Common Bicycle Brake Types

[The following is a brief look at common bicycle brake types. It is not intended to be a comprehensive overview of every brake type currently manufactured. —ed.]

Dual-Pivot Caliper Brake

Dual-pivot Side-pull Caliper Brake
Most road bikes today are spec’d with dual-pivot side-pull caliper brakes. They’re simple and easy to adjust with high mechanical advantage. There are some exceptions, but most dual-pivot calipers provide only minimal tire clearance, which generally makes them less than ideal for utility bikes.

Pros
Powerful
Easy to adjust

Cons
Limited clearance
Ineffective on out-of-true wheels
Limited effectiveness in wet conditions
Rim is used as braking surface

Cantilever Brake

Center-pull Cantilever Brake
Center-pull cantilevers are the classic touring and mountain bike brake. They’ve been mostly replaced by linear-pull brakes on touring bikes and disc brakes on mountain bikes. They can be a little fussy to set-up and maintain, but they provide excellent clearance, power, and feel. Center-pull cantilevers are my favorite rim brakes for utility bikes.

Pros
Powerful
Generous clearance
Good looking (IMO)

Cons
Difficult to adjust
Limited effectiveness in wet conditions
Rim is used as braking surface
Can’t be used on bikes with suspension

Linear-pull Brake

Linear-pull Brake (aka “V-Brake”)
Linear-pull brakes are the modern incarnation of the cantilever. They’re easier to set-up and maintain than traditional center-pull cantilevers while providing similar performance. Unlike center-pull cantis, linear-pulls can be used on bikes with suspension. Linear-pulls have become nearly ubiquitous, almost completely usurping other versions of the cantilever. Because of their unusually high mechanical advantage, linear-pulls require the use of long-pull levers.

Pros
Powerful
Generous clearance
Easy to adjust

Cons
Require the use of long-pull levers
Limited effectiveness in wet conditions
Rim is used as braking surface

Disc Brake

Disc Brake
Disc brakes have increased in popularity along with the mountain bike and they’re becoming more common on utility bikes. They’re powerful brakes that offer good all-weather performance. Mechanical (aka cable-actuated) disc brakes are easy to adjust and maintain. Hydraulic discs are exceptionally responsive and powerful, but they can be tricky to set-up and difficult to repair. Disc brakes require special wheels and frame mounts.

Pros
Powerful
Easy to adjust (mechanical style)
Weather-resistant
Rim is not used as braking surface

Cons
Some mechanical discs require the use of long-pull levers
Hydraulic discs can be difficult to set-up and maintain
Require dished front wheel
Require heavier front wheel build and more robust fork
Can interfere with rack and fender mounts

Drum Brake

Drum/Roller Brake
Drum brakes are internal brakes contained within a hub. Drum brakes are essentially weather-proof, but because of limitations inherent in their design, most provide only mediocre braking performance. Like disc brakes, they eliminate the issue of rim wear associated with rim brake designs. “Roller Brakes” are proprietary, removable drum brakes manufactured by Shimano.

Pros
Weather-proof
Low-maintenance
Brake pads have longer life than rim brake pads
Rim is not used as braking surface

Cons
Lackluster performance
Heavy
Difficult to work on if maintenance is required
Not compatible with quick release axles (rear)

40 Responses to “Common Bicycle Brake Types”

  • vik says:

    Rim brakes work in the wet just fine. I live in a wet coastal town and 90% of the bikes on the road use rim brakes. The riders on them stop without drama.

    I have bikes with rim brakes and disc brakes. Both my go to rain bikes use rim brakes. When I do ride my disc brake bikes in the rain I don’t notice any difference between my ability to stop with discs and with rim brakes. They both work just fine.

    This idea that rim brakes are poor in the wet is a myth.

  • Archergal says:

    Thank you! Some of these components have become popular in the last 15 -20 years, when I wasn’t riding. I’ve learned about them from reading, but it’s nice to have pictures and a summary like this. :)

  • Alan says:

    @Vik

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one, Vik. I lived in Seattle for 10 years, and in my experience, rim brakes were far less than ideal in wet conditions. Besides having less than optimum stopping power when wet, they can really eat through rims. This isn’t currently an issue for me now that I do so little rain riding, but it certainly was then.

    Alan

    PS – I should add that new pads (preferably Kool-Stop salmon), clean rims, and proper set-up go a long way toward mitigating for wet conditions. But as parts wear and rims/pads get grimy, rim brake performance can degrade fairly dramatically in the wet.

