It should go without saying that your brakes are among the most important components on your bike.
Your brake pads – also referred to as brake blocks or brake shoes – are also crucial parts, as they play a huge role in how effectively your brake system will work, especially in wet conditions.
All brake pads are regarded as a ‘consumable component’, meaning they will wear over time and require replacement. Old or over-worn brake pads will not work properly, so compromising safety, or may even cause damage to your bike, so it’s worthwhile to be aware of your brake pads and to check them regularly for wear.
There are two main types of brake pads, reflecting the two main categories of cycle brake systems – rim brakes and disc brakes.
• Rim brake pads: Rim brakes use the rotating rim of the wheel as a braking surface. The brake pads are mounted at the ends of the brake’s two pivoted cantilever arms, and pulling the brake lever/cable squeezes them brake pads against both sides of the rim, slowing down the bike. Rim brakes are widely in use on BMX, road and city bikes and are favoured for their light weight and mechanical simplicity. There are a number of different types, the two main ones being caliper and cantilever brakes, so you will need to choose pads accordingly.
• Disc brake pads: Instead of using the rim as a braking surface, disc brakes use a circular metal disc mounted on the hub of the wheel. This disc rotates through a caliper, which contains the brake pads. Squeezing the brake lever applies the pads to the rotor, with the resulting friction slowing down the bike. Disc brakes are commonly found on MTB bikes as well as some road bikes.
When your brake pads are worn past a certain point – there may be wear grooves or other indicators on the pads to tell you there time is up – it’s time to invest in a new set. However in order to replace your pads you will need to take into account the type of brakes you are using as well as additional factors including riding conditions, rim type (if using rim brakes) and brake manufacturer. It’s also worth noting that users of rim brakes should periodically inspect their rims for wear, as the grinding effect of brake pads and road grit will slowly erode the metal surface, to the point where new rims or wheels may be required.
Read on to find out more about the different types of brake pad that are available and to find which ones are right for your brakes.
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BMX bikes use rim brakes. There are a number of different designs, including U-brakes (as found on most park, street and dirt bikes, these are a cross between a centre-pull cantilever brake and a caliper brake) , cantilever brakes (as used on CX bikes) and caliper brakes (as used on road bikes). The majority of BMX brake pads are designed to work with every type of rim brake, and come with a selection of washers to enable them be used with different standards.
Because BMX riding puts less demands on the brakes than other riding disciplines – indeed, many BMX riders go ‘brakeless’ or rear brake only – most BMX brake pads are simple, one-piece (non-cartridge) designs. Hoever they may typically include performance features such as:
• Extended length for greater stopping surface and even wear;
• Optimized rubber compounds for various conditions – options may include soft compound blocks for greater stopping power at the expense of pad life, or dual-compound blocks optimized for both wet and dry weather riding;
• Pad grooves to help dissipate water and to indicate wear
• Clear pads are regarded as best for maintaining the colour on anodized rims.
MTB disc brake pads are sold in pairs, with one pair fitting into a single brake caliper (normally each pair also includes a replacement retention spring which is necessary to hold the pads in place). The majority are designed to fit specific calipers, so you will need to buy a pair that is compatible with the make and model of your brake caliper/system.
After this, the choice is between the two main types of pad –- organic or sinterered.
• Organic pads: Organic pads – also referred to as ‘resin’ pads – are made from a high-density ceramic and have a softer compound than metallic sintered pads. Organic pads generally provide better stopping power and heat dissipation, which means that they are slower to heat up and so are advisable for use in braking systems with a low boiling point. However organic pads can wear out more quickly in wet and gritty conditions.
• Sintered pads: Also referred to as ‘metallic’ pads, these use a compound with added metal content – usually copper shavings. This makes them noiser, and they heat up faster, but in wet conditions they last far, far longer than organic pads. Ultimately your choice may depend on the prevalent conditions you ride in, with sintered pads advisable for the typical wet/mixed weather encountered in the UK (unless you have no problem changing your pads often).
