How To Upgrade Your Bike: Brakes

A few weeks back we began to ask a very simple question, ‘How best to upgrade your bike?’ The question was based on a basic assumption many of you had recognised and were asking for our thoughts on; bike manufacturers are all looking to save money in certain key areas and thus a number of parts appear substandard to the over all bike. Upgrading those areas can then make an average ride a good ride and a good ride a great ride.  

We began by stating that there’s no right/wrong or scientific way to approach this question but there is a lot to be gained from having at least a vague methodology to your investment and design choices. My own methodology began with grips/bar tape, moving on to the ever subjective issue of saddle choice, before last week’s post looked at the deeply unromantic, unexciting but critically important  issue of replacing and upgrading your cables. I also suggested that by not only upgrading but coordinating all three of these areas a huge aesthetic improvement might be gained. 

Today we’re continuing to make our way down your bike as I encourage you to think about upgrading your brakes. Given that your brakes take the absolute brunt of the winter conditions many of you have already called in to the pod to discuss this potential upgrade. 


Why Bother?

You're fed up of screeching brakes, you're petrified by the lack of control they give you, you're riding on the originals and they look and function like parts past their best before date.  

While your bike's brakes comprise an absolutely essential part of your bikes componentry without which your ride is barely imaginable they are hugely overlooked by a vast breadth of manufacturers. Walk into any bike shop and the spec listing hanging from each bike will focus heavily on the bikes frame or more specificlly its weight, the wheels and the transmission groupset, with brakes appearing much further down the list if at all. It will be a rare and beautiful thing for bikes adorning a 105 group set to leave the factory with anything like 105 brakes as standard. If you’re in this minority you’re onto a very good thing stick with it! Upgrading your brakes is therefore often about levelling out the consistency of your bikes components and thus the overall performance you can expect.

Remember too that brakes aren’t just about stopping, almost any brake will do that if you squeeze it hard enough for long enough, good brakes are about control (modulation); the ease and efficiency with which your bike is able to stop in a controlled fashion. In other words, unlke grips and saddles brakes are about keeping you critically safe. 

What exactly is involved? 

A brake ‘upgrade’ might best be understood as replacing the brakes you have (caliper and or pads) for ‘better’ brakes and in this case ‘better’ generally means, lighter, stronger, made of more robust materials and thus enabling greater control (modulation) of your riding experience. When you're up against traffic, pedestrians and some pretty horrendous weather 'better brakes' are a very good thing.  

Replacing the calliper* involves removing the wheel (for ease), releasing the brake cable from the calliper housing, removing the calliper from the frame with as little tooling as a spanner and an allen key, cleaning down the surrounding frame area, replacing with your choice of upgrade (be careful to keep endless washers in the right order), rethreading your cables, rebalancing your brakes and reinserting your wheels.

Of course the brake mechanism is also a housing for brake pads/blocks; the rubber part which binds against your rims bringing the bike to a stationary position. Stock pads (blocks) on a new bike are often shockingly poor quality; manufacturers know you’re going to replace them in time so why should they bother fitting good quality as standard. 

Brake blocks/pads can be upgraded for much less expense than replacing your entire caliper and can make a remarkable difference. Remember that while SRAM and Shimano are largely interchangeable if you’re lucky enough to be riding Campagnalo then the pads are specific to the calliper. 

The result of these upgrades should be a considerably more controlled sense of braking which lasts for longer and enables you to develop a much greater sense of your bikes every move, something especially important in the current environment of dark afternoons and misserable weather  conditions.

Not Sure. . . 

Convinced you ought to be considering an upgrade but not at all sure you're up for the mechanics. Buy the parts from our pod and we’ll fit for free.

What To Go For. . . 

For 'good' you could do much, much worse, than a Shimano 105 calliper

For 'amazing' try a Shimano Dura Ace BR-7900. 

For great blocks try either Aztec Road System Plus, Koolstop or Swisstop all of which will feel like a vast improvement on many of the items sold across a vast range of bikes as standard. 

6 Things To Remember

  1. The brake pivot points need to be regularly lubricated or you may as well never have bothered with any of the above. 
  2. If you’re upgrading your brakes grasp the opportunity to renew your cables, rethreading existing cables can be a real pain in the ass and very counter productive. 
  3. Take time to set your brakes up properly, carefully positioning pads and making sure the orientation is exactly as it should be. 
  4. For efficient stopping be sure that your wheels are running true. Bikes checked in for ‘a brake adjustment’ but in need of significant ‘wheel truing’ are the bread and butter of many bike shops. 
  5. Upgrading either the calliper or blocks provides a good reminder to check the level of wear on your wheels rim. Most decent wheels now come with wear indocators; either a small groove or a series of dots if heavy and unmodulated braking has warn these down then you ought to add ‘wheel upgrades’ to you to do list.
  6. If we've convinced you that upgrading your brakes is a very good idea be sure to invest  callipers with the right length of drop (Center of bolt to center of pad meets rim). They generally come in 'short' or 'long' with significant room for movement in both. 


*In this blog we've focused largely on the upgrading of calliper brakes other types of brakes are ofcourse available and present on a number of urban commuter bikes and we hope to look at these in future posts.