Do you know your bike brakes? There are several types of bike brake systems available on the market, and each one has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. Knowing which type of brake is right for you can mean the difference between a safe, confident ride and an accident waiting to happen. In this post, we’ll take a look at the different types of bike brakes available and help you decide which one is right for you.
Types of Bike Brakes
Bike brakes can be categorized as either a Rim brake or Disk Brake
A. Rim Brakes
Rim brakes use the friction of pads pressing against your bike’s rim to stop you. They were once the dominant type of brake on bikes but their popularity waned thanks to improved braking performance and reliability of disc brakes. But times have changed again, and they’re making a comeback more powerful than an Olympic track cyclist.
Rim brakes excel in one area: modulation. That is, you can control their stopping power very precisely by squeezing harder or lighter on the levers and applying more or less force to the pads against the rim (measured in pounds per square inch, or psi). It’s a more intuitive way to control your speed than a disc brake’s “on/off” feel.
But it also makes them less powerful and slower to stop you from speed—it takes longer for the pads to squeeze hard enough against the rim at higher speeds or with a heavier overall load (i.e., a cyclist and bike).
The other downside, at least to people accustomed to discs, is that you’ll probably feel like you’re wearing out your rim brake pads whenever you go on longer rides or in wet weather. That’s because the pad material wears away very quickly when it rubs against the rim. But whatever—if you’re carrying a spare or two it shouldn’t matter.
Finally, rim brakes are not as aerodynamic as disc brakes. Not much in life is better than an aero bike that’s also a great climber—but a bike with climbing gears and good brakes will always beat a bike with only one of those attributes on extended
Below are the several types of Rim Brakes
1. Caliper Brakes
The caliper brake is a common bicycle brake found on road bikes. The caliper brakes are located within the wheel’s rim, unlike other types of brakes that hang off to the side (BMX) or below (canti). With this arrangement, you can easily see how the brake is attached to the frame or fork. The primary feature of the caliper brake is that it has two pivot points, one on either side of the central axis – just like a pair of scissors. Since they are positioned around a tire, they are not a good fit for wider/fat tires.
How do Caliper brakes work?
Caliper brakes are actuated by pressing levers mounted near your fingers on the handlebars. The levers activate a cable that runs through the length of the caliper, causing it to grip the rim of the wheel and stop your bike. If you’d like, try lightly squeezing the brake levers as you ride – if the calipers are in working order, you should feel pressure on your rims as the pads move against them.
What is a dual pivot caliper brake?
Dual pivot caliper brakes have two pivot points, one on either side of the central axis just like a pair of scissors. Dual pivot brakes are much more common than center pull, and they work by pulling two brake arms against the rim simultaneously. The distance between the arms controls how far apart pressure is applied to the rims – greater separation leads to stronger braking for this type of brake.
2. U Brakes
U-brakes, also known as linear-pull brakes, is a type of brake in which the cable engages a cam lobe to produce friction against the rim of a wheel. A pair of u-brakes is composed of two arms that each terminates in a fitting into which both cables from the handlebars attach. The end of each arm has a cam lobe that presses against the rim of the wheel’s outer edge, creating resistance. When the brake lever is activated by pulling it, it pulls on one end of a cable that activates only one arm (i.e., either the right or left arm), and as such only engages one side of the wheel’s rim to slow or stop rotation.
When a U-brake is used with cantilever brakes, the two brake cables must be crossed over one another to produce tension on both arms; without this modification, only one side of the wheel will engage and apply sufficient stopping power.
Many modern road bikes incorporate dual-pivot brakes that function similar to U-brakes but are set up to attach to a single-arm located above the wheel.
U-brake arms may be made of steel, aluminum, titanium, or carbon fiber. The pivot point where the brake cable attaches is often adjustable for tension or disengagement on some types of bikes.
U-brakes use standard road brake cable and cable housing.
The U-brake was originally invented by Alan Oakley of the Scott bicycle company in 1972 for use on competition road bicycles but became obsolete with the advent of cantilever brakes in the 1980s. It was re-invented in 1999 by Mark Slate at Bontrager (a Trek company). Manufacturers have since built it into many mountain bikes, including full-suspension models.
