How to Fit and Change Bicycle Brake Pads

bicycle brake pads featured image

You do not have to be a professional cyclist to understand the importance of bicycle brake pads. After all, if you drive an automobile, you understand the importance of functioning brakes. If you commute by train, you understand the importance of functioning brakes.

If you have ever braced for a bumpy airplane landing, you know what it is like to squeeze the handrail between the seats until your knuckles are white, and you are praying to the brake gods that the ones between you and the runway will work.

The point is that most people get why we need brakes that work, and that is certainly true for bikes. What many people do not know is how to fit and change bicycle brake pads. You can guess what is coming next: we are here to fix that!

Before we get started on the steps you need to take to replace the existing brake pads on your bike, we will first look at how they function on the bicycle and the different types of brake pads you will encounter for different bikes.

Then we will take you through the brake pad fitting and changing process, with tips to ensure you can get your bike back out on the road in no time at all.

close up of red bicycle frame

How Do Bike Brake Pads Work?

Understanding how your bike’s brake pads function will come in handy when it is time to remove and replace them.

The brake function on a bicycle started to appear as early as the beginning of the 19th century and evolved into the modern brakes we know and perhaps take for granted today. There was certainly some trial and error along the way, and today’s cyclists owe a debt of gratitude to those who were bruised and banged up to get us to this point. (“Brake Tester” is surely not a job many people would want to willingly sign up to undertake.)

Many of us first learned to ride bicycles with coaster brakes (or braking using the pedals); bikes for kids are built this way based on the assumption that a small child lacks the proper coordination skills for hand braking. (To be honest, quite a few adults lack the coordination as well!) Hand braking systems are the norm for adult bicycles, and there are a number of different ways they are constructed, depending on the type of bike.

The keyword when it comes to how bike brake pads work is friction. Friction must be created to slow down or stop the bike altogether, and that is achieved when the pad makes contact with the rim and tire (or, in the case of disc brakes, the rotor). This simple motion or action enables us to slow down, and we rely on our brake pads and this friction for safety. The importance of brake pads for a safe cycling experience cannot be overstated.

Types of Brake Pads

There are two main types of brake pads for bicycles: disc brakes and rim brakes. In other words, there is a pad specific to each type of braking system.

Disc Brake Pads

Rather than relying on the bicycle’s rim as a surface to create the friction needed for braking, a disc brake system has a circular metal disc located on the hub of the bicycle’s wheel.

The disc rotates through a caliper, and the caliper is where the brake pads are located in this system. When the cyclist squeezes the brake lever, those pads are applied to the rotor, and friction is created, which causes the bike to slow down.

The disc brake system is most commonly found in mountain bikes, but some road bikes have a disc brake system as well.

bike rear tire close up in sun shine

Rim Brake Pads

If you are not an avid mountain biker, chances are you have always relied on a rim brake system while cycling. Rim brake systems utilize the rotating rim as the surface needed to create the friction for braking.

When you squeeze the bike’s brake lever, the pads are then squeezed against the sides of the bike’s rim, which slows down the bike. A rim brake system is generally simple and lightweight to manufacture and use, which is why it is so common among bikes. That being said, the rim brake pads can and will wear out, and they will ultimately need to be replaced.

Rim brake pads can actually be further broken down into caliper or cantilever brake systems, so you will need to be sure you buy the specific type needed for your bicycle. When in doubt, check with your local bike shop.

How Do You Know When Your Brake Pads Have Gone Bad?

There is nothing worse than finding out something has “gone bad” after the fact: this is true whether you have eaten a bowl of cereal with spoiled milk or whether your bike’s brake system fails you in the final mile of a race. You do not want to be taken by surprise that something has gone bad, especially not something that is intended to keep you safe.

Routine maintenance will extend your bicycle’s life and keep you safe, and you should pay attention to individual components of your bike to ensure they are repaired and replaced as needed. This does not always mean costly trips to the bike shop; there are many things you can tackle yourself, including the changing of brake pads.

Your bike will begin to tell you when it is time as you will notice it is simply taking longer for the bike to slow down, or in some cases, you may hear a screeching sound if you suddenly and forcefully apply the brakes. There is physical “evidence” with the grooves in the pads showing the amount of wear and tear.

And wear and tear is different for each rider, so there is no one size fits all answer to how often you will need to replace these pads. For some cyclists who ride in groups, the pads wear out more often simply because you are braking more often (following the lead of others in front of you). Another factor to consider with the lifespan of brake pads is the climate. Those who often ride in adverse weather conditions will also see their brake pads wearing out quickly.

