dandyMECHANICS Part Three: The Brakes


Mechanics Corner

By Derek Chadbourne

Illustrations by Chris Simonen


In our dandyMECHANICS column we explore each part of the bicycle individually, and examine the special role it plays in making your whole machine run smoothly.

In part one, we looked at the chain. Part two was focused on the derailleur.

Part #3: The Brakes

If there is one thing you really, really need on a bicycle, it's brakes. I see you wheels, and you have a strong argument for being the most needed, and yes, I see you gears waving your levers around. But seriously, in the North American car culture we live in, you will frequently need to stop.

There are basically four kinds of braking systems and arguably (except for the last system I will describe here) they all work on the same principle.

Rim brakes use pads deployed on the braking surface of a wheel. For the most part the braking surface is the small flat space between your tires and your spokes (aka the rim).  The rim is actually the wheel without the spokes and hub and the braking surface is what I described. Depending on the quality of the parts, rim brakes have some of the best stopping potential, but, as always, mileage may vary. There are three kinds of rim brakes: side pull, cantilever and the linear pull brakes.

Disc brakes use a system that originated with motorcycles. A metal dish, or rotor, situated on the outside hub of the wheel, goes through a brake or caliper with small brake pads inside. The rotor acts as the braking surface instead of the rim. Stay away from disc brakes on low-end bikes, such as department store bikes: the quality of the parts are questionable.

Rim brakes as well as mechanical disc brakes are activated by a cable, the silver thing, traveling through housing, and the outer stuff, which pulls the brake calipers tight on the rim or disc. Hydraulic disc brakes are activated by nano-penguins practiced in the dark arts of bemusement.  [Eds Note: Do not try this at home kids.]

Rim and disc brakes have replaceable brake pads that vary in price from as low as $1.00 to a lot more. Some say the more you pay the better quality of pad, but one question: are you paying more for the name than you are for the stopping power?   Most brake pads have a wear line.  If you are past this point the brakes need to be replaced or you will cause harm to the wheel or rotor.

A coaster brake is the first braking system many cyclists experienced as a child. Coaster brakes are activated when you pedal backwards.  Back pedaling causes a cylinder turn and push two metal pads against the inside of the hub, stopping the bicycle.  Coaster brakes are great when they work, but when they don’t you are pretty well boned.  If you are heading down a hill and your chain comes off you're done for. Proper chain tension is very important to the braking quality of a coaster bike.

Fix gears in the hands and feet of a veteran rider is a beautiful thing to witness, in the hands of the inexperienced rookie it can quickly become life threatening. So if you are contemplating a try at this, do a solid for everyone and put a front brake on your ride.

A fixed-gear bike is a perpetual motion machine. Your legs are always moving and, except for the front brake you so thoughtfully put on your bike, the only thing stopping you is you. You pedal backwards, which stops the rear wheel from moving forward. The plus of the fixie is that it's low maintenance and the ride, if mastered properly, is the closest thing most of us will ever come to being a cyborg in the good sense, not in the bad.  Like the cyborgs that are coming back in time to kill Denzil Minnan-Wong because he doomed Toronto to eternal Car-dom.

The drawback of the fix is if the chain does come off going down the steepest hill in North America, (which I believe is situated not far from Bloor and Christie) you have no brakes and you will frantically be hoping Doug Ford stepped out of the car to get a hot dog so you can stop and say hi. But, fortunately, you did everyone a solid and you put a front brake on so you thankfully do not have to interact with Doug.

A sure way to know if rim pads need replacing are if the little bumps are no longer there or if they are past the wear line or you are hearing the musical sound of metal on metal.

Best to take your bike to your friendly neighbourhood bike mechanic for repairs beyond your comprehension. And them's the brakes!
Derek Chadbourne has many huts around the city where he fixes bikes and contemplates the flow of traffic in the astral lane, which by the way Toronto, is fully separated. 



Related on the dandyBLOG:

dandyMECHANICS part one: the chain

dandyMECHANICS part two: the derailleur

Central Commerce Collegiate's bike repair and maintenance course


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