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How to make your bike brakes more responsive in 4 easy steps

In this article I’m going to explain how to make your bike brakes more responsive. The opposite of responsive brakes are non-responsive brakes. This is evident when you have to pull your brake levers for a considerate amount before braking power is applied to the wheels.

I like my brake levers to be very responsive, meaning that almost as soon as I touch them braking power is applied. Since I usually work on bikes which are older than 20 years, the brakes will be anything but disc brakes. And the type of bikes I like don’t include coaster brakes, drum brakes or caliper brakes found on road bikes.

The brakes left are either cantilever brakes or v-brakes, which is a certain type of cantilever brake with more upright brake arms also called v-style cantilever brakes or linear pull cantilever brakes.

So this article about how to make your bike brakes more responsive in particular is about v-brakes.

Let’s get started.

Video Tutorial

A requirement for optimal v-brake responsiveness

If you want very responsive brakes. And your brakes use the rim, those rims need to be as true as possible. The more out of true your rims are, the wider you need to set your brake arms with corresponding brake pads apart to prevent rubbing against the rim. The wider your brake pads, the less responsive they’re going to be.

The virtual line your rim can cross is about 1mm. or less.

Step 1. Resetting the barrel adjuster

barrel adjuster 1

If you believe your wheels are true enough the first step is to reset your barrel adjuster. What I do is to rotate them all the way back into the brake lever and then one rotation back out again.

With the barrel adjuster you either put extra tension on the brake cable or release it. By rotating the barrel adjuster outwards (counterclockwise) it effectively lengthens the brake housing while the inner cable obviously stays the same. This puts extra tension on the cable which will cause the brake arms to move closer to the rim.

I either do not use the barrel adjuster or use it for minor fine-tuning. I also don’t use the barrel adjuster for cosmetic reasons, because an adjuster which is extended for half an inch is ugly if you ask me. As are asymmetric barrel adjusters (one extended significantly more than the other). But that’s me.

Step 2. Tightening the brake cable

With the barrel adjuster reset, it’s now time to put extra tension on the brake cable. Loosen the nut at the brake arm, press the brake arms inward until the brake pads connect with the rim, pull the brake cable tight and release tension until about 5mm. is pulled back.

This leaves roughly a bit over 2mm. of travel on either side of the brake pads, provided they have been installed correctly.

Step 3. Adjusting the brake arm springs

spring adjuster

With v-brakes, tension is placed on the brake arms with thin steel rods that run alongside the back of the brake arm. They end in a spring that pulls the rod outwards. In turn the rod pulls the entire brake arm outward.

The spring is set up tighter, applying more tension to the brake arm with tiny screws on the side of the brake arm. Sometimes only one brake arm will have such a screw.

symmetric brake arms

Since both arms need to have equal tension applied to them adjusting these screws enables you to do so. The end result should be a setup which is symmetric when you look at it from the front. If that’s not the case one of the brake pads may start rubbing, because it’s pulled against the rim because of more tension on the other arm.

You put more tension on the spring by rotating the screw clockwise. By alternatively adding tension on one side and / or releasing tension on the other you adjust the position of the brake arms. You’ll need to test if the tension on both sides is equal by actually braking.

Step 4. Test for brake pad rubbing

test for brake pad rubbing

The final step is to test whether or not the rim moves freely in between the brake pads. Slowly rotation the rim will reveal the slightest of brake pad rubbing, since there’s little momentum.

cable tuck

As a final step you can tuck the cable behind the pin that holds the spring rod in place. And that’s how to make your bike brakes more responsive!

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