Home
If you've moved over to disc brakes here are some top tips for keeping them in perfect working order

The beauty of disc brakes is that they require very little maintenance, but there are few tricks to ensure you get the best performance out of them and ensure they keep working nicely.

If you’re reading this article it’s safe to assume you have a bike (road, cyclocross or adventure) with disc brakes, and if you’re new to discs you might be wondering how you can look after them to ensure the work reliably and consistently? We’ve got some top tips to keep your brakes in tip-top condition.

Disc brakes might seem scary but really they are no more difficult to look after than rim brakes, and in our experience, they actually require less fettling. But there are a few things you can do to ensure they work well all of the time.

- Everything you need to know about disc brakes

Bed your brakes in

We’ll start with a top tip for anyone that has just bought a new disc brake bike. Brand new disc brakes won’t deliver their full power out of the box, and that’s because the rotor and pads need bedding in.

Simplon Pavo GF Disc - riding 1.jpg

Bedding in the pads will prepare the surfaces of the disc rotor and pads by distributing pad material over the rotor to improve the friction between the two parts.  Bedding in brakes is really easy but it’s worth doing before you head out for that first ride.

SRAM has a really good guide for bedding in disc brakes, and it’s advice that has worked for us:

Accelerate the bike to a moderate speed and then firmly applying the brakes until you are at walking speed. Repeat this process 20 times. Then accelerate the bike to a faster speed and apply the brakes until you are at walking speed. Repeat this process ten times. It’s important that during this process you never come to a complete stop or lock up the wheels at any point.

Doing this process should drastically improve the performance of your brakes and prepare them for many happy rides.

Rubbing brakes

This is the most annoying complaint with disc brakes. It was a more frequent issue with early generation disc road bikes but the adoption of the flat mount standard and most wheel and frame manufacturers improving manufacturing tolerances has led to rubbing brakes being much less of an issue than they ever used to be.

Pashley Pathfinder - disc rotor

If your brakes are rubbing though, what can you do to sort them? The first thing I would always recommend people try is centring the caliper over the rotor. To do this, simply slacken off the caliper bolts, spin the wheel, then with the brake lever applied, tighten the bolts. Most of the time this tip works a treat. Occasionally I might have to do it twice but it usually works for me.

Squealing pads can also be a sign that the pads are worn out. It's a little more tricky to take a closer look at disc brake pads compared to rim brakes, taking the wheel out can make the task a little easier. If you do need to replace pads, you might be wondering what sort of pads you need. Yes, disc brake pads come in many flavours - here's our handy guide.

If the brakes are still rubbing, then you might have a bent rotor, which leads me onto…

Bendy rotors

This is mainly an issue if you’re travelling or flying with the bike, the thin aluminium rotors can bend if enough force is applied. If flying you can remove the rotors, an easy job with the CentreLock rotors that are increasingly taking over from older six bolt rotors. The other option is to make sure you pad the rotors very carefully

What to do if you do have a bent rotor? Slowly rotate the disc rotor in the caliper to see where it’s out of alignment, then very gently using an adjustable spanner with a rag protecting the rotor, bend the rotor a small amount. Repeat until the rotor is straight. You can use a dedicated tool to do this like the Park Tool Rotor Truing Fork, but it’s an additional expense.

Here’s a good video by Park Tool for straightening a bent rotor.

My brakes won’t stop squealing

Squealing brakes can occur for a number of reasons. Usually, it’s a sign you’ve got grease or oil on the brake pad or rotor, an indication that the pads and rotor are contaminated, either from cleaning the bike or residue picked up from riding.

sven nys shimano disc brakes 04.jpg

One of the most common causes of a noisy brake is contamination. That’s why you have to be very careful when using spray lubricants on a bicycle with disc brakes, probably best to avoid using spray lubes anywhere near a bike with disc brakes really.

Contamination just means oil, meant to keep your drivetrain running smoothly and quietly, has found its way onto the brakes. So try and avoid getting oil or lube on the rotors and pads.

