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How To Adjust Bike Brakes

How To Adjust Bike Brakes

Table of Contents

I was always told as a cyclist that the better you look after your bike, the better your bike will look after you. I personally couldn’t agree more with this statement and feel that for the best cycling experience learning some basic bike repair and maintenance will go a very long way for anyone. One excellent skill you can easily learn is to adjust your bike brakes. 

You should learn this skill for many reasons, not just for safety but to save yourself from spending on bike shop labor in the long run. In this article, we’re going to tell you why you need to have your brakes adjusted properly and how to do it.

How Do You Know When Your Brakes Need Adjusting?

We often get asked about how to know when your bike brakes need adjusting. Here’s what you need to know:

Braking Performance

If you find that you are struggling with slowing down and the brakes don’t feel very responsive, there’s a good chance that your brakes are out of adjustment, or you might have some worn-out components. 

Levers Goes To The Handlebars

If the brake lever goes all the way to the bar, then more than likely, your cables have stretched over time, and now your brakes are out of adjustment. All cables on bikes stretch, and this is why brakes and levers generally have micro adjusters on to compensate for this. 

Lever Feel Tight

If the lever feels very tight, this doesn’t mean your brakes will be sharp and stop you quickly. It typically just means they are out of adjustment. Brake levers require a certain amount of leverage to work properly, and less than 1cm generally isn’t enough to get an adequate grip on the lever and give you the ability to feather and control the brakes. Here you would loosen the barrel adjuster.


How To Adjust Bike Brakes

When it comes to adjusting bike brakes depending on the brakes you have, it’s a very different process. In this article, we will explain the most common: Rim Brakes and Hydraulic Disc Brakes. 

Tools Needed

You don’t need much to complete the task of adjusting either rim or disc brakes. Here’s what we recommend you have to hand:

  • Allen Key Set
  • Tire Lever
  • Bike Stand (Optional)

Allen Key Set

Preparation and Checks

The first step you need to take is to get yourself in a safe place to work. Ensure you are not on the road if you are out riding, and if you’re at home, find a place where you can work safely without breaking anything. Putting your bike into a bike stand will make this job so much easier, and we highly recommend using one, but it’s not required.

Now it’s important before you start, you need to check the components for wear and see if anything needs replacing. Here’s what you should be checking on the brake arm:

  1. Bike Brake Pads (Check wear indicator on pads)
  2. Bike Rim Surface (Ensure they don’t concave in)
  3. Bike Brake Rotor (No less than 1.5mm thick)
  4. Inner and Outer Cables (Cable should move smoothly)
  5. Check Hydraulic Cables (Look for leaks or breaks)
  6. No Contamination (Touch the surfaces to check for dirt or oil)

Once you have checked that these are all ok, then you’re ready to go. If anything needs replacing, you should be doing it now. 

Rim Brakes

How to Adjust Rim Brakes

Let’s start with rim brakes. These are the easiest out of the two, and you should allow 5 minutes for this task. Let’s go!

Step One: Release Cable Tension

The first thing you need to do is release the brake cables tension. You can do this by inserting the Allen key into the pinch bolt and turning it anti-clockwise until the calipers open up. Do not fully remove this bolt, as it’s easy to lose and hard to replace.

Once you have done this, we recommend going to the adjustment screw, which will either be on the brake itself or the lever. This is commonly referred to as a barrel adjuster. Fully adjust it inward by turning it clockwise. We do this, so we have lots of room for fine-tuning later. 

Step Two: Reapply Brake Cable Tension and Adjust

Now we need to get the tension back in but with the brakes in a better position. The easiest way to do this is to take one hand on the brake caliper where the pads sit, with two fingers on one side and your thumb on the other, and pull them together so they are about 1-2mm on either side of the rim. 

Now with the other hand, pull the brake cable so it’s got no slack in, and then do the pinch bolt up clockwise to grip it. You can now let go, and the caliper’s brake pads should stay near the rim. Now pull the brake lever. You will probably find it quite slack. Use the adjuster to get it perfect where you have enough leverage with your hand and the brake feels tight. 

Brake Adjustment

Step Three: Center The Pads

Now we need to center the pads. Go to one of the pads and loosen the bolt off using the Allen key on the rear, but just only enough so you can move it. Then pull the brake on and shuffle the pad so it sits perfectly on the rim’s surface. Once you have done this, you are going to go to the pad on the other side and repeat the process until the brake pads sit comfortably.

Break Check

Step Four : Double Check

Now you need to check all the brake pad bolts are nice and tight and then take it out for a test ride. If you need to make any further adjustments, we recommend using the adjuster on either the lever or the brake itself. 

