I take the front wheel off my mountain bike to get it in my car. When I get it out and try to put the front wheel back on, the space between the brake pads isn't wide enough for the rotor. Whoops! I must have pulled the lever on my hydraulic brakes.

How can I separate the the pads without damaging them?

  • 1
    No, there is a gap between them, just not enough for the rotor
    – Phil Hale
    Commented Jan 18, 2011 at 12:46
  • 1
    Can you use an American Express card?
    – Jay Bazuzi
    Commented Jan 18, 2011 at 17:55
  • 1
    I've been jitteringly wondering this ever since I bought my first bike with hydraulic discs, six months ago... thank you for asking!
    – DC_CARR
    Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 23:19
  • 2
    The absolute best way is to avoid this happening in the first place. Use plastic caliper spacer/insert, leave the wheel in place, or simply ride the bike and leave the car at home.
    – Criggie
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 4:23
  • 1
    @Criggie TIL a caliper spacer exists. As a newbies I didn’t realize this would happen and squeezed my brake lever, when I had the wheel off.
    – Chris
    Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 21:26

6 Answers 6


As mentioned try a blunt bladed instrument (A large flat blade screwdriver will do) to pry the pads back in. Just put the screwdriver between the pads and lever the pads apart evenly! Just be carful though as sometimes the pistons that push the pads out can come out too far resulting in the pistons being slighly out of line, however if the pads have plenty of material left on them you should be fine to just lever them back in with the screwdriver, ther will be some resistance as you will also be pushing against the pistons and fluid pressure.

  • 2
    Don't scratch the pads or they'll have to reset on the rotor surface. Commented Jan 21, 2011 at 20:27
  • 4
    @infamous - Contaminating them from a dirty tool is a much more common problem than scratches. They are a bit tougher than the likes of a camera lens after all.
    – mattnz
    Commented Sep 4, 2012 at 5:11
  • 6
    The amount of sand and general dirt I subject my brakes to suggests a dirty screwdriver won't make much of a difference.
    – Jørgen R
    Commented Sep 5, 2012 at 14:03
  • I have just one late query. In my case, the piston has come out a lot, and I'm unable to fit the disc brake pads. What should I do now? thanks
    – L.K.
    Commented Jan 20, 2019 at 23:13
  • 1
    Butter knife worked well for me, think enough and enough prying power without bending knife.
    – Chris
    Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 21:27

I've used a (clean) drywall putty knife. The blade is wider than a screwdriver, so there's less chance of gouging the pads. Slide the knife in between the pads, twist and pry a bit, and they open right up.

  • I think nylon would be preferred Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 22:10

I just had to look this up for a friend, who accidentally completely closed them.

The recommended way, taken from "Zinn and the art of Mountain Bike Maintenance" is as follows. "Sometimes the pads in hydraulic disc brakes can rub because the pistons get pushed out too far, especially if the lever is applied without a rotor or spacer between the pads. You will have to push the pistons back in, usually by removing the pads and pushing the pistons back in with a plastic tire lever. On Hayes, the only thing pulling the pistons back in is the reversal of the twist the pistons apply to square-cross-section o-ring seals surrounding the waist of each piston, so the pistons tend to stay out too far once there. Pull out the pads, carefully push the pistons back in with the box end of a 10mm wrench(avoid pressing on the pin sticking out of the piston, which hooks the wire catch on the back of the pad), and replace the pad"


I found this video to be extremely helpful in understanding the problem and solving it:

I fixed my similar situation by removing my disc brake pads and pushing against the pistons behind them with a flat head screw driver. Using a credit card (or similar) to push against the pads wasn't enough for me.


You could try blowing them with air to remove any dust particle that may prevent them for separating completely. If that's not enough you can use a "flat" screwdriver. When you have the screwdriver between the pads turn it carefully not to damage the brake pads and separate them a little bit.


Not as practical as some of the other solutions, but if you know a car guy, they've probably got brake pad spreaders laying around. You should be able to get an edge or corner far enough in to use them.

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