Easy fixes for squishy and screeching bike brakes

June 30, 2015

Issues with your bike's brakes can range from minor and irritating to major and dangerous. Many minor annoyances can be fixed easily in your own garage.

Easy fixes for squishy and screeching bike brakes

My brakes feel squishy

Adjust your brakes and cables

Over time, bike brakes lose their bite and responsiveness because brake cables inevitably stretch and bolts work loose. At first, this is annoying, but if left unchecked it will eventually make braking unsafe. To remedy the problem, start by deglazing your brake pads. Next, you'll need to adjust the brakes and cables to ensure that the pads are efficiently contacting the rim.

Time needed to fix bike brakes: 30 minutes.

You will need: wrenches, Allen wrenches, pliers and screwdriver.

  1. For side-pull brakes, loosen the mounting nut on the centre of the brake unit. Squeeze the brake arms together by hand until the pads are about one to two millimetres (1/16 of an inch) from the wheel rim. Tighten the mounting nut snugly, but don't overtighten it as this will make the brakes stiff. The brake arms will separate a little when you release your hold on them — don't worry, you'll fine-tune the gap later.
  2. Release the cable on the brake arm by loosening the anchor bolt. Pinch the brake pads together by hand so that they remain around one to two millimetres (1/16 of an inch) from the wheel rim, then use pliers to pull the cable tight. Tighten the anchor bolt firmly.
  3. Fine-tune the gap between the brake pad and wheel rim by turning the barrel adjuster that encircles the brake cable on the brake arm.
  4. Finally, adjust the brake lever on the handlebars so that the lever is all the way out when the brakes are not being applied. If it's not, adjust it by turning its adjusting screw. Turn the screw counter-clockwise to move the lever out, and clockwise to move the lever in.

There's a screeching sound when I brake

Toe-in your brake pads

Brakes screech as the pads attempt to grip onto the moving wheel rim. It's easy to stop the squeals through a process called toeing-in.

When you brake, the front edge of your pad should contact the wheel just before the rear edge; this slight angle of the pad, called toe-in, ensures quieter braking. In the past, all brake pads were flat, and the only way to create the toe-in angle was to bend the brake arms with a pair of pliers — this is not recommended as it weakens the structure of the arms and is difficult to do accurately.

Today, however, you can buy pads that include domed washers, which enable the pads to be set at any angle.

  • To toe-in your brake pads, loosen (but don't remove) the nut on the rear of the pad. Wrap a rubber band once around the trailing edge of the pad, then manually adjust the angle of the pad so that when you push the brake arm towards the wheel, the rubber band touches it at the same time as the leading edge of the pad.
  • Tighten the nut, remove the rubber band and allow the brake arm to spring back to its normal position. When you apply the brake, the leading edge will touch the rim first, eliminating brake noise.
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