V Brakes Vs Cantilever Brakes Explained: 6 Key Differences

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Brakes are one of the most important parts of your bike, and when it comes to the different kinds of brakes, they can be somewhat difficult to navigate.

V brakes and cantilever brakes are both becoming less common as modern bikes tend to use either disc or caliper brakes, but you’ll still see them often on older bikes and some modern hybrids.

V brakes and cantilever brakes are both different types of rim brakes. This means that, upon the action of the brake levers, they apply a frictional force directly to the rim, slowing the rotation of the wheel to an eventual stop.

But what is the difference between V brakes vs cantilever brakes?

Don’t worry! We’ll give you a complete rundown of the differences between cantilever and V brakes, as well as which type might perform better for your riding style. To get you up to speed, we’ll be covering:

  • What Are Rim Brakes?
  • V Brakes Vs Cantilever Brakes: What’s The Difference?
  • Cantilever Brakes Vs V Brakes: Which Should You Use If You Have The Choice?

Let’s dive in!

V Brakes Vs Cantilever Brakes: Title Image

What Are rim brakes?

Brakes are an absolutely essential part of a bike’s anatomy. They allow you to slow down when necessary, to better control the bike itself, and most of all, perform emergency stops.

The most common types of brakes, in a general sense, are disc brakes and rim brakes.

Rim brakes certainly remain the most common choice amongst amateur road cyclists, but disc brakes have worked their way into the pro-peloton and are now pretty commonplace.

In general, disc brakes provide better stopping power, improved modulation, and better resistance to weather conditions over rim brakes. However, rim brakes are simpler to work on, lighter, and cost significantly less in today’s componentry market.

For these reasons, many of you will be more than familiar with rim brakes and likely have either used, owned, or currently own a bike with rim brakes.

V brakes on a white mountain bike.
V brakes on a white mountain bike.

So, how do they work?

All types of rim brakes work in the same way on the surface.

The brake levers, located on the handlebars, are connected to the brake arms via a taut cable. Upon the action of the brake levers, the tension in the cable across the arms forces them to close.

This presses the brake pads into contact with the rotating rim, ultimately causing the wheel’s rotation to cease, bringing the bike to a stop.

However, not all rim brakes are the same. The most common on modern bikes are side-pull caliper rim brakes, but V brakes remain popular with many cyclists for their simplicity and stopping power.

Cantilever brakes are increasingly rare nowadays, but for many years were the go-to choice for cyclocross riders for their feather-light weight and powerful application.

V Brakes Vs Cantilever Brakes: What’s the difference?

There are actually many different factors that differ when considering cantilever brakes vs V brakes. Here are some of the major ones to consider.

#1. Design

V Brakes Vs Cantilever Brakes Explained: 6 Key Differences 1
Credit: “Miyata Century Brakes” (left image) by Ragnar Jensen, licensed under CC BY 2.0. Edited from the original.

The first, and perhaps most obvious difference when considering canti vs V brakes is the design.

Cantilever brakes are symmetrical in design, using a center-pull mechanism. The brake cable is attached to a central pulley which is attached, via two lengths of cables, to two identical caliper arms.

When the brake lever is pulled, the tension pulls the pulley upwards, applying equal tension to both of the caliper arms, forcing them to close on the wheel.

V brakes, on the other hand, are not symmetrical. In general, the cable is passed through a metal noodle attached to one of the caliper arms and then pinched on the other caliper arm. The cable passes horizontally above the tire.

Upon action of the brake levers, the section of cable between the two caliper arms is shortened, and so the caliper arms are, once again, pulled together, forcing them to close on the wheel.

In this case, V brakes look a little bit more like a boxy “n” than a “V”, and if anything, cantilever brakes look a little more like an upside-down “V”.

#2. Most Common Discipline

The bikes on which you’ll most commonly find each type of brake is also a key difference between the two.

Cantilever brakes are most commonly found on older models of cyclocross bikes, hybrids, touring bikes, and ’90s style mountain bikes.

They are generally more common in off-road disciplines, potentially because the cabling system is more resistant to getting clogged by mud and debris.

