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Bike rim brake pads: How to replace yours

By Janeen McCrae

Published

Replacing road bike rim brake pads
Whoa, pump the brakes! If you’re not checking brake pad wear on your rim brake road bike as part of your regular maintenance routine, it’s time to get in the habit. When you brake, the surface of your brake pads wears down causing braking performance to degrade over time. If you notice reduced braking effectiveness, pad wear could be the culprit. It’s time to put your bike-wrenching hat on and get to work.

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Can I replace my own brake pads?

Hype crew on deck — yes you absolutely can! Replacing bike pads is one of the easiest home wrenching jobs anyone can take on. As long as you have the right tools, some new pads, and the confidence you’ll get from this guide, you’re good to go. Gather the gear below and clear a space to get working.

Are all road bike brake pads the same?

While all brake pads serve the same God of Slowing Down, they come in two major rim brake flavors: threaded stud and smooth stud. Either can be a cartridge-style system where the pad slides in and out of the brake shoe or a one-piece where the pad is permanently attached to the stud itself. This guide will cover replacing the pad in a cartridge style. Before starting, determine your pad type:

Threaded stud road bike brake pads

These pads are attached to the brake’s caliper arm via the end of the stud. Most have a thin washer (and sometimes a spacer as well) on the stud itself. It fastens to the caliper via the end of the stud—you simply cinch it down tight with an Allen wrench. Sometimes, often on cantilever or v-brakes, the threaded stud has two convex and two concave spacers on the post.

Threaded stud brake padA threaded stud brake pad is the most common standard on road bikes.

Smooth stud

You’ll typically find a smooth stud brake pad on a cantilever brake bike like a ‘cross bike. Unlike the road and threaded stud pads, the post on this style of pad system has no threads and attaches via a mechanism in the caliper arm that pinches it tightly and securely into place.

What tools do I need?

Like most simple jobs, there are only a handful of tools you’ll need to get the job done. It should take you 10-15 minutes to swap out the pads in a cartridge-style brake pad system, regardless of if it’s threaded stud or smooth stud.

Road bike rim brake pad tools

Needle-nose pliers

Think of these as an extension of your fingers — really skinny extensions that can grab on to fiddly, hard-to-pinch things.

An Allen/hex wrench

You’ll typically need a 4mm Allen (and possibly a 2.5mm depending on the pad retention mechanism on the brake shoe).

New pads

Once you’ve determined your pad type, you’ll also need to make sure you’re grabbing the right pad for your specific wheelset. Alloy, carbon, and ceramic rims require specific pads — use the wrong one and you’ll likely damage your wheel and watch your warranty grind to a sudden halt.

A work stand

Nothing makes wrenching easier than a work stand. It allows you to get your steed up high and helps you look into your bike’s nooks and crannies more easily. Don’t have a work stand? That’s OK. This is one of those jobs where it’s not 100% necessary to get this job done. But if you plan on wrenching on your bike a lot, do yourself a favor and add a bike stand to your shop.

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How do I replace my brake pads

Once you’ve determined your brake pads need changing, follow the steps below. But wait — how do you know if those pads are shot? Like tires, brake pads have wear indicators to help you see when they need replacing. Confirm wear with a quick visual inspection before you get cracking. Rim brake pads have vertical slotted lines on the surface of the pad, and if you can’t see these lines, it’s time to swap out for some freshies.

Worn road bike brake pads
These pads are clearly worn out — the grooves are obliterated and the brake pad surface is glazed over.

Remove the wheel

Wheels get in the way, so with your bike in the stand, follow the same process as you would to remove the wheel to fix a flat. Open the brake calipers using the small, quick-release lever at the caliper, then remove the wheel (QR or thru-axle).

Inspect the system

While you have the wheel in your hand, inspect the brake track, where the pad touches the rim, and look for signs of gouging. On a carbon rim brake wheel, look for any signs of delamination or cracking. All good? Move on to the next step.

Remove the old pads

Take a close look at the side of the brake shoe. You’ll either see a small grub/set screw or pin that holds the pad in. If it’s a screw, back it out (2.5mm Allen, typically) just far enough so that you can grab hold of the pad itself and slide it out. If there’s a small pin instead of a screw, reach for those needle-nose pliers, pinch the end of that pin, and pull it out to free the pad.

Now gently push the pad backward (toward the rear of the bike) to slide it out of the shoe. Sometimes these little guys get a tight in there and don’t want to come out of their happy homes. If this is the case, grab hold of the pad using your trusty needle-nose pliers and encourage that lil’ guy out.

Removing brake pads with needle nose pliersUse needle-nose pliers for extra grip, but be careful and pull out those old pads gently!

Attach the new pads

Before you swap the new pad in, take a gander at the pad and look for the brake direction indicator. Each pad will be marked either left (L) or right (R) side. Take the corresponding pad and gently slide it into the brake shoe. It should go smoothly until the end, when it might need a little extra oomph. Once it’s in, tighten the grub screw or reinsert the retaining pin to lock it into place. 

Replace the wheel

Once the wheel is back in, close the caliper using the lever. Time for the final step — aligning the pads to the rim to maximize your stopping power and ensure you’re getting even wear over time.

Check your brake adjustment

With the wheel in, apply the brake and note where the pad is positioned relative to the rim on the brake track. You want firm contact with the brake track, but you don’t want that pad touching the tire or extending off the brake track either. Aim for even placement, top to bottom.

Now spin the wheel to see if your new pads rub. Use the barrel adjuster on the caliper to adjust the pads in or out as needed. Most likely, you'll need to loosen your brakes because the new pads will have more material than the worn-out ones you just replaced. Spin the wheel after each adjustment until you can get it to spin with no rub.

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Conclusion 

Wrenching on your bike is extremely satisfying and swapping out brake pads is one of the easiest maintenance jobs out there. Add a brake pad check to your regular maintenance inspection and when you notice those pads have worn out their welcome, swap them out, and ride on.

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