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Chapter 6 - Checking your brake pads

Kym Liebig

Checking your brake pads – how to know what’s stopping you.

Along with the condition of the tyres on your bike, how well its brakes function is possibly of equal importance to safety.

A job for your eyes only? 
There are some pretty straightforward visual cues involved in checking your bake pads, so the good news is that pretty much anyone can do it. As for actually replacing your own brake pads, we’d encourage you to think very hard about that decision. Small mistakes in this area can have big consequences. We recommend that brake pad replacement is a job for professionals such as Bikebiz technicians unless you feel you are very confident, competent and experienced.

We’re not playing drums today
Yes, we know that there are some bikes that still feature drum brakes but we’ll limit the scope of this blog to checking discs, okay? Drums have their place (mostly on your Grandpa’s BSA) but the majority of modern bike braking systems utilize discs, so we’ll stick with what applies to the majority. If this hurts your feelings, we look forward to an outraged email from you soon.

Check it before you wreck it
Okay, we said anyone can check brake pads, but…why? There are some pretty good arguments, based around both safety and economy.

If how you ride or even how often you ride varies between services, brake wear can also vary, so regular checks make sense. Knowing your brake pads are near the end of their life might prompt you to book in for a service earlier than usual, a case of preventative maintenance paying off. Ask anyone who has ever let their pads wear down to the metal backing plates and they’ll tell you it’s not a mistake you make twice. Wearing through the friction material and down to the steel can result in an unholy screeching sound as your brakes either fail altogether, or completely lock up. These events very likely announce that your next parts invoice will include a new pair of brake discs – metal on metal contact causes almost immediate damage. 

With that in mind, it’s worth getting down on your knees and having a good look at what’s going on inside your brake calipers, so grab a torch and let’s get to the bike.

We’ll pretend for a moment you’re really new to this. Most bikes have disc brakes front and rear and many have two discs at the front. The discs are fixed to the wheels and the brake calipers, in which your pads live, ‘clamp’ down onto the discs when you use the brakes. Think of it like a dog chomping down on a spinning Frisbee, without all the slobber.

The open face of each caliper is positioned over the edge of the brake disc. Get down at wheel level and shine your torch into that area – it might take a moment to get the angle just right. You should see one pad at either side of the disc, right up against it. Unless your calipers are unbearably filthy, you’ll be able to see that there are two distinct layers to the pads – the layer closest to the disc is the friction material and the layer behind that is the metal backing plate that the friction material is bonded to. The cylinders you see behind the backing plates are your brake pistons. 

As a rule of thumb, the layer of friction material should be thicker than the metal backing plate. If it is a little thinner, don’t panic – simply continue to check your brake pads every week. You’ll start to get an idea of how quickly or slowly they are wearing, and whether they’ll make it to your next scheduled service before needing to be replaced. 

If the friction material is very thin, just a millimeter or two, don’t take chances. Book in right away to have new pads fitted. If you need any further incentive, go price a set of new brake discs!

Summing up
Like tyre checks, chain and sprocket maintenance, checking your brake pads is one more simple task that can help you stay safe and in touch with your bike’s mechanical ‘health’. Get into a routine and you’ll find there’s real peace of mind in knowing for sure the state of your bike’s vital systems before you head out for a ride. 

Oh, and if this blog has raised any concerns or questions, by all means get in touch with a Bikebiz expert today for all the answers you need. After all, just like you we love talking bikes. 

Until next time, enjoy the ride!

Click here to read Chapter Seven - Changing Brake Fluid.