  • RDW says:

    Nicely done. That Paul Neo-Retro is a beautiful brake. I’d love to spend a little money and try replacing my Avid Shorty cantis with Neo-Retos up front and Paul Touring Cantis in the back.

  • auviga says:

    Appropriateness of rim brakes may also depend on the terrain (in addition to the weather). Rim brakes could be quite problematic in Seattle for daily bike commuters because it is both rainy and hilly. A lot of braking going downhill means a lot of wear on those rims and brake pads.

  • Adam W says:

    It still blows my mind that V-brakes are considered easier to adjust than cantis by the general population. Maybe I’ve only used crappy V-brakes, but I find they require constant adjustment whereas cantis stay put once set (which I don’t consider to be difficult).

  • Slamb2002 says:

    What was the bike that was used for the drum/roller brake picture?

  • townmouse says:

    I have rim brakes and agree they lose effectiveness in the wet, although they do make an attractive squealing noise which at least alerts people that you’re coming. If you ride a lot in damp conditions you learn to compensate – I’ll be always ride prepared to stop, start braking early, expect to glide rather than jerk to a halt and also ‘dry’ my brakes by feathering them against the wheel coming out of a puddle or wet road. In fact if I ever ride a bike with brakes that actually work I’m frightened they’ll send me over the handlebars (as happened the first and last time I ever rode a fast road bike). This might sound dangerous but it’s not as bad as it sounds – you almost never need to come crashing to a halt unless you’re barrelling along completely obliviously at 20mph. As someone who averages more like 10, rim brakes are fine.

  • Alan says:

    @townmouse
    “I have rim brakes and agree they lose effectiveness in the wet, although they do make an attractive squealing noise which at least alerts people that you’re coming.”

    That’s funny… :-)

    I agree with you and auviga; whether or not the reduced braking power of rim brakes when wet is an issue depends upon one’s riding style and terrain.

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Adam

    I agree that center-pull cantis are not really so difficult and once they’re set, they pretty much stay put. That said, I’ve helped enough people set-up their cantis to know that they’re intimidating to some people. Crappy brakes, whether they’re V-Brakes are cantis, are always a pain… LOL

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @SlamB2002

    That’s a 2011 Raleigh Detour Deluxe:

    http://www.ecovelo.info/2010/12/11/sneak-peek-2011-raleigh-detour-deluxe/

    Alan

  • Ben W says:

    I have a stable of bikes covering every brake type here. One of my favorite bikes is a Torker Graduate with Sturmey Archer drum brakes. Most of the points made above for drums are true, however I’ve pulled one apart and it’s dead simple to service. There’s enough pad material to last for several years under normal use, and if you ever manage to burn through one it’s dead simple to replace the assembly with the most basic of hand tools.

    Absolutely consistant in all weather, virtually zero maintenance, cleaner then any rim brake, as tough as a coaster brake, and they look awesome. I’d consider them the *perfect* urban bike brake.

  • Andrew says:

    Adam W – it sounds like we have had the exact opposite experience. Perhaps I’ve only used crappy cantilevers, but the sheer number of adjustments on a cantilever (centering adjustment, yoke height, cable tension, spring tension, plus 3 axes of rotation, as well as reach on the pads!) makes setting them up a huge chore, and if any one of those elements is off, performance and feel suffers and it’s trickier to diagnose and adjust independently of all the other variables.

    I find V-brakes may occasionally need a little adjustment, but it’s almost always just a turn or two of one of the spring screws, a twist of the barrel adjuster, and occasionally a minor angle adjustment on a pad (I rarely have to bother with this, truth be told) and you’re off to the races.

  • charlesw says:

    Hey, what about coaster brakes!? ;-)

  • Fergie348 says:

    @Alan, if caliper brakes are self centering, what’s the screw on top of the inner arm for?

    Couldn’t disagree more with @vic. My disc brakes seem to work better when they’re a bit damp, while any significant moisture on my rims makes rim braking much less responsive. IMO, the big reason to have disc brakes on a commuter or utility bike is for wet conditions. If you live in a mostly dry area or ride only when it’s dry then I would stick with rim brakes for the simplicity and weight savings.

  • Alan says:

    @Fergie

    Oops. Thanks for that. I started the article writing about single-pivot side-pulls, then decided to leave them out and only include dual-pivot. Forgot to edit out the self-centering adjustment comment. It’s fixed now.

