Have your brakes started making that awful squeaking noise every time you stop your bike — the kind of sound that causes all heads to turn in your direction? That noise isn’t just a nuisance, it’s a sign that your brakes need some attention.
Your brakes operate through a cable system that runs between the brake levers on the handlebars to the brake pads on the front and back wheels. Through everyday use, the tension on the cables can change, and the brakes can become misaligned. Fortunately, repairing your bike brakes is one of the easiest do-it-yourself skills you can learn. This guide provides you with step-by-step instructions for making adjustments to your cables and both v- and disc-style brakes so you can take care of a brake repair yourself.
Adjusting Bike Brake Cables
If you don’t have the same stopping power you used to have, one possible cause is loose cables. On the other hand, if you notice that your brakes are super touchy, your cables may be too tight. In either case, you need to adjust the tension on your brake cables.
You can make the adjustment on the barrel located on the handlebars as well as at the caliper. You’ll find the barrel adjuster at the spot where the cable meets the brake lever. It looks like a metal cuff. If you have v-style brakes, you’ll find the caliper situated over the wheel rim. It’s shaped like a v (hence the name) and is attached to the brake pads. If you have disc brakes, the caliper is located at the center of your wheels, and it looks like a claw
1. Test Cable Tension
First, test your brakes. To do this, squeeze each of your brake levers. If you pull on them and don’t meet with resistance pretty quickly or the lever meets the handlebars, the cable is too loose. If you squeeze the lever and it barely moves, the cables are too tight. When the tension is adjusted correctly, you should be able to pull the lever about three to four centimeters before it gets difficult.
2. Adjust Tension at the Barrel
Once you’ve determined that the tension is off, it’s time to fix it. You can usually take care of minor adjustments at the barrel adjuster, which requires just a little twist. Turn the barrel counterclockwise to tighten the cable and clockwise to loosen it. Test out the tension by squeezing the levers and make any more minor adjustments you need to make to get the correct tension.
3. Adjust Tension at the Brake Caliper
If making the adjustments at the barrel doesn’t quite do the trick, you’ll need to move on to the calipers. U.S. law mandates that the left lever operates the front brakes, and the right lever operates the back. Knowing this allows you to determine which caliper is associated with each lever so that you can test and adjust accordingly. After you determine which one you need to work on, you can adjust the tension at the caliper by doing the following:
- Loosen caliper bolt: You’ll need an Allen key for this. Insert the key into the bolt at the caliper and turn it counterclockwise. You only need to loosen it enough to be able to manipulate the cable. If you go too far, the bolt will fall out, and you’ll be stuck with reassembling the caliper unit. You’ll know it’s loose enough when the caliper pops away from the rim and the cable.
- Adjust the cable: Allow the cable to release inward to loosen it. If you need to tighten it, pull it outward. On a v-style brake, you don’t want the pads to rest against the rim, which causes them to rub and wear out faster. Disc brakes work a little differently. When you apply the brakes, it moves a lever. The cable runs through this lever, so after adjusting the cable, make sure that the cable can still move but doesn’t hit the caliper.
- Tighten the caliper bolt: Once you’ve made your adjustments and the bike brake pads are in place, use your Allen key to tighten the bolt. Test out your brakes by squeezing the brake levers. If they’re still a little off, try making some additional adjustments at the barrel to fine-tune performance.
Adjusting V-Style Brake Pads
Brake pads frequently become misaligned. When this happens, you may hear that awful screeching sound when you apply the brakes. You may also feel a slight pull as you ride or hear a rubbing sound. Follow these three easy steps to check and align your brakes.
1. Inspect the Pads
Check out the condition of your pads. Are they wearing evenly across both pads and on each pad? Have they worn past the wear line? If any of these is the case, you need to replace your brake pads. If you still have plenty of pad left and the wear patterns look good, you can begin making your adjustments.
2. Test the Brakes
As you pull on the brake lever, watch what your pads do. They should both press evenly against the rim without touching the tire or extending beyond the rim. If one side presses more firmly than the other, or if the pads aren’t sitting nicely over the center of the rim, you’ll need to realign them.
3. Adjust the Brakes
After you figure out what the issue is, you can begin making your adjustments by doing the following:
- Loosen brake bolts: Grab your trusty Allen key again. Even if only one pad is out of alignment, you’re probably going to need to loosen both brake bolts to make your adjustments. Turning the key counterclockwise loosens the bolts. Don’t turn them too far, or you’ll send all the components of the brake pad scattering. The pads should be able to move a few millimeters in every direction.
- Correct pad position: Manipulate the pads into the right position. To tighten contact, push them closer to the rim. To loosen contact, pull them further away. Make sure they’re sitting above the center of the rim from the front end of the pad to the back end. Each pad should sit the same distance from the rim before you pull the brake lever. A few millimeters is good to give you nice, responsive brakes.
- Tighten the bolts: Once you’re happy with how they look, go ahead and retighten the bolts and test your brakes to make sure they respond the way you want them to.
Adjusting Disc-Style Brakes
Disc brakes are similar to v-style brakes in that two pads compress against part of the wheel to stop the bike, but, on disc brakes, these pads are located at the center of the wheel, above a rotor. It is much more difficult to tell when pads wear down or become misaligned on disc brakes, so you’ll need to perform the following steps as part of a regular maintenance routine to ensure safe riding.
1. Flip Your Bike Over
To make your adjustments on disc brakes, you need to give the wheels a spin. Before you can begin, you’ll need to flip your bike upside down on a flat surface, resting it on the seat and handlebars.
2. Inspect the Alignment
Next, check out the brake alignment. To do this, look at the center of your wheel, where you’ll find your caliper. Inside the caliper, you’ll see two pads sitting outside of a metal plate, which is your rotor. The space between the pads and the rotor should be even. If it isn’t, your brakes are misaligned.
Whether or not you need to make any adjustments to your brakes, go ahead and give your wheel a spin. Look at how the rotor spins. Does it wobble as the wheel spins? If so, you may need a new rotor.
3. Adjust the Brakes
If you need to adjust your brakes to get the pads in alignment with the rotor, go ahead and get started by doing the following:
- Loosen brake bolts: Turn the bolts at the top and bottom of the caliper counterclockwise to loosen them. Be sure you give them enough slack to move the components around unless you want to practice re-assembling your brakes!
- Align the brakes: Once you’ve loosened the bolts, give your wheel a spin. While it’s in motion, squeeze your brake levers, which will press both pads evenly against the rotor. Keep holding the brake lever down while you tighten up the bolts.
- Test the brakes: Go ahead and release the lever now. Inspect the pads to make sure they’re positioned correctly, and then give the wheel another spin to check that everything stays in place when the wheel is moving. If the pads are still a little off, try doing some fine-tuning by loosening one caliper bolt at a time and making minor adjustments.
Maintaining Your Bike Brakes
If you’re fond of stopping a moving bike, give your brakes the TLC they deserve, and they’ll make sure you have the braking power you need. Even if you don’t feel like you have a brake issue, regularly going through the steps in this guide can help you spot a problem before it becomes a safety concern.