How to Tune & Adjust Handbrakes on Your Road Bike

Are you terrified at the prospect of doing any kind of mechanical repair? Maybe the most you know how to do is fix a flat. But now you notice that your handbrakes aren’t working as well as before? Truth is, retuning and adjusting your brakes is an even easier process than fixing a flat.

First Steps

Place your bike in a bike stand and check your wheels are straight and locked in the dropouts. These are the reversed “U” shaped cutouts at the bottom of the fork. A quick-release lever and, in some cases on older bikes, a nut and bolt, hold the dropouts firmly against wheels and keep them from moving. It’s a good first step to check to make sure your wheels aren’t loose as this could be the reason your handbrakes aren’t working efficiently. Plus, riding your bike with loose wheels is dangerous.

Another step is to spin the wheel manually or use the pedals if working on the back wheel. The wheel should stop rotating on its own, but if it stops before a full rotation is complete, the brake pads might be rubbing the rim. That means they are probably not properly aligned or, worst case, your wheel is out of true. A quick fix is to attempt re-centering the brake calipers back into place by hand. If you can’t move them, though, then you’ll have to loosen the brake fixing bolt located at the back of the fork.

Brake Pad Position

If after re-centering the brake calipers, the handbrakes still feel loose or squishy or the brake pads are still rubbing the rim, loosen the brake pad bolts just enough so they can be moved. You’ll need a 5-millimeter hex wrench to do this.


Once the screws are loosened, make sure the pads are hitting the rim and “toed-in.” This step allows the brake pads more stopping power versus being aligned squarely with the wheel. The rim braking surface is an area about an inch or so long that runs all around the wheel. When the handbrake is compressed, the brake pads should hit this area, not above it or below.

Riding with misaligned brake pads can potentially lead to a flat, a damaged wheel, or even worse, a crash while riding. Ideally, the pads should be about a millimeter or so from the rim for the most efficient braking.

Handbrake Setup

Once you’ve finished with the brake pads, the next thing in the retuning process is to inspect the setup on the handbrakes. Squeeze the brake lever. When the brake pads engage the wheel, the lever should stop 2 to three inches from the bar. If this is the case with your setup, then your handbrakes are properly setup. However, if the handbrakes feel squishy and not firm, then they need to be adjusted.


Adjust the Handbrake

The brake cable housing, which contains the cable and allows it to move freely and keeps it from fraying, runs from the end of the handbrake down to the brake calipers where the cable end is attached. It isn’t absolutely necessary to detach the cable in order to adjust the handbrake. The important thing to note here, though, is you should see a barrel-shaped adjuster at the end of the handbrake where the cable housing exits. If it isn’t there, the barrel adjuster could be on the brake calipers.

Now Tune and Test the Handbrake

The job of the barrel adjuster is to either move the brake pads closer to the rim or further away. Turn the barrel to the left to move the brake pads away from the rim and right to move them closer. The handbrakes are properly in adjustment when the brake pads are 1 to 2 millimeters from the rim, so that when you compress the brake levers, they feel firm and stop, as mentioned earlier, 2 to 3 inches from the handlebar.

Now test the levers by squeezing them more firmly as if you were braking hard. The levers should still not move much closer to the handlebar. This is very important!! If there is not enough room between the levers and the handlebar, you may not be able to stop the bike in an emergency situation.

Check Your Work

Make sure that all bolts are tight but not over tightened which could lead to a catastrophic failure while out on a ride. A torque wrench is best when working on bike parts and will allow you to tighten bolts to factory specification. Secondly, make sure your brake cables are clean and not frayed (no pieces of metal sticking out as they can break) and the housing isn’t worn and the brake cable isn’t showing through. Lastly, if your handbrakes still feel squishy and don’t give you firm stopping power, the cable itself may need to be changed or adjusted.

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