V brakes remain very common on hybrid bakes, many touring bikes, and some vintage or entry-level mountain bikes.

#3. Braking power

V brakes on a black bike.
V brakes on a black bike.

Perhaps the most important consideration when deciding between V brakes vs cantilever brakes is the braking power offered by the two braking systems.

Although the difference isn’t huge, V brakes tend to offer the best braking power of the rim brake options. This is due to a concept called the mechanical advantage of the system.

Mechanical advantage refers to the amplification of the input force at the output due to intelligent leveraging design within the system.

The mechanical advantage of V brakes is generally higher than that of cantilever brakes, resulting in greater braking power.

However, another consideration is that the mechanical advantage of cantilever brakes can easily be adjusted to be either stronger or weaker by shifting the pulley up or down the cable. V brakes, on the other hand, have an unadjustable mechanical advantage.

But, importantly, this cannot be adjusted to meet the mechanical advantage of V brakes, due to the way the system itself is designed.

#4. Tire Clearance

Another important consideration, particularly for off-road machines, is the tire clearance offered by the two different braking systems.

Cantilever brakes offer less tire clearance than V brakes. This means that you won’t be able to use tires that are as wide with cantilever brakes as you can with V brakes.

For off-roaders, this additional clearance is important. Even if your current tire width will fit both types of brakes, the additional clearance offers the opportunity to up your tire width if necessary and test out the feel of different tire widths on your bike.

All this being said, disc brakes offer by far the best tire clearance since the caliper is located close to the hubs, and the wheel itself does not have to fit through the caliper. This means that with disc brakes, the limiting factors are only the width of the forks and stays.

If you’re curious about the tire clearance you can run on your setup, have a look at this guide to calculate the clearance available to you.

#5. Ease of Installation and adjustability

A cyclist adjusts the V brakes on a white hybrid bike.

When you’re looking at getting a new braking system, it’s important to consider how easy they are to install and maintain.

V brakes are significantly easier to install and adjust than cantilever brakes since there is only one length of cable that passes through the caliper.

They are also easier to maintain since when changing the brake cables, you need only to pass the single cable through the caliper, rather than fiddling with the pulley and attachment to both of the caliper arms.

#6. Modulation

Modulation, in the context of brakes, refers to the amount of control you have over the braking power by pulling the levers to a different degree.

The best modulation is offered by disc brakes.

However, when it comes to V brakes vs cantilever brakes, there is also a clear winner.

V brakes offer far superior modulation than cantilever brakes, mostly due to the increased mechanical advantage. The same force on the lever will create a larger tension across the caliper when using V brakes.

This means that you need to pull the lever less far to achieve the same braking power. In turn, this means that more of the remaining lever arc is available for harder or softer brakes.

This is a big advantage when it comes to handling since you are unlikely to slam the brakes as hard as you can when cornering on a tight turn. Being able to gently increase your braking force as you approach the turn results in a smoother arc by the rider.

V Brakes Vs Cantilever Brakes: Which Should You Use?

As with most choices in bike tech, it really comes down to your preference and priorities.

Both types of brakes offer unique advantages over the other.

For example, cantilever brakes are less likely to get clogged up by mud, they’re lighter, and they’re usually less expensive, too.

However, it’s hard to deny that in most cases, V brakes offer better qualities as a braking system. For a very slight weight penalty, you get a huge difference in braking power, modulation, ease of installation, and tire clearance.

But, they are also more expensive, so your budget is of course a major factor.

Whichever you go for, it’s important to learn exactly how they work and how to install, adjust, and maintain your braking system so that you can remain safe while riding.

Either system, properly installed and maintained, will keep you safe on a bike, so it purely comes down to your preference and budget.

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Jack is an experienced cycling writer based in San Diego, California. Though he loves group rides on a road bike, his true passion is backcountry bikepacking trips. His greatest adventure so far has been cycling the length of the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, and the next bucket-list trip is already in the works. Jack has a collection of vintage steel racing bikes that he rides and painstakingly restores. The jewel in the crown is his Colnago Master X-Light.

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