Bike brakes: How to fix your bike brakes

Given the current circumstances and the recent spring weather, previously hidden away bicycles have made a valiant comeback as Britons are being urged by the Government to cycle as much as possible, to help keep up social distancing efforts.

First of all: check your brakes properly. Squeeze the front brake lever and try to push the bike forward.

The rear wheel should lift and the lever shouldn’t touch the handlebar.

Repeat with the rear brake – the rear wheel should lock and skid as you push the bike forward.

If either brake isn’t working properly, it’s likely to be a result of slack in the cable – unless your bike has hydraulic brakes, in which case they probably need ‘bleeding’ to remove air bubbles, which is a job only for confident home mechanics or a bike shop.


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Examine the brake pads – if your brakes make a grinding noise when you use them, there is no pad material left and they will need replacing at a bike shop.

Adjust cable tension

All cable-operated brakes should have a barrel adjuster – a hollow knurled bolt where the cable exits the lever or enters the caliper.

To increase cable tension, turn the barrel adjuster anti-clockwise.

Try one full turn initially, then half turns, repeating the brake test in between turns.

If the barrel adjuster has a threaded lockring or locknut, unscrew this to enable the barrel to turn, then screw it flush to the lever or caliper to keep the barrel firmly in its new position.

Re-clamp cable

If a few turns of the barrel adjuster doesn’t solve the cable tension problem, try re-clamping the cable.

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First wind the barrel adjuster back in. Then undo the bolt that anchors the cable to the brake.

Use one hand to squeeze the brake mechanism together.

This is easy with sidepull brakes and V-brakes: simply hold the brake blocks against the rim.

With a cable disc brake, push the caliper’s brake arm up to engage the brake.

The brake doesn’t need to be jammed on; just touching the rim or rotor is okay.

Don’t let go of the brake until you’ve re-clamped the cable.

Then with your other hand, pull more cable through the cable clamp, until the cable is just taut. Let go of the cable now and tighten the clamp bolt.

Finally, let go of the brake mechanism.

Since you weren’t pulling on the cable when you re-clamped it, there should be enough slack that the brake pads don’t rub the rim or rotor.

If there’s too much slack, use the barrel adjuster.

If the cable is too tight and the brake rubs constantly, repeat the above process but don’t squeeze the brake mechanism fully against the rim or rotor – just hold it tight enough that you can pull the cable through further than its previous clamping point.

Centring the brake

Sometimes just one of the brake pads will rub. In this situation, you need to centre the brake.

Sidepull brakes often have a small adjuster screw on top of the caliper, at one side. Screw this in or out – slowly, so you can watch the brake arms move.

If your bike’s sidepull brakes lack this feature, slacken the fixing bolt that holds the brake to the frame or fork, move the brake, then retighten the fixing bolt.

When you’ve adjusted your brakes, squeeze them on hard a handful of times, then repeat the brake test.

If you’re still not happy, head to your local bike shop.

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