How to Adjust Hydraulic Disc Brakes

Now for disc brakes. These can be a bit more challenging, but it will be easy work once you know how. Allow twenty minutes for this process. Let’s go!


Step One: Remove The Bikes Wheel and Pads

The first thing you must do is remove the wheel from the brake that needs adjusting. You will need to undo the quick-release axle or the thru-axle and completely remove it and release the wheel. 

Now we need to remove the pads, and we do this so we can reset the pistons. To remove the pads, you will want to first remove the safety clip and then undo the pin which goes through the center.

Grip the pads at the fins and then press them together and pull them out. You need to ensure to keep the pads and the spring safe and remember there’s a left and a right pad, so remember the way they came out. 


Step Two: Reset the Pistons and Return The Pads and Wheel

It’s time to reset the pistons. You can do this by using a blunt object and putting it in between the calipers and where you see the pistons. We’re going to push them back in gently. You can do this by using the blunt end of the tire lever, or even the rear end of the spanner works too. 

You need to push them until they return right back into the calipers. Then you need to get the pads correctly with the spring inside. Then put the pin back in and the safety clip on. You will want to get the wheel back now and ensure it is straight and true in the bike.

Wait to Pull The Brake Lever!

Step Three: Loosen Caliper and Set The Pistons

Now you will need to take your Allen keys and slightly loosen off the caliper bolts by as little as a single turn. Just enough so you can move it slightly. Hydraulic disc brakes are self-adjusting, so here’s what you need to do. 

Pull the brake lever twice, and on the second time, hold the brake lever in. While holding it, you need to tighten the caliper bolts again. Release the brake lever and spin the wheel. Hopefully, at this point, you should get no disc rub. 

Also Read: Mechanical vs Hydraulic Disc Brakes: Which Is Best?

If you get brake rub, we recommend undoing one caliper bolt just slightly and moving the caliper until you get no brake rub. Then tighten it back up again when you have it perfect. It can take a little time, but just make small movements until you have it right. 

Step Four: Double Check

Now we recommend checking that the bolts are tight and getting out on a road test to ensure the brakes work properly. 

How to Adjust Mechanical Disc Brakes

Finally we have mechanical disc brakes. These are very easy to adjust and shouldn’t take you much more than about five minutes.

Step One: Undo The Adjustment Screws And Release Cable

The first step you need to take is to undo the adjustment screws on either side of the brake caliper. Then release the tension from the cable from undoing the pinch bolt holding the cable. We do this so we have a good place to start with everything reset. 

Step Two: Apply Tension On The Cable

Next you will need to pull the cable finger tight and do the pinch bolt up to grip it. It’s a good idea now to pull the lever. It should be nice and loose giving you lots of room for adjustment. If it doesn’t feel smooth, consider changing the cable. 

Step Three: Reset The Caliper

Next we recommend slightly unscrewing the caliper bolts half a turn, then pulling the brake lever till it grips the disc and tighten them back up again while it’s in this position. If it doesn’t grip the disc, screw out the barrel adjuster a few turns until it does, then screw it in again afterwards.

We do this to ensure the pads are flat to the discs to make them easier to adjust and also keep the brake pad wear even over time. 

Step Four: Wind The Pads In

Now you will need to get nice and close to the pads and look at where they sit near the disc. You are going to want to screw each side in until you have 1mm to 2mm on either side from pad to disc. To ensure you haven’t gone too far, spin the wheel to check for brake disc rub.

Step Five: Final Adjustments

Finally the last thing you need to do is to grab the brake lever and pull it. If it feels loose go to the barrel adjuster on the cable pinch bolt and screw it anti-clockwise to tighten the brakes further. 

Once you have found the perfect place between leverage and tension you will want to check all the bolts are tight on the caliper and pinch bolt, then you’re ready to go out for a spin.

Also Read: V Brakes vs. Cantilever Brakes

How Often Do I Need To Adjust My Brakes?

Typically you will need to adjust your brakes fairly often. As cables stretch and pads and other components start to wear down, you will find yourself needing to make adjustments. These won’t be major adjustments, and generally, most will be done on the mini adjuster until any major work is needed on your bikes.


There are lots of skills you can learn to improve your cycling experience and help save you from taking your bike to a shop. Adjusting your bike brakes is one of these skills, and there are many more available to learn. Thanks for taking the time to read our article and we hope you’re now ready to hit the tools. 

Picture of Robbie Ferri

Robbie Ferri

Robbie picked up a bike ten years ago at the age of 26. It started with a ride from London to Paris. Since then, he couldn’t get enough of big mile cycling and started bikepacking and eventually ended up racing ultra distance and even breaking world records.

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