Bike Tech Tip – Now its time for a Brake Down

With the winter months and dark, wet, crappy roads upon us, being able to stop or at least slow down is more important than ever. If you want to stop, yes, you need brakes… or a lot of shoes that you’re willing to sacrifice à la Freddy Flintstone. Brake shoes?

So today, neighbor, we’re going to cover:

A fair amount of both practical and theoretical information, so go grab yourself a beer, put on some holiday music, Wham seems to be a favorite, and get comfortable!

Brake parts

In the most basic, non-technical way to explain how your brakes work, you squeeze the lever which pulls a cable. This causes a set of pinchers with rubber pads to close on your wheel rim – NOT your tire! – and you slow down. The below images show the centering adjustment screw, pad height adjustment screws, quick release and barrel adjuster. These are the only parts of your brakes that you should ever have to deal with.

[cml_media_alt id='57653']Shimano dual-pivot brake[/cml_media_alt]

But wait! I can’t find the quick release on my Campagnolo brakes!!!

[cml_media_alt id='57647']Campy_brake[/cml_media_alt]

Ah, yes, the old campy trick. Campy has put the quick release in the brake lever. The argument is that, in case you forget to close the QR,  you can still brake fully. Once you realize you’ve made the mistake, you can easily put the QR back on and not have to worry about getting your fingers caught in rapidly spinning spokes of doom. It also weighs slightly less than the Shimano/Sram system.

[cml_media_alt id='57648']Ah haaaaaaaaah!!![/cml_media_alt]

Squeeze your brake in slightly and push the QR pin through the brake lever, then let go of the lever. You’ll see that the lever comes back much farther than usual, opening up your brake arms, letting you put your wheel in/out. Just reverse the procedure to put the QR back on.

That said, the Shimano/Sram system lets you adjust how much extra travel you want to give your brakes on the fly – you have more than just an on/off option. I know many people who lean over and open them up slightly when they get to the base of a big climb, then close them up again when they hit the top for more precise braking during the descent.

What brake pads should I get?

In my humble opinion, Kool-Stop makes some of the best brake pads out there. They are also one of the leading innovators in brake pad technology. I personally replace stock pads with the Kool-Stop double or triple compound pads. Since I ride in all weather, the multi-compound pads are great for dry and wet riding and don’t wear down your rims as quickly. If you don’t like three different colors on your brake pads, the salmon pads are great all-rounders. Kool-Stop pads also have a neat little lip at the back of them that helps (somewhat) keep grit and grime off the pads. As you brake, the lip hits the rim first and acts like a squeegee or windscreen wiper and creates a cleaner surface for where the full pad will eventually hit the rim. Bright idea!

Make sure you get the right pads for your rims! Don’t ride aluminum pads on carbon rims unless if you want to replace your carbon wheels far too soon, and don’t ride carbon pads on aluminum rims unless if you don’t mind not stopping.

How do I replace my pads?

If you are running straight brake shoes and not cartridges with replaceable pads (see below), I suggest going the cartridge route next time you have to change brakes.


[cml_media_alt id='57649']pads_1[/cml_media_alt]


[cml_media_alt id='57651']shim_cartridge[/cml_media_alt]

The biggest advantage of cartridge over pad is that when you change the pad out, you just remove one screw, or press a clip on new Campagnolo Record and Super Record, slide out the old pad, put in a new one and put the screw back in. Voilà! Faster, easier, no futzing with readjusting… Also more ecological since you are replacing only the rubber and nothing else. Just make sure the cartridges are installed on the correct side – left and right cartridges are different. The locking screw for Shimano and Sram should be at the back of the brake towards the back of the bike while the clip for Campagnolo will be in the front. If you forget the screw or don’t put it in properly and it falls out, your braking will just force the pad deeper into the cartridge. If you install them backwards, your braking could force the pad out of the cartridge and then you’re dealing with aluminum on aluminum, and that’s-a no good.

Now onto the practical part.

In order for your brakes to work at their best, you need to be sure that your pads are positioned properly for good contact with the rim, your wheel is centered directly between your brake pads so both pads touch the rim at the same time and your pads are in good condition.

Let’s start with making sure your wheel is in the middle. I don’t mean just making sure your wheel is in the middle of your brake pads, that’s easy enough, but making sure your wheel is in the middle of your fork or frame. If it’s not your bike won’t ride right and definitely won’t brake right.

