Early bicycles such as the high-wheeled penny-farthing bikes were fitted with spoon brakes. As they were fixed gear bicycles, a rider also could reduce speed by reversing the force on the pedals. Unsurprisingly there were many accidents, some fatal, which limited the appeal of cycling mostly to young and adventurous men.
The 1870s saw the development of the "safety bicycle" which roughly resembles bicycles today, with two wheels of equal size, initially with solid rubber tires. These were generally equipped with a front spoon brake and no rear brake, like the penny-farthings fixed gears, allowing control of speed by control of pedalling. Spoon brakes were not very powerful and potentially dangerous in wet weather.
With the invention of pneumatic tires in the 1890s came the rim brake, the type of brake most commonly used on bicycles today. However, throughout most of the 20th century, the most common type of brake was the coaster brake, engaged by pressing backwards on the pedals. The rim brake began to supersede the coaster brake in the 1970s.
Track bicycles are built with no brakes, for safety, so as to avoid sudden changes in speed when racing on a velodrome. Since they have a fixed gear, braking can be done by reversing the force on the pedals.
Rod brakes use a series of rods and pivots (rather than Bowden cables) to transmit the braking force from the hand levers to pull the friction pads upwards onto the inner surface (facing the hub) of the wheel rim. They were often called "stirrup brakes" due to their shape. To fit the rear wheel and the more directly actuate front wheel, they use a mechanism to transmit the force but still allow rotation where the fork attaches to the frame. Although heavy and complex, the linkages are reliable and durable and can be repaired or adjusted with simple hand tools in areas where replacement Bowden cables are not available or are too expensive. They are still used on some bicycles, typically roadsters, particularly in the East Asia. Rod brakes are used with a rim profile known as the Westwood rim, which has a slightly concave area on the braking surface and lacks the flat outer surface required by brakes which apply the pads on opposite sides of the rim.
In newer designs, friction pads squeeze the sides of the wheel rims with a force transmitted from a hand lever by a Bowden cable. Designs include the scissor-action "side pull" and "centre pull" brakes, and the lever action "cantilever" and "V" brakes.
Single pivot side-pull caliper brakes consist of two curved arms that cross at a pivot above the wheel and hold the brake pads on opposite sides of the rim. These arms have extensions on one side, one attached to the cable, the other to the cable housing. When the brake lever is squeezed, the arms move together and the brake pads squeeze the rim. These brakes are simple and effective for relatively narrow tires, but have serious disadvantages if made big enough to fit wide tires. Low-quality varieties also tend to rotate to one side during actuation and to stay there, so that one brake pad continually rubs the rim even when the brake is released. These brakes are now used on inexpensive bikes; before the introduction of dual-pivot caliper brakes they were used on all types of road bikes.
Centre-pull caliper brakes have symmetrical arms and by design do not rub the rim when they are released, by actuating the brake arms symmetrically. The cable housing attaches to a fixed cable stop attached to the frame, and the inner cable attaches to a sliding piece or a small pulley, over which runs a straddle cable connecting the two brake arms. Tension on the cable is evenly distributed to the two arms, preventing the brake from taking a "set" to one side or the other. These brakes were reasonably priced, and in the past filled the price niche between the cheaper and the more expensive models of side-pull brakes.
Dual-pivot caliper brakes are used on most modern racing bicycles. One arm pivots at the centre, like a side-pull; and the other pivots at the side, like a centre-pull. The cable housing attaches like that of a side-pull brake; the centering of side-pull brakes was simplified with the mass-market adoption of dual-pivot side-pulls (an old design re-discovered by Shimano in the early 1990s). These brakes offer a higher mechanical advantage. Dual-pivot brakes are slightly heavier than conventional side-pull calipers and cannot accurately track an out-of-true rim.
Cantilever, direct-pull, and linear-pull brakes have each arm attached to a separate pivot point on one side of the seat stay or fork just below the rim. This solves the problem for standard callipers on wide tires (such as those on mountain bikes) where the long distance from the pivot to the pad allows the arms to flex, reducing braking effectiveness.
