The importance of rim brake maintenance
While there are a few different types of brakes depending on the type of bike or e-bike you own, there is one thing they all have in common — you need brakes to stop (unless you ride a fixed gear without brakes). Most purpose built e-bikes have either hydraulic or mechanical disc brakes. Unlike rim brakes, disc brakes squeeze down on a rotor and provide a much more powerful braking mechanism. However, for the purpose of this blog post, we’re going to leave disc brakes for another day.
Since I’m rolling with a standard road bike and a hybrid e-bike, the focus here is going to be on standard rim brakes. Disc brakes are not yet widely accepted on road bikes, though they are gaining steam. For my purposes, I can’t imagine disc brakes on my road bike. I’d be spending more time flying over the handlebar than anything else. Unlike disc brakes, rim brakes squeeze the rim of the wheel to slow down the bike and require a bit of maintenance to enable safe stopping.
Your brakes are dirty, time to clean them
The easiest thing to do to keep your brakes working well is to clean them. It might not be something you think about when cleaning your bike (if you clean your bike at all) but just like keeping the chain greased, you are going to want to keep the brakes clean. It’s a lot easier than you think. Whenever I get back from a longer ride, I flip my bike and make sure to get all the grime off the undercarriage.
When you are riding, your rims pick up dirt, dust, tiny pieces of asphalt, animal waste, road trash, metal and so on. These tiny particles get caught in your brake pads and can cause them not only to wear down quicker, but to slowly tear up your rims (imagine a tiny piece of metal dragging a line in your rims every time you brake). This is all very easy to clean.
The easiest way to clean your rim brakes is to flip your bike and with a wet towel or cloth, scrub the rims. Add some rubbing alcohol if you want, but it’s not required. Lightly soaped water should be fine. Be sure to dry the rims. What I usually do, to avoid removing the tire, is running the cloth between the tire and the brake and then spinning the tire.
The other option is removing the tire and cleaning the brake pads one by one, which is necessary if you know something is caught in there. If you are rolling off road or on gravely asphalt, you are going to want to remove the tires to really clean the brakes.
Your brakes are worn down, time to replace them
The more you use your brakes, the more your brake pads will wear down. This much should be obvious. You don’t really have to replace your brake pads until you notice that you are pulling further on the brake lever for the brakes to engage. Cartridge brake pads are simple to replace, they just pop in and out of the holder. Bolt-on pads require alignment when installed, which isn’t too much of a pain. When replacing, you want to make sure the pads hit the centre of the rim and aren’t at some strange angle.
But some things should strike at what might seem like a strange angle. This would be the toe-in method of aligning brakes. This is when you slightly angle the pads so that the edge of the brake pad touches the rim first when engaged. When installing bolt-on pads, you’ll have to adjust for this alignment, while cartridge pads the toe-in will already be set based on the freshness of the pads. This alignment helps reduce squeaking. Whatever you do, make sure the brake pads are not rubbing on the tires.
Taking care of your rim brakes isn’t just something you do every once in a while or never, it’s something you are going to want to do every couple months to ensure that every time you go out on your bike, e-bike or otherwise, you are riding safe. This is especially important if you ride in traffic often. Often I find myself stopping on a dime, thankful that my brakes are solid and fresh, not dirty and worn. Proper bike brake maintenance could be the difference between life and death. Or at least a litany of broken bones.