How to Adjust Bike Brakes

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For new cyclists, adjusting the brakes on a bicycle can be challenging but it’s something that needs to be done on occasion. The longer you ride a bike, the more likely you will experience brakes that are too tight, adjusted incorrectly, or which keep making an annoying squeaking noise. Since different types of bikes have different brakes, it might seem like the process is too much to handle.

However, the truth is that once you understand how to adjust bike brakes, it removes a bit of stress from every ride. Most fixes, like adjusting a brake lever or modifying the spring tension, are simple and can be done by even a novice cyclist by following a set of instructions. We’ll share some of the things you should know when properly adjusting any part of your brakes than need it.

Table of Contents

Tools Needed When You Adjust Bike Brakes

Depending on the adjustment you need to make, there are a few tools that may come in handy. Having them available will ensure you have the means for fixing whatever goes wrong, no matter where you are. Here are our suggestions for bike

adjustment tools:

  • Phillips Screwdriver (Number One)
  • T-Handle Wrench (5 mm)
  • Multi-tool (4 mm, 5 mm, 6 mm, and Phillips Screwdriver)
  • 3-Way Allen Tool (4 mm, 5 mm, and 6 mm)

If you want to have a larger selection of tools for any situation that might happen, these other tools are a good choice:

  • Basic Brake Cable/Housing Kit
  • Sport Brake Cable/Housing Kit
  • Brake Pads
  • Housing and Cable Cutter

Other tools that can be useful include pliers, an adjustable wrench, and an appropriate lubricant grease for any threaded components that you work on.

Important Parts of a Bicycle

While there are many types of bikes and many of the bike components have several names, most bikes have the same parts. Some of the things to be aware of when doing adjustments include:

  • Brake cable length setting – A bolt or screw that attaches from the brake cable to the calipers. This may be used to lengthen or shorten the brake cable, although most will not require that.
  • Pull brake level – A pull brake lever is the part where you place your hand when you want to pull and operate the brake.
  • Lock nut – This is a component that locks the position of your adjusting knob, so it doesn’t move around while you are cycling.
  • Cable and cable housing – These parts connect the pull lever to the brake calipers.
  • Adjusting knob – This component gives you the option of adjusting the cable housing length.
  • Brake calipers – The calipers clamp together in order to squeeze the brake pads onto the rim of the wheel, so the bike stops.

The Process of Adjustment for Disc Brakes

You are most often going to see disc brakes on mountain bikes, road bikes, and cyclocross bikes. These brakes can seem challenging to work on when looking at them, but they turn out to be the easiest for adjustments. For a beginner, if you have disc brakes, you can ease into adjustments and bike repairs while other types of brakes take a higher skill level.

If your bike is experiencing brake rub, the first thing you need to do is loosen the two bolts that hold the disc brake onto the bike frame. After these are loosened, you should squeeze the brakes which will cause them to engage the rotor. While keeping the brake levers depressed, retighten the bolts you loosened earlier. This will perfectly center the parts and is the most common adjustment needed.

Keep in mind that you will need to move the brake left to decrease cable tension while you will want to move it right to increase cable tension. Adjustment should be made a half turn at a time while squeezing the brake lever. When everything is adjusted correctly, the brake arm on each side will move equally and the brake lever will feel firm. Adjust the brake as needed and then move on to the next step if the problem is still there.

Are you still experiencing a bit of rubbing but don’t feel it happening? That’s not uncommon as most rotors are not entirely straight. If the rub is causing issues with your riding, a straightening tool can be used to fix things. You will want to flip the bike or put it into a stand so the wheel can spin. While the wheel is spinning, look for a gap opening and closing between the brake pads to see if the rotor is out of the center.

Take note of the area where the issue is and rotate it away from the caliper. Use the tool around that same section to straighten any warping present. If you can’t manage to fix the problem or are unsure if the rotor or brake is the issue, a professional can help.

The next thing you want to do is check your brake pads. You can look in the back or top of the brake to get a look at the pad. If the spring tension holding the brake pads together looks rather close to the rotor or you don’t see a pad, you will need to replace them. The same applies if you notice the pistons are stuck out as far as they go.

The good thing is that replacement is fairly simple. You will need to undo a pin without taking the brake off. The brake pads will be accessible through the top of the brake. Once you put new brake pads on, you can press the pistons back in using a screwdriver, so they don’t immediately begin rubbing on things again.

