How to install caliper brakes on bicycle

In this article we explain how to install caliper brakes on bicycle and answer some of our most frequently asked questions on caliper brakes. Many of us are used to seeing powerful “v” brakes and disc brakes on bicycles, so what bikes are fitted with the humble caliper brake and why? 

Vintage bikes:

Most bikes that preceded mountain bikes had caliper brakes bolted through holes in the brake bridge and fork crown.

How to install caliper brakes on bicycle

The brakes have a central spring. The cable squeezes the arms together and the spring allows them to come away from the rim when the lever is released. The pads could be moved up and down so that they hit the rim effectively. This meant that there needed to be no accurate welding of brake bosses. They worked fine for most applications and could be easily stripped, cleaned and on higher quality models new parts could be fitted.

Brompton bikes:

These tiny folding wonders still use caliper brakes, probably because they fit snugly into position when the bike is folded.

How to install caliper brakes on bicycle

Budget bikes and children’s bikes:

Some budget bikes and children’s bikes are still fitted with caliper brakes.  This keeps the cost down as brake bosses don’t have to be welded onto the frame and forks. The downside is that if the bike has a wide tyre, the brake has to be very wide. This means the brake arms have further to travel which reduces the power of the brake.

How to install caliper brakes on bicycle

Road bikes:

More road bikes are being fitted with disc brakes, especially gravel bikes. There are, however, plenty of current road bikes still using caliper brakes.  Many of them have a version called “dual pivot” which have two pivot points instead of just the central one. This has the effect of doubling up the leverage so the braking is much more powerful. Combine that with a thin rim and tyre so the brake arms don’t have much leverage and you have a lightweight, effective brake. Another advantage for a road bike is that they don’t protrude as much as cantilever brakes so are more aerodynamic. 

How to install caliper brakes on bicycle

Why do you need to know how to install caliper brakes on bicycle?

  • If your caliper brake has seized, you might want to replace it. Many bikes with caliper brakes don’t have mudguards, so if you live in a rainy country the brakes are very vulnerable to getting waterlogged and seizing. 
  • You might want to upgrade your brake.  If you want a higher quality brakes you will need to know how to install them.

Caliper brakes come as front and rear.

Front caliper brakes have a long pivot bolt to allow for the thickness of the fork crown.

How to install caliper brakes on bicycle

Trying to fit a front brake to the rear of the bike will result in the brake being unable to be tightened onto the frame as the bolt will be too long for the slimmer rear brake bridge. 

There are a number of different lengths of pivot nut to allow for the different fork crown thicknesses.  

To find the appropriate one for your fork, measure the current one and replace with the same length.

If the replacement brake doesn’t come with one that matches, either reuse the old one, or if it’s too worn, order a new one of the correct length.

Rear caliper brakes have a short pivot bolt as the brake bridge is slimmer than the fork crown. 

The rear brake can’t be fitted to the front as even with the longest pivot nut, there wouldn’t be enough support for the caliper.

There is one standard length of rear pivot nut.

Length of brake

When caliper brakes were the best brake option and were sometimes called “side pull brakes”, there were a number of different length of brake. The length or drop is the lowest point that the brake pads can be fitted to the arm

Nowadays there are two common brake drops:

49mm is used on most modern road bikes where the gap between the rim and the fork crown is minimal. 

57mm is used on some bikes designed to accommodate mudguards.  

To find out the length of your current drop, first remove the wheel. Lower one of the brake pads all the way to the bottom of the slot and tighten.

Now holding the ruler vertically measure the distance between the centre of the brake body to the middle of the lowered brake pad.

Removing the old brake.

  • Cut the cable end
  • Release the cable and remove it from the brake.
  • Check the recessed pivot nut and if it is filled with dirt, thoroughly clean it out to ensure there is a good grip for the allen key. 
  • Remove the nut by turning the allen key anti-clockwise. If it won’t budge then don’t force it as you may round the nut. At this point you will need to seek help.
  • Now remove the caliper. Clean the area around the brake.

How to install caliper brakes on bicycle

  • Before you fit the replacement caliper, make sure the set washer is on the pivot bolt. It has serrations to grip the frame and caliper to stop it moving.
  • Apply a bit of grease onto the thread of the pivot bolt. 
  • Slide the brake into position.
  • Attach the pivot nut.
  • Squeeze the arms onto the rim and hold the brake in place to fully tighten the pivot nut.
  • If your brake cable is frayed or rusty, it would be a good time to replace it.  We have a great article here about bike brake cable replacement to help you with this task.
  • Feed the cable through the barrel adjuster and pinch bolt. 

Now it is time to adjust the brake. Our article here about Bike Brake Adjustment will guide you through this process.

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