    Alan

  • Reuben @VeloTraffic says:

    Here in MPLS, I usually ride a cheapo mountain bike through the winter when the roads are covered in ice, salt, and sand, and these bikes always have linear pull brakes. While I’ve found linear pull brakes to be reliable and effective under normal conditions, they are really substandard in gritty, salty conditions unless you’re johnny-on-the-spot with your cleaning and lubing habits. They become out-of-centered easily and the adjustment screws rust heavily (making them difficult to use, if not entirely useless). That being said, I still use them every winter without major issues. I just have to plan on replacing them entirely when spring comes along.

  • Roland Smith says:

    For the last decade or so I’ve been using hydraulicly actuated brakes exclusively. First Magura rim brakes, and more recently Shimano disc brakes.

    Apart from replacing brake pads, the _only_ repair I’ve ever had to do to hydraulic brakes was to replace a brake line that had worn through after ten years of use. That’s not too bad, I think. Replacing the line and bleeding the brake was not that difficult. Forcing the nipple into the new brakeline with the line clamped in a vise between provided plastic clamps was the hardest part. Bleeding was easy. And compared to the corrosive braking fluid used in cars, the mineral oil used in hydraulic bicycle brakes is pretty much harmless.

    Apart from the rock-solid feel and significantly lighter action from hydraulic brakes, there is an additional advantage for us year-round commuters; hydraulic lines don’t freeze up, as opposed to Bowden cables!

  • dan says:

    I agree with Adam W. I’ve used a few different sets of V-brakes, from utter garbage to higher quality, and I much prefer cantis for both set up and maintenance. I set up my first set of cantis following the instructions on the Park Tool website and really didn’t encounter any problems. I find that the flexibility that comes with movable a straddle wire hanger is ideal if you plan on changing your brake levers at any point. On the other hand, I’ve found that keeping spring tension even on either side of a V-brake is an endless chore. Besides, I can’t really think of a situation where v’s would give me any clear advantage over other options. I find cati’s ideal for touring and commuting and calipers work great for road rides. For cargo or mountain bikes, it’s gonna be discs. My Avid BB7s were nearly as easy to set up as a set of calipers and I almost never have to touch them.

  • Steve says:

    What about Coaster brakes? Got that on my commuter (with an 8 speed Shimano Nexus) as well as an emergency front dual pivot brake. The Coaster brake is fantastic for commuting… once used to it, it is by far the quickest reflex option if something unexpected happens on the commute, all you’ve gotta do is push your back foot down. It also works just as well in the wet, although you’ve gotta be careful not to lock the back wheel up.

  • Brad Hawkins says:

    I have a drum brake on the front of my Big Dummy and find that it works superbly.

    I did rear end a car recently in the driving rain on a bike with cantis. I just pulled and prayed and ended up demolishing the fork.

    I don’t have experience with discs

    Oh yes, mini-v brakes from bmx land work great with standard pull levers and even stop my fully loaded tandem. The shorter brake arm closes up the cable pull requirements while still providing good braking. They also don’t squeal unless I haven’t ridden in a while.

    I’ve never figured out the squealing thing as it happens on discs and cantis but for some reason, not on others.

    The drum brake will squeal when it’s coming loose(!)

    That’s all I know about brakes so far.

  • Alan says:

    Hi Steve,

    Coaster brakes seem to be one of those love ‘em or hate ‘em propositions. I don’t philosophically have anything against them, but in practice I fall into the latter group. I rode coaster brakes for the first 15 years of my life; then I discovered hand brakes (which to me were a revelation) and I never looked back… :-)

    Alan

    PS – I’m glad to hear you have a front brake…

  • Brad Hawkins says:

    Oh yes, coaster brakes are good on my kid’s bike but on a Nexus IGH, their modulation is decidedly “on/off”. Good for skids but tricky on a downhill.

  • Syd says:

    If “Rim is used as braking surface” is a Con then I think it’s been solved on my bike by using (expensive) carbide impregnated Rigida rims. To date they’ve covered about 22,000km, 16,000 of that loaded touring and still have no discernable wear. Still on the original brake blocks too and the only maintenance has been tightening the cables due to stretch.

