Learn How to Adjust Your Own Bike Brakes

Proper brake maintenance is key to keeping our bikes in safe working order. But if you’re tired of taking your bicycle to the local bike shop every time it needs an adjustment, the following will help you fix your bike brakes on your own. This can save you time and money, without sacrificing your peace of mind that you’ll be ready to stop on a dime.

The four most common types of bike brakes are:

The first three are also known as rim brakes. Disc brakes are in a category of their own.

If you’re unfamiliar with these, take a moment to read our primer on the different types of bike brakes.

What follows is a description of each brake, the tools you will need, and a step-by-step process on how to adjust each braking system.

How to adjust caliper brakes

Caliper brakes on a very old red bike
As you can tell from the age of this bike, caliper brakes have been around for a while. (Morgan Strug | Pedal Street)

Caliper brakes are the most common kind of bike brake. The two parts of the system most likely to need adjustments are the brake cables and the brake pads.

Tools you’ll need: Allen key

Step 1: Test your brakes

Pull the lever to determine how tight or loose your brakes are. If the brake lever hits the handlebar, it’s too loose. If it’s hard to squeeze, the brake cable is too tight. The recommended distance is two fingers between the brake lever and handlebar when held in the braking position.

Step 2: Inspect your brake pads

You may be tempted to jump right in and start adjusting your cables. But before you do, check your brake pads. This involves a visual inspection while the brake lever is engaged. Correctly aligned brake pads are positioned with equal space above and below the pad and will land on the centre of rim.

A well positioned brake pad over the rim of a bike wheel
Take care in positioning the brake pad so that it lands directly on the rim. (Morgan Strug | Pedal Street)

Also look for brake pad wear. You should see a wear line, either labeled as such or indicated by grooves on the side of the pads. If your brake pads are worn down, they will need to be replaced before you make the adjustments to your brakes.

Step 3: Adjust tension of brake cables

This can be achieved easily in four mini steps:

  1. Unscrew the lock nut by the handle.
  2. Manually squeeze the calipers closed with your hand so the brake pads are fully in contact with the wheel rims. Finding this locked position is key, because then you know there’s no need for more brake cable travel than what’s being used.
  3. Now unscrew the adjustment barrel all the way (by turning counterclockwise), which makes the cable housing longer and the brake cable system tighter.
  4. Once the adjustment barrel is backed all the way out and the brake lever has a comfortable amount of room from the handlebar when engaged, it’s time to tighten the lock and secure the position.

Step 4: Re-clamp the cable

If your brakes are still too loose, you will need to adjust the cable length. This is where your Allen key comes in. There is a bolt on the center of your bike frame with the cable wrapped around it. Loosen this bolt and pull more cable through to increase the tension. Once you are satisfied, tighten the bolt and you are good to go.

Step 5: Center the brakes on the wheel

At this point you’ve already inspected your brake pads, you’re experiencing some brake rub and realize they need to be realigned. Take your Allen key again and release the brake-mounting bolt behind the forks.

Line them up so they’re as centered as possible and then retighten the bolt. Usually there is another screw on the brake caliper for fine-tuning this adjustment. The goal is to make sure both brake pads hit the rim at the same time when you pull the brake lever.

Side-pull caliper break centered over a bike wheel
Centering your wheel between the two pads is essential for balanced braking.

Step 6: Adjust the brake pads

The final step is to ensure the brake pads are landing at the center of the braking surface for a smooth stop that won’t damage your tires.

  1. Hold the bike lever down so the brake pads are making contact with the rim.
  2. Use your Allen key to loosen the brake pad and realign it to the correct position.
  3. Tighten the bolt.

How to adjust cantilever brakes

Cantilever brakes are common on cyclocross bikes. They offer more stopping power than caliper brakes, but the exposed cables leave them vulnerable to damage, therefore proper maintenance is very important. This is also the most challenging brake system to install and adjust.

Front view of a cantilever bike brake
Exposed cables do most of the work on a cantilever brake system, so you need to take care of them. (Morgan Strug | Pedal Street)

Tools you’ll need: Allen key, cloth, grease

Step 1: Test your brakes

Pull the lever to determine how tight or loose your brakes are. If the brake lever hits the handlebar, it’s too loose. If it’s hard to squeeze, the brake cable is too tight. The recommended distance is two fingers between the brake lever and handlebar when held in the braking position.

Step 2: Inspect your brake pads

Are they centered? Aligned on the bike rim? Worn down? Decide if they need to be replaced before you go any further.

Step 3: Lower the straddle cable

On a cantilever brake system the one cable that controls the brakes is positioned above the wheel. The lower it’s positioned, the more stopping power you have. There is a bolt in the centre to loosen with an allen key and then it can be easily lowered.

Cantilever braking system on the front wheel of a bike
The bolt in the center can be loosened to bring the straddle cable closer to the wheel. (© Yuya Tamai | Creative Commons)

Step 4: Take in the slack

Two bolts on either side can be tightened to increase tension once the straddle cable has been lowered. It is essential for effective braking that the cable length is equal on either side.

