Mountain Bike Brakes

Mountain Bike Brakes

Every time someone hops on a bike in any competitive environment, they discuss top speeds, average speeds, basically how fast they can go. You know who discusses braking?

Practically nobody. They should be, though. Hitting your brakes at the right time and the right angle can help you slide across patches of dirt, maintain a cruising level of control, and hit the ground running as you come out of the slide.

Mountain bike brakes are important for safety as well, especially if you travel in cyclist groups.

We’ve going to talk about brakes for a bit, about maintaining them, and the different types you can get, as well as why they’re important.

How Important Are Brakes on a Mountain Bike?

How Important Are Brakes on a Mountain Bike?

More important than anything else. Let’s be real for a minute: you’re a good cyclist, you know the ins and outs, the curves and bumps of your bike and the roads you travel all the time, but there are plenty of issues that can pop up without warning.

They throw us off and catch us off-guard, and then accidents happen.

No matter how good you are on your mountain bike, you need that insurance to help protect you when you’re speeding to certain peril. It sounds simple, right?

You must be thinking, “I already know that I need brakes,” but their importance is often undersold.

It doesn’t just help you stop short or slow down when you’re on a steep incline; it can be the difference between grave injuries or getting home safely, provided that you have the right reaction time.

Good brakes need to be maintained. It’s the same idea behind wearing a helmet: you know you’re not going to need to use it… but do you? If you’re going to be persistent about maintaining anything on your mountain bike, let it be the brakes above all else.

Mountain Brake Type

Mountain Brake Type

You have three basic brake types you’re going to see on mountain bikes. Well, bicycles in general, really.

There are some off-brand mountain bikes out there that use different configurations of brake types from the big names, so it’s important to get familiar with every type of mountain bike brake now.

Caliper Brakes

Caliper brakes are operated by the cyclist through the hand brake handle, applying pressure to a plate that rests just above the rim of your tire as it spins.

This presses down and causes immense traction, forcing your tires to come to a stop. In some cases, this can cause you to come to a screeching halt and send you over the handlebars, so you need to exercise caution if this is your only brake type.

Cantilever Brakes

Cantilevers are far more powerful than calipers. These mount directly onto a special fork that sits above the rim of your tire, and hangs down over the sides as well.

When you pull on the brake line, it squeezes the left and right side of the cantilever closed and applies pressure onto the sides of your tirs.

Two surfaces, and a little more traction to really put you to a complete stop. Just like we mentioned before, these are also going to send you over the handlebars if you aren’t careful.


As we’ve mentioned these brake types, they’ve only gotten more powerful. V-brakes, sometimes referred to as direct-pull brakes, are on a special mounting fork and apply pressure to multiple contact points on your tire.

It sounds similar to the cantilever and caliper brakes we just talked about, but V-brakes actually have the power to cause traction on wet, muddy, slippery tires, making them ideal for mountain bikes. These are probably on your mountain bike right now.

Maintaining Brakes

Your brakes are good. Perfect, even. They go through wear and tear to bring down their effectiveness over time, and before you know it they’re about as effective as rubbing two styrofoam plates against the sides of your tires.

Maintenance is key, so if you want them to stay precise and perfect, perform these maintenance tasks.

Clean Brake Pads


Any brake on a mountain bike is going to have brake pads, the traction surfaces that actually apply pressure to the tires. These can wear down in as little as six abrupt stops and lose a good chunk of their effectiveness.

The best thing you can do is use rubbing alcohol to clean them regularly.

This lets you know when they need to be replaced since you’ll be quite literally hands-on with them, while also ensuring that dirt isn’t sitting between the pads and your tires the next time you go to use the brakes.

Check for Alignment

Are your rim brakes an even distance away from the tire?

On cantilever brakes, you can lose half of its effectiveness if one of the two brake pads is touching the tire while the other is hovering around it. Unaligned brake pads simply do not work.

Lever Height


Is your brake lever really close to the tire? That’s because the cables don’t have enough tension. Squeeze those handles and check the cable tension.

If your cables are too loose, you’ll be able to depress those hand levers all the way without feeling much resistance. The pads won’t be applying enough pressure against the tire.

If you can’t even squeeze the handles all the way with all of your might, then the pads aren’t touching the tires enough. This takes fine tweaking, but you want solid tension from the cables.

You should get in the habit of checking your brakes at least once a week. You don’t need to be excessive about it and check every single time you hop on your bike, but regular checking is important.

Set up a ten-minute block on your day off to maintain your mountain bike with a quick cleaning, cable check, and brake check.

How to Use Brakes Properly

You have good, powerful brakes and you maintain them. That’s good, but they’re not going to do all the work for you. You need to know when to brake, and how to do it properly.

This is a short walkthrough on how to identify situations to apply your brakes, and everything that follows.

Brake Ahead


Don’t just decide, “I want to stop now.” Look ahead, and visualize where you’re going to be applying the brakes. How fast are you going? How far is the target?

This is what you need to do first before applying your brakes, otherwise, you’re just going to go bum over tea kettle and land on the road.

Squeeze, Don’t Crush

On the handles to your brakes, you want to gently squeeze them and apply pressure consistently, but evenly.

If you just choke out the brake handles, you’re going to put major stopping power on those tires and all your momentum (the kinetic energy you’ve been building from your speed and movement) is going to screw you over.

That energy has to go somewhere.



Keep your eyes trained on the spot that you want to stop at. Don’t look to the side, or take your focus off of braking while you’re doing it.

If something pops up in front of you, you’ll have already begun the slowdown so you won’t have as much kinetic energy to dispel. If you’re able to stop at the point you pre-determined in your mind, you’re practicing your ability to brake properly and efficiently.

Back Then Forward

Your back brakes aren’t going to fling you over the handlebar. Start with applying pressure to the back brakes so that your front tire can still spin freely, and will begin to slow down as that back brake pressure is applied.

If you do slam on those back brakes, the direction of the momentum is going to stagger and not cause you to crash or wipe out. It’s going to be abrupt, but manageable. Only initiate those front brakes if you have to.

Abrupt Stop

Something has popped up in your path. An animal on the mountain biking trails, or a person on the sidewalk as you were heading out of town. Whatever the case may be, brakes are there to prevent accidents for instances like these ones.

Apply pressure to both brakes to force both tires to stop evenly. You’re still going to feel that back tire pop off the ground a little bit, but it won’t be with nearly enough force to cause you to crash or flip.

Plus, the pressure on both brakes will slow you down quicker in the event that someone or something is in danger.

Making Sure Your Mountain Bike is Up to Snuff

Needless to say, braking is important. Those who can hit top speeds should also be able to properly brake without going bum over tea kettle.

Now you know how to use your brakes properly, how to maintain them, and how vital they are to your overall performance on the trails ahead.


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