    Photo of the rim after 17,000km here: http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/reviews/board/message/?o=RrzKj&message_id=183714&v=3&term=Andra&context=all

    On my previous touring bike I once performed an entirely unscientific comparison of wet weather braking test vs a disk braked mountain bike. It worked like this: In the rain on a long sealed stretch of downhill road the two of us rolled side by side at about 25kph and on the count of three hit the anchors – Mr Disk Brake did the counting. The rim braked tourer won three out of three. And we’re talking a touring bike with 20 year old cantilevers here and absolutely no ‘feel’ or modulation. My reasoning – A rim brake is basically a large diameter disk and if you think about it the torque applied to the wheel can be greater given the larger radius, or less force would be required for the same torque (stopping power). Given that all three braking systems (rim, drum, disk) are entirely capable of skidding the wheels it makes sense that none of them can be more powerful than the other – the deciding limit is the adhesion between road surface and tire. And on that count my tires were probably better suited to the road surface than the knobbies on the mountain bike.

  • Alan says:

    @Syd

    “If “Rim is used as braking surface” is a Con then I think it’s been solved on my bike by using (expensive) carbide impregnated Rigida rims. To date they’ve covered about 22,000km, 16,000 of that loaded touring and still have no discernable wear.”

    That’s impressive; thanks for the tip.

    I like your test. I’ve never done anything approaching even that level of controlled testing, but I’ve been at the bottom of a enough hills in Seattle yelling “sh#t, sh#t, sh#t” with badly faded brakes to know that some combinations of rims and brake pads can be scary when wet.

    Alan

  • Dave Marquez says:

    what about the Paul Racer centerpulls? you forgot that category. It’s admittedly a small one, but they are really nice, and I am getting a set on my new custom Davidson

  • Joseph E says:

    @ Alan: \I’ve been at the bottom of a enough hills in Seattle yelling “sh#t, sh#t, sh#t” with badly faded brakes to know that some combinations of rims and brake pads can be scary when wet.\

    Best comment all week!

    Drum brakes and roller brakes deserve a second look. Sure, the Shimano front rollerbrake is designed to have limited ability to lock the wheel, and these brakes can overhead and fade with cheaper designs. But for most city bikes, they provide a perfect, nearly-no-maintenance braking solution. If you want to ride in all weather, yet wear normal clothing, they will keep you clean (even better than disk brakes), and if you take it easy on hills or with heavy loads they are strong enough.

  • Pete says:

    Seems like there is a good reason there are many different types of brakes out there. Everyone swears by (and swears at) a different one! :)

  • Bob B says:

    I’m a huge fan of sidepull brakes, but for rainy places, moving the brake mechanism inside makes a lot of sense. I’ve messed with drums on recumbents and the pads are known to last almost forever. I’ve heard roller brakes described as internal coaster brakes. They are said to require just a dab of grease every year to keep them working well. They have kind of an anti-lock feel – those accustomed to discs or V-s may think they feel weak, though you won’t have to worry about fussy brake pad, cable or centering/alignment issues. Rollers seem to work best for serious city bikes like the Dutch use. They are also affordable, around $35 to buy a new brake. I recently tried them on a Workcycles Secret Service on a rainy day and loved them.

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    you forgot rod brakes and spoon brake : ))

  • Jose says:

    I find surprising that the article mentions cantilever as same if not more powerful than V-brakes. My experience and most of my friends’ (all of which have 90’s mtbs that have been slowly upgraded from cantilever to V-brakes) is that the linear pull brakes are way more powerful.

    Totally agree with Syd that, after all, a rim is just a “big disk” with a bigger circumference, and therefore, with better stopping power.

    Another important “con” we must not forget about disk brakes is that, apart from a higher dishing required on the rims (therefore making wheels more fragile if all other aspects remain equal), all the stopping power is applied to only one side of the wheel, putting a lot of stress on the spokes with such a strong but asymmetric force.

    On a more personal note, I’d hate in my bike the little squeaking from the brake pads touching the disks that you can hear in many bikes and which the owners can’t solve effectively…

    Another “pro” from V-brakes is its cost-effectiveness. You can buy a new pair, pads included, for less than the cost of 2 beers. (I’ve seen Alivio V-brakes for 6.50 EUR a pair in rose.de)

  • Alan says:

    @LB

    “you forgot rod brakes and spoon brake : ))”

    Right. And then there’s the modern incarnation of the spoon brake, the Van’s-Skate-Shoe-Against-The-Rear-Tire brake… :-)

  • Alex Merz says:

    Kool-Stop salmon pads have served me well in Portland, Seattle, and New Hampshire for over 15 years, including messenger work in the Portland winter.

    NO other pad is worth considering if you ride in the wet. Kool-Stop salmon. Do not hesitate.

    And cantis are not better or worse in the wet than any other rim brake. If cantis had a problem in the wet, every cyclocrosser would use V-brakes.

