pads are also known as sintered brake pads. They consist of metallic grains that are bonded at high pressure. These are the pads of choice for mountain, downhill and backcountry cyclists for their superior performance in extreme conditions. Even though they produce more heat, they last longer than other pads.

Ceramic brake pads

Ceramic brake pads aren’t as widely used as metallic brake pads but they are similar, producing less heat.

Bike brake types

There are three main types of brakes:

  • rim brakes
  • drum brakes
  • disc brakes

Rim brakes

Rim brakes are so called because the brake pads squeeze together around the rims of the front and rear wheels to slow the bicycle down. The rider usually engages rim brakes through a brake lever mounted on  the handlebars. The brake signal is delivered via brake cables. Rim brakes are the lightest option because they require no additional braking surface to be added to the bike.

Closeup of a bike rim with the brake pad poised above it
The pad on a rim brake lines up neatly with the wheel’s rim.

Different types of rim brakes include:

The following are the most common types of rim brakes:

Caliper brake

Caliper brakes attach to the bike frame or fork with a single bolt. Standard caliper brakes are self-contained mechanisms with a cable that activates the brake caliper. Their arms must reach long enough to be positioned around a tire, so they are less common on wider tires. Caliper brakes most often appear on road bikes.

Side view of a typical rim brake
A typical caliper brake.

Cantilever brake

Cantilever brakes function a lot like caliper brakes, but instead of being one solid piece they are made up of two pieces, one on each side of the bike rim. With two separate brake arms, they can accommodate wider tires and provide stronger stopping force. Cantilever brakes most commonly appear on cyclocross bikes.

Side view of a cantilever brake on a bike
Cantilever brakes have two distinct arms, each attached to a cable. (Morgan Strug | Pedal Street)

V-brakes

V-brake is actually a brand name coined by Shimano that refers to linear-pull or direct-pull brakes. Technically, they are a modified version of cantilever brakes. However, they are heavier than caliper and traditional cantilever brakes and are much more powerful. Their long arms, protective cable housing and mud clearance all contributed to V-brakes becoming the rim brake of choice when they were first introduced. V-brakes still often appear on off-road, hybrid bikes and some mountain bikes.

Front view of a V-brake
Ample space between the arms makes V-brakes a good choice for bikes that will be chewing up the turf. (Morgan Strug | Pedal Street)

Drum brakes

Drum brakes are less common but they employ the same general mechanisms of brake levers and cables. Some drum brakes are engaged via a band brake. This flexible piece of material wraps around the outside of a brake drum and is tightened when the brake is applied.

The advantage of drum brakes is that they are more reliable than rim brakes in rain and dirt, especially when they are internal. They also require less maintenance. However drum brakes are heavier than rim and disc brakes and have a more complex working system. Some commuter bikes still come with drum brakes.

Coaster brakes

Coaster brakes are a popular type of drum brake. They are built into the rear hub of the bicycle and you engage them by backpedaling. You’ll find them on single-speed city bicycles. Coaster brakes are also ideal for folding bikes because they don’t require cable connections. This type of brake requires the least amount of maintenance.

Disc brakes

There are two different types of disc brakes: mechanical and hydraulic. (There are also hydraulic rim brakes, but these are less common).

Mechanical disc brakes

Mechanical disc brakes are nearly identical to traditional rim brakes in the first two pieces of the braking system: a squeeze of the hand lever transmits the signal through cables. Where they depart—and where the superiority of disc brakes lies—is in the application of the brake pads to larger rotors on the wheels, rather than to the rims. This change results in more braking power with less force applied.

Side view of the rotor on a disc braking system on a bike
On a disc brake, pressure is applied to this rotor attached to the wheel, rather than the rim.

Strong steel cables, metallic pads and a steel disc does increase the weight of the overall system. But because they are designed to run hot, disc brakes dissipate heat more efficiently than rim and drum brakes. The larger the rotor is, the more braking surface is available and the smoother the stop.

Disc brakes can’t be installed on just any bike frame, because they require compatible hubs and wheels.

Their superior performance on downhill terrain, and lack of interference by water and mud, helped disc brakes take mountain bike designs by storm. Now they appear on almost every style of bike.

Hydraulic disc brakes

If you need even more power from your braking system, hydraulic disc brakes are the best option on the market. Instead of brake cables, hydraulic brakes use a closed piston-cylinder system filled with fluid—similar to a motorcycle braking system.

The main maintenance concern is upkeep of the hydraulic fluid. Experts recommend bleeding (disposing of and replacing) your brake fluid every six months. There is minimal weight difference between mechanical and hydraulic brakes, but the price does increase for the fluid-dependent system.

Tried and true, but still evolving

Bike brakes have been used for hundreds of years but designers and manufacturers are still coming up with new ideas.

The kinds of brakes cyclists choose tend to be based on budget, the types of bike they own, the kind of riding they want to do and the level of maintenance required to keep riding smoothly, safely and squeak-free.

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