How To Adjust Bike Brakes: A Complete Guide

Knowing how to adjust bike brakes will ensure that you have plenty of stopping power when you need it.

The great thing about doing it yourself is that you don’t need any specialist tools, and it’s not a difficult thing to do either. It will save you time and money by not having to take your bike to a bike shop to have a mechanic do it for you.

There are different types of bike brakes, so there are a couple of techniques to adjust each type due to how they work. But don’t worry, we’ll have you covered!

In this article, we’ll go into the following topics:

  • How To Adjust Bike Brakes On A Bike With Rim Brakes
  • How To Tighten Bike Brakes Cables
  • How To Adjust Bike Disc Brakes

Ready to go through the steps on how to adjust bike brakes?

Let’s get started!

How To Adjust Bike Brakes: Title Image

How To Adjust Bike Brakes On A Bike With Rim Brakes

Rim brakes are the simplest type of bike brakes. The brake pads squeeze the wheel rim when you pull on the levers, generating friction to stop the wheel. They activate via cables, making them very easy to maintain.

Step 1 – Check Your Brake Pads

close up of brake pads on a road bike wheel rim

Before you make any adjustments to your brakes, you need to check your brake pads. The pads are the blocks that squeeze onto the rim, slowing you down when you squeeze the brake levers.

If your brake pads are worn, you’ll have to replace them before making any adjustments. Brake pads often have a wear line to indicate if you need to change them or not. If you don’t see wear lines, you should have grooves on the side to tell when you need to replace the pads. You can buy new brake pads online or in a local bike shop. 

Step 2 – Inspect Where The Brake Pads Touch The Rim

Close up of road bike rim brakes.

Once you’ve determined that your brake pads are fine, squeeze the brake lever, and look to see where the pads touch the rim. The pads on both sides of the wheel should touch the rim evenly and simultaneously.

You should also pay attention to see if the pads touch the center of the rim. This means that they shouldn’t be touching the rubber of the tire or the wheel spokes.

Some bike brakes have a quick-release mechanism. So, while you’re inspecting how the pads touch the wheel, check to see that the mechanism isn’t undone, as it will prevent your brake pads from squeezing the wheel hard enough to stop you.

Step 3 – Loosen The Pads

Loosening road bike brake pads

Assuming that the pads aren’t correctly aligned on the wheel rim, you’ll need to loosen them off to reposition them. You can do this by unscrewing them with an Allen key.

But don’t loosen them off all the way, as they will fall out. At this point, you just want enough movement to locate the pads properly.

Step 4 – Set The Pad’s Position

Move the pads so they’re lined up properly, centered on the rim. Then tighten them up with the Allen key while ensuring the pads stay in the required position.

How To Tighten Bike Brakes Cables

Part of learning how to adjust bike brakes is knowing how to tighten the brake cables. Doing this will allow you to ensure that the pads can be pulled with sufficient force to slow you down.

Step 1 – Test The Cable Tension

pulling on road bike brake lever

Pull each brake lever to see how tight your brake cables are. If the tension is OK, you’ll see that the levers will be about 1 ½ inches from the handlebar grips. If they are much closer or even touch the grips, the cables are too loose.

Step 2 – Tighten The Cables With The Barrel Adjusters

Adjusting bike brake cable tension

Where the brake cable joins the lever, you’ll notice a cylinder with a split down the side. This is the barrel adjuster, and tweaking it may be enough to tighten your brake cable. Alternatively, your adjuster may be located next to the caliper, like the older bike in these photos.

Turn the barrel adjuster anticlockwise to loosen it. Doing so will slightly tighten your brake cable. Once you’ve loosened the barrel adjuster, pull the brake lever to see if it has sufficiently tightened the cable. If not, you’ll need to tighten the cable from the caliper. Leave the barrel adjuster loose for the moment.

Step 3 – Loosen The Bolt Clamping The Brake Cable On To The Caliper

How To Adjust Bike Brakes: A Complete Guide 1

The brake caliper is the frame that sits over the wheel, and is what the brake pads are mounted to. The brake cable is the wire clamped to the caliper with a bolt. Loosen the bolt using an Allen key, but don’t undo it entirely.