The traditional cantilever has an L-shaped arm protruding outwards on each side, with a cable stop on the frame or fork to hold the cable housing and a straddle cable between the arms similar to the centre-pull brake. The cable from the brake handle pulls upwards on the straddle cable, causing the brake arms to rotate up and inward and squeezing the rim between the brake pads.
Linear-pull brakes (sometimes referred to by the trademarked term "V-brakes") mount similarly, but the arms extend straight up, and the housing is attached to one arm and the cable to the other, similar to the cable attachment for side-pull brakes. They are generally more powerful and easier to adjust than cantilever brakes but require a smaller gap between the brake pad and the rim surface. They function well with the suspension systems found on many mountain bikes because they do not require a separate cable stop on the frame or fork. Due to their higher mechanical advantage, linear-pull brakes require levers with longer cable travel than levers intended for caliper brakes or traditional cantilever brakes.
U-brakes are closely related to linear-pull brakes. This type is also referred to as 990s after the Dia-Compe u-brake model. The U brake has the pivots for the arms mounted to the frame or fork on each side above the rim. The arms cross over similarly to centre-pull brakes; its main advantage is that it does not protrude sideways from the frame like the cantilevers. U-brake mounts are the current standard on Freestyle BMX frames and forks.
Hydraulic rim brakes are one of the least common types. These brakes are generally able to be mounted on the same pivot points used for cantilever and linear-pull brakes. They were available on some high-end mountain bikes in the early 1990s, but declined in popularity with the rise of disc and linear-pull brakes. The moderate performance advantage (greater power and control) they offer over the latter is offset by their greater weight and complexity. The only significant current use of these brakes is on bicycles used for trials riding.
Delta brakes employ a design where the arms pivot above the rim but do not cross, and the inner cable attaches to a wedge-shaped piece between the brake arms, instead of a straddle cable. When the brakes are applied, the wedge forces the arms apart at the top, squeezing the rim between the pads. This has an advantage in that the shape of the wedge can be varied other than straight-sided, to allow for a very high mechanical advantage at the point where the pads contact the rim to give high braking power, but a lower mechanical advantage when the pads are not contacting the rim so that the pads move well away from the rim when the brake is not applied, preventing any rubbing.
Rim brakes require regular maintenance. Brake pads can wear down quickly, and have to be replaced. Over longer time and use, rims become worn. Rims should be checked for wear periodically as they can fail catastrophically if the rim sidewalls become too worn. Depending on the brake pads and rim, this can happen after a few thousand miles if heavily used in wet and muddy conditions. Bowden cables can become sticky if not regularly lubricated or if water gets into the housing, causing corrosion, although modern lined and stainless steel cables are less prone to these problems. The cables also can wear through repeated use over a long time, however they are more likely to get damaged through getting kinked or the open end becoming unraveled. If the inner cables are not replaced when they fray, they can suddenly break when brakes are applied strongly, causing brakes to be lost precisely when they are most needed. Rim brakes also require that the rim be relatively straight; if the rim has a pronounced wobble, then either the brake pads rub against it when the brakes are released, or apply insufficient and uneven pressure to the rim when certain brakes e.g. dual pivot, are applied.
Rim brakes also heat the rim because the brake functions by converting kinetic energy into thermal energy. In normal use and with lightweight bicycles this is not a problem, as the brakes are only applied with a limited force and for a short time, so the heat quickly dissipates to the surrounding air. However, on heavily-laden touring bikes and tandems in mountainous regions, the heat build-up can increase tire pressure so much that the tire blows off the rim. If this happens on the front wheel, a serious accident is almost inevitable. The problem is worse when descending cautiously at slow speeds because the brakes are "always on" and the cooling airflow over the rim is insufficient. The risk can be reduced by not over-inflating tires and adopting an aggressive riding style, only braking for the corners, but the real solution is a drum brake or a disc brake which avoids rim heating.
