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Types of Bike Brakes Explained

different types of bike brakes

Do you have bike brake-related questions that need answering?

The fact you’ve ended up here suggests you might, and you’re in luck! 

This comprehensive bicycle brakes guide covers various topics, including understanding the different types of bike brakes, how to choose a bike brake, and which type of brake to utilise for different cycling disciplines.

By the end of my short guide to bike brakes, you’ll understand all of the essential bike brake basics.

On top of this, you’ll learn several crucial brake maintenance tips and tricks that will keep you safe on the road and increase your enjoyment whilst cycling!

Table of Contents
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    What Are Bike Brakes?

    Brakes are the part of a bicycle that allow you to regulate the speed you’re travelling at.

    Engaging the brakes on a bike will decrease your speed whilst cycling and, if necessary, bring your bike to a complete stop.

    Understandably, brakes are an essential safety feature of a bike. They allow cyclists to quickly adjust their speed to suit their surroundings and avoid potential dangers whilst riding. 

    Bicycle rim brake

    How Do Bike Brakes Work?

    Brakes work by applying friction to a surface.

    While mechanical brakes use cables to activate the brakes, hydraulic bikes use fluid to engage their braking pads.

    It’s essential to understand how both of these mechanisms work. This will allow you to choose the best type of bike brake for your riding style:

    How Do Mechanical Bike Brakes Work?

    When a cyclist pulls a mechanical bike brake, the lever pulls a cable which causes the calliper to be pulled and tightened.

    Once tightened, the calliper’s braking pads apply friction to the braking surface helping to slow the bike or bring it to a stop.

    How Do Hydraulic Bike Brakes Work?

    When a cyclist engages their hydraulic brake lever, the lever puts pressure on the hydraulic fluid, which sits inside an airtight braking hose.

    As the braking fluid is compressed, it causes the calliper to tighten and the brake pads to apply friction to the braking surface, slowing the bike or bringing it to a stop.

    close up image of hydraulic bike brake bleeding
    Hydraulic brake bleeding is essential to keep your brakes functioning properly, I explain how to do this later

    Just below, I explain the pros and cons of either braking system.

    I’ll also cover the different types of bike brakes on the market. So keep reading and find out which kind of brake suits your riding style. 

    Different Types of Bike Brakes Explained

    There are four major types of bike brakes: disc, rim, coaster, and drum brakes.

    In general, disc brakes and rim brakes are considered the most popular and commonly used. Still, each of these brakes offers a unique set of benefits, features, and compatibility with specific cycling disciplines.

    Here you’ll learn the pros and cons of each brake type as well as the disciplines they’re suitable for. 

    Bicycle Disc Brakes Explained

    bike mechanical disc brakes explained

    Disc Brake Pros

    Disk Brake Cons

    Disc brakes are one of the most powerful bike brake types on the marketplace. Although invented after the rim brake, they are arguably the most well-regarded brakes in cycling, due to their increased responsiveness and consistent performance in all weather conditions.

    Their braking strength and versatility enable disc brakes to accommodate mountain bikers on extreme offroading adventures and races.

    That being said, disc brakes are also suitable for casual non-competitive cycling. They’ve grown rapidly in popularity in recent years and are a common sight on many new hybrid and commuter bikes

    Parts of a Disc Brake

    Disc Brake Rotors

    Rotors are the portion of disc brakes found on the bike’s wheels. Rotors come in a variety of sizes, from 140 mm to 205 mm.

    In general, larger rotors are heavier and more equipped for mountain biking and other rugged, fast-paced races as they generate more torque on the wheel (a greater braking force). 

    Larger rotors also allow better heat dissipation, meaning cooler brakes and better stopping power.

    installing a new disc brake rotor on a bike
    Disc Brake Calipers

    Disc brake callipers are another essential component of a disc brake.

    When the brake lever puts the braking fluid under pressure, this causes the callipers to contract. 

    The callipers hold the braking pads, so when they contract, the brake pad is moved towards the braking surface, applying pressure on the rotor to slow the bike’s speed.

    Bike disc brake caliper on mountain bike
    Disc Brake Pads

    Disc brake pads are found inside the calliper and are the point of contact that meets the braking surface. 

    Disc brake pads have a grippy surface that slows the wheel’s rotation by increasing friction on the disc rotor.

    There are three different types of disc brake pads:

    Resin disc brake pads, otherwise known as organic pads, are made from natural fibers held together by resin. Resin pads tend to be less squeaky and are quicker to bed in than other disc brake pads.