Step 4 – Pull The Cable Tight

Tightening road bike brake cable

Now you’ve loosened the bolt, you can pull the cable tight with your fingers. The pads should tighten on the rim as you pull the cable. They should be tight enough for you to feel resistance if you turn the wheel but not so tight you can’t turn it at all.

If the wheel cannot rotate, you’re pulling the cable too tight, so you’ll need to back off a little.

Step 5 – Clamp The Cable

While holding the brake cable in place, tighten the bolt that clamps it to the caliper. The bolt should be tight enough to stop the cable from slipping through.

Step 6 – Tighten The Barrel Adjuster

Tightening a brake cable on a road bike

Now it’s time to go back to the brake lever and tighten the barrel adjuster you loosened off earlier. Turn the adjuster clockwise until it is fully tightened, which will loosen the brake cable slightly, bringing the pads off the wheel rim.

Test your brakes by pulling on the levers to see if the pads grip the rim hard enough and the levers are at least 1 ½ inches from your handlebar grips.

How To Adjust Bike Disc Brakes

The method above is what you’d use to adjust rim brakes, but what if your bike has mechanical disc brakes?

When you learn how to adjust bike disc brakes, you’ll notice that they’re more complex to adjust than rim brakes – but this doesn’t mean you can’t do it yourself!

Disc brakes work either mechanically or hydraulically. The disc is bolted directly to the wheel, which spins through a brake caliper mounted to the fork. When you apply the brakes, the cable or hydraulic fluid pushes the brake pads in the caliper onto the disc, slowing the wheel down.

One of the common issues you may have to deal with is your pads rubbing on your discs. This is usually because your caliper is misaligned.

Step 1 – Undo The Quick-Release Skewer

Before you adjust anything, you need to undo the quick-release skewer, the axle through the center of the wheel. All you need to do is release the clamp and unwind it by a couple of turns.

Check that the wheel is sitting in the fork properly before retightening the skewer. If your brake pads are still rubbing, you’ll need to make some adjustments, starting with the caliper.

Step 2 – Recenter The Brake Caliper

Loosening bike disc brake caliper

The pads will rub on the disc if the brake caliper isn’t centered on its mounting. So to relocate the brake caliper, loosen the bolts with an Allen key until you can jiggle it with your hand.

Then firmly squeeze the brake lever for that caliper. At the same time, retighten the caliper bolts. Doing this should center the caliper so the wheel can spin freely, not affected by the pads rubbing.

Squeezing mountain bike brake lever

However, if this still hasn’t fixed the problem, you should repeat the process. Sometimes it takes a couple of goes to get the caliper to settle into its position.

Step 3 – Adjust The Caliper By Eye

If you’re still having no luck and your brake pads are still rubbing your disc, you can try to adjust the caliper by eye.

Loosen the caliper bolts again, but this time, relocate the caliper by hand, ensuring an even gap on either side of the disc. Hold the caliper in the correct position and retighten the bolts with your other hand.

If, after all this, your pads are still rubbing your disc, you may need a new disc. Sometimes brake discs can get warped or damaged, making them spin unevenly. Replacing a brake disc is simple too, but you may need a Torx wrench.

A cyclist rides her mountain park through a grassy field at sunset.

Now You Know How To Adjust Bike Brakes…

Knowing how to adjust bike brakes is another string to your bow, and you can be confident that your bike has all the potential stopping power it can give you!

Although adjusting bike brakes isn’t too challenging, it is worth taking your time while doing it. Being extra patient will mean that you don’t get frustrated or forget to do anything vital to your safety when riding.

Found this guide helpful? Learn more bike maintenance tips and tricks from the BikeTips experts below!

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One of BikeTips' regular content creators, Tom lives in the French Alps. When he isn't writing, he can be found charging downhill on a mountain bike or snowboard. Tom's other passion is fitness, which goes a long way to help him make the most of the Alpine lifestyle.

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