Bicycle brakes – well all they do is stop you………..don’t they?

The simple answer is yes, they do, or they should.

The necessity to stop safely and at the correct time is paramount, everything else on a bike counts for nothing if when in that instant you need to stop QUICK and you don’t. Not dwelling on any negativity the consequences could be horrific.

So lets look at the brake:

Early bikes generally (if they had brakes) relied upon rod operated callipers.

I can recall vividly a friend who had built a bike from various ‘liberated’ parts (as we did as kids in the 70’s) minus any brakes. On his first proper outing on a fairly long and steep descent, his only available means of stopping was to apply his foot onto the tyre – at the time it was hilarious – a plume of rubber smoke following him down the hill. He did stop, thankfully, but to the cost of a groove worn into the sole of his brand new wellies, a worn out tyre and a strange aroma of burning rubber!

Yes, he stopped, but at some cost and he couldn’t have stopped quickly!

The advent of more efficient brakes and the introduction of hydraulic systems, has ensured that most bikes these days can stop effectively and with a minimum of fuss, but that is in ideal conditions with the correct adjustment and good quality brake pads.

So what do you need to ensure that your bicycle brakes will work when you need them?

Make sure the brake mechanism is working correctly, in that both pads are applied to the braking surface equally and both release and return to their original position quickly and without hindrance. All brakes have some form of adjustment of the mechanism, to adjust how each applies the pad to the braking surface and to adjust the cable to compensate for wear on the pads.

Ensure the brake shoes/pads are not excessively worn; most pads have a series of grooves top and bottom at 90 degrees to the braking surface. When these disappear it’s time to change the pads. A visual check of hydraulic brake pads will be able to show when the pad is becoming too thin.

The brake shoes should be seated evenly and not toed in – if the pads are toed in, only a certain % of the pad is actually in contact with the braking surface – reducing the braking efficiency. This is the same for V, calliper and hydraulic brakes

In hydraulic brakes this can manifest itself as a squeal. Squeals can also be a sign of contaminated pads or rotor disc, usually grease or oil, both of these substances don’t mix well with the ability to stop!

Bicycle Brakes graphicMake sure the brake cables are not frayed – this may not seem so important but if excessively frayed the cable can pull through the pinch bolt rendering the brake useless at that most important moment.

Check that the brake levers are secure and cannot move, and are adjusted to your reach. Time spent before riding adjusting the position of the brake levers can make sure it is not too much of a stretch to get on to the brakes when you need them. Most road brake / gear combined levers have an insert (supplied when first purchased), to allow the brake lever to be moved toward the handlebars for those with smaller hands to be able to reach the lever.

That’s a good summary of the actually brake and what to look for to ensure you are going to be prepared before you go out.

One area that may well be overlooked is the actual braking surface on the rim of the wheel – just as crucial as the brake mechanism and one area that can be overlooked and if over worn can fail catastrophically.

Most wheel rim braking surfaces have a groove/ small hole etched into them to indicate that when they disappear it is past the time to replace the wheel!

The first of the following pictures show a rim that has ‘blown’ due to the braking surface being worn completely away. Thankfully the owner was commuting and was moving slowly when the rim failed, the consequence of this occurring on a fast road descent or that forest trail doesn’t bear thinking about, he was very lucky.

The second picture is of the opposite side of the wheel, and as can be seen the rim wear indicator is still intact – the brakes were badly adjusted and had been pulling on one side exclusively.

Bicycle Brakes - Blown Rim

Bicycle Brakes - Wear indicator








So, food for thought – above all get out there and enjoy being out on your bike; just undertake some basic checks before you go out and don’t leave anything to chance.