Another tip for adjustments on a disc brake is to make sure your wheel is properly set in the frame. Many people don’t go through with seating the wheel properly which may lead to adjusting the brakes in a manner that is inappropriate. This won’t be an issue with a bike that has a through axle, but in most cases, road bikes with disc brakes use a quick-release skewer. The bike should be flipped upside down or in a bike repair stand to be sure the wheel is seated the way it should be.

One situation when you may need a professional is if you have bleeding brakes. This may be the case if the brakes are very soft, very tight, or a piston in the brake is stuck. Due to the hydraulic fluid that is used for this sort of adjustment, a professional is the best choice for this situation. This is something you should have checked every once in a while, even if you aren’t having problems.

bicycle brakes adjustment

Making Adjustments on Caliper Brakes

Making an adjustment on a caliper brake is fairly simple as you can use the barrel adjuster next to each brake lever. As such, this is the first adjustment you should make. You can play with the barrel adjuster to tighten and loosen things to see if it solves the problem you are currently dealing with. It not, you can move on to other adjustments that might offer more assistance.

The next thing you can try is checking on the bolt that connects the brake to the bike frame. This is a common adjustment as a bolt that hasn’t been tightened enough may cause the brake to move around while you are riding. As with the disc brakes, you will want to engage the brakes before you tighten up the bolt, so it is centered properly. A cable brake has two brake arms that are used to engage the brake. Remember that the brake doesn’t need to be pressed in completely, it merely needs to touch the rim or rotor to some degree. While you adjust the brake, make sure the brake is held until you have reclamped the brake arms onto the cables. A spring tension recoil adjustment is near the calipers at the mounting pivot.

Those who have brakes that are too loose, which can lead to needing to pull on the brakes levers much too hard to get the bike to brake, should slightly tighten the cable to fix the problem. This is an easy adjustment. You will use an Allen key to loosen up the bolt and nut on the end of the cable. Then you want to pull a bit of the cable through and retighten. Only do this if the barrel adjuster did not fix your problem already.

If you are looking to adjust your brake pads so they hit the same rim spot on each side, using the barrel adjuster to tighten the brakes is a good first step. After the pads are tightened to the rim, the bolt keeping the pads in place can be loosened so you can make small adjustments without the pads slipping far to one side or the other. After they are in place, loosen the barrel adjuster.

If you are in a situation where you can’t stop and make an adjustment right away, the switch on the side of most caliper brakes will slightly loosen them so you can remove the wheel. After you get where you are going, you can retighten it to adjust them. Don’t forget to do so as the switch will only go so far.

Those who have gone through all of these adjustments and still notice the wheel rubbing on a certain spot, the wheel may be having problems rather than the brakes. If this is the case, it’s best to work with a local mechanic to get things squared away. This isn’t something you should attempt to do on your own.

Process for Adjusting Cantilever Brakes

If you have a bicycle with cantilever brakes, this means there are two brake pads controlled by wires. The wires pull up when you add pressure to the brake levers. While these brakes look the simplest of all, they are the most difficult to adjust without assistance. The reason for this is because they need to be set up perfectly to prevent jamming a brake pad against the rim or dealing with a lot of brake noise. These bikes do not have a brake arm to deal with like some of the others.

Each wire should be set up in exactly the same way when adjusting this sort of brake. That means that they should be sitting in the exact same position on the rim and are the exact same length. This doesn’t require a lot of tools as an Allen key can handle most of the adjustments. However, making many minor adjustments and testing for perfect balance can take a huge amount of time.

Since these brake cables are out in the open when riding, they are exposed to the elements. This also means they are likely to start fraying over time. If you find that it’s becoming harder to pull your brake lever or the braking isn’t working as well as it used to, you may need to replace the cable rather than just doing a simple adjustment.

Professional help from a local bike mechanic can help with initially setting up your brakes. This can take away a lot of the stress from getting things symmetrical when putting the bike together for the first time. It’s easier after that point. However, when set up wrong, it can be nearly impossible to get things tuned up the way they should be.

The steps you take when adjusting your bike brake will depend on the type of bike that you own. Some will require you to adjust a brake arm, others will have a spring you need to check on, and some will have more cables to deal with than others. The important thing is to learn the basics for your specific bike and know when to see a professional instead. From there, you can learn more advanced things and always keep your brakes in the best possible shape.