The U-brake design is simpler than the various types of cantilever brake designs in use for road bicycles but requires a pivoting point on each arm to attach the brake cable. Because of this, force applied to the handlebars produces uneven braking, with greater braking force applied to the side of the rims closer to where the brake cable attaches. This means that U-brake brakes are generally not compatible with road levers, except when used in combination with a mountain bike style brake lever that includes a “cross over” feature that shifts both cables into one actuator.
U-brakes on the rear wheel may also be subject to wheel lockup on some bicycles if a wheel becomes jammed and cannot rotate.
Some U-brake designs, such as those on some cyclocross bicycles, may preclude simultaneous use of rim brakes due to interference between the brake arms and tire. Others employ alternating cam shapes that at least allow the use of rim brakes.
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V-brake is a type of linear brake that uses a “v” shaped yoke to push two brake pads, which clamp the sides of a bicycle’s moving rim. V-Brakes were introduced in 1984 as a more powerful alternative for lightweight racing bikes or those with narrow wheels. The name comes from the shape of the brake’s “yoke” (crossbar), resembling the letter “V”.
It was very successful in its intended purpose on narrow rims, but it proved less than ideal when used with modern wide alloy rims. This is because the yoke may not rest directly opposite the cable stop, so imparting an angled force on the cable. If placed so the yoke is directly opposite the cable stop, there is a risk of slackening of the cable over time due to cable stretch, which will cause poor braking, since the cable preloads the pads against the rim.
Furthermore, these brakes were initially designed for narrow rims and cables with small diameters; when used with modern wide alloy rims and cables, a high degree of angle may be present at the brake pad. This can interfere with smooth braking as well as lowering modulation.
An advantage of V-brakes is that they are widely considered to be safer than side-pull brakes for two reasons: one, there is no cable to pinch bare fingers, and two, the yoke of the brake is directly opposite the cable stop so that even if a bent or broken cable were to jump off and depress the brake pad, it would not exert an angled force.
The combined left-hand lever operates both levers on each side through one short pull cable. This system avoids any problems associated with different length cables and levers and it is also possible to use a bar-mounted friction lever in conjunction with V-brakes, although this is uncommon.
The downside of the integrated system is that it uses up much more cable than conventional cantilever brakes, resulting in less adjustability and sometimes poor performance due to a lack of clearance between the left-hand brake cable and the front disc rotor.
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4. Cantilever Brakes
Cantilever brakes, sometimes called “sideways-pull” brakes because of the pivoting yoke that pulls on one side of the cable, are recognized as among the most powerful rim brake systems for bicycles. The design reduces the amount of flexing of the brake shoes and permits all the force to be applied directly against the rim of the wheel. Their great advantage is that they do not contact shoe-to-rim, so they cannot cause a “snake bite” (a flat spot on a tire) as happens with caliper brakes.
Cantilevers used for mountain bikes are the traditional MTB cantilever (a.k.a. “Vario” or “Standard”) which features an upright body, and the road-racing version (also known as ‘low profile’ or “Low rider”), which has a brake arm that angles down towards the ground, making it easier to reach for riders with smaller inseams.
The design of the MTB cantilever-brake does not place the pivot point where it will do the best; on traditional cantis, the pivot is placed underneath and behind the arm, which leaves it out of reach of even a long-legged rider’s heel. This means that while these brakes apply more power per stroke than most others, they can be difficult to actuate.
This design is only suitable for use on bicycles with cantilever bosses (mounts) already installed; it will not work with bikes that lack these features or any mounting device (although they are simple enough to fabricate). These brakes must also be used in conjunction with brake shoes with a concave profile, which is the traditional type used on cantilever brakes. Since these are no longer made they must be purchased new or as after-market replacement parts.
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5. Roller Cam Rim Brakes
Roller-cam rim brakes are a braking mechanism for standard bicycle wheels, intended to mimic the operation of drum brakes (and in some cases even improve upon them). Roller-cam brakes consist of two or three cylinders attached to the hub, with one cylinder attached to the gear cassette and another rolled around the edge of the rim.
