Maintaining Bicycle Rim Brakes

Maintaining Bicycle Rim Brakes
When the unexpected happens and a part on your bike fails, most often these mechanical problems lead to the inability to maintain forward motion; a bothersome, but rarely dangerous situation. If your brakes fail you, however, the situation could quickly turn very dangerous. The last thing any of us want is to be flying uncontrollably downhill or to go careening into traffic because you can’t slow down. Proper care and maintenance of your brakes can help prevent such events.

There are three basic types of bicycle brakes commonly in use today: rim, disc and drum. Each has its own pros and cons, and each requires its own type of care. This article will cover the basics of maintaining rim brakes, the type found on most bicycles.


Bicycle maintenance should always start with a good cleaning, and this is true for your brake system, too. After every ride, give your bike a gentle shower and/or wipe it down with a damp rag. Never use pressurized water to wash your bike as the water can get forced into bearings and other areas where it doesn’t belong, eventually causing damage.

While you’re washing your bike, take care to wipe down the rims, brake calipers and cables. If there are any rubber deposits on the rim, you can use a bit of alcohol on a cloth to remove them. Use a stiff paint brush to remove any residue from cracks and crevices you can’t reach with your fingers or a rag. Don’t use too stiff a brush, however, or you risk scratching your bike or its components, possibly causing damage.


Once your bike is nice and clean (or as you’re cleaning it), it’s wise to give it a quick inspection. To ensure your brake system remains in good working order, you’ll want to check that the cables and levers are free from dirt, rust or other debris and that there isn’t any fraying or cracking. Wearing of these parts may warrant replacement or repair.

Your wheel rims also deserve some special attention. Here you want to look for uneven wear, scratches, and oil or other foreign matter stuck to them. Uneven wear could be a sign that your brake pads are misaligned and are rubbing against the rims unevenly. Scratches may indicate that there is debris (rocks, etc.) embedded in the brake pads. Oil or other gunk stuck to the rim may decrease the efficacy of your brakes and should be removed(alcohol or other degreaser should work).

After you’ve identified any potential problems by inspecting your rims, take the time to give the brake pads a good once over. Look to see that the rim is centered between the pads and that the pads are aligned properly on the rim. If not, simple adjustments can probably correct the problem (you can either do this yourself with the help of a bike maintenance manual or have a shop mechanic do it for you).

Check the surface of the pads where they rub against the rims (you may need to loosen the brake calipers to be able to see them) for foreign matter. Small rocks, etc. can get picked up by the wheel and embedded in the brake pad rubber, potentially scratching your rims. An ice pick or something similar should be used to remove any material. If the pads have oil or other gunk on them, clean it off with alcohol or degreaser.

Also check for signs of brake pad wear. Uneven wear can indicate misalignment on the rims; alignment should be adjusted. Many brake pads have grooves cut in them to indicate wear levels. If the grooves are disappearing, it’s time to replace the pads. The pads also need to be replaced if the metal holders which hold the pads are close to touching the rims. Replacing the brake pads is a fairly simple process; any bike maintenance manual will describe how to do so.

As you ride your bike, pay attention to its performance and noises. If your brakes don’t seem to be working properly, adjustments to the cables or pad alignment may help, or it may be that you need new brake pads. If you hear a loud screeching noise when you brake, check your pads for embedded debris or for excessive wear; rocks or the metal pad brackets rubbing against the rim could be the source of the noise.

Common sense and paying attention to your bike will help prevent most maintenance problems that can occur. Take the time to treat your bike well and it will carry you safely for many miles.

Ride safe and have fun!

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