Cable-operated side-pull caliper brakes are still very common on road bikes, despite recent inroads from discs. But they're not all created equal. You can significantly improve your braking by upgrading them as more expensive brakes have stiffer bodies and better pads. Here's how to fit new ones.
Our guide below shows you what we believe is the best method to fit side-pull rim brakes. We've included a list of the tools and materials that you will need to complete the job and in some cases where you can buy them. If there are others that you prefer then feel free to let everybody know in the comments.
Side-pull brakes are pretty simple. They use a steel cable to pull on a light alloy arm, which is linked to a second arm via a steel spring. Squeezing the lever pulls the cable, which pulls one arm and activates the other. The arms hold the brake pads, which pivot inwards to the rim's braking surface where they rub the rim causing friction which slows or stops you.
Modern side-pull brake calipers usually have an extra pivot compared to brakes of yore, and much better bearings so they move smoothly and stay that way.
1 Fit the cable in the lever and housing We're changing the brakes on this triathlon bike. To remove the old brake, undo the cable clamp bolt and frame mounting bolts, and pull off the cable end cap. It's the opposite of the fitting process we're about to deal with, so if you're unsure, read this whole article first and reverse the steps!
Thread the brake cable back into the lever if you're fitting a new one or you'd pulled out the old. A cable in good condition can be re-used if the end isn't frayed or is long enough to be trimmed.
2 Put the retaining nut in place Fit the caliper retaining nut onto the end of a long(ish) 5mm Allen key. Carbon forks like this Ridley Aero number have quite deep crown recesses and sometimes stubby multi tools struggle without grazing paintwork.
3 Push the nut fully home into the rear of the fork crown.
4 Fit spacers Put a pair of 2mm spacers on the caliper's mounting bolt. These will keep the rear of the brake from contacting the fork crown and head tube. They also ensure the caliper can be full opened without the heel of the brake pads from fitting the inside leading edges of the fork blades (or seat stays if working on the rear of the bike). The mounting bolt is usually already coated with thread locking compound, the white stuff you can see on teh threads here.
5 Put the caliper in the hole. It should slide straight in.
6 The caliper in place With the brake fully into its final position, you can see the two spacers and the effect they have on its position.
7 Tighten the mounting nut. Don't fully tighten it at this point, as that will make subsequent adjustments harder. Snug it down just enough to take the slop out.
8 The brake in place The new caliper will look like this. It's not centred yet, because we've not fitted the cable.
9 So let's fit the cable Slide the brake cable through housing and into the barrel adjuster on the brake arm.
10 Fit the cable into the clamp Pass the end of the cable through the cable pinch plates. You'll see a small groove in the inner faces of the plates; this is where the cable goes and is shaped so as to not mash the cable. Make sure your cable uses it. Put enough tension on the bolt to hold the cable in position so you can still slide it through the pinch plates by hand (with some force).
11 Set the adjuster Wind the barrel adjuster fully in, then wind it two full turns out. This will give you the right amount of spare lever travel once you finished.
12 Tighten the cable Squeeze the brake blocks against the rim, and pull through any remaining slack cable with your fingers. Because you've already partially-tightened the pinch bolt the cable will remain in place while you tighten the bolt. Alternatively, you can use a cable-puller tool.
13 Wind in the barrel Wind in the two full turns of the barrel adjuster. This will give just enough pad clearance on the rim without rubbing, assuming your wheels are true.
14 The cable in placeThe caliper will now look like this; nearly ready to ride.
15 Fit an end cap Add the cable end cap and crimp it firmly into place.
16 Fully tighten the mounting nut
17 Test Check the lever action for a snappy, solid feel.
If you need to make specific adjustments to the brake pads in order to dial in better brake feel and performance follow these instructions.