Common Types of Bicycle Brakes – 8 Pro Tips for Braking

common types of bicycle brakes featured image

Brakes play the vital role of slowing down your bike whenever you need to. Bicycle braking systems provide “braking power” and continue to evolve for enhanced performance. This article will look at the different bicycle braking systems found in modern bicycles and even road bikes, including their operational mechanisms, where the specific type is most appropriate, and pros and cons.

Coaster brakes

A coaster brake is a rear brake that is operated by pedaling backwards and applying pressure on the braking surface. Therefore, this braking system has no cables or hand levers. Once engaged, it lets the bicycle roll in a similar way as freewheeling without having to engage the pedals.

They are commonly fitted as the rear brakes for single-speed bikes and kids’ bikes. They do not work well on bikes that have rear gears unless the rear gear is situated in the hub.

If your bicycle brakes have coaster brakes, it is important to have a backup braking system such as a handbrake or fixed gear. As mentioned earlier, coaster brakes tend to fail totally and without warning. In the event of a total brake failure you want to have a back-up braking system for your braking power.

Pros

  • Easy to operate
  • Require minimal maintenance
  • Work well in both dry and wet conditions
  • You can coast while pedaling (common technic applied by in cycling acrobatics)
  • Ideal for people who do not have arms such as amputees

Cons

  • Coaster brakes tend to fail suddenly and beyond repair
  • Can cause skidding if engaged suddenly which increases the bicycle tires tear and wear
  • They are prone to overheating when riding in steep terrains

Rim brakes

close of bicycle rim brakes on front tire

Rim brakes are the most common type of braking systems on modern bicycles. This bike braking system has been around since the 19th century, and it is compatible with most types of bikes. Rim brakes work by applying braking force on the rim of the wheel via the braking surface.

The rim braking system consists of a braking lever that is situated at the handlebar, a cable that transmits the force, and two bike braking pads that press against the rim to stop or slow down the wheels. Rim braking pads are categorized broadly as either a caliper brake or cantilever brake.

Caliper brakes

These type of rim brakes are attached either on the frame or fork using a bolt. As such, they are only compatible with bikes whose fork or frame have bolt holes but they are not ideal for bikes that have wider rims. Caliper brakes have two arms that extend to either side of the wheel and have a brake shoe on each end which presses against the rim for braking. They are most commonly found in road bikes. They can be further categorized into four depending on the position of the cables as follows:

  • Side pull rim brakes: The cable is attached on either of the two arms. They are simple and work effectively for narrower wheels. If not fitted properly, they tend to lean more on one side causing unequal application of braking forces on the brake pads. They are most commonly found on dual bikes.
  • Center pull rim brakes: The arms come out to the brake-pads in a Y-shape and the cable is attached at the middle. The brake cable is straddled across both arms for an even application of the braking force. Generally, they are affordably priced. The offer better braking efficiency than side-pull brakes as the distance between the cable and brake pads is short. For optimal performance, the fixed bridge that holds the pivot has to be sturdy.
  • U-brakes: These are similar to center pull brakes with the only difference being that the pivot attaches directly to the fork or frame unlike in the center pull brakes where it attaches to separate bridge frame that is then mounted to the fork or frame using a bolt. U-brakes are commonly found in BMX freestyle bikes. This type of brakes has minimal sideways protrusion therefore do not interfere with the rider.
  • Dual pivot rim brakes: One of the arms pivots at the center, similar to side pull caliber brakes, while the other is attached to the inner side of the fork. The combined center and double pull offers excellent braking which explains why dual pivot caliber brakes are common in modern racing bikes. Often, when used on professional climbing bikes, the quick-release function of the rear brakes is undone to reduce drag when going up. These types of brakes do not work well in rims that are out of tune.

