How To Adjust Bike Brakes: Ultimate Guide To The 4 Key Types [With Videos]

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Learning how to adjust bike brakes is an essential skill for every cyclist.

In this guide, we’ll be walking you through how to adjust the four most common types of bike brakes: hydraulic disc brakes, mechanical disc brakes, side-pull caliper rim brakes, and V brakes.

If you already know which type of bike brakes your ride is equipped with, you can skip to their dedicated page and video guide below:

But if you’d like to learn more about adjusting and maintaining all of the main types to become a more rounded and knowledgeable cyclist, then read on as we teach you how to adjust bike brakes on all the key types you’re likely to come across one-by-one.

Let’s get stuck in to how to adjust bike brakes!

How To Adjust Bike Brakes: Title Image

How To Adjust Disc Brakes (Hydraulic & Mechanical)

What Are Disc Brakes?

Over the past decade, disc brakes have become the new standard, with rim brakes slowly becoming less common on newer bikes.

Disc brakes are incredibly powerful, work well in all weather conditions, and are excellent on muddy trails. 

Instead of gripping a braking surface on the bike’s rim (as rim brakes do), they feature calipers that clamp onto a braking surface (the brake rotor) attached to the center of the wheel.

A mechanical disc brake on a mountain bike suspension fork.
Mechanical disc brakes

Disc Brakes: Mechanical or Hydraulic?

Disc brakes come in two types: mechanical and hydraulic.

Mechanical disc brakes use a cable like a traditional rim brake. When the cable is pulled by the lever, it pulls the pads together, gripping the disc and creating friction.

Hydraulic disc brakes don’t use a cable; they use brake fluid.

When you pull the lever, it compresses the fluid, which pushes pistons into brake pads gripping the disc. Hydraulic disc brakes are generally seen as superior, as they provide more powerful braking and greater control (“modulation”) over the brake application.

Most hydraulic disc brakes are self-adjusting and require bleeding when being installed.

In this article, we will be telling you how to adjust both types of disc brakes, starting with how to adjust mechanical disc brakes.

A Shimano GRX hydraulic disc brake on a Lynskey carbon gravel fork.
Hydraulic disc brakes

What Are The Benefits Of Learning How To Adjust Bike Disc Brakes?

Learning how to adjust disc brakes is an essential skill for many cyclists to learn. It comes with a huge amount of benefits:

Better Braking Power

You will get much better braking power if your brakes are properly adjusted.

It means the pads connect to the discs properly, and you can create more friction, allowing you to stop quickly. 

Better Modulation

Properly adjusted disc brakes give you much better modulation.

This means you have a much better ability to feather the brakes and get the perfect amount of power to avoid locking the wheel and still stop quickly. 

Even Brake Wear

When disc brakes are properly adjusted, they wear evenly. This not only helps with braking power but should also mean that your pads last longer.

No Disc Brake Rub 

You will get disc brake rub if your brakes are not properly adjusted.

This is where the disc slightly catches the pads every rotation even when the brakes aren’t being applied. Not only will this slow you down, making you feel like you’re constantly pedaling uphill, but it can also be very annoying to listen to when riding.

How To Adjust Mechanical Bike Disc Brakes in 4 Steps

Mechanical disc brakes are easier to adjust, but require more regular maintenance.

You will only require the following:

  • Allen Keys (Hex Keys)
  • Bike Stand (optional)

Step #1. Check Components

First, you must check the components to ensure everything is working properly and nothing is too far-worn.

We do this because we might not be able to properly adjust the brakes if they don’t work as they should. Here’s what you need to check.

  • Cables: Check the inners and outers work smoothly and don’t get stuck.
  • Calipers: Check the calipers are working properly and functioning as they should.
  • Pads: Check the pads to ensure they have compound left on them.
  • Discs: You should have 1.5 mm as a minimum left on the disc.
  • Levers: Check they are not broken, and they return properly after being pulled.
  • Contamination: Ensure there’s no oil on the disc brakes or pads.

If you find anything that needs replacing, it’s best to do it now before getting into the task at hand.

Step #2. Correct Tension

Releasing the tension from a cable pinch bolt on a mechanical disc brake.

Next, take the Allen key and go to the cable pinch bolt. Undo it anticlockwise, and the cable should come free. After it’s free, screw in any adjusters so you’ve got room to work with later.

Pull the cable finger-tight with one hand, and with the other, tighten the pinch bolt up. Now pull the brake lever to ensure when pulled, the caliper reacts.

Now, use the adjuster to get the tension perfect. You are looking to get the perfect amount of leverage so it’s not too tight but also not too loose that it hits the handlebars.

Don’t worry if it rubs when the disc rotates; we’ll fix that next.

Step #3. Realign The Caliper

Aligning the caliper on a mechanical disc brake.

Next, we need to realign the caliper.