With spray lubes this is very easy to do. When you are cleaning your bike be sure to prevent any spray getting anywhere near the brakes. If using a spray can use a thin straw (one is normally supplied) to direct the oil to only the area of the drivetrain you want it, and away from the brakes.

Or you can put a shield between the drivetrain and disc brake, such as the Eat Me Dirt Brake Shield we reviewed last year.  Or you could make your own with some cardboard.

- How to stop your brakes squealing

What happens if you do contaminate the brakes?

If you’ve only got a small amount of oil on the brakes, you can clean brakes with a degreaser, or pick up one of the dedicated disc brake cleaners available on the market (we’ve linked a few we reviewed below) and hopefully you'll be able to clean the worst off. Once clean, normal riding conditions should generate enough heat to bring the brakes back to the optimum working conditions.

“Cleaning your rotors or wheel rims regularly with a specific (oil-free) disc brake degreaser is a good way to avoid squealing brakes. Cleaning your pads too can help quieten things down - you can try some sandpaper or grinding the pads - but if the grease has soaked through the pad, you might need to replace them. Don't use a degreaser or chemicals on brake pads, though,” says Shimano.

pads-spring.jpg

Here are a couple of disc brake cleaners we’ve reviewed that you could try:

Fibrax Disc Brake Cleaner  

GT85 Disc Brake Cleaner 

Alternatively, and more cheaply, you can use an isopropyl alcohol available from some electronic stores. Apply some to a rag and use it to wipe the disc rotors. You’re just trying to remove any residual oil and muck.

Now turning our attention to the brake pads, first use the same cleaner you used for the rotors or lots of detergent and water, and scrub the pads with a brush. If the pads aren’t too contaminated you might be able to save the pads.

Another method is to use a fine sandpaper and scrub away the surface of the pads to remove any glazing or dirt. Depending on how bad the contamination is, these steps can usually cure the brakes.

Some people say you can bake brake pads in the oven to cure this problem, but it's not something we've ever tried so can't vouch for its success rate. That’s not something you’ll find any of the disc brake manufacturers recommending at all.

If those tips don’t cure your brakes, then you might be needing to replace the brake pads I’m afraid. If you’re not sure what sort of brake pad you need, and there a few key choices, have a read of the linked article below.

- All you need to know about replacing disc brake pads

Popping pistons

The great thing about hydraulic disc brakes compared to mechanical discs and rim brakes is that the calipers automatically adjust for pad wear. So, as the pads wear, the pistons move out of the caliper to keep the distance to the rotor the same. It’s a key advantage over rim brakes.

However, you do need to be careful when you’re taking the wheels out of the bike, whether for transportation or storage. If you pull the brake lever with the wheel out the pads will move out, and you won’t be able to get the wheel back in. It’s something we’ve all done here once or twice at road.cc.

insert-bleed-block.jpg

Thankfully the solution is an easy one. You could get some specific pad spacers (SRAM and Shimano make them) or improvise with a thick bit of cardboard, and simply place between the pads after you’ve removed the wheel. Now if you accidentally pull the brake lever the pads won’t pop out.

If you forget to do this and the pads do squeeze out, you need to push them back in. We suggest taking a thin flat blade screwdriver and very gently, being careful not to damage the pads here, prise the pads apart. Then swap to a tyre lever or rounded spanner and wiggle the pads apart, pushing the pistons back into the caliper. It shouldn’t require much force. Now reinsert the wheel and pull the brake lever a few times and they should be perfect.

Mushy brakes

Hydraulic brakes should have a nice firm lever action. If the brake lever feels mushy and spongy, it’s a sign that there is air in the system and is going to require bleeding. It’s very rare for air to get into the system, a hydraulic brake is completely sealed, and it’s possible to go years without ever having to bleed the brakes, so don’t fear, it’s not something you’ll have to worry about doing frequently.

pressure calliper and slowly release lever.jpg

If you’re not confident bleeding your brakes then take your bike to a reputable bike shop and let them do it. They’ll have all the necessary tools and expertise to do it quickly and properly and it’s a lot less messy than the first time you try to do it yourself at home. I’m talking from personal experience here.