    Sintered or metal disc pads are composed of metal and are typically more versatile and durable in adverse weather conditions.

    Finally, semi-metal disc brake pads combine many of the benefits that sintered and organic pads offer. They’re typically more expensive but provide greater durability and top level braking power.

    different types of disc brake pads

    Mechanical vs Hydraulic Disc Brakes

    The difference between mechanical and hydraulic disc brakes is that mechanical disc brakes use a cable friction mechanism while hydraulic disc brakes use fluid[1].

    The chart below displays their unique pros and cons.

    Mechanical Brakes

    Hyrdaulic Brakes

    Bicycle Rim Brakes Explained

    Bicycle disc brakes explained

    Rim Brake Pros

    Rim Brake Cons

    Rim brakes are an older style of brake that have slowly decreased in popularity since the introduction of disc brakes.

    Rim brakes are lightweight and compact, making them a popular brake choice for road cyclists who aim to be as aerodynamic as possible.

    Rim brakes usually sit above the wheel and when squeezed, apply friction to the braking surface along the rim’s perimeter. This increased friction will decrease the turning speed of the wheels. 

    There are several different styles of rim brake available: 

    Caliper Rim Brakes

    Caliper rim brakes are commonly found on road bikes as they are lightweight and efficient.

    There are two types of caliper rim brakes, single-pivot calipers and dual-pivot calipers.

    Single calipers have one pivot in the brake while duals pivot on two points.

    Their increased leverage provides dual pivot calipers with more modulation and power than a single-pivot caliper rim brake.

    Bicycle caliper rim brakes explained

    V Brakes

    In the past, V brakes were thought to be a great option for off-roading and hybrid biking.

    Though disc brakes are more widely used now, some cyclists still use the V brakes today.

    V brakes are powerful and strong with long arms for elevated stability over many other brakes.

    Bike v brakes explained

    Cantilever Rim Brakes

    A cantilever rim brake is similar to a V brake yet provides better performance in muddy and slippery terrain.

    Cantilever rim brakes are pulled taught by a straddle cable that connects them both. Some cyclocross riders choose to use cantilever brakes due to their increased tire clearance and strong stopping power in all weather. 

    Cantilever rim brakes are generally found on older bikes, and you won’t find them on most new bikes. 

    Bicycle cantilever rim brakes explained

    Bicycle Coaster Brakes Explained

    Coaster Brake Pros

    Coaster Brake Cons

    Coaster brakes are a unique type of brake whereby riders pedal backwards to stop the bike.

    Coaster breaks are commonly found on city bikes and cruiser bicycles, as they are ideal for a suited to leisurely rides in urban areas.

    Because coaster brakes sit inside the rear hub, they are shielded from the rain and perform well in all conditions. 

    Coaster brakes also don’t require any cables, giving bikes they’re used with a cleaner finish.

    Some internally geared hubs also utilise a coaster brake and allow cyclists to shift between gears by quickly pushing the pedals in an anti-clockwise direction. 

    Bicycle Drum Brakes Explained

    bicycle drum brakes explained

    Drum Brake Pros

    Drum Brake Cons

    Drum brakes are a type of hub brake that sit at the centre of the wheel and use internal brake shoes to apply friction to the outer drum, reducing the bicycle’s speed or bringing it to a halt.

    Invented in 1902, drum brakes were a popular type of brake used by automobiles and were also a common sight on bicycles around the world. 

    Nowadays, drum brakes aren’t found on new bikes, because disc and rim brakes have become the new norm thanks to their reliability and ease of maintenance. 

    History of Bike Brakes

    The first reported braking mechanism dates back to the velocipede. Karl von Drais invented a braking shoe to slow down the bicycle’s rear wheel.

    The first bike brake that served as an inspiration to a modern-day version was the spoon brake in the early 1800s.

    This braking system operated with the help of a handlebar lever, similar to today’s bicycle brakes.

    First bicycle invented without brakes karl von drais
    Karl Von Drais' first original vehicle, the Laufmaschine, had no brakes at all!

    Despite their flaws, spoon brakes were used with early bikes for several years until the lightweight and efficient calliper brake came into fruition, created by Browett and Harrison in 1887.

    Of the brakes designed throughout the years, arguably the most notable invention was the modern bicycle disc brake, inspired by similar mechanisms on motorcycle brakes.

    Which Are The Best Types of Bike Brakes?