You will need to go to the two bolts which mount the caliper and slightly undo them, but only a small amount until they can be moved under pressure. 

Then, grip the brake lever so the pads clamp onto the disc. Hold this pressure on the lever and then tighten up the bolts on the caliper. Once tight, you can release the brake lever.

Step #4. Test

Finally, you are going to need to test that your adjustments worked!

First, just spin the wheel in the stand and listen for brake rub. If there is any, realign the caliper again.

If you don’t get any brake rub, pop the bike out of the stand, go somewhere safe, and test the brakes work while riding. If they’re not quite right, head to the adjuster, and fine-tune it.

How To Adjust Hydraulic Bike Disc Brakes in 5 Steps

An Allen key set next to a tire lever on a workshop floor.

Next, we will be adjusting hydraulic bike brakes.

Hydraulic disc brakes generally don’t need much maintenance, as most are self-adjusting. However, things can go wrong from time to time.

Here’s what you’ll need when learning how to adjust hydraulic bike brakes:

  • Allen Keys
  • Tire Lever
  • Bike Stand (Optional)

Step #1. Check Components

A hydraulic disc brake caliper. Shimano GRX.

As we did with mechanical disc brakes, we need to check the components before adjusting the hydraulic bike brakes themselves.

  • Cables: Check for any leaks or wear.
  • Calipers: Check the calipers are not damaged.
  • Pads: Check the pads to ensure they have compound left on them.
  • Discs: You should have 1.5 mm as a minimum left on the disc.
  • Levers: Check they are not broken and don’t feel spongy.
  • Contamination: Ensure there’s no oil on the disc brakes or pads.

If you find anything that needs replacing, it’s best to do it now. You will need to get the brakes bled if you find any fluid leaks, or if the levers feel spongy. 

Step #2. Remove the Wheels And Pads

Next, remove the bike’s wheels, taking care not to bend the brake rotors. 

After the wheel is out, ensure you don’t touch the brake lever, as this will adjust the pistons further inwards.

Now, you will need to take the brake pads off. Take the clip off the security bolt, then use the Allen key.

Undo the pin and pull it from the brakes, then pull the pads out, remembering which pad went on which side. 

Step #3. Reset The Pistons

Resetting the pistons on a Shimano GRX hydraulic disc brake caliper.

Next, we need to reset the pistons.

For this, you’ll use your tire lever – or you can use anything blunt to push them apart. You do this by putting it into the center of the caliper where the pads sit and pushing them back. 

Take great care not to pierce the piston in the process, as this will mean you will have to replace the caliper, which could be expensive. 

Now it’s time to put the pads back in, ensuring the pads go back correctly as they came out and the pin and safety clip is back in, before refitting the wheel.

Step #4. Align The Caliper

Aligning the caliper on a Shimano GRX hydraulic disc brake caliper.

Next, we are going to align the caliper.

Slightly loosen the bolts on the caliper so it can move under pressure, but not so much that they are hanging loose. It’s normally as little as half a turn.

Pump the brake lever twice. The second time, hold the lever in, and use the Allen key to tighten the caliper back up again. The caliper should now be aligned enabling you to spin the wheel with no disc brake rub.

If it isn’t, we recommend loosening one bolt and fine-tuning it, just moving it a millimeter at a time. It might take a little patience to get it perfect, depending on the brakes you have.

Step #5. Test

Finally, you are ready to test your adjustments!

How To Adjust Caliper Rim Brakes

The two most common types of rim brakes are caliper brakes and V-brakes.

You’ll find caliper rim brakes (properly known as side-pull caliper rim brakes) mainly on road bikes and hybrids. They’re light, provide good stopping power, are easy to maintain and install, and are cheap relative to disc brakes.

A Shimano Tiagra front rim brake installed on a road bike.

How Do Side-Pull Caliper Rim Brakes Work?

Caliper brakes work on a very simple principle.

On the caliper, you have two brake pads, and they both sit on either side of the bike’s wheel next to the rim’s braking surface. Running through the caliper, you have a cable that goes to the brake lever.

When the lever is pulled, the tension pulls the cable tight, pinching the calipers together and pressing the pads against the rim. This friction slows the wheel down and brings the bike to a standstill.

Front view of a Shimano Tiagra front rim brake in front of a brick wall.

What Tools Will You Need To Adjust Caliper Rim Brakes?

All you will need is an Allen key set, also known as hex keys. These are sold at most bike shops, or you will find them on your cycling multi-tool in your spares kit.

Having a bike stand is not essential, but will make this job easier and is much friendlier on your back.

An Allen key set against a wooden background.

How To Adjust Caliper Rim Brakes in 6 Steps

Step #1. Checks

A Shimano Tiagra road bike shifter being pulled while bike is in the stand.

First, we want to identify why the brakes are out of adjustment.