In general, if there is less than 1.5mm of braking surface on your disc pads, it’s time for replacement. Changing your pads is generally a pretty simple job that can be done at home – check YouTube or your brake manufacturer’s website for a tutorial. It’s also worth noting that new pads will have to be ‘bedded in’. This means spending a few minutes braking hard (in a safe, traffic-free environment) in order to lay down a thin layer of transfer film onto the rotor surface. Properly bedded-in brakes will ensure smoother braking down the line and minimize brake judder.
V-brakes are a type of rim brake, also referred to as direct-pull cantilever brakes. They are found on many entry-level or older MTBs as well as lots of city or hybrid bikes and consist of individual brake arms mounted via two brake bosses, with each arm of the brake attached to a boss on each seatstay or fork leg.
V-brake pads generally come in two types – cartridge and non-cartridge.
• Non-cartridge pads: These are the simplest and most inexpensive pad type, consisting of a simple rubber block, with a braking surface and a threaded metal post on the opposite side by means of which the pad is attached to the brake arm.
• Cartridge pads: Cartridge pads feature a metal ‘shoe’ with replaceable rubber inserts (the actual ‘pad’ part of the design) that can be secured via one or more grub screws. Cartridge pads are regarded as superior to non-cartridge pads as the metal shoe is more resistant to flex, than a rubber block and so offers better stopping power. They are a simple upgrade which can greatly improve your bike’s stopping power. Cartridge pads may be sold as a package (with shoes/posts and pads), or just the rubber inserts.
NOTE: When replacing cartridge pads it is essential to align them correctly – most will have arrows indicating which end of the pad points forwards. Many shoe designs are open at one end to allow the insert slide in, but if the shoe is facing the wrong way the rotation of the wheel could pull the pads out. Also, replacement pads must be correctly positioned, e.g. ‘toed in’ (angled so that the front of the pad makes contact with the rim slightly before the rear) for optimum performance and even wear, while new pads will also require that cables are adjusted.. Check online for step-by-step information on how to replace and adjust your rim brake pads.
Higher-end pads – particularly cartridge pads – will normally be available in a selection of rubber compounds to suit different riding conditions, with some dual- or even triple-compound pads combining different compounds in the one pad to suit wet- and dry-weather riding.
NOTE: V-brakes are just one type of cantilever brake design – centre-pull cantis, for example, are still seen on older mtbs and some touring bikes, while they also remain popular on modern cyclocross (CX) bikes.. Look for pads marked ‘cantilever’ when replacing centre-pull canti pads, which are generally shorter than v-brake pads.
The majority of road bikes use a type of rim brake known as a caliper brake, where the brake is made up of a single unit, attached by means of one bolt only, and with the brake arms reaching downward from above the tyre. Pulling on the cable pivots both the arms inwards, bringing the brake pad into contact with the rim.
As with MTB rim brake pads (see above), caliper brake pads are available in cartridge (a metal shoe with replaceable rubber inserts) and non-cartridge (a single rubber block) form, with the former offering significant performance advantages over the latter, and being a sound investment if your stock pads are non-cartridge.
Different pads are available for different rim compounds and weather conditions.
• Rim compounds: Standard alloy rims are fuss-free in terms of pad choice but any riders with carbon-rimmed wheels will need carbon-specific brake pads (it might be worth checking with the manufacturer to see what pads they recommend). Meanwhile lightweight rims from some manufacturers – e.g. Mavic Exalith – require special pads in order to avoid premature wear or damage. It’s also worth nothing that while most aftermarket pads will fit most caliper brake systems, some are model- or manufacturer-specific (e.g. Campagnolo brakes require Campagnolo pads).
• Weather conditions Some brands offer wet-weather specific pads which are a sound choice for winter training or riding during the transition seasons of spring or autumn. Wet-weather pads can still be used in the dry, but are optimized for better performance than standard pads when it’s raining.