To carry out the bleed at home, you’re going to need a bleed kit. Each manufacturer has their own bleed kit, they’re not compatible with each other - Shimano and SRAM use very different techniques and fluid. So buy the bleed kit for your brake system and follow the supplied guides, or watch our how to bleed brakes video below.

- How to bleed SRAM brakes


Follow those tips and you should have disc brakes that work well all of the time. If you have any more questions don’t hesitate to ask them in the comments section below.

David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.

15 comments

Avatar
G-bitch [329 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

Just don't try trueing a disc rotor whilst under the influence.

Avatar
daccordimark [79 posts] 11 months ago
5 likes

I love the way you start the article saying disc brakes require very little maintenance and then go on to list the many maintenance tasks required.

From my experience with cable operated TRP Spyres, disk brakes are much more needy than dual-pivot rim brakes. Add to that how much more difficult they are to work on and I seriously wonder why I bothered with them on my heavy duty tourer/commuter.

I will concede they bite sooner in the rain and the lack of grey sludge from the rims on wet days is nice too but low-maintenance they are not.

Mark.

Avatar
IanEdward [225 posts] 11 months ago
1 like

For the truly persistant squeelers I've found the following things improve matters:

- if brakes squeel a lot in the wet it can be due to surface water building up between the pad and the rotor, I reduced this squeel by fitting rotors with more aggressive cut-outs (Magura Storm SLs)

- Also for squeeling in the wet, I found Shimano sintered pads to be relatively quiet. Conversely SRAM sintered pads were incredibly loud! Uberbike Kevlar reduced the noise from my SRAM brakes in the wet.

- Brake and frame manufacturers don't seem to talk to one another, my SRAMs caused an insane amount of resonance and vibration through the frame. Facing the post mounts did nothing, but blu-tacking and sellotaping a lead wheel balancing weight the disc side seatstay made a big difference.

- for UK conditions/commuting etc where overheating isn't a risk, I'd like to see manufacturers use smaller rotors. I'm 85kg but would still gladly run 140mm rotors if it meant getting some more heat into them occasionally. Seems like cold brakes = noisy brakes.

 

 

 

 

Avatar
StoopidUserName [519 posts] 11 months ago
2 likes
daccordimark wrote:

I love the way you start the article saying disc brakes require very little maintenance and then go on to list the many maintenance tasks required. From my experience with cable operated TRP Spyres, disk brakes are much more needy than dual-pivot rim brakes. Add to that how much more difficult they are to work on and I seriously wonder why I bothered with them on my heavy duty tourer/commuter. I will concede they bite sooner in the rain and the lack of grey sludge from the rims on wet days is nice too but low-maintenance they are not. Mark.

 

Highlighted your problem.

 

Hydraulics = the solution.

Avatar
LastBoyScout [491 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

No mention of anything to do with seized pistons - in all the years I've been running hydraulic disk brakes, the only real problem I've had has been a sticky piston, which causes uneven pad wear. Sometimes you can fix it by taking the wheel and pads out and giving the caliper a good clean with an old toothbrush, or similar, but I've also had to completely strip a cailiper before.

Regardless of the instructions for bleeding the system, if all else fails, I've found that, on any system, forcing a measure of fluid in from the bottom to the top and then several cycles of squeezing the brake lever fast and releasing it as slowly as possible eventually shifts any bubbles - well, it's worked on Avid, Shimano and Giant systems I've had.

The SRAM/Avid bleed kit is awkward to use and tends to let air into the system, if you're not careful. You do, however, need to buy it to get the bits that screw into the caliper and lever. All you really need for Shimano is a syringe and a bit of tube. Both comments obviously depend on exactly which model of brake you're working with.

Another point to note with bleeding is that you need to make sure that the caliper is at the lowest point and the lever is at the highest point - if the hose goes either lower than the caliper or higher than the lever, it'll be harder. Depending on your hose routing, you may end up having to either support the bike at a funny angle and/or rotating the bars a bit or even removing the caliper/lever to achieve this. Admittedly more of a problem on full-suss mountain bikes, but road bikes with internal routing or funny cable runs might also have a problem.