Cantilever brakes

These types of rim brake have two separate arms. Each arm attaches separately on each side of the fork or seat stays. As such, these brakes are dual-pivoted. A cantilever brake is compatible with a bike that has brazed-on frames and forks. They are ideal for bikes that have wider rims such as mountain bikes. They are preferred among cyclists because they are light, affordable, and easy to maintain. Cantilever brakes can be categorized into 2 as follows:

  • Center-pull cantilever brakes: These are the traditional cantilever brakes. Although you can still find them in some modern, suspension-less bicycles, they have been faced out by the V-brakes. Like center pull caliber brakes, they have a cable stop that attaches to the fork or frame which straddles the cable between the angled arms.
  • V-brakes: Also known as linear-pull or direct-pull brakes. They are the most common type of cantilever brakes in modern bikes. They are the side-pull version of caliper brakes. They have longer arms than center-pull cantilever brakes. Their design is such that the cable is attached to one arm, while the arm housing it is attached to the other arm. When engaged, the cable and cable housing pull towards each other, causing the arms to draw together so as to apply an equal force on the brake pads. V-brakes are best used with bikes that have suspensions such as mountain bikes.

Advantages of rim brakes

  • Light
  • Easy to maintain
  • Offer adequate stopping power
  • Inexpensive

Disadvantages of rim brakes

  • Their braking performance is compromised if the rims are wet
  • Their brake pads wear unevenly
  • Cause the rim to wear or break over time
  • Application of brakes over a long descent causes heat dissipation which may lead to brake failure

Tips for using rim brakes efficiently

  1. Ceramic-coated rims require specialized brake pads for a braking surface, as the rims tend to heat up reducing braking efficiency especially in wet conditions. If you are keen about ceramic coated rims, it is best to go for the ones that are coated with chromium as it can withstand heat.
  2. If you will be riding in wet conditions regularly, go for brake pads that contain iron trioxide as opposed to rubber pads. The latter offers better friction on the rims when riding.
  3. For reduced rim wear, the brake pads should be hard to avoid embedding road grit on the rim.

Disc Brakes

close up of bicycle disc brake

Disc brakes are the second most common type of braking systems in modern bicycles. They work by applying braking force on the rotor that is located at the middle of the wheel. When you engage the brake lever at the handlebar, the force is transmitted through the cables or caliber to the pistons. The pistons of a disc brake bike then push the brake pads against the rotor causing the wheel to either slow down or come to a total stop depending on the amount of force that you applied on the brake lever.

There are two main types of disc brakes: Hydraulic and mechanical.

Hydraulic disc brakes

A hydraulic bicycle disc brake has a cable that contains mineral oil or brake fluid which transmits force to the pistons and brake pad. Unlike a mechanical disc brake, a hydraulic disc brake is quieter and has a stronger, even superb braking power. However, their maintenance process is a bit intricate as you regularly need to remove air bubbles from the mineral oil and the cable housing. Also, when engaged too frequently, the brake fluid tends to overheat.

Mechanical disc brakes

Mechanical disc brakes, or mechanical brakes, are also referred to as cable disc brakes. As the name suggests, they have a steel cable that links the brake lever at the handlebar to the brake pad. The cable transmits the force applied at the brake lever to the pistons for braking at the bike brake pads. This type of disc brakes produces a high stopping power but they tend to be noisy. Some challenges associated with mechanical disc brakes include sag in the cable that causes loss of braking force during transmission, making them unreliable. However, they are easier to maintain and cheaper bicycle brakes.

Advantages of disc brakes

  • Offer excellent stopping power for bike brakes
  • Operate with a high level of precision
  • Work well for all weather conditions
  • Do not cause rim wear
  • They are reliable

Disadvantages

  • They are quite heavy and may cause your bike to feel heavier
  • They are super-delicate bike brakes
  • Require regular and complex maintenance

Tips for using disc brakes efficiently

  1. Since disc bike brakes work by applying force on the rotor, for the braking to be smooth and powerful the rotor has to be clean. Cleaning solutions such as isopropyl work well.
  2. Equally, it is important to keep the brake pads clean, free of dirt or oil. There is no way to effectively clean the bike brake pads and once contaminated the only solution is to remove them.
  3. Disc brakes can only be used with compatible bikes. Disc brake compatible bicycles have forks and frames that have braze-ons while the hub has a capability for holding a rotor.
  4. Ensure that the rotor is not bent. Any bends may compromise efficient braking force transmission which could lead to bike brake failure, so beware when it comes to a road bike, or bikes used on terrain when it’s not easy to stop. If the brakes work anyway, a bent rotor is likely to be noisy when you apply braking force on the brake system.

Disc brakes vs Rim brakes

Most modern bike systems have either disc brakes or rim brakes. While both have their place in their cycling world, there has been a huge debate about which is better.

