Whether you’re looking to upgrade your braking system, choose a new bike, or just learn how your machine works, understanding the different types of bicycle brake types is vital knowledge for any cyclist.
There’s an ocean of information on the internet about bike braking systems, but it can be overwhelming and sometimes contradictory.
Therefore, we’ve condensed everything you need to know about bicycle brake types into one place.
To help you learn your dual-pivots from your delta brakes, we’ll be covering:
- Pros, Cons, and Types of Disc Brakes
- Rim Brakes: Pros, Cons, and Bicycle Brake Types
- Rare or Obsolete Types of Bike Brakes
Ready to get to grips with all your bicycle brake types?
Let’s dive in!
Pros, Cons, and Types of Disc Brakes
There are two main categories of bike brakes used on modern bikes: disc brakes and rim brakes.
Disc brakes are more common on off-road bikes, whereas rim brakes are more common on road bikes – though some high-end road bike manufacturers have been switching to disc brakes in recent years.
Disc brakes consist of a metal disc – the ‘rotor’ – attached to the wheel. When the brakes are applied by the rider, pads squeeze on the disc, slowing the wheel.
There are two main types of disc brakes: mechanical disc brakes and hydraulic disc brakes.
Advantages of disc Brakes
Disc brakes are most common on mountain bikes.
This is because disc brakes perform better in tough conditions where they may be exposed to water, mud, or dirt.
Because the braking surface (the disc) is further from the ground, debris is less likely to get between the pads and the disc. With rim brakes, the rim travels close to the ground and can easily pick up debris, which can then become stuck in the brakes.
Furthermore, if debris does enter and reach the disc, the holes in the disc allow debris to pass out rather than remain caught in the mechanism.
Another advantage is that the disc can be replaced, as opposed to the whole wheel being vulnerable with rim brakes.
Disadvantages of disc Brakes
Because of the extra width of the disc and calipers, the wheels and frameset must be designed specifically for disc brakes.
Due to the central location of the brake in the wheel, lots of force is placed on the wheel and bike forks during braking. This means they need to be reinforced, which can add weight to the bike.
Types of disc Brakes
Mechanical disc Brakes (cable-actuated)
Similar to most rim brakes, mechanical disc brakes use a cable-based system to tighten the pads around the disc. Mechanical disc brakes are generally cheaper than hydraulic disc brakes, weigh less, and are easier to maintain and fix.
Hydraulic disc Brakes
Hydraulic disc brakes work by pushing fluid through a hose which pushes a piston or pistons and forces the brake pad against the disc. Hydraulic disc brakes offer better braking control, more braking power, and are less subject to outdoor wear and tear. However, they are more expensive, harder to fix, and when they break they tend to fail completely.
Rim Brakes: Pros, Cons, and Bicycle Brake Types
Rim brakes work by clamping a brake pad against the rim of the wheel.
They’re common on all types of bikes, although they’re better suited to road bikes and hybrid bikes than mountain bikes.
Advantages of Rim Brakes
Rim brakes are the most common type of bicycle brake for a reason. They’re lightweight, simple, easy to maintain, and relatively cheap.
Their weight makes them suited to racing bikes, where speed is a priority.
Disadvantages of Rim Brakes
Rim brakes perform poorly when wet, and they’re more susceptible to debris and dirt. This means they are therefore less suitable for mountain bikes due to the nature of harsh offroad riding.
Also, the brake pads in rim brakes become worn over time and need to be replaced. As the pads wear down, they require regular maintenance and adjustment.
Common Types of Rim Brakes
Caliper brakes attach to the bike via a single point above the wheel (except direct-mount calipers).
The arms of the brake then extend down either side of the wheel. Caliper brakes are found on most road bikes.
However, they tend not to be used on wider wheels (such as mountain bike wheels), as they can’t generate as much force when clamping around a wider rim.
There are several sub-types of caliper brakes:
- Single-Pivot Side-Pull Caliper Brakes – These brakes consist of two asymmetrical curved arms, both attached to the frame at the same point in the middle. The arms pivot from the same point in the middle and both are attached to the same brake cable on one side, which clamps the brakes when pulled.
