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My bike does not perform badly at the moment, however browsing this site has lead me to wonder whether the performance of the brakes (the front one in particular) could be improved by various means and how effective those are. I am squeezing fairly hard and stopping in a short distance, however I am looking to improve the 'stopping force per force applied to levers' ratio.

My bike is a road bike that has single pivot side-pull calliper brakes and alloy rims. I think the pads are rubber (not sure exactly).

The techniques I can think of are:

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Two things you didn't mention that do a lot of difference: brake levers (their feeling varies a lot, and the more rigid they are, the better they work) and cable-housing (a short, new, perfectly clean, and with unobstructed openings allow the brake to work MUCH better). –  heltonbiker Oct 26 '11 at 12:12
    
I have a desire to recommend stop worring and take mechanical advantage of disc brakes :-) Also, rim brakes have to squeeze a rim from both sides with equivalent force. –  Premature Optimization Oct 26 '11 at 12:26
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5 Answers 5

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You did the right thing by replacing the steel rims. Vintage bikes are nice, but the 70's can keep their steel rims. :-)

As others have said, you should make sure that the entire brake system is properly adjusted.

Since you're dealing with an old bike, I recommend just replacing the brake cable and casing. This can be done for less than 20 dollars. Before inserting the brake cable smear a thin layer of grease on it by running it past your fingers with a dab of grease.

If your levers are in good shape, slather the interior pivot points and cable anchor with grease. If not, then just replace them. Again, that can be done inexpensively-- and you can get "aero brakes" which route the cable under the handlebar wrap (non-aero brakes are another thing the 70's can keep!).

Finally, there is nothing wrong with single pivot brakes. Yes, dual pivot is marginally better because they tend to stay in place (not rub the rim) and you get a barely noticeable increase in leverage. You absolutely will want to replace your brake pads, however. Modern brake pads are sooo much better. I and many others have had success with the koolstop dual compound brakes.

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Re the brake pads, if nothing else rubber hardens over time, and 30-year-old pads will be like concrete. Simply replacing the new pads of essentially the same type will produce a significant improvement in braking effectiveness. –  Daniel R Hicks Oct 26 '11 at 17:36
    
Indeed. I guess brake pads are one thing that you don't want to be N.O.S. (new old stock). –  Angelo Oct 26 '11 at 19:46
    
Do you usually use grease on the cables? I've always opted for something like thinner like Triflow for newer cables. –  krs1 Oct 26 '11 at 20:14
    
@krs1, I use grease for stuff that needs to stay put and that is not exposed to dust/grit. I suppose triflow will be OK too. –  Angelo Oct 26 '11 at 20:43
    
I had good results with cables running dry inside the cable housings, specially in the front brake, but this does not resist rain very well. Also a very good lubricant is mineral oil (hidraulic brake fluid), because they are very thin, don't evaporate, and repel water. –  heltonbiker Oct 26 '11 at 22:45
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Just my 2 cents:

  • From my experience, calibrating the brakes correctly can lead to a big improvement in braking. I think you can find a lot of tips for calibrating the brakes here already, or on the Internet.
  • Also keeping your brakes in good shape, like oiling the cables and joints will help you make braking easier.
  • cleaning aluminium rims from time to time with soapy water also helps in getting a cleaner braking experience, but i did not notice a difference with steel rims.
  • I am currently waiting to get my leather brakes delivered, and will then update if they helped improving stopping power in wet conditions.
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Sheldon Brown has a pretty good guide for adjusting the brakes, as well: sheldonbrown.com/rim-brakes.html#shoeadj –  Jack M. Oct 27 '11 at 21:09
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Properly adjusting and lubing your brakes is the key to keeping good brakes. You want your brakes to have a snap to them and to feel them make contact with the rim. Squishy brakes are generally a bad thing.

You want to make sure that both pads are laying flat against the rim. To properly do this not only must the position of the pads be adjusted but the wheel must also be trued. Also, it helps if the rim has a machined or anodized sidewall (as opposed to a painted one). You've already go this covered. Wipe the rims with degreaser. As far as brake composition, nice rubber pads work fine to my experience and always be careful not to contaminate the pads with degreaser or lube.

Make sure the pads are an even distance from the rim. If you have newer caliper brakes, there is probably a set screw on the side that allows you to adjust the brakes from side to side and maybe one for the distance between the brakes. The old caliper brakes require you to change the alignment by adjusting the bolt attaching them to the frame. If your brakes squeal, it can help to have this alignment a hair off.

Make sure the cable housing is lubed properly and that the cable is not fraying anywhere (this is also a safety thing). The cable likes to fray down at the pinch bolt on the brakes that holds it in place. When I've installed a new cable, I like give a nice hard pull on the brakes. This helps to ensure that the cable is stretched. Some cables claim to be prestretched, but I do this anyway just in case.

Also, it helps to lube any pivot points in the brake itself. I don't go wild here, just a few drops of lube in each pivot point. Make sure the all bolts and screws are sufficiently tighted. That's all I can think of right now.

EDIT: To answer some more questions, dual pivot is generally more effective. However, like everything else it depends on the quality of the brakes and how well the brakes are adjusted. Cheap single-pivot brakes scare me, though. Brakes flex when you hit them, and cheap single-pivots flex a lot when you hit your brakes hard.

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Definitely, as others have pointed out, properly adjusted and maintained brakes are the best performers. I just want to add that some people may overlook to clean the rim's braking surface.

The rim must be free of oil, grease, and stuck dirt. Personally I really like the brake feel after cleaning my aluminum and alloy rims with regular kitchen soap and a scotch brite pad (Sorry for the advertising, I don't know this product's generic name). The pad is really good at removing stuck oil, dirt, and rubber from the rim. It is almost like using sandpaper, but it won't damage or wear out the rims. They are also excellent at cleaning the pad's braking surface. As per installation of new pads, I also clean the pads with the same scoth brite, until the surface has a dull appearance (i.e. not shiny) and this avoids the need to break in the new pads.

I include this procedures in my routine brake maintenance, so again, the most effective "technique" to improve brake performance is precisely, appropriate maintenance!

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This is an old question now, but maybe worth adding something for anyone browsing the topic online generally. From the OP's query it seems to me he's not asking about how to clean his rims or if his cables need servicing, he's asking how to make his brakes work better. Old block compounds in old blocks = very bad idea to retain these. Similar recent experience with myself with similar equipment showed a VERY large improvement with Kool Stop's "Salmon" blocks. Like someone had added a servo to the system. On a good day the old ones helped a little to modulate speed but weren't interested in stopping the bike even with cable-stretching lever squeeze force applied. Setting them up correctly too of course is a must. Lots of advice available online how to do that, no point in repeating it here.

Next step has to be changing the brakes for dual pivot calipers - they have on average double the mechanical advantage of single pivot jobs - you only have to look carefully at the design and measure approximately the length of actuating arm either side of the pivot then compare the same measurements to typical single pivot jobs. You lose some sensitivity of modulation with the added leverage the doubles provide, but soon learn to adapt. The extra safety achieved by sharpening up your brake system adds mightily to the pleasure or riding generally - but it's still a bad idea to approach junctions too fast in case of mishaps. (Nag Nag, etc)

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