    As you’ll have gathered by now, different types of bike brakes are suitable for different cycling disciplines. 

    Here we’ll cover the two most popular cycling disciplines, road and mountain biking. 

    In general, disc brakes are known to be the best braking option for mountain biking.

    This is because a disc brake is much stronger and more durable than a rim brake, making them safer to use on off-road trails.

    There is less need to worry about tires overheating or brakes slipping on the mud as easily with disc brakes, meaning you can focus your attention on the upcoming terrain.

    Best Types of Bike Brake for Mountain Biking

    In general, disc brakes are known to be the best braking option for mountain bikers.

    Disc brakes are much stronger and more durable than most rim brakes, which means they are much safer to use on dangerous off-roading trails.

    With a disc brake, there is no need to worry about an overheated tire or brakes slipping on mud or not being responsive in wet weather[8].

    On long downhill descents, excessive or improper braking can cause blowouts, which can easily result in injury when travelling off-road at high speed. 

    You’ll also notice if watching, that the majority of cyclists in professional mountain bike races opt for disc brakes, especially in downhill and enduro cycling. 

    Best Types of Bike Brake for Road Biking

    There are pros and cons associated with both a disc brake and a rim brake for road biking use.

    In general, road cyclists that are most concerned with their speed and aerodynamics would prefer a lightweight rim brake over a disc.

    If you use your road bike for everyday commuting on busy urban roads, you might be better off with the stopping power of a disc brake in the case of unexpected obstacles and passersby.

    If you plan to use your road bike in both rain and shine, a disc brake will work for both of these conditions.

    If you ride an older bike that uses rim brakes, it may be more hassle than it’s worth to convert your bike to disc brakes. 

    However, similarly to mountain biking, if you take to the mountains on your rides, riding with rim brakes can cause blowouts due to the excessive heating of the rim on long, steep downhill sections.

    Personally, I’d opt for a disc brake.

    Bike Brake Maintenance

    Essential bike maintenance tips

    Bike brake maintenance is essential to keep your brakes functioning safely and efficiently.

    Cyclists should perform regular maintenance approximately every six months or when they get dirty or worn.

    As brake pads tend to wear out fairly quickly, it is super important to keep an eye on their wear before any issues arise.

    Here are some maintenance tips for keeping your brakes in optimal condition:

    Bicycle Rim & Disc Brake Maintenance Tips

    Perform the following routine rim brake maintenance evaluations to make sure your rim brakes continue working reliably.

    Top Tips for Rim Brake Maintenance
    Quickly check your rim brakes every month or before beginning any long-distance/intense bike rides
    Check your brake pads for wear, and if there is less than one and a half millimeters of brake compound left, or they're worn past the minimum wear line it's time to replace them
    If there is a groove in the brake pads, they might be misaligned and should be fixed
    Check to make sure the brake is aligned centrally by adjusting the centering screw 
    Check your brake pads for any debris, stones or unwanted dirt, remove if found
    File the brake pads to remove gunk and debris buildup
    Rim braking surfaces do wear out over time, pay attention to your rims, and when the max wear spot or groove dissapear, it's time to replace your wheels
    Check on the inner cable and replace any frayed ones immediately 

    Adhering to the following disc brake maintenance tips will help ensure your disc brakes remain reliable for when you need them!

    Top Tips for Disc Brake Maintenance
    Don’t ever brake without a rotor inside the caliper of the bike. Doing so will cause the pistons to need readjusting, which is a real faff! (See video below)
    When removing wheels for maintenance, put an object in between the braking pads or pistons to prevent a lever from being accidentally squeezed
    Bleed your hydraulic disc brake to replace any contaminated brake fluid or remove any air bubbles in the system
    In the case of rotor or pad contamination, always take care and ensure that no lubricants or foreign chemicals come into contact with the rotors or pads.
    Regularly clean with disc brake cleaner and remove contamination wearing gloves with alcohol

    How to Bleed Hydraulic Disc Brakes

    Below you’ll find a step by step process for bleeding hydraulic disc brakes.

    You should bleed your brakes roughly once a year or if your brakes become spongy and full of air. 

    A giveaway sign that your hydraulic brakes need bleeding is your hydraulic brake lever pulling completely back to your handlebar. 