- Dual-Pivot Side-Pull Caliper Brakes – The same as single-pivot side pull caliper brakes, except one arm pivots in the middle and the other arm has a separate pivot at the side.
- Center-Pull Caliper Brakes – These consist of two symmetrical curved arms, both attached to the frame at the same point in the middle. A short cable runs above the arms, and each arm attaches to the cable on one side. When the brakes are applied, the main brake cable pulls up this short cable, clamping both arms inwards and generating friction.
- Direct-Mount Caliper Brakes – Similar to side-pull caliper brakes, except each arm is mounted to a separate point of the frame on one side of the wheel. They’re increasingly common on high-end road bikes due to the stronger braking ability, better wheel clearance, and aerodynamic benefits.
Each arm attaches to a separate pivot point on one side of the fork (therefore cantilever brakes are always dual-pivot). The arms each have a cable attached to a central point, that then connects to the main brake cable. When the brakes are applied, this cable is pulled and the arms are moved inwards.
Also known as ‘direct-pull’ or ‘linear-pull’, these brakes are most common on hybrid bikes and mountain bikes. They are similar to cantilever brakes, except only one brake cable is used, which is attached to one arm and then the other.
U-brakes are similar to center-pull caliper brakes, except each arm is attached to a separate side of the frame or forks. They used to be common on mountain bikes, but nowadays are mostly found on BMX bikes because they have a low profile, so don’t get in the way when the rider is doing tricks.
Less Common Types of Rim Brakes
An enclosed, triangle-shaped brake, where the cable enters at the top and pulls on the brake pads at each corner.
Despite their poor functionality, many consider Delta brakes to be the most beautiful of all the bicycle brake types – especially the iconic Campagnolo Delta Brakes of 1985.
Roller cam brakes
Similar to center-pull cantilever brakes, except rather than a pivot, a small mechanism (a cam) is pulled up above the wheel when the brakes are applied. This presses against and turns a small roller (cam follower) attached to the top of each brake arm, pivoting each brake arm and applying the pads against the wheel rim.
Hydraulic rim brakes
These bicycle brake types are usually a hydraulic version of cantilever or V-brakes. They’re very rare as hydraulic disc brakes are generally superior, and are only found on a few electric bikes.
Rather than using the standard system of cables, rod brakes use a system of pivots and pulleys to press the pads against the rim. Rod-actuated brakes operate on a different type of wheel rim which has a slightly concave surface.
Rare or Obsolete Types of Bike Brakes
These brakes consist of an enclosed drum in the center of the wheel that spins with the wheel. Inside the drum are two pads, which press against the outside of the drum when the brakes are applied, slowing the bike.
A drag brake is not a particular type of brake mechanism, but rather it’s defined as any brake used to continually slow a bike on long downhill sections. It is usually used on heavy types of bikes such as tandems in areas of rough terrain, where there is a higher likelihood of brake failure due to overheating. It’s usually a type of drum break.
This type of brake is applied by pedaling backward and therefore can only be used as a rear-wheel brake. They are generally only found on single-speed bikes.
These brakes consist of a drum or rim which is attached to and moves with the wheel, around which wraps a band, cable, or strap. When tightened, this generates friction against the drum or rim and slows the wheel.
Perhaps the most basic type of bike brake, spoon brakes consist of a pad or metal shoe that is pushed directly against the rubber of the wheel by a lever, usually used with non-pneumatic wheels.
The Penny Farthing used a spoon brake, but since the 1950s have been mostly obsolete. Foot-operated spoon brakes are still used in some countries on cargo tricycles.
Now obsolete, duck brakes operate similarly to spoon brakes except two rollers made of rubber or wood are pressed against the wheel, as opposed to a pad.
Bicycle Brake Types – Sorted!
Now you know all about the different types of bike brakes, you’ve taken a step toward becoming a more complete and knowledgeable cyclist.
Learning the details of your bike’s mechanisms is a great habit for cyclists. It’ll help you get to grips with your bike’s performance, boost your understanding of bike maintenance, and inform your decisions about upgrades or choosing a new bike!