If it’s cable stretch or (partly) worn-down pads, then we can continue without the worry it will happen again.

If you find damage to the caliper, consider repairing it or completely replacing it.

You will also want to check the cable is in good condition and ensure there’s no uneven wear on the pads. If any worn parts need replacing, do it before you start. 

Step #2. Release The Tension

Using a set of Allen keys in a rim brake pinch bolt to release the tension.

Next, we need to release the tension from the brakes.

Go to the cable pinch bolt (pictured above) and undo it with the Allen key, and the calipers should release and spread open.

Now, locate the adjuster (the conical piece of plastic that screws onto the cable) on the caliper and wind it in completely, turning it clockwise. We do this so we can make better adjustments later in time, and if the cable stretches, we have plenty of room for movement. 

Step #3. Apply The Correct Tension

A Shimano Tiagra rim brake bike being set up.

Here we need to reapply the correct tension.

A quick way of doing this is to grip behind each pad with one hand and press the calipers inward until they’re 1 to 2 mm away from the braking surface.

While holding the pads here, grab the cable, pull it to create tension, and tighten up the pinch bolt again. It might take one or two attempts. If it feels a bit loose, don’t worry; we will use the adjuster next to tune it perfectly.

Now go to the lever and pull it. It will feel quite loose to start with. To tighten it, go to the barrel adjuster on the caliper or lever and tighten it up by unscrewing it while pulling it for perfect leverage. 

Step #4. Check The Caliper Is Straight

A Shimano Tiagra road bike rim brake being centralised.

Now, it’s time to check that the caliper is straight.

The pads should be an equal distance from each side of the rim. If not, use the Allen key to slightly loosen the caliper bolt on the back of the fork, straighten the caliper, and tighten it back up again.

Step #5. Adjust The Position Of The Brake Pads

Adjusting the pads on a Shimano Tiagra road bike rim brake.

To get our caliper rim brakes working perfectly, we need to ensure the pads are in the right position.

The easiest way to do this is to slightly grip the brake lever until the pads touch just the rim’s surface. 

Once they have gripped it, hold it there, take your Allen key set, and undo one of the pads by about half a turn. Although it will still be tight, you should be just able to move it.

Adjust the pad until it is entirely in line with the braking surface across its whole length, with no overlap on the tire or over the edge of the braking surface onto the rest of the rim.

Now, squeeze the brake lever a little more to hold it in place, and tighten it back up, before repeating the process on the other side.

Step #6. Test It

Pulling the lever of a Shimano Tiagra road bike rim brake to test it.

It’s now time to test the brakes to ensure they work properly.

We recommend doing this somewhere away from any risk. The brakes should feel sharp and firm and stop you quickly. 

If they don’t feel responsive, we recommend going to that barrel adjuster and fine-tuning until you get it perfect. If you are still struggling, it’s worth checking with your local bike shop to see if there’s anything you’ve missed or whether any parts need replacing.

How To Adjust V Brakes

What Are V Brakes?

V brakes – also known as linear-pull brakes – are a type of brake that creates friction by locking onto the side of a bicycle’s wheel rim.

It’s a very simple system of two arms with pads that are pulled together by a cable controlled by the brake lever.

V brakes are not as common on modern bikes as they used to be, but they are still seen on budget bikes and older, classic bikes. We now typically see caliper rim brakes or disc brakes

V brakes are very reliable and offer great stopping power. They also come with a wide variety of other benefits, such as they are easy to maintain and, unlike some other rim brakes, can work well with larger tires.

A V Brake on a mountain bike against a brick background.
A rear V brake in need of attention on a budget mountain bike.

How Do You Know When V Brakes Need Adjusting?

You will come across many signs to tell you when it’s time to adjust your V brakes. Here’s what you need to look out for:

Poor Braking Performance 

If you find that the braking performance on your bike isn’t what it used to be, more than likely, you’re ready for some adjustments. Things such as cable stretch and brake wear can cause them to come out of adjustment over time. 


If you start to get noise from your brakes, then there’s a strong possibility that they have come out of adjustment. This noise comes from the pad hitting the rim, and unless you are pulling the brake, it shouldn’t be happening. 

Spongy Or Loose Braking feel

If you notice that your brakes feel loose or there are points where there’s no tension, then you are going to need to get them adjusted. This generally means there’s a lot of slack in the cable, and that’s not what you want.

Uneven Pad Wear

If you notice that one pad is wearing down faster than another, there’s a strong chance that your brakes need adjusting. When checking pads, we highly recommend looking at both, not just one.

A front V brake about to go in for a service on a suspension bicycle fork.

What To Check Before Adjusting V Brakes

To successfully adjust rim brakes, everything must be in working order. Here’s what we recommend you get checked before starting the task at hand. 