    If your lever is pulling back too far or your hydraulic disc brakes don’t feel responsive, it’s worth bleeding them following the steps below:

    1. Grab a set of allen keys and a bleed kit
    2. Clean the caliper and lever
    3. Prepare the lever with the Allen key and move it upwards so it is level
    4. Undo the small Allen key bolt on the lever
    5. Screw in your bleed pump
    6. Take off the dust cap of the caliper
    7. Attach the bleed syringe, fill it with mineral oil, and undo the valve with the Allen key
    8. Pump the fluid into the bike and flick the cable to get rid of any air bubbles
    9. Tighten and seal the valve
    10. Safely dispose of the old fluid and replace the levers dust cap
    11. Pull the hose away from the caliper and clean and replace the dust cap

    Bike Brake FAQs

    To convert wheels to work with a new type of bike brake you’ll have to make some changes.

    However, you depending on your bike’s current setup, you may not have to compeltely replace your wheels. 

    Disc brakes require a rotor to be mounted to a central wheel hub that offers mounting points for a disc rotor.

    If your rim brake wheels don’t offer disc brake rotor mounts, you could technically convert them by replacing the hub. However, this will be a time consuming and costly process and you may be better off buying a new wheelset.

    If you’re using disc wheels and want to use these with rim brakes, they’d need to have a braking surface, which many disc brake wheels won’t have. I don’t recommend this conversion, you’ll need a new wheelset to make this work safely.  

    In general, V brakes are known to be more advanced and user-friendly bike brakes than cantilevers. Their increased leverage helps V brakes provide excellent stopping power compared to cantilever breaks, and they’re also less hassle to adjust and maintain than cantilever brakes.

    Cantilever brakes, however, are some of the most inexpensive brakes on the market. Therefore many elect to use cantilevers.

    V brakes earned their name because the original German inventor, Florian Wiessman, called them “Wies-brakes.”

    This name sounds somehow similar to  “V brakes” in the English language so that they were named.

    Not because of their V-like shape!

    Direct mount brakes are installed directly to the bike frame or fork, separating the caliper into halves and explaining their name.

    In general, these brakes are very stiff (making them efficient) and lightweight compared to regular rim brakes.

    Many road bike fanatics opt for direct mount brakes because they sit close to the bike frame, increasing aerodynamic performance. 

    The best choice between V brakes and disc brakes depends on the main benefit you are seeking from your brakes.

    If you want an inexpensive brake that’s simple to maintain, then a V brake is the better choice.

    On the other hand, if you want a powerful, durable braking system that’s reliable in all weather conditions, disc brakes will be the better option.

    Be aware a decent disc brake setup will cost substantially more than most V brakes.

    Squeaky bike brakes are a common annoyance for cyclists, and can be caused by a variety of issues:

    Squeaky brakes can be caused by excessive wear of the brake pad, a misaligned braking pad, or a buildup of grease, dust, or lube within or on the brake.

    Be sure to inspect a squeaky bike brake to address any causes of squeaking, which can potentially be unsafe to ride with!

    Replace worn pads, realign offset pads and clean dirty brakes. 

    If your disc brakes are stuck in a closed position, address this issue as soon as possible so that your brakes are responsive whilst cycling. 

    Jammed bike disc brakes are quite a common issue and can normally be fixed very easily. 

    Bike disc brake levers should not be squeezed when the disc rotor isn’t inside the caliper. This causes the pads to come too far out of the caliper, unable to return to their original position. 

    If your disc brake pads are stuck, you’ll need a flathead screwdriver or another flat metal tool.

    Remove the wheel affected by the jammed disc brake and use the screwdriver to gently pry the brake pads back inside the caliper.

    Make sure to be gentle with the brake pads, using the flat side of the screwdriver to return them to their original position.

    Now attach the wheel, making sure the disc rotor is inserted before attempting to test the brakes!

    Conclusion - Types of Bike Brakes Explained

    If you’ve read my guide to different types of bike brakes, thank you and congratulations on becoming a brake nerd!

    You’ll now understand which types of bike brakes are suitable for the cycling disciplines you pursue, as well as being able to carry out essential brake maintenance and routine checks.

    Hopefully, you’ve found this guide helpful. Check out my other guides for many more helpful cycling tips, including lots of security stuff!

    Finally, if you’re not already using one, get yourself a reliable high-security bike lock so that you can stop worrying about your two-wheeled friend at night.

    Remember, lock it, or lose it!

    Ciao for now.

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    Hello! My name’s James, I’m an avid cyclist and the lead editor of BikeLockWiki.

    I’ve invested over four years into researching & studying bicycle security. Now I want to share the information I’ve learnt, for free, with the online cycling community.

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