Your brakes are without a doubt one of the most important parts of your bike. They must be clean, in good condition, and properly adjusted before every ride.
Braking systems are designed to respond quickly and efficiently to your commands. To do this, they are designed with exacting clearances. Over time and in response to wear, brake systems often lose some of their "tightness". This leads to longer response times, less efficient braking and less bike control.
NOTE: Many apparent brake assembly problems are actually caused by wheels that are damaged or out of true. If you develop persistent braking problems, take your bike to a full-service REI bike shop and have your wheels checked.
Give your brakes an overall check before every ride. Make sure your brake components are properly positioned and in good working order.
In addition to this, have your brakes inspected and serviced regularly by an experienced mechanic to catch problems that you may not be experienced enough to spot and/or fix. Every 6 months or so should be fine for occasional cyclists. Take your bike in more often if you ride hard and/or frequently.
NOTE: Basic brake system maintenance involves making sure that brake components are properly positioned and in good working order. Full brake "adjustments" are beyond the scope of this introductory clinic, and are not described here.
Brake levers typically malfunction for one of three reasons:
Solution 1: Most modern braking systems have some sort of quick-release mechanism that allows you to loosen the cable system without throwing your brake system out of tune. This slack is typically needed to open the brake arms wide enough to get your wheel out from in between them.
Some of these quick-releases are located on brake assemblies, others are located on brake levers or elsewhere along the cable route. If you find too much slack in your braking system, check these quick-release mechanisms first to make sure they are engaged.
Solution 2: If your brake quick-releases are connected properly but the brake levers still function poorly (or not at all), the levers themselves may need cleaning or repair. Follow the cleaning procedures described in the following section.
Solution 3: If solutions A and B don't fix your brake lever problem, your brake pads may not be close enough to your wheel rims to start with. Before you reposition them, however, check to make sure that the pads are not worn down too far (if they are, they should be replaced). If your brake pads are okay, turn the cable adjustment knob (located where your brake cables enters your levers or at the brake caliper on road bikes) counterclockwise until the desired pad/rim distance is achieved (1/8th of an inch is standard). If the cable adjustment knob (also known as the barrel adjustment) bottoms out before the pad is in position, you may have to bring your bike into an REI bike shop for a more complete brake adjustment.
HINT: Whenever you bring your bike in for brake service, ask the mechanic to check your wheel rims as well. Your rims are an integral part of your braking system. Damaged or improperly trued rims/wheels can cause or contribute to braking problems.
Incorrectly positioned brake assemblies can cause ineffective braking and/or brake squeaking.
Solution: Brake pads and brake assemblies are usually held in place by simple systems of binder bolts, washers and mounting nuts. Re-adjustment in most cases involves little more than loosening the appropriate nut or bolt, maneuvering the assembly into the proper position, and tightening the binder bolt again to keep the component in place.
Because of the large number of brake designs available, detailed descriptions of specific adjustments are not included here. Take some time to familiarize yourself with your brake assemblies and how they're put together, so you can make basic adjustments if necessary.
If your brakes still grip poorly after you've checked your levers and assemblies, your brake system may need professional adjustment. But before taking the bicycle to a shop, check for the following:
You should clean your brake system any time performance drops or a pre-ride inspection uncovers dirt or grime in the system. Frequent cleaning is especially important for your brake pads.
By REI Staff
Last updated: 07/12/2013
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