First, make sure your wheels are properly seated by undoing the Quick Release and pulling them straight up. It’s ok to pick the bike up off the ground to make sure they really are seated all the way at the top of the dropouts and straight. Tighten the QR and put the bike back down, you big brute. Now for the truly scientific part, put your fingers between the fork and the rim/tire on both sides of the wheel. Does one finger pass all the way through while the other one gets caught? Or do they both feel the same? If you come out of the ordeal with scuffed nail polish on one hand but not the other then it’s a sign that your wheel isn’t centered properly… and that you’re not wearing your rubber gloves. If you know how to true (straighten/dévoiler) a wheel and have a truing stand, then sort your wheel out first. Otherwise, get your wheels to your LBS and have them sort them out.

Now with a straight and centered wheel, look straight on at the wheel and the brakes and squeeze the brakes closed. Both pads should hit the rim at the same time and at the same angle. If you’ve got that sorted, brilliant! If not:

[cml_media_alt id='57650']Brake bits[/cml_media_alt]
Most modern caliper brakes have a screw to allow you to adjust the centering. If one brake arm is closer to the rim than the other, tighten or loosen the screw (which may also be an allen/hex bolt depending on your brake) until both brake pads are the same distance from the rim and touch at the same time when you squeeze the brake.

Now on to the next step: adjusting your pads.

There are basically 5 points you should look at when adjusting your brake pads. Since we’ve already covered centering, we’ll move on to everything that is adjusted using the brake shoe alignment bolt:

This is the most critical adjustment. The pad should contact the rim fully, but not go above or below it. If the shoe is set too high it will touch on the tire and you run the risk of destroying the tire in a magnificent blowout when braking at high speeds. If the shoe is set too low it won’t be as effective since a part of it will not be touching the rim’s braking surface. In worst case scenarios it can “dive” under the rim and get caught in the spokes and that’s-a no good too.

Your brakes have a slot in each arm. Slide the brake shoe up or down the slot until it is at the same height and angle as the rim. Different brakes have different ranges of adjustment.

Both the upper and lower edges of the pad should meet the rim at the same time as you squeeze the brakes. If this is not set perfectly, normal pad wear will eventually even it out, but braking will be less effective until then. The roll will also depend on your rims. Some rims have perfectly parallel braking surfaces whereas others have an angle to them. Make sure you adjust accordingly. Most road brakes (caliper) don’t leave much room for adjusting the roll without changing the washers for the pad height adjustment bolt, but do try to get it as close as possible. Cantilver and horizontal-pull (V-brake) brakes will still let you adjust this.

When you adjust the roll angle, you may also need to readjust the height.

The pitch angle should be set so that the shoe follows the curvature of the rim. When braking hard, the brake arms can flex slightly which changes the pitch. You may need to adjust the brake shoes to make sure they don’t touch the tire. Check by leaning over the bicycle and leaning on the saddle while rolling it forward and applying each brake. The other reason to make sure the pitch is correct is to ensure that the maximum amount of pad is touching as much rim as possible for more effective braking and more even pad wear.

The shoe should be set so that the front edge of the shoe contacts the rim slightly before the rear edge. If you don’t get this right, normal pad wear will eventually even it out, but braking will be less effective and you might get some brake squeal for a while. Again, most modern caliper brakes, especially “dual pivot,” leave little to no room for this adjustment as brake arm technology has gotten better over the years, but cantilever and “V-Brakes” will still have this option.

[cml_media_alt id='57646']Block alignment[/cml_media_alt]

How does Shimano suggest you adjust your brakes?

  • Unscrew the barrel adjuster to be 2-3mm from the bottom stop
  • Adjust the brake shoes as above and allow the pads to touch the rims
  • Close the barrel adjuster. This should allow the brake shoes to withdraw just enough to clear the rim
  • Use the barrel adjusters to make sure your front and rear brakes have the same amount of travel before touching the rim – you can tell by looking at how much room there is between the brake lever and your handlebars or by how far the tops of your levers move forward before your brakes hit the rims.


Brake maintenance is pretty simple and straight forward. There is usually a wear line on the pads. When you reach that line, replace the pads. If you don’t see the line and hear scrapey metal on metal sounds, replace the pads. If you’ve had the same pads for over 3 years, replace the pads. Rubber dries and gets hard with age. As it gets hard it can no longer grab the rim and stop you as effectively. Grab some nice rubber-soled sneakers/trainers and push them across a hardwood floor. Good traction! Now do the same thing with a bowling ball. Yeah, not the same traction.

