Brake Aches on the Road

Feb 12th, 2019

The only thing worse than a brake that won’t stop is one that won’t let go.

Brake issues can reduce safety and morale, but thankfully simple roadside fixes should have your wheels turning (or stopping) again soon. There’s no precise set of tools to deal with brake issues, but the most common can be solved with some combination of:

  • Hex (a.k.a. allen) wrenches (often 4mm and 5mm)
  • Brake pad spreader (or screwdriver)
  • Brake cable
  • Spoke wrench

Whether you’re running rim brakes (calipers or cantilevers) or disc brakes (cable actuated or hydraulic), a little patience and a methodical approach to fixing the problem can go a long way. 



First, a busted brake obviously needs immediate attention. If a snapped cable has left you without stopping power from one wheel, you have some options. If you’re carrying a spare cable, simply remove the old cable, thread the new one through the existing housing from the lever to the brake (rim or disc), tighten the cable bolt, and adjust as needed. Just remember to trim or otherwise secure the extra length so it doesn’t get swept into the spokes. 

No spare? Depending on what the rest of your day’s journey looks like, you could attempt to harvest a cable from your shifting system and ride with fewer gears, but be warned that the cable ends for shifters are smaller than those for brakes, so a little creative modification will likely be required. 

Thankfully cable and hydraulic line failures are rare — the more likely scenario is that your reverie is interrupted by a steady squeak or grind that indicates a brake pad is dragging on the rim or rotor. For rim brakes, an out-of-true wheel is a likely culprit, and so one option for the mechanically inclined might be to use a spoke wrench to adjust tension to bring the rim back in line. 

Too ambitious? Adjust cable tension or pad placement to back off the offending side and seek a more permanent solution when you can. A hex key or two should be all that’s needed, but remember that letting out a bit of cable or retracting a pad will change the point at which the brake grabs hold, so you might lose a little power at the lever or have to pull farther toward the bars.

For a disc brake, even a tiny rotor warble can become maddening. First, loosen the two mounting bolts on the caliper so it moves back and forth freely. Squeeze the lever so the pads grab the rotor and tighten the bolts. In many cases, this will realign the caliper and silence the squeak. If it doesn’t, you can remove the wheel and insert a pad spreader (or, in a pinch, a flathead screwdriver) to push the pads and pistons back to a wider position. Reinsert the wheel and squeeze the lever to let the pads perform a self-alignment. 

Don’t forget that oil from your hands can contaminate a disc rotor or pads, so try to keep things clean, otherwise you might find a quick fix only adds to your headaches!


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