These cylinders are each attached to a brake shoe. These shoes use the tangent tension principle as their operating method, as opposed to how drum brakes operate with their alternating pressure applied by the inside and outside edges of the drums.
The following is an overview of roller-cam rim brake systems:
- The cable is routed around one side of the wheel, along the ground;
- The first cylinder is attached to the gear cassette;
- The second cylinder rides on the rim next to the first;
- A brake shoe slides back and forth between these two cylinders.
This mechanism acts like a drum brake because its shape grants it a better mechanical advantage over conventional brakes. At the same time, it operates more quickly than drum brakes because its contact surfaces are larger.
One main benefit of the roller cam brake is that it requires less maintenance than many other drum brake systems in modern heavy-duty applications.
A major drawback associated with these types of brakes is that they tend to have a lower coefficient of friction as compared with other drum brake designs. This can result in increased stopping distances and brake fade, which is defined as a loss of braking ability resulting from overheating of the surfaces that are brought into contact during the braking process.
B. Disc Brakes
A disc brake works by pinching the rotor between two pads, either on each side of it (two-piston design), or on one side of it (single-piston design). This action rapidly and powerfully squeezes the rotor, bringing it to a very rapid stop.
A disc brake’s pads do not need to press against the rotor at an angle; instead, both pads contact the rotor perpendicularly. Since there is no angled force pressing one pad sideways against the rotor, there is much less chance of a “brake snake”—a buildup of debris from repeated braking effort—getting caught between the pads and jamming them together.
Disc brakes are almost always used on mountain bikes because they do not fade as badly on long descents as rim brakes do. Disc rotors can be designed to dissipate heat more effectively than a rim rotor, so they can handle being used more heavily.
Advantages of Disk Brakes
When a brake caliper is placed onto a disk rotor, it can apply a great amount of stopping power. This makes it possible to have an incredibly strong braking action when riding. ]
In comparison with normal calipers that are placed around the rim, disk brakes give more power at the point of the stop. This is because they are able to make contact with a significantly larger surface area of the rotor.
Disadvantages of Disk Brakes
- Disk brakes are heavier than rim brakes, due to the materials used in their construction. The metal disk is also more difficult to remove from its mount when it needs changing.
- Some disks can be damaged by exposure to water and become warped. If this happens, they cannot be used again and so will need replacing.
- The metal disk is directly attached to the wheel with a rotor and so it has the potential to cause damage to the wheel, especially if it is not removed when the bike is stored.
- Bike disk brakes can be more expensive than rim or caliper brakes, due to their materials and complexity.
Q: What does a hydraulic disc brake do that a linear-pull cant?
A: The hydraulic disk brake is more powerful than a cantilever or v-brake. It gives you more stopping power and modulateability. The cable attachment doesn’t move and it takes up less space than canti’s, allowing bike makers to use smaller wheels and to create more room for fenders etc.
It’s all about power, modulation, and comfort. Hydraulic systems provide stopping power that cantilevers can’t touch and modulation than rim brakes can’t match. With full-hydraulic systems there’s no cable stretch to worry about, the rider only experiences the power of braking when they want it.
Q: How do disk brake work?
A: A hydraulic disk brake uses pressurized fluid to apply braking power to a rotor attached to the hub of one or both wheels. Most often, there’s a second rotor attached to the other wheel as well, providing “bias” or equal braking power to both wheels. Some systems can also provide a self-servo effect and help prevent the wheels from locking up when downshifting for curves, so it’s easier to maintain traction.
Q: How expensive are disk brakes?
A: Disk brakes are more expensive than rim brakes or cantilevers. There are no “midrange” disk brakes, so by the time you get to model with hydraulic disks, it’s either very expensive or very cheap.
Q: What is the difference between mechanical & hydraulic disk brakes?
A: Hydraulic systems have a master cylinder which pushes fluid through hoses to pistons inside calipers. The pads clamp down on rotors and the fluid pushes pistons back. Even if you use a computer to control it, this basic function doesn’t change. Mechanical systems might include cables (à la road bike levers), or hydraulic hoses (à la mountain bike brake levers) to get the job done, but the motion is the same.