  • Alex Merz says:

    Jose — the mechanical advantage of a V-brake and a canti, provided that they are used with the correct brake-specific levers, and set up correctly, is identical. It is easier, however, to set up the linear-pull brakes correctly.

  • Another Aaron says:

    I sure do love the feel of hydraulic disk brakes. I bought a bike with cable disks, and immediately replaced them with hydraulic. They modulate so much cleaner and smoother than any cable brake system. I think they are well worth any hassles for very occasional maintenance tasks.

  • CedarWood says:

    Centerpull calipers on a mixte frame = absolutely awesome rear braking if the cable is run straight under the top tube to the caliper mounted just under the middle rear stay.

    Using rim brakes in the rain dirties a clean bike quickly, and I hate the constant cleaning, so my rain/cargo bike has drum brakes. The newer Shimano rear drum with the fins/slots is surprisingly powerful and easy to modulate.

  • Fergie348 says:

    Hard to believe that so many people like drum brakes on their bikes. If they worked that well, wouldn’t you see them on motorcycles? I don’t think there’s been a motorcycle produced in the modern world with drum brakes since the early ’70s. Wonder why they all have disc brakes? Hmm..

  • Daniel M says:

    What a great topic! I’ve chimed in on this one before, but once again I want to speak up for the underappreciated V-brake.

    My experience with V-brakes in the rain is that braking is indeed affected when the rims get wet, but that they have so much mechanical advantage that you simply need to squeeze the lever further to compensate. There is not much additional effort required. My earlier experience with the common short-arm cantis supplied on cyclocross bikes and older mountain bikes is that at a certain point you can squeeze as hard as you want but you reach an absolute braking limit and your hands start to ache. I set up my Hillborne with V-brakes and can confirm that while fully loaded for touring, downhill at around 30mph in the rain, I certainly needed to squeeze the lever further than when dry, but I was still able to modulate my speed with only one finger on each lever with no drama. When touring with my previous, canti-equipped cyclocross bike (Volpe) last summer, I wore my hands out descending in dry conditions and wished for more braking power.

    In defense of cantis, when I test rode a bike at Rivendell set up with Tektro long-arm cantis, the brake feel was superb, but I didn’t take the bike out of the parking lot. Alex Mertz stated above that if V-brakes were superior to cantis in the wet that all cyclocross riders would use them, but I don’t entirely agree; V-brakes generally require specific brake levers that pull more cable; these are available for drop bars with hoods and now even for cross-top interrupter levers, but not for brifters, which most racers require. I’m done with front indexing completely and with not having a friction option in the rear, so that means I’m done with brifters.

    As for disk brakes, they clearly have superior stopping power, especially in wet conditions. However I feel many people think they need them but really don’t. And while bringing the braking surface in towards the hub keeps it out of the mud, rain, and slush, it also concentrates all the braking torque near the axle, which is less than ideal for frame and fork design. Hence the scourge of straight, as opposed to curved, rigid forks and beefed up and re-triangulated rear dropouts. To me, disks make sense on bikes with front suspension, cargo bikes, and bikes that will be used primarily in bad weather, but in general I think they are over-prescribed. And they all seem to squeak.

    Thanks, Alan for providing this forum.

  • Doug Ford says:

    Commuting for 30 years in serious rain and hills, I’ve switched from cantis to v’s on 3 bikes and they’re significantly better; and to echo Daniel M, the forks required for discs destroy the grace, give and beauty of well-designed steel.

  • John says:

    I have a Collection of Bicycles with all the various types of Brakes and I just got a Surly LHT Touring Bike with Cantilevers. The Rim Brakes are very good they stop you immediately,The Roller Brakes on the Dutch Bike are adequate but not great but they stop you alright in an emergency . I normally only go at 12 – 15 MPH on the Dutch Bike in the City however so it does not need to be that Efficient.

    The Cantilevers on the Tourer are adequate but I am not sure if they would be Effective coming down a steep Hill. The Bike has Drop Handlebars but I mostly use the Hoods and the flat Bars for Cruising and grab the Hoods when I need to use the Brakes but this does not give me strong Braking Power. I would have to go down in the Drops to get more Braking Power but this is uncomfortable to do in an emergency,I seldom use the Drops for a long duration not to good on my back only when beating into the Wind or going up steep Hills.

    So if I was going down a Steep Hill with a Touring load at speed the Cantilevers would not be very good for stopping even in the drops .

 
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