Step 5: Testing spring tension

This process requires several mini steps:

  1. Unhook the brakes from the cables and move them with your fingers to check if there is any friction. If there is, the return spring may not be strong enough.
  2. Use your Allen key to unscrew and remove the cantilever brake altogether.
  3. The metal pieces on either side of your wheel that hold the cantilever in place should be very smooth. Clean them thoroughly, get rid of all the dirt and corrosion and then lightly grease it before replacing the cantilever brake.
  4. There are three holes where the spring can fit. The middle one is best for retaining spring tension.
  5. Screw the bolt back into place

Step 6: Toeing the brake pads

In order to correct squealing and unwanted braking noise, you must toe in the brake pads. This means that the front end of the pad hits the rim slightly before the back end.

  1. Loosen the pads with your Allen key.
  2. Insert a narrow card—one millimetre thick is sufficient—between the rim and the back end of your brake pad
  3. Retighten your brake pad once you’ve achieved the desired toeing position.

How to adjust V-Brakes/linear pull brakes

V-brakes, a modified version of cantilever brakes, are also known as linear-pull or direct-pull brakes. They are heavier and more powerful than caliper and traditional cantilever brakes.

Tools you’ll need: 5mm Allen key, Phillips screwdriver, sandpaper

Step 1: Set up brake levers

For the most comfortable braking you’ll want to position your brake levers so they’re at the same angle as your arms while riding. This is done by loosening the levers, adjusting them and tightening them into place.

Step 2: Remove V-brake pads

This requires a few simple steps:

  1. Give the cable some slack.
  2. Tighten the lever’s barrel adjuster all the way.
  3. Pull back the protective rubber to disconnect the brake cable’s quick release.
  4. Now you can remove the brake pads.

V-brakes are distinguishable by their positioning washers. Take care to note the order they are in so you can re-install them correctly.

Step 3: Inspect and re-surface V-brake pads

Ensure your brake pads are not worn down to the point of needing replacements. Use the sandpaper to resurface each pad.

Step 4: Adjust brake arm tension

Unscrew the bolts on either side, but do not remove them. Similar to the cantilever’s spring tension this piece should easily release when you let go of the brake lever. To increase brake tension you can move the metal piece to the top of the three holes. To decrease brake tension, the spring can be replaced into the bottom hole.

Step 5: Re-install and position brake pads

V-brake pads should be positioned flat against the rim. Toe-in is not necessary. The resurfacing you did with the sandpaper should cut down on the noise. Remember to keep the washers in the same order they were in prior to removal. The pads should be equal distance from the rim.

Step 6: Align brake arms

Both arms should face straight up and down when the pads are in contact with the rim. If the brake arms are too far apart, move the smallest set of washers closer to the pads. If the brake arms are to close together, move the larger set of washers closer to the pads.

Step 7: Adjust cable tension

Now you can re-attach the cable’s quick release, connect the protective rubber and adjust the brake arms’ cable tension by pulling the cable through the bolt and tightening it.

How to adjust disc brakes (and hydraulic brakes)

There are two types of disc brakes: mechanic and hydraulic. The main difference is that mechanic disc brakes use cables (like other brake types), and hydraulic brakes are controlled using a closed piston-cylinder system filled with fluid—similar to a motorcycle braking system.

The final step below applies only to hydraulic disc brakes.

Tools you’ll need: 5mm hex wrench, torque wrench, light source, repair stand

Step 1: Diagnosis

This is made easier by mounting your bike so your wheel can spin freely. Shine your light through the caliper to see the condition of the disc brake pads and note any scraping of the rotor by the pads.

Is the rotor bent? You may need to replace it completely, or you could possibly bend it back into place.

Is the rotor snug? If there is movement, you’ll need to tighten it.

Play at the bearing hub can be checked by rocking the wheel back and forth. This is another symptom that can be fixed by tightening.

The problem could be caused by a buildup of dust and dirt on the pistons.

Are the wheels properly in place? This is crucial before trying to make any adjustments. If you adjust the rotor to misaligned wheels you’re creating more problems. Fully seating the wheel could solve the problem.

Step 2: Alignment with rotor

  1. Loosen the mounting bolts so the caliper body is able to move side-to-side.
  2. Squeeze the brake lever to centre the caliper body over the rotor.
  3. While the brake is engaged, tighten the bolts.
  4. Release the brake lever and spin the wheel. If there is no rubbing, tighten the mounting bolts.

Step 3: Fine tuning

Loosen one bolt at a time and adjust until there is a gap on either side of the rotor. After you fix the scraping, you can secure the mounting bolts.

Step 4: Bleeding the hydraulic system

This process is more involved and takes some extra tools. It is imperative that this step is done correctly so if you are new to brake maintenance, I recommend getting an expert’s help with this part.

There you have it, a step-by-step guide on how to perform minor adjustments and brake pad alignments on the most common types of bicycle brakes. You’ll never again let weak brakes stop you from stopping.

Image at top: Morgan Strug | Pedal Street

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