5 common bike brake issues and how to fix them

September 15, 2015

Brakes are important safety features on your bike for obvious reasons. That's why when your brakes don't work, or work inefficiently, it's vital to fix the problem immediately. Here are easy fixes for five common brake problems to help ensure you continue to ride safely.

5 common bike brake issues and how to fix them

1. The brakes rub on the tire


Check and adjust the position of the brake pads.

  • A pad that rubs on a tire is a serious issue. You should address it right away or it could soon potentially wear through the tire and cause a blowout.

What to do

First, make sure that the wheel axle is fully inserted into the dropout — the slot in the bike's frame or forks — on both sides.

  • Loosen the axle nuts or quick-release levers, push the frame down onto the axle, then retighten the nuts/levers.

If repositioning the wheel doesn't work, adjust the height of the pads. Most are attached to the brake arm by a bolt that passes through a vertical slot in the arm.

  • Simply loosen the bolt on the back of the pad and slide it into a position where it will make contact with the metal wheel rim, not the tire. Tighten the nut.

2. My brake pads rub against the wheel rim


Check that the wheel is centred.

  • The left and right brake pads should travel the same distance before they make contact with the wheel rim. If they don't, or if one pad is actually rubbing against the rim, that may be because the wheel is misaligned in the bicycle frame.

What to do

Check to see whether the distance between the tire and the front forks is equal on both sides. If it is uneven, check that the quick-release levers or axle nuts holding the wheel in place are tight.

  • While looking at the brake pads, try pulling, then releasing the brake lever. Do the pads move away from the wheel rim when you release the lever? If not, the point at which the brake arms pivot may be the problem. Squirt a little lubricant on the calliper pivot and try the brakes again.

*N.B.: Make sure no lubricant gets onto the rims! It will hinder effective braking if your wheels are drenched in lubricant.

3. My brake pads still rub against the rim


Check if the brakes are correctly aligned.

  • If the wheel is correctly centred between the front forks but the brake still rubs, you may need to adjust the size of the gap between the brake pads relative to the wheel's metal rim.

What to do
Most modern brakes have an adjustment screw on one or both brake arms that moves the brake pad individually closer or further away from the wheel rim.

  • Turn the screw in or out until both pads are the same distance from the wheel's rim.

If you have side-pull brakes that lack adjustment screws, you can still centre the pads

  • Loosen the mounting nut on the centre of the brake unit, and pivot the whole brake unit until both pads are the same distance from the wheel rim. Tighten the nut.

Another reason your brakes still rub on the rim could be that the rim is warped. If you hit a big bump, the rim may bend. Sometimes rims naturally warp through prolonged usage or lack of maintenance.

  • To straighten (or "true") the wheel, take your bike to a certified bicycle repair shop or sports store. This is a job best left to a qualified expert.

4. The brake cables are ruining my bike’s paint job


Use nail polish to touch up your paint.

Applying the brake levers pulls the metal brake cable through the plastic cable housing; the housing or the cable itself can rub or snap against the bicycle frame.

  • This friction can wear the paint away, leaving unsightly marks on your bike that – for steel frames – can lead to corrosion.
  • Moreover, if the brake cables are too tightly "strapped" to the bike's frame, it could prevent the cable from working properly when you squeeze the brake lever, especially if there is a curve or bend in the cable. The result? Your brakes possibly may not apply sufficient force to help you stop in time.

What to do

  • Check the chipped spot for corrosion. Gently sand off any rust using an emery cloth or ultra-fine sanding paper. Avoid scuffing up the surrounding area.
  • Fill the scratch with nail polish that is the same colour as your bike's paint.
  • Leave it to dry, then apply a coat of clear nail polish for extra protection against further rubbing.

5. My brake pads seem worn


Check the parallel grooves or look for obvious signs of wear.

Brake pads that are worn down through use, or which have deteriorated and become brittle due to age or through constant exposure to the sun, simply won't work well and lengthen the distance required to stop your bike.

  • Longer stopping distances or extreme pressure required on the brake handles mounted on your handlebars are a warning sign that it's time to replace your brakes.
  • Brake pads have parallel grooves indented in the rubber surface that contacts the wheel rim. These are wear markers – once the rubber has worn so much that the grooves are no longer there, it's time to fit new brake blocks.

What to do

  • Take your bike to a certified bike shop or sports store and have an expert replace the brake pads. He or she will ensure that the job is done properly.
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