There are many designs of brake pads (brake blocks). Most consist of a replaceable rubber pad held in a metal channel (brake shoe), with a post or bolt protruding from the back to allow attachment to the brake. Some are made as one piece with the attachment directly molded in the pad for lower production costs. The rubber can be softer for more braking force with less lever effort, or harder for longer life. The rubber can also contain abrasives for better braking, at the expense of rim wear. Compounds vie for better wet braking efficiency. Typically pads are relatively short, but longer varieties are also manufactured to provide more surface area for braking; these often must be curved to match the rim. A larger pad does not give more friction but wears more slowly, so a new pad can be made thinner, simplifying wheel removal with linear-pull brakes in particular. In general, a brake can be fitted with any of these many varieties of pads, as long as the pad mounting method is compatible. Carbon rims, as on some disc wheels, generally have to use non-abrasive cork pads.
Disc brakes consist of a metal disc attached to the wheel hub that rotates with the wheel. Calipers are attached to the frame or fork along with pads that squeeze together on the disc. Such brakes have been successfully used on motorcycles for decades, and are the principal choice there. They are finally becoming more popular on bicycles, after many (partly successful) attempts to introduce them over the last decades . Recent material advances in weight, costs and reliability have led several firms to develop and implement disc brake systems, and those are becoming a standard feature on many bicycles. They are used mainly on mountain bikes ridden off-road, but sometimes on hybrid bicycles and touring bicycles. Many tandem bicycles have a disc brake on the rear wheel in addition to rim brakes; the disc brake can be set to provide a constant drag, so that during long descents, the rim brakes are not overworked by the heavier machine.
Disc brakes offer better modulation of braking power and generally require less finger effort to achieve the same braking power. The advantages of discs make them well-suited to steep, extended downhills through wet and muddy off-road terrain, common in freeride bicycle riding. The use of tires as wide as 3.0 inches also makes disc brakes necessary, as rim brakes cannot straddle such a wide tire.
A disc brake puts more stress on a wheel's spokes than a rim brake, since the torque of braking is between the hub and the rim. The spokes therefore must be stronger, thus ruling out very light and thin double-butted spokes and aluminum nipples that are popular on more expensive bikes with rim brakes. Thus, spokes often feature a straight diameter and brass nipples and are cross-laced, and so slightly heavier (about 15 to 70g per wheel) than radially laced, double butted spokes possible with rim brakes.
The design and positioning of disc brakes precludes the use of most types of pannier racks; for this reason, disc brakes are rarely found on touring bikes, although several rack manufacturers are addressing this issue.
Recently, a number of riders have experienced a dangerous problem with disc brakes. Under extreme braking conditions, the front wheel has come off the dropouts. Certain front forks using quick release skewers have been shown to have this problem. Riders should make sure the skewers are properly tightened before riding.
Hydraulic disc brakes use fluid from a reservoir, pushed through a hose, to actuate the pistons in the disc caliper, that actuate the pads. They are better at excluding contaminants, but are difficult to repair on the trail, since they require fairly specialized tools. The brake lines occasionally require bleeding to remove air bubbles, whereas mechanical disc brakes rarely fail completely.
Also, the hydraulic fluid may boil on steep, continuous downhills. This is due to heat build up in the disc and pads and can cause the brake to lose its ability to transmit force ("brake fade") through incompressible fluids, since some of it has become a gas, which is compressible. To avoid this problem, 203 mm (8 inch) diameter disc rotors have become common on downhill bikes. Larger rotors require less caliper pressure for equal stopping power, dissipate heat more quickly, and have a larger amount of mass to absorb heat. Two types of brake fluid are used today: mineral oil and DOT fluid. Mineral oil is generally inert, while DOT is corrosive to frame paint but has a higher boiling point. Using the wrong fluid may cause the seals to swell or be corroded.
The post-mount standard was developed by Manitou; it makes it easier to align the caliper to the rotor, since it allows some side-to-side adjustment. Spacers must be used to properly align IS calipers. The disadvantage to post mount is that the bolt is threaded directly into the fork lowers. If the threading is stripped or if the bolt is stuck, then new fork lowers are required. Frame manufacturers have standardized the IS mount for the rear disc brake mount. In recent years post mount has gained ground and is becoming the most common. This is mostly due to decreased manufacturing and part cost for the brake calipers when using post mount.
Drum brakes are useful for wet or dirty conditions. They are heavier, more complicated, and frequently weaker than rim brakes, but require much less maintenance and are less affected by road conditions. Both cable- and rod-operated drum brake systems have been widely produced. While most common on utility bicycles in some countries, especially the Netherlands, they are also frequently found on freight bicycles.