One useful tip to remember is that brake pads are around 3 to 4 millimeters thick when they are new. If they are less than 1.5 mm thick, they have definitely lost a great deal of functionality and should be replaced.

Finally, there is also a reason to change brake pads with nothing to do with them being worn out. If you are changing wheelsets, you may have to change brake pads, even if your bike is brand new. Changing between carbon and alloy braking surfaces means different pads may be needed.

bicycle rider view

How Do You Remove Your Rim Brake Pads?

If you have determined that your rim brake pads must be removed because they are worn out, you will want to follow this procedure.

  • Mount the bike and remove the wheels.
  • Give yourself some slack in the chain to make the process easier: on the rear wheel, place the chain into the smallest chainring in the front and then the smallest sprocket in the back.
  • Look for the “grub” screw, which holds the pad in place. It is located on the outside of the brake shoe. Loosen it enough to remove the pad, but you do not have to take it all the way out.
  • Next, you will slide the pad out, which may take a little bit of prying. Brake pads can get stuck over time as dirt and debris get embedded in them. If you find yourself unable to easily slide the pad out, grad a pair of pliers or a screwdriver to help you pry them off of the bike.

During the removal process, bear in mind that the brake pads should always be removed to the back of the bike and not forced through the bike’s front, which could damage the brake pad holder.

man tightening bicycle rear wheel screw

How Do you Insert New Rim Brake Pads?

Now that your pads have been removed, you are ready to insert new ones.

  • First, inspect the brake track and wipe it down with rubbing alcohol on a clean rag. Removing the debris will ensure your brakes and brake pads perform well, so this is an important step that should not be skipped.
  • Look at the top of your brake pad to see the “left” and “right” indicators to place them appropriately, then slide the pad into the brake shoe. Once you have the pad firmly set, use the set screw to anchor it.
  • Check that the positioning is correct: the pad should firmly touch the rim brake track when you pull the lever.

How do You Remove Disc Brake Pads?

If you are preparing to remove and replace your disc brake pads, follow these steps.

  • Remove the wheel.
  • Open and unthread the thru-axle. After you have done this, slide it out of the hub.
  • Next, you will lower the wheel out of the dropouts.
  • Grab pliers or a screwdriver to remove the pad retention screw or bolt. (You may need to remove a pin or circlip if it has one).
  • Check for tabs on the back of the pads to remove them, which is common with disc brakes.
  • Using pliers or your fingers, grab the small tabs and pinch them together to pull out the pads.

How Do You Insert New Disc Brake Pads?

Now that you have successfully removed the disc brake pads from your bike, you can replace them.

Before you replace them, take the time to clean the brake tracks and inspect the caliper. Follow these steps to prepare for replacement:

  • Take a look at the inside of the caliper with a flashlight and make sure the pistons are seated.
  • For pistons that have shifted, you can press them back into the caliper body with a flat tool like a tire lever.
  • Use rubbing alcohol on a clean rag to wipe down the brake tracks and remove any built-up debris.

Once you have finished the cleaning and inspection, you can move on to the replacement of the disc brake pads, following these steps:

  • Slide the new brake pads and spring into the caliper.
  • You should be able to feel the pads seat into place, even if there is not a “clicking” sound.
  • Next, you will replace the screw or bolt (and in some cases, the fixing pin).
  • Squeeze your brake lever and see if the pistons retract, and then spin the wheel, listening to see if the pads are brushing the rotor (this will indicate they are too close).
  • If the pads are too close, remove the wheel and use a flat tool to insert in the caliper between the brake pads, pressing each one back until you re-seat the pistons.
  • Next, you will do something known as “bedding in” the pads: pedal up to 10 miles per hour on your bike and brake on one lever. Do this up to 10 times with gradually increasing force for both the rear and front brakes.
  • You can also use this product on disc brakes to reduce noise.

A Final Tip on Brake Pad Types

Consider the material of the brake pads when replacing them. They can either be metallic or organic/resin. There is no need to change materials if you have been satisfied with the brake performance on your bike; if you have been unhappy, you may consider switching.

The organic/resin pads are the most common, and they are often favored because they are quieter. The metallic pads have better holding power during sustained braking but with a noisy sound, and they are known to grind through rotors quicker than the resin pads.

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