Avatar
flobble [142 posts] 11 months ago
1 like
daccordimark wrote:

I love the way you start the article saying disc brakes require very little maintenance and then go on to list the many maintenance tasks required. From my experience with cable operated TRP Spyres, disk brakes are much more needy than dual-pivot rim brakes. Add to that how much more difficult they are to work on and I seriously wonder why I bothered with them on my heavy duty tourer/commuter. I will concede they bite sooner in the rain and the lack of grey sludge from the rims on wet days is nice too but low-maintenance they are not. Mark.

My experience is exactly the opposite - I have 3 bikes with disk brakes (2 being MTBs). Of those, two are hydraulic and one has TRP Spyres. In the last 5 years the only maintenance I have had to do is (a) adjust the cable length on the Spyres as the pads wear, (b) replace the brake pads when the reach the end of their life, and (I think once, taking ~2 minutes) re-centre the caliper. That's it.

Can't remember the last time I had to true a rotor, decontaminate pads or rotors or any of the other stuff. Overall, probably less hassle than rim brakes!

Avatar
Augsburg [29 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes
StoopidUserName wrote:
daccordimark wrote:

I love the way you start the article saying disc brakes require very little maintenance and then go on to list the many maintenance tasks required . . . . 

Highlighted your problem.

Hydraulics = the solution.

 

Haha, after years of experience and thousands of miles with both Avid BB7 mechanical discs and Shimano XT hydraulic, I will say rim brakes should be outlawed - such an iritating sound imposed on the rest of us.  Especially when rim brakes are combined with carbon wheels.  

In all seriousness, I found the BB7's stay quiet for at least a couple thousand miles IF you use organic pads.  Sinstered or metallic pads do last longer, but organic pads last a long time and are quieter.  Once set up, the BB7 mechanical brakes just need a click or two of adjustment to the pads once every week or two.  If you are a smaller rider and ride in flat terrain, the discs last a long, long time (3,000 to 5,000 miles).  Larger rider in hilly terrain, exepct 1,500 to 2,000 miles on a set of organic pads.  

The holy grail is hydraulic brakes.  Quiet with resin pads and so much modulation control.  Self adjust - just set them up properly, and ride with confidence and quietly.

For those looking for the most control and even longer life for your disc pads, upsize the rotors.  For aesthetic and cost reasons, I think, most bikes are outfitted with the bare minimum sized rotors - good for small riders and flat terrain.  I find upsizing the rotors from 160 to 180mm doubles pad life and provides even more brake power.  All you need is a larger rotor and the correct caliper adapter.  Do make sure you bike is rated for larger rotors.  

Avatar
risoto [84 posts] 11 months ago
1 like
daccordimark wrote:

I love the way you start the article saying disc brakes require very little maintenance and then go on to list the many maintenance tasks required. From my experience with cable operated TRP Spyres, disk brakes are much more needy than dual-pivot rim brakes. Add to that how much more difficult they are to work on and I seriously wonder why I bothered with them on my heavy duty tourer/commuter. I will concede they bite sooner in the rain and the lack of grey sludge from the rims on wet days is nice too but low-maintenance they are not. Mark.

Agree with daccordimark. It's quite annoying to hear all the arrogant, condenscending comments from disc brake fanatics who believe they have found the holy grail.

I have tried all 3 brake system and are currently on BB7 mechanicals. Even compared to hydraulics, I prefer rim brakes, no maintenance, easy to replace and no worries about 'contamination of pads'. I guess if you invested in expensive carbon rims you would have nightmares about rim wear. Fact is that you can easily block your wheels with rim brakes, so where is the lower stopping power? In heavy rain, you brake a bit earlier. In the mud, yes disc brakes are better, that's perhaps why they are popularin the MTB segment.

Are they dangerous? A couple of weeks ago a poor girl was killed because her brakes failed. Perhaps her disc pads became glaced if they were 'organic' ? Rim brakes don't suddenly fail in that manner. I was shocked by that accident.

So, enjoy your disc brakes while leaving us 'rim fanatics' in peace.

