Bike brakes explained

Bike brakes are a crucial component of any bicycle, allowing riders to slow down or come to a complete stop safely and effectively. While they may seem like a simple mechanism, there are many different types of bike brakes available, each with its own unique benefits and drawbacks. 

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the different types of bike brakes available, how they function, and what factors to consider when choosing the right brakes for your bike. Whether you’re a seasoned cyclist or just starting out, understanding the basics of bike brakes is essential for a safe and enjoyable ride.

Why there are many types of bike brakes?

There are many types of bike brakes because each type offers unique advantages and disadvantages that may be better suited for certain riding conditions or personal preferences. For example, some types of brakes may be better at providing more stopping power, while others may be more lightweight and require less maintenance.

Parts of bike brakes

The parts of a brake system can vary depending on the type of brake, but some common components include:

  1. Brake lever. The brake lever is part of the brake system that the rider pulls to activate the brakes. It is typically located on the handlebars and is connected to the brake caliper or brake mechanism by a cable or hydraulic line.
  2. Brake caliper. The brake caliper is part of the brake system that presses the brake pads against the rim or rotor to slow down the wheel. It can be a single-pivot or dual-pivot design, depending on the type of brake.
  3. Brake pads. Brake pads are the replaceable components that come in contact with the rim or rotor to slow down the wheel. They wear out over time and need to be replaced periodically.
  4. Brake rotor. Brake rotors are only used with disc brakes, and they are circular metal discs that the brake pads press against to slow down the wheel.
  5. Brake cable/hydraulic line. The brake cable or hydraulic line is part of the brake system that connects the brake lever to the brake caliper or mechanism. It transmits the force applied by the rider to activate the brakes.

Rim bike brakes

Rim brakes work by pressing brake pads against the rim of the wheel to slow it down. They are lightweight, simple to maintain, and effective in dry conditions. However, they can wear out rims over time and are less effective in wet or muddy conditions.

bike brakes can wear a rim



V-brakes are a type of rim brake commonly used on hybrid bikes. They work by using a set of brake arms to apply force to the rim of the wheel. The brake arms are connected to the brake lever by a cable. the cable pulls the arms towards the rim when the brake lever is squeezed. The arms then apply pressure to the rim through a pair of brake pads, which slows down the wheel. This type of brake offers the best stopping power of all rim brakes. If there is an uneven gap between the pads and the rim and the brake slows you down then it might be a good time to adjust it. Check out our article on how to adjust v-brakes and dual-caliper brakes

Hydraulic rim brakes

Unlike mechanical rim brakes that use a cable to apply pressure to the brake pads, hydraulic rim brakes use a closed system of hoses and reservoirs filled with hydraulic fluid. When the brake lever is pressed, it creates pressure in the hydraulic fluid, This is then transferred to the brake pads, resulting in a stronger and more immediate braking force.
However, this type of brake is more complicated to maintain than mechanical rim brakes and wears the rim much more quicker.

Dual-caliper bike brakes

dual-caliper bike brakes

Dual-caliper brakes are commonly used on road bikes because of their weight and braking performance. This type of brake is composed of two brake arms, each of which has a brake pad. When the rider squeezes the brake lever, the brake cable pulls the right caliper arm up which pushes the left caliper arm down causing the brake pads to press against the rim and slow down the wheel. 

left arm moves up and right arm moves down

If the brake is not effective or it makes a noise when braking then you might want to replace the pads. We have a step-by-step tutorial on how to replace brake pads on dual caliper and v-brakes. 

Cantilever brakes

cantilever bike brakes

A predecessor of V-brakes. This type of rim brake is still used on some cyclocross and touring bikes. They are similar in design to V-brakes but use a different mechanism to apply force to the rim. Cantilever brakes use two brake arms that are connected by a transverse cable or a straddle cable. When the brake lever is applied, the brake cable pulls the arms that apply pressure to the rim. We have a great article if you’re not sure how to undo and reattach a cantilever brake.

Although v-brakes and cantilever brakes look similar their brake levers are not compatible. This is because V-brake levers need to pull more cable than cantilever ones to press the pads against the rim.

v-brake and cantilever brake levers

Disc bike brakes

Disc brakes work by pressing brake pads against a rotor attached to the wheel hub to slow it down. They are more powerful than rim brakes, work well in wet or muddy conditions, and do not wear out rims. However, they are generally heavier and more expensive than rim brakes.

Mechanical (cable) disc brakes

mechanical disc bike brakes

Mechanical disc brakes use a cable to transmit force from the brake lever to the brake caliper. When the rider squeezes the brake lever, it pulls on the cable. This activates the caliper and causes the brake pads to grip the rotor. Cable disc brakes require more frequent adjustments and may have less consistent performance compared to hydraulic disc brakes. 

Hydraulic disc brakes

hydraulic disc bike brakes

Hydraulic disc brakes, on the other hand, use mineral oil or DOT fluid to transfer the force from the brake lever to the brake caliper. When the rider squeezes the brake lever, it compresses the hydraulic fluid in the brake hose. This in turn activates the pistons in the brake caliper, causing the brake pads to grip the rotor. Hydraulic disc brakes typically offer more consistent performance and require less maintenance than cable disc brakes.

However, they need to be bled periodically to remove air from the brake lines. This process can be time-consuming and requires special tools.

Two types of hydraulic disc brake calipers

  • 2-piston brake. A 2-piston disc brake has two pistons, one on each side of the caliper. 2 piston brakes provide sufficient stopping power for many riders and are often more than adequate for road cycling and commuting.
one piston on each side of the caliper
  • 4-piston brake. A 4-piston disc brake has two pistons on each side of the caliper. The increased number of pistons provides several benefits. It increases the surface area of the brake pads that contact the rotor. It also provides more consistent and powerful braking performance, which can be especially important for downhill mountain biking or other high-speed applications.
Two pistons on each side of the caliper

If your disc brake makes a squicky noise then you may want to find out the cause. Our article about squeaky disc brakes will show you possible solutions to a squeaky disc brake problem.

Hub bike brakes

Bicycle hub brakes are a type of braking system that, just like a disc rotor, is attached to the hub of a bicycle wheel. These types of brakes are not safe to use in hilly areas because of their poor modulation and heat dissipation. 

Drum brakes

A drum brake is a type of mechanical brake that consists of a drum and a set of brake shoes.

drum bike brakes

When the brake lever is applied, the brake shoes are forced against the inside of the drum. This creates friction and slows the rotation of the wheel. Drum brakes require minimal maintenance and the performance is equal in dry and wet conditions. However, they are not very effective and powerful.

Shimano roller brakes

This type of brake looks similar to a drum brake but the breaking mechanism is different. There is a series of rollers that, when the brake is applied, move outward to push on the brake shoes. Brake shoes contact drum creating friction and stopping the bike. 

Coaster brakes

They are a type of rear brake that is built into the hub of the rear wheel. Coaster brakes work by pedaling backward, which engages the brake mechanism and slows down the bike. They are easy to use and require minimal maintenance but are less effective than rim or disc brakes.


Overall, brakes are an essential component of any bicycle. Proper maintenance and adjustment can help ensure safe and reliable braking performance.

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