How To Adjust Bicycle Brakes

If there is one piece of equipment on our bikes that we use all the time and expect to work properly; brakes would be it. Since they are so important, you want to keep them maintained and adjusted so that when they are called into action, they truly perform. Let’s answer the question of how to adjust bicycle brakes; in particular the sidepull type found on most hybrid bikes.

Brakes Are Your Friend So Treat Them Well

To have your brakes properly adjusted is a fairly simple task that won’t eat up a lot of your precious time. The first order of business (as it should be before any tune-up or bicycle adjustment) is to make sure that the item that you are repairing or adjusting is clean. Tuning your bicycle requires relatively small adjustments which are hard to do properly when there is grit and grime covering the pieces that you want to work on. Get out a wet soapy cloth and wipe the area down; you WILL thank yourself once the job is complete.

Rubber on Metal

Brakes function as a result of a rubber brake pad contacting a metal wheel rim. Wheel rims are typically made of either steel or aluminum. Steel rims are becoming a little less popular because they really inhibit good braking when they get wet (not a good thing). Check your rims to see what yours are made of and make sure you use that information when riding in less than favourable conditions.

How Can I Adjust Bicycle Brakes the Process

Brakes function as a result of a rubber brake pad contacting a metal wheel rim. Wheel rims are typically made of either steel or aluminum. Steel rims are becoming a little less popular because they really inhibit good braking when they get wet (not a good thing). Check your rims to see what yours are made of and make sure you use that information when riding in less than favourable conditions.

To do a thorough job when adjusting your brakes, you should perform each of the following steps:

  1. Adjust the spacing of each brake pad in relation to the wheel rim (i.e. how far you need to squeeze the brake lever before you have brake pad contact)
  2. Center your brakes so that contact is made with equal pressure on both sides of rim
  3. Adjust height of the brake pads on your rim

Time to Use the Adjusting Barrel

Locate the adjusting barrel on your brake pads as shown in the picture below.

how to adjust bicycle brakes

Using your fingers, screw the barrel all the way in, loosening your cable. This makes it much easier to work with. Loosen the holding bolt (see picture below for location), squeeze the brakes and pull the cable tight with either a cable puller or a pair of pliers. Once the cable is tight, re-tighten the holding bolt.

how to adjust disc brakes bicycle

This step will vary by individual since each rider likes to have a certain amount of “play” in their brake levers before the pads engage. You may have to experiment with this step until you get the right distance for you and your brakes. This step can also be a bit tricky to do by yourself so you may need a partner to give you an extra set of hands. To do some fine tuning of this step, simply use your barrel adjuster and turn the barrel until you get the spacing that you want.

Time To Get Centered

The next step when adjusting your bicycle brakes is to make sure that they are centered so that when pressure is applied, the pads are forced onto either side of the rim with equal pressures. To do this adjustment all you will need is a set of allen wrenches. Take the appropriate sized allen wrench and loosen the brake holding bolt just enough that it allows your brake to move back and forth (see picture below).

How To Adjust Bicycle Brakes

Your brake should now be able to pivot from side to side. Apply just enough pressure to the brake lever, so that your pads just start to make contact with your wheel rim. This will automatically center your brakes on your rims. Once centered, retighten the holding bolt once again.

Some brakes come with a minor adjustment set screw (Shimano brakes have one on top of the calipers). This screw can be used to fine tune the centering process.

In order to do this step properly, you need to ensure that your wheel is mounted on your bike perfectly centered and upright. It is quite easy to mount it a bit off center which will mistakenly show that your brakes are not aligned.​

Check Your Pads While You’re at it

It is always a good idea to inspect your brake pads as part of your adjustment. Over time they tend to wear out and the rubber starts to harden. A good rule of thumb is to replace your pads every 2 years to ensure that they are always in peak working condition. Check out the article How To Replace Bike Brake Pads for an in-depth walk through on brake pad replacement.

Pad Placement and Toe In

Now that the brake calipers are centered, it is time to re-align the brake pads with your rim. Squeeze your brake lever and check the location of your brake pad contact area with the rim. Your pads should be centered on the rim (not high and not low). If they need adjusting up or down, simply loosen the brake pad bolt with your allen key and move them to the proper location.

If you’ve ever pulled on your brakes and they squealed like something terrible was going to happen, then you need to add “toe in” to them. Toe in is the angle that your pads touch your rims. A properly set pad will have the front hit first and as more brake is applied, the rest gradually starts to touch. The picture below shows pads that have been set with the proper amount of toe in.​

how to adjust bicycle brakes

Toe in is adjusted by the brake pad holder on most newer style road and mountain bikes. While the pad is loose, simply set it’s angle and then tighten the bolt.

Brakes Adjusted and Quiet

Now that weve answered the question of how can I adjust bicycle brakes properly; making sure that they are at the correct spacing, are centered and the pads are aligned, it’s time to go out and give them a try. While the first time through this process may be a bit of a learning exercise, if you regularly adjust your bicycle brakes, then the process will become very quick.

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#Part 2

Robert Flaherty
 

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