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How to Improve Rim Brakes

July 9th, 2008 [print] Go to comments

Yeah, I know, disc brakes are pretty much the thing to have nowadays for mountain bikes, but they’re still not the standard.  Even today, the majority of bikes are sold with rim brakes, although discs do seem to be closing the gap as prices drop.  Still, that doesn’t mean you have to put up with crappy braking, and with a few simple steps, good quality v-brakes can easily brake as well as discs under most circumstances.

The first thing you need to do is clean your rims, since this is half of the overall braking system (the other half being the pads).  Take a close look at your rims, and you’ll likely see a lot of residue from your brake pads and whatever else you’ve ridden through lately.

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There’s a good chance you have some Scotch-Brite pads somewhere in the house; if not, go buy some.  For the last nine years–the amount of time I’ve been riding these wheels–I’ve always used the kitchen scrubber-type pads.  You could instead get some low-grit synthetic steel wool, but I’ve found these pads are great for removing the residue without damaging the aluminum rims.

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If you do buy the kitchen-type Scotch-Brite pads, rinse them thoroughly before use.  I’ve found they come with some sort of weird cleaning agent or something already in them that makes them feel slimy to the touch.  Remove the tires and begin scrubbing in the direction of the grain.  It doesn’t take much force at all, and it should only take about 4-5 minutes per side.

In the following pic, you can see the difference between where I’ve scrubbed and where I haven’t yet:

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After about 10 minutes, the first wheel is de-gunked and looking good:

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Although the visible residue is gone, the rim isn’t completely clean yet.  For the next step, you need to use a clean rag and rubbing alcohol to remove all the grease left on the rim by your fingers.

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After wiping down just part of one side of the rim, you can see how much residue was on it, even though it had looked clean.  Give the entire rim a good rub-down, and try not to touch it again.  It’s best to just wear some clean gloves while you’re doing this.

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With the rim 100% clean, leave the tire off and put the wheel back in the dropouts of the fork or frame.  By leaving the tire off, you’ll get a much better view of how the brake pads line up.  I won’t go into a long step-by-step of lining up the pads, but you basically need to set them so they’re evenly spaced on both sides of the rim, as well as perfectly parallel at the point when they come in contact to it.  Some people like to toe in the front of the pads a little, but I’ve never found it necessary.  If you’ve never adjusted v-brakes before, watch this video on BicycleTutor.com.

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Now all you need to do is mount the tires again, but try to do it without touching your skin to the rims.  If you can’t manage that, then wipe them down again with the rubbing alcohol.  Before I put the wheels back on for the last time, I like to use the Scotch-Brite pad once more, this time on the pads themselves.  Over time, they begin to get a slick glaze on them, so by rubbing them lightly, you’ll remove the glaze and get much better stopping grip.

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That’s about it!  If you feel the need, you can make fine adjustments on the brake levers to bring the pads closer to the rims, thereby needing less finger pressure before they make contact (I run mine with a 2mm gap on both sides).  Take the bike for a ride around the neighborhood, lightly braking to get the pads and rims bedded to one another.  Just remember that it’ll have much better braking performance now, so try not to go flying over the bars.

Happy stopping!

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