Quick & Easy Guide to Adjusting Bike Brakes the Right Way

Quick & Easy Guide to Adjusting Bike Brakes the Right Way

Until a couple of years ago, I was paying $8-$15 almost every two months to have someone adjust my bike brakes and an additional $20 to get them serviced – something decent bikes don’t need too often.

Then I finally thought to myself – “how hard would it be to just do it myself?” Turns out, adjusting your own brakes is pretty easy if you know how to hold a screwdriver and what you’re doing.

In this quick guide, I’ll let you in on everything I’ve learned so far to make brake adjustment relatively easy.

Bike Parts You Should Know Before Adjusting Brakes

1. Brake Pads

Brake pads are the most important part of the brake mechanism. They’re made of soft heat-resistant metal and are used to introduce resistance to the mechanism.

When you pull the brake lever on the handlebar, the brake pads are pressed against the wheel’s rim to slow the bike’s speed or stop it entirely.

2. Barrel Adjusters and Brake Wire

You’ve already seen the brake wire if you have a bike. It’s that black wire that starts from the handlebar and, for some reason, goes to the wheel. Brake wire is used to tighten the brake pads.

And barrel adjusters are those silver bolts on the brake wire. You can use them to tighten or loosen the brake wire quickly without opening the entire mechanism. Think of them as a temporary but effective solution, though they’re much more than that.

3. Brake Calipers

Brake calipers are the metal clamps that hold the brake wire and brake pads in position. They’re the backbone of the braking mechanism.

Testing bike brakes

How to adjust bike brakes?

Bike brakes are absolutely the most crucial part of your bike. They save you from accidents and help you control speed. In layman’s terms, pulling the brake lever towards you makes the brake pads clamp down on the front wheel to introduce resistance.

After a certain number of uses, the brakes tend to get misaligned from their correct position. The most common outcome is the brake pad leaning towards the wheel and rubbing against it. And here’s how you adjust them:

1. Fix Brake Pad Adjustment

Checking brake pads

First, inspect your brakes before you make any adjustments. The worst possible outcome is your brake pads being worn down.

Good brake pads have a wear line indicator on them so that the rider knows when to simply adjust them and when to replace them altogether. In case there’s no wear line, there’ll still be markings on the sides of the pads.

If the wear and tear have reached the “wear line,” that means it’s time to get new brake pads. 

Checking brake pads alignment

Assuming that your brake pads are in working condition, you’ll have to check their alignment (according to the wheel’s position) next. This is to confirm whether they’re too close to the wheel rim or too far from it. If they’re too close, it’ll start rubbing.

And if you experience any spongey feeling, then the pads are too far away. So, even if you were to pull the brake, the pads wouldn’t touch the rim simultaneously or sit flush with the rim.

To check this, just squeeze the brake lever, crouch down, and notice how the brake pads are coming in contact with the wheel rim. Don’t just keep an eye out for “too close” or “too far.”

The pads must touch the rim right in the middle, but they can be misaligned vertically too. If the lever is too high, it’ll touch the rubber instead of the rim. If it’s too low, it’ll touch the wheel’s spokes. 

Time to fix the alignment

People often run away from mechanical work because “they’re not good with tools.” The best part here is that you only need an Allen wrench to adjust your bike’s brakes.

Use the wrench on the bolt directly against the brake pad and rotate it counter-clockwise to loosen the bolt and the brake pads themselves.

Keep in mind that you must not unscrew the bolt. Just loosen it up a little bit so that the brake pads can move easily, otherwise, the pads will fall out of place.

Good brakes mean better riding experience

Adjusting vertical alignment

The brake pads will now be easy to adjust – move the brake pads up and down to re-center them with the rim. Don’t push (or pull) it too hard because you might break the pads. If there’s any resistance, simply loosen the bolt a bit more.

Once you’ve locked in on your desired position, use your thumb and fingers to provide enough pressure so that the brake pad doesn’t tilt when you screw it back.

Lock the pads with horizontal alignment in mind

Pull out your Allen wrench and screw the pads back in, but be careful about its horizontal alignment. It shouldn’t be too close or too far from the rim.