Q: How often should hydraulic disks be serviced?
A: Hydraulic disks should be serviced every year, or after every 2-3 months of hard riding.
Q: How to adjust a hydraulic disk brake on a bike?
A: Adjusting a hydraulic disk brake is easy, once you understand it. It’s worth going through the process on your brakes before you need to use them, so you’re familiar with the process.
Q: How to bleed disk brakes?
The manufacturer’s instructions will explain the process. In general, you’ll need a bicycle pump or a shock pump, a hose to attach to your brake bleed port/orifice and a way to fill the system with fluid while still having access to it for bleeding. You can also use gravity if you have enough room above the system to fill it, but you may need someone to help you bleed the brakes (so that they can push/pull on the brake’s levers while you pump).
You’ll also need a way to catch and dispose of your used fluid so it doesn’t contaminate your brake system. If you’re using mineral oil, this isn’t a big deal, but working with DOT fluid requires more care.
Begin by filling your system with fresh fluid until it comes out of the bleed port orifice (usually one port on each brake caliper). Once they’re full, use a hose to attach to your bleed port and open it up until you see air bubbles coming through. Then, pump until you can’t see any more air bubbles coming through the system. Repeat this process a few times to be sure that all of the air is out of your brake lines.
FAQ – Bike Brakes
Difference between a Cantilever brake and a Caliper Brake?
Cantilever brakes are attached below the bike’s calipers, while caliper brakes are attached within the wheel rim – cantis take up less room than calipers but offer less stopping power.
How to install Brake Calipers
Install the calipers on the frame or fork, and then run a cable through each arm. The ends of these cables should be threaded into special fittings called “nipples”, which are attached to the levers that allow you to pull on them and activate your brakes. If you need more information about pulling the cable through the calipers, check out this video.
Once your brake is installed, you can attach the pads to the arms. If they are supplied with new pads, simply snap them onto their holders and you’re done – if not, slide each pad into place against each arm. When it comes time to fine-tune the brakes, you may be required to slide the brake pads closer or further apart – if so, read about this article about how to adjust bike brakes.
What is a sintered pad?
A sintered pad differs from an organic brake pad in that it uses metallic ingredients like copper and bronze to create friction for braking. Sintered metal pads offer more stopping power than organic brake pads, but they wear much faster so you’ll need to replace them often.
How do you prevent rim lock?
A phenomenon known as “rim lock” occurs when the brake pads are pushed up against the rims to such an extent that they’re unable to return to their normal position – this can lead to ineffective braking. For this reason, it’s important that you don’t allow your pads to get pushed up against your rims while riding – creating excess slack in the cable should help with this.
How do you install a brake cable?
The first step is threading the cable through each arm of your caliper, a process that can be a little bit tricky. You may find it helpful to tie loops at the end of the cables, and then hook these over the arms as you slide them into place – this will make everything much easier.
Once both brakes are plugged into their respective arms, thread the ends of the cables through your levers and attach them to the small pin in between each one – this will hold everything in place. It’s often helpful to adjust your brakes after doing this, so keep that in mind when you’re setting up your system.
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How do you maintain a brake cable?
If your brake cables are loose, you should tighten them against the brake arms. To do this, simply turn the barrel adjusters as far as they’ll go – if your brake is already fully tightened and still too loose, it may be necessary to replace your cable.
If your brake hasn’t been used in a long time or has seen excessive wear, it may be necessary to replace the cable entirely – doing so is an easy process.
How do you make your brake pads last longer?
After riding for a while, your brake pads may wear down and become less effective at stopping your bike – if this happens, simply replace them with new ones. If they’re still in good shape, you can prolong their life by cleaning off the residue on the rim after your ride.
How do you improve braking performance?
If your brakes aren’t performing as well as they should be, there are a few things you can check to find out why. If one brake is more effective than the other, it’s likely that you need to adjust the cable tension for that brake – if not, they may simply need to be replaced. You may also want to check for small cracks or chips where your pads meet the rim, which can sometimes lead to less effective braking.