Also, clean your pads after every dirty, wet, ugly or winter ride and about once a month pull your wheels off and examine the pads. You should always check your pads if you hear grinding or scraping noises when you brake as grit and gravel can get embedded in them and will eventually damage or even ruin your rims. Your rims will also slowly flake aluminum off that will get stuck in your pads.

[cml_media_alt id='57645']BAD brakes![/cml_media_alt]

These aluminum flakes will damage your rims and pre-maturely wear them down. Pick up a dental pick, or hey, what the heck, we’re in France, an escargot fork and pick out all those foreign nasties so that your pads may be worn, but at least they will be clean and your rims will be safe for the time being.

How to brake

You’d think this part would be obvious, but I’m constantly surprised seeing so many people brake incorrectly. Your front brake should be doing 99% of the work. Braking is most effective when the front brake is applied so hard that the rear wheel is just about to lift off the ground. Slamming on the rear brake at the same time will cause the rear wheel to skid and you can lose control of the bike. Use the rear brake only in wet, bumpy or low traction conditions, when leaning into a sharp turn or when your front wheel is flat or your front brake is broken.

People are often scared of flying over the handlebars if they use the front brake and will try to use only the rear brake. It’s true that you probably won’t flip over your bars using only your rear brake, but that will double your braking distance and time, so you might hit that Renault 5 or baby carriage or hipster on a longboard and end up flying over your bars and that damn longboard anyway. To improve your braking efficiency, keep your arms bent to absorb the braking force, push your tuchus as far back as you can on the saddle to keep the back wheel from coming up off the ground and use your front brake only. Voila! Now wasn’t that fast and easy?

Practice using this technique and you’ll find your braking reaction and distance will get much faster and shorter and you’ll also be able to control the bike while braking without needing to go into a controlled slide like this guy. Just wait for the 2:00 mark…


How should you have your brakes set up?

Ah, the age old question. The UK and former colonies usually set bikes up with the front brake on the right, while almost everyone else, except for the US in the 70’s, has the front brake on the left. Which is best?

To be honest, you can’t really say what set up is right, but here are some hints, ideas and theories:

  • If you typically ride a motorcycle as well as your bicycle, put the front brake on the right. This way your brakes are always in the same place. As any motorbike rider knows, squeezing the left lever doesn’t really slow you down at all, but it does let you change gears. In the case of a panic stop, not having to remember you’re on a bike or a motorcycle and using the correct hand could be the difference between an accident and a great story for the pub.
  • If you are right-handed, have the front brake on the right, and on the left if you are left-handed, of course. This way your stronger, more dexterous hand is controlling the more important brake.
  • In what country do you live? Some blithering idiot many a year ago who knew nothing about bikes and brakes must have decided that the rear brake is the more important one, so we’ll have that be your inside hand, leaving your outside hand free for traffic signals. While the premise of this is actually relatively solid, the application is backwards. Our British, Irish, Aussie, etc. buddies who are riding with the front brake on the right have, in my opinion, the right set up… for us here in France. Meanwhile, oui, we wee froggies with the front brake on the left have the right set up… for riding in the UK, Ireland, Oz, etc. So wait, did we just get it all backwards? I think so. Here in France we signal with our outside or left hand almost all the time, so especially when coming up to a red light or stop sign we should be able to signal and brake at the same time – which means signal with our outside (left) hand, leaving our inside (right) hand free to apply the front brake. The reverse position is true when riding someplace where you ride on the left side of the road, like here.
  • How are you comfortable? Let’s face it, if you’ve been riding for 40 years with the front brake always on the left, I’m not going to say you need to change it tomorrow before your big ride through the hills with a bunch of buddies. If you’re comfortable riding with the brake on a certain side and don’t want to change it and take the time to get used to the new setup, then don’t. If you do want to change it, again, you don’t need to do it tomorrow morning. You can wait until you need to change your cables and/or housing since you’ll need to undo and possibly change your handlebar tape too. You can ask your LBS to take care of this for you. In France, they may look at you funny, but just put on a thick anglophone accent and explain that’s the way you roll… or stop… or whatever.

Lastly, whenever you change your brakes or setup, get a new bike or just ride a loaner, take a few minutes to get used to the new brakes and their setup. Years ago when I first adopted dual-pivot brakes I nearly crashed on my first outing, not expecting them to be that much better.

Hope this post didn’t slow you down too much, now happy riding over the holidays!