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I have a bike that is almost two years old. It still has the original brakes (side pull caliper brakes), which seem to still be functional. However, they are worn and I am going to be doing a lot of biking out of town during the next two weeks.

I think I know how to replace my brake pads, but I don't know if they still have plenty of life left or are about to go. What should I look for? How can I tell when they need to be replaced?

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Well, you replace them when they're worn out. The important thing is to do more than glance at them. Typically the pads will wear faster on the rearward end than on the front end, so you need to observe both ends. You want to replace them before they're in any danger of having the metal holder contact the rim. And, of course, replace them if they seem to be disintegrating. But a set could easily last 2 years -- my last set lasted over 15 years and 20K miles. It depends on how much you use the brakes. –  Daniel R Hicks Jul 12 '13 at 22:48
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There must be some wear indicating lines on your brake pads. If you don't see them - it's time to replace the pads.

Here is an example of wear indicator lines:

enter image description here

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Well, the grooves aren't primarily wear indicator lines, they're there to help keep the rims clean, and there are a few odd pad styles that do not have them. But if you have them, by the time they're worn away the pads are nearing end of life. However, a pad can be worn out and still have the grooves (mostly) showing, due to uneven wear. –  Daniel R Hicks Jul 13 '13 at 12:23
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