Initially, disc brakes were a reserve for mountain bikes. However, they are gaining popularity in cyclocross bikes and professional cycling road bikes. Generally, disc brakes are more expensive than rim bike brakes but they offer a higher and precise stopping power. Unlike rim brakes where you cannot optimize braking power, with disc brakes you can do so by changing to rotors to bigger ones.

Disc brakes are effective when riding in wet weather conditions, so consider this for touring bikes. This is because the brake pads are situated away from the ground, reducing interference by mud and water splashes. In the case of rim brakes, as the wheel rotates when riding, it is likely to accumulate water and dirt, reducing braking friction which could lead to bike brake failure. Further, rotors have holes that allow dissipation of water, dirt, and mud, preventing build up.

Rim brakes are lighter than disc brakes, which makes them the best option if you are keen about the overall weight of your bike and its relative braking power. On the other hand, since disc brakes are heavier, they can handle a higher maximum load. As such, they are a great option if you bikepack regularly or you are of a heavier build.

When it comes to bike system maintenance, disc brakes are more delicate and require regular maintenance than rim bike brakes. The main challenge with rim brakes is that they tend to wear out the rim over time. In this scenario, it is cheaper to replace a disc brake than it is a bicycle rim.

When choosing between disc brakes and rim brakes, consider your riding style, types of bicycle, and personal preference against the pros and cons of each type of brakes as discussed above.

8 Pro Tips for Braking

active biker applying brake during practice

Poor braking technique can make your riding experience unpleasant. Some signs that you are not great at braking include regular rear tire skidding when you brake, braking too often, and braking in the wrong places among others. Below are 8 tips for braking like a pro:

  1. Position your body correctly when braking

Do you really mean that there is a specific body position for braking? Yes, while you could break from any position, some positions offer better braking control and efficiency than other.

If you are observant, you will notice that seasoned cyclists tend to adjust their posture when braking. The next time you are braking, place your bottom backward and shoulders downward. Then, make your hands as weightless as possible and gradually and gently squeeze the brake levers. Once the brakes start to apply, drop your heels downwards on the pedal while keeping your hands weightless. When ready to accelerate, gradually release the levers and come back to a neutral riding position.

  1. Slow down before getting to bumps or rough terrains

Don’t wait until you are at the bump or rocky section to brake. Slow down beforehand. Approaching such sections at a comfortable speed will give you the confidence to maneuver without apprehension.

  1. Use the correct braking technique for maneuvering around corners

Ideally, you want to slow down as much as possible before approaching the corner. If you find your speed too high at the beginning of the corner, slow down further as you take the corner. Keep your body weight low, drop the hands, and apply a gentle and equal pressure on the levers.

Once you have achieved a manageable speed, release and ride around the corner at the particular speed. If you catch yourself at a high speed at the corner and you want to brake, apply a gentle brake on the rear wheel and avoid touching the front brakes. It is safer to skid on the rear wheel than on the front wheel at a high speed.

  1. Brake before you exceed your comfortable speed

Don’t wait until you have exceeded you comfortable riding speed to break, slow down earlier. Otherwise, you might panic and end up engaging the brakes too suddenly which could cause a crash or skidding.

  1. Change your braking technique according to the weather conditions

The braking technique on wet roads is different from the technique on dry roads. While you can afford a hard brake on dry roads, it can be fatal on wet roads. It is advisable to maintain a comfortable speed on wet roads and brake softly. Also, be on the lookout for extra slippery sections and manholes so that you can start braking before you get to them to avoid a hard brake. When braking hard on dry roads, first apply pressure on the front brake and then slowly to the rear brake to prevent the rear wheel from skidding.

  1. Check your brakes before every ride

Test your brakes before each ride to ascertain that they are working. Ensure that the bike brakes are clean dry for effective braking force transmission. Ascertain that the breaking pads and cables are in good condition.

  1. Ensure you have high-quality tires

Even if your bike brakes have excellent stopping power, low traction tires can compromise the bikes braking efficiency. Go for tires that have deep treads and avoid over inflating them.

  1. Service your bike regularly

Keep your bicycle in tip-top condition throughout. Ensure the drive train is clean and well lubricated. Regularly check all nuts and bolts to confirm that they are adequately tight. Inspect the frame for any bends or broken parts.

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