The distance of 3 millimeters or one-eighth of an inch (1/8 inch) between the rim and brake pads is considered the sweet spot for most modern esoteric bikes.

2. Fix Brake Cable Adjustment

Brake pad misalignment might be the most common issue, but it’s not the only one. If the pads are okay, check the brake cables next.

Testing brake tension

This one is pretty easy – just pull each lever on the bike’s handle to check the tension (or tightness) of your bike’s lever and brake cable. Ideally, the brake level should be 1.5 inches away from the bike’s grip (or handlebar).

If the lever hits the grip when pulled, it’s too loose. And if you can’t pull it properly, then it’s too tight, which can put unnecessary stress on the brake mechanism.

Play with barrel adjusters next

Barrel adjusters are exactly like thumb screws, meaning you can easily loosen or tighten them with your hands. First, loosen the barrel adjusters to fix the loose cable issue. It’s ironic, I know, but it is what it is.

This is because their screw thread is in the opposite direction from the screw thread of brake cables. So turning barrel adjusters counter-clockwise will tighten the brake cables. Now check again by pulling the brake lever.

If it’s still loose, leave the barrel adjuster as is and move on to playing with the calipers.

Adjusting brake calipers

Brake calipers are located over the pads – holding them in place. Find the caliper bolt that’s holding the brake cables in place and unscrew it using the Allen wrench.

Like the brake pad bolts, turn it counter-clockwise a couple of times to loosen it up, but don’t unscrew it entirely.

Tighten the brake cable manually

It’ll be easy to move the cable now but keep the amount of force in check, or you might take the cable out of its hold entirely. Pull the cable outside and notice the tightening of brake pads on the front tire because that’s your indicator.

Find the right balance by manually moving the tire – it should be tight enough to introduce resistance but not too much to stop the wheel completely. Once the brake cable is in its desired position, screw the bolt back in using the Allen wrench.

Seal the barrel adjuster and test

Now that the brake cable has been tightened from the caliper’s end, you can screw the barrel adjusters back in their original position. Up to this point, your brake cables should still be tighter than necessary. Rotate the adjuster clockwise until the cable has the right amount of tension.

Finally, test the brake cables again using the same methods – 1.5 inches away from the handlebar.

Testing brakes in the city

How to diagnose if your bike brakes need adjustment?

I’ve made it a habit to check my bike’s brakes whenever I go biking around the city or mountain biking with my buddies. And it’s pretty easy too. There are two or three basic tells or indications, if you may, that means your brakes need to be adjusted or replaced.

  • A squealing sound from the brakes indicates that the brake pads are making partial contact with the rim. The brakes either need adjustment or replacement in this case.
  • If the brakes feel spongy or “weak,” then the brake cable needs to be adjusted, in most cases. This usually happens as a result of inadequate tension.
  • If there’s any vibration when using your brakes, something could be broken in the mechanism. This can either be fixed from minor adjustments or require replacement parts.

Pro Tips for Quick Resolution (Key Takeaways)

Here are some tips for quick resolution if you ever find yourself in a pinch.

1. How do I stop my bike brakes from rubbing?

If your bike brakes start rubbing mid-biking, quickly take out your Allen wrench and loosen up the brake pad a little bit. You can make minor adjustments using the barrel adjusters and then diagnose properly when you reach home or base camp.

2. Why are my bike brakes sticking?

Bike brakes can get sticky for two main reasons: either the brake mechanism needs lubrication (can be solved by putting some oil on the pads), or the brake calipers need adjustment. If the caliper is misaligned, it won’t release when you pull the lever, causing the sticky sensation.

3. What causes a brake caliper not to release?

Brake calipers use an effortless and straightforward mechanism, so there are only two reasons to stop them from releasing. One is that the caliper is pretty old, worn down, and has succumbed to rust. And the other is the brake pad is worn down.

Though a worn-down brake pad technically means that the caliper is releasing, nothing is happening because the pads aren’t making contact.

Now you’re ready to diagnose your bike and fix your brakes when needed. The best part, now you don’t have to pay bike shops to adjust your brakes for you!