  • Cable Inners and Outers: Check the cable can run smoothly and hasn’t perished anywhere. Need help? Check out How To Replace A Bike Brake Cable here.
  • Brake Pads: Check that the pads are not past the wear indicator and are tight enough. Here’s a guide on How To Replace A Rim Brake Pad if required. 
  • Noodle And Rubber: Check the noodle isn’t clogged with dirt or bent and that the rubber, if you have one, hasn’t perished.
  • Brake Lever: Check the brake lever to make sure it works properly.
  • Wheel: Check it is straight and true and also in the fork or frame properly.

Once you know all this is ok, then you’re fine to proceed forwards on to the guide. If anything is broken or too worn, it will need replacing before you start, or the brakes might not adjust properly. 

What Tools Are Required To Adjust V Brakes?

An Allen key set and a Phillips screwdriver.

When it comes to adjusting V brakes, allow yourself around 15 minutes. Here are the tools we recommend:

  • Allen Key Set
  • Small Screwdriver
  • Bike Stand (Optional)

Having a bike stand will make the job much easier, but it’s not required and can be done easily without one.

How To Adjust V Brakes In 5 Steps

When it comes to adjusting V brakes, there are a lot of different methods bike mechanics use. This method is ours, and the one we find the easiest and most effective. 

Step #1. Get Prepared

A mountain bike on a wall bike stand with a V brake in the picture.

The first step is to get prepared. Find a place that is safe to work and then do the checks on the bike we spoke about above. If you find anything that needs replacing, we recommend doing this now.

As you’re working on brakes, we recommend double-checking everything to ensure that you get it perfect and nothing comes loose later.

An important step is to make sure that the wheel is seated properly to start with. If it isn’t, you will have to adjust the brakes again later. 

Step #2. Adjust The Pad Position

Using an Allen key to adjust the pad position on a set of V brakes.

Next, we need to adjust the position of the pads.

The key to getting the best braking is to have as much of the pad connected with the rim as possible. The more friction you can create, the quicker you will slow down.

Use the Allen keys on the rear of one of the pads to loosen them slightly. Then you will want to pull the brake lever lightly, and while holding it move the pad so it makes the best connection with the rim. 

Hold the pad here, then tighten the brake as much as possible and secure the pad by screwing in the bolt again. You will then need to repeat the process on the other side. Once complete, double-check that they land in the correct place and are nice and tight. 

Step #3. Correct The Tension

Undoing the pinch bolt of a mountain bikes V brake using an Allen key set.

Now we are going to correct the cable tension.

First, release the cable tension bolt and then screw any adjusters in. You will more than likely find one at the brake lever or somewhere on the gear cable outer.

There’s a little trick we will teach you to get the perfect cable tension, and it only works with V brakes. 

Remove the noodle and put it just outside its holder on the edge. Pull the pads onto the bike’s rim and hold them there, then pull the cable and tighten the pinch bolt back up. 

The cable tension will be perfect when you put the noodle back where it should be in its holder. It’s worth just going to the brake lever and pulling it to ensure the cable has settled in the correct place. 

If you find the pads are not in the correct place, as in one is closer than the other, don’t worry too much. We are going to be fixing this in the next step.

Step #4. Adjust The Arms

Using a Phillips Screwdriver to adjust the arm of a V brake on a mountain bike suspension fork.

Next, it’s time to adjust the arms.

This is where we will get the pads the right distance away from the bike’s rim. The reason we do this is so that when the brake lever is pulled, they connect at the same time. 

If you look on the side of each brake arm, you will find a small screw. Use this to adjust the arm forward and backward. You are looking for each arm to be roughly around 2 mm away from the rim’s braking surface.

Step #5. Test

A serviced and adjusted V brake on a suspension fork.

Finally, you need to test the bike!

Although it might feel ok in the stand or when it’s still, you should test it properly while riding it somewhere safe and away from traffic.

You should have good braking power, and the pads shouldn’t have any contact with the rim until the lever is pulled. 

Make any adjustments required, and when you are satisfied, make sure there are no loose bolts. With that, you should be good to go!

Now You Know How To Adjust Bike Brakes…

Hopefully, you should now have a solid understanding of how to adjust bike brakes.

Like all bike maintenance tasks, it can seem intimidating at first. It may seem fiddly, or as though there’s a lot to learn, but practice makes perfect.

Once you’ve adjusted your bike brakes by yourself a few times, it’ll quickly become second nature.

Any other tips and tricks you think we should add, or is there another less common type of bike brake you’d like us to cover?

Let us know in the comments below!

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Robbie has traveled the globe as an endurance athlete and bikepacker, breaking world records and competing in international ultra-cycling events such as the BikingMan series and the Transcontinental Race. He's also worked as an ambassador for some of the industry's leading names, including Shimano and Ritchey. If Robbie's not on a bike, he's either fixing them or out walking with his dog!

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