Avatar
hawkinspeter [2663 posts] 11 months ago
1 like

I've been using hydraulic disk brakes for the first time since April and I absolutely love them. The only maintenance I've had to do so far is re-align the calipers a couple of times - a five minute job.

The main down-side I've had is really loud squealing when braking in the rain. Once the rotor is warmed up/dry the noise goes, but the rain tends to win that battle. I much prefer their performance in the rain as I've always felt nervous with rim brakes in the wet.

Avatar
cbrndc [66 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

I have cable operated disks on the road bike and hydro in the mountain bike both with many years of use hardly any maintenance required and no issues.  Squealing in the wet for both is my only gripe. 

Avatar
earth [422 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes
Augsburg wrote:

For those looking for the most control and even longer life for your disc pads, upsize the rotors.  For aesthetic and cost reasons, I think, most bikes are outfitted with the bare minimum sized rotors - good for small riders and flat terrain.  I find upsizing the rotors from 160 to 180mm doubles pad life and provides even more brake power.  All you need is a larger rotor and the correct caliper adapter.  Do make sure you bike is rated for larger rotors.  

 

+1 for bigger rotors I have 622mm rotors.  Fantastic.

More seriously why are rotors so thin?  Just make them a couple of mm wider and they will not go out of true so easily.

Avatar
frogg [144 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

When removing the wheels for maintenance or transport, it's very easy to bend the rotors for whatever reason. Now, i systematically remove them. Wheels are much easier to store, to move and use less space. That's where Centerlock is very useful.

I also bought a spare rotor, just in case ... With CLock it's easy to swap and i have time for maintenance on the bent rotor.

Avatar
ClubSmed [734 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes
IanEdward wrote:

For the truly persistant squeelers I've found the following things improve matters:

- if brakes squeel a lot in the wet it can be due to surface water building up between the pad and the rotor, I reduced this squeel by fitting rotors with more aggressive cut-outs (Magura Storm SLs)

- Also for squeeling in the wet, I found Shimano sintered pads to be relatively quiet. Conversely SRAM sintered pads were incredibly loud! Uberbike Kevlar reduced the noise from my SRAM brakes in the wet.

- Brake and frame manufacturers don't seem to talk to one another, my SRAMs caused an insane amount of resonance and vibration through the frame. Facing the post mounts did nothing, but blu-tacking and sellotaping a lead wheel balancing weight the disc side seatstay made a big difference.

- for UK conditions/commuting etc where overheating isn't a risk, I'd like to see manufacturers use smaller rotors. I'm 85kg but would still gladly run 140mm rotors if it meant getting some more heat into them occasionally. Seems like cold brakes = noisy brakes.

I tend to find that my squealing brakes are a good thing on my commute. The circumstances where I am braking hard enough to make them squeal are generally the same situations where I would also want to sound by bell. Due to the wet conditions however, I need to have my hands firmly planted on the brakes/bars to ensure total control. Having the brakes squeal means that I do not have to consider the bell in most hazardous situations in the wet.

Avatar
Luv2ride [121 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

My Spyres also require frequent fettling, and performance is only "so, so", though hoping to improve this with some Jagwire continuous compressionless outers.  My Shimano hydraulics are great on the other hand, with little to no fettling needed at all (am convinced the through axles on that bike play a part in that, keeping the wheel alignment more consistent).

However, my Force dual pivot calliper brakes are extremely good, but best brakes of all must be my cheap Tektro mini-Vee brakes on my Singlecross.  Have recently revitilised that bike with some (much over-due) TLC, and have to say those brakes are amazing!  Still prefer the fact that using discs won't kill my rims over winter though....

Avatar
HoarseMann [110 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

You mention that hydraulic brakes are good because they self adjust for wear, but don’t cover the fact that some mechanical brakes need regular caliper adjustments as the pads wear. 

Would you consider adding a paragraph on the reason why single pad actuated mechanical brakes need regular adjustments and what this typically entails (usually moving the static pad closer to the rotor)?

Poorly adjusted mechanical brakes can result in the sudden loss of braking power. It is probably the most important bit of maintenance that is required of disk brake systems.