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Tech Talk: Give Me a Brake

Customers often come in to our stores to buy replacement brake pads for their bikes. The best course of action in this case is to have your bike with you so that we can identify with 100% certainty that we're giving you the correct parts, but it does help to be familiar with what kind of brakes you have, so that in a pinch, you have an idea of how your brakes work and what kind of pads and other parts to look for. The following is an overview of the different styles of brakes found on most modern bicycles.

Linear-pull brakes

Linear-pull brakeThe most common type of brake found on most modern hybrid and mountain bikes is the linear-pull brake. These are sometimes called "V-brakes," although that name is actually trademarked by Shimano for their version of linear-pull brakes.

These brakes have excellent stopping power, are easy to adjust, and have a quick-disconnect feature that makes it easy to clear the brake pads out of the way when installing or removing your wheel.

Linear-pull brakes are mounted using a set of posts that are built into the frame of the bicycle, one pair on the front fork, and the other pair on the rear seat stays.

Cantilever brakes

Cantilever brakeCantilever brakes were common on older mountain bikes and hybrids, but are still commonly found on modern touring and cyclocross bikes. These brakes are distinguished by two roughly L-shaped calipers on either side of the rim, connected by the brake cable, which is pulled vertically away from the wheel. The A-shaped section of cable that connects the two brake arms is called the "link wire" or "straddle cable."

Cantilever brakes provide better fender and mud clearance compared to linear-pull brakes. They are also easy to disconnect for wheel removal. The only downside to cantilever brakes is that they require an additional "cable stop" or "cable hanger" for the brake housing to pull against. This cable stop is sometimes provided as an integrated part of the bike's frame, but can also be an add-on bracket type of device.

The mounting posts on the bike frame for cantilever brakes are the same as those used for linear-pull brakes. Thus, a bike with linear-pull brakes can be retrofitted to use cantilever brakes, and vice-versa, as long as you have compatible brake levers (see below), and you have cable stops available on the frame for cantilever brakes.

Linear-pull and cantilever brake pads

Smooth-post brake padsLinear-pull and cantilever brakes use the same style of brake pads. Sometimes, the brake pads have a smooth post that is held is place by a bolt that is part of the brake caliper; other times, the pad itself has a threaded post with a bolt on the end. The threaded style may have a simple single bolt and washer, or on better models, there is a set of curved washers that provide a finer adjustment of the pad position.

So, whether you have linear-pull or cantilever brakes, you need to be careful to buy the brake pads that have the correct type of attachment post for your brakes.

Simple threaded brake pads Nicer threaded brake pads

Road brakes

Dual-pivot road brake caliperMost modern racing-style road bikes use brakes referred to as dual-pivot caliper brakes. These brakes have a compact "C" shape, with a brake cable that extends vertically from one side of the caliper. They usually have a small, rotating release lever that allows you to temporarily open the caliper for wheel installation and removal.

The road brake caliper mounts to the frame using a single bolt, either through the fork crown on the front, or through the seat stay bridge on the rear.

Dual-pivot calipers are lightweight and very easy to adjust and service. Their only downside is that they are only appropriate for very skinny-tired road bikes; they usually do not have enough clearance to accomodate wider touring, hybrid, or off-road tires. Fender installation with road caliper brakes can be a challenge as well, although some road-specific fenders are available that can work in some cases.

Disc brakes

Mechanical disc brake caliper and rotorDisc brakes have become a popular option on mountain bikes for many years, and recently are starting to become more common on hybrids, some road touring bikes, and most recently, some cyclocross bikes.

Disc brakes typically provide the best stopping power in all conditions, even in the rain or mud, since the moisture, mud, and other debris has less of a tendency to collect on the braking surface compared to rim brakes.

A bike's frame and fork must have disc brake mounting tabs, so it's difficult (usually impossible) to retrofit and older bike with disc brakes. The hubs on the wheels must be disc-specific as well, to provide the mounting surface for the disc rotor.

Hydraulic disc brake caliper, rotor, and leverIn addition to increased stopping power, disc brakes provide the advantage of longer wheel life, because you don't have the brake pads rubbing on the rims. Also, if you should happen to hit a large pothole or other obstacle and severely bend your wheel, there's a better chance that you'll still be able to finish the ride and get home, since there's less of a chance the wobbly wheel will be cause the brake to rub. The only disadvantage of disc brakes is slighty increased weight compared to most rim brake calipers.

Disc brakes are available in "mechanical" or "hydraulic" versions. Mechanical disc brakes use the same housing and metal cable as standard rims brakes. Hydraulic brakes are a sealed fluid system; basically a miniature version of the same type of hydraulic brakes found on cars and motorcycles.

Disc brake padsDisc brake pads are specific to the manufacturer and model of brake; there is no universal standard for disc brake pads.

BMX U-brakes

BMX U-brakeU-brakes are common on BMX bikes. The attachment posts on the bike frame are similar to the posts used for cantilever and linear-pull brakes, except that they are positioned above the rim, rather than below. They use the same style of brake pads as cantilever and linear-pull brakes.

Side-pull brakes

Side-pull brakeSide-pull brakes are sometimes found on low-end department store-level bikes and cheaper BMX bikes. They have a very simple single-pivot mechanism, and also can usually use the same type of brake pads as linear-pull or cantilever brakes.

Brake levers

Road brake leverBrake levers are designed to clamp onto either drop-style road bike handlebars, or onto upright mountain/hybrid handlebars. Additionally, brake levers are classified according to the amount of brake cable that moves when you squeeze the brake lever. Road calipers, cantilever, and BMX brakes all require "short-pull" brake levers. Linear-pull brakes require "long-pull" brake levers.

Mountain/hybrid brake leversMost mechanical disc brakes use long-pull brake levers, but there are some versions that use short-pull brake levers, in order to be compatible with existing road brake levers. Hydraulic disc brakes, of course, are neither short-pull nor long-pull; the calipers and levers are sold as an integrated set.

Coaster brake

Coaster brakeOf course, the old-fashioned "pedal-backwards" brake can still be found on one-speed cruiser-style bikes, and some multi-speed bikes that use an internally-geared hub. This brake is referred to as a coaster brake. A coaster brake-equipped bike can be identified by an L-shaped steel bracket that is bolted to the bike's frame and the left side of the rear hub.

This article was first published on January 18, 2012.

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