A bicycle drum brake operates like a car's but has no ratching adjustment mechanism or hydraulic actuation. Two pads are pressed outward against the braking surface on the inside of the hub's shell, which is packed with grease. Shell diameters on a bicycle drum brake are typically 70 – 120 mm. Drum brakes have been used on front hubs and hubs with both internal and external freewheels.
A common design of drum brake is the Roller Brake, manufactured by Shimano. This is a modular cable-operated drum brake for use on specially splined front and rear hubs. Unlike a normal drum brake, the Roller Brake can be removed entirely from a hub, allowing it to function as a regular freewheel. It also contains a torque limiting device which reduces its effectiveness on bicycles with adult-sized wheels.
A coaster brake, also known as a back pedal brake or foot brake (or torpedo in some countries), is a drum brake integrated into hubs with an internal freewheel. Freewheeling functions as with other systems, but, when back pedalled, the brake engages after a fraction of a revolution. It can frequently be found in both single-speed and geared hubs.
When such a hub is pedalled forwards, the sprocket drives a screw which forces a clutch to move along the axle, driving the hub shell or gear assembly. When pedalling is reversed, the screw drives the clutch in the opposite direction, forcing it either between two brake pads and pressing them against the shell, or into a split collar and expanding it against the shell. The braking surface is often steel, and the braking element brass or phosphor-bronze, as in the Birmingham-made Perry Coaster Hub.
Coaster brake bicycles are generally equipped with a single cog and chainwheel and use a ½" pitch 1/8" wide chain. However, there have been several models of coaster brake hubs with dérailleurs in the past, most notably the Sachs 2x3. These use special extra-short dérailleurs which both can stand up to the rigours of being straightened out frequently and don't require an excessive amount of reverse pedal rotation before the brake engages. Coaster brakes have also been incorporated into hub gear designs - for example the AWC from Sturmey Archer.
Although coaster brakes have the advantage of being protected from the elements and thus immune to ice or water, because they are located in the rear wheel only limited braking force can be applied before the rear wheel locks up. This is due to the placement of the rider's weight ahead of the rear tire's contact with the ground, as well as the weight transfer forward proportional to braking force, which further unloads the rear wheel. Additionally, although coaster brakes generally go years without needing maintenance, they are more complicated than rim brakes to repair if it becomes necessary.
Coaster brakes do have the disadvantage that they cannot be used whilst the bike is stationary unless the crank was horizontal beforehand. On a slope any other brake can be applied to stop the bike from moving, not so with a coaster.
The spoon brake was one of the first types of bicycle brakes and precedes the pneumatic tire. They were first used on penny farthings with solid rubber tires in the late 1800s and continued to be used after the introduction of the pneumatic tired safety bicycle. It consists of a pad (often leather) which is pressed onto the top of the front tire. These were almost always rod-operated by a right-hand lever. In developing countries, a foot-operated form of the spoon brake is sometimes retrofitted to old rod brake roadsters. It consists of a spring-loaded flap attached to the back of the fork crown. This is depressed against the front tire by the rider's foot.
Perhaps more so than any other form of bicycle brake, the spoon brake is very sensitive to road conditions and increases tire wear dramatically.
Though made obsolete by the introduction of the coaster brake and rod brake, they continued to be used supplementally on adult bicycles until the 1930s and children's bicycles until the 1950s, in the West. In the developing world, they were manufactured until much more recently.
Brake levers are usually mounted on the handlebars within easy reach of the rider's hands. They may be distinct or integrated into the shifting mechanism. Road bicycles with drop handlebars may have more than one brake lever for each brake to facilitate braking from multiple hand positions.
The mechanical advantage of the brake lever must be matched to the brake it is connected to in order for the rider to have sufficient leverage to actuate the brake.
For example brake levers designed for caliper brakes may work with center-pull cantilevers, but not with direct-pull, and linear-pull brakes. Direct pull cantilevers have twice as much mechanical advantage as traditional brakes, so they require a lever with half as much mechanical advantage. Long pull levers pull the cable twice as far, but only half as hard.
There are several wide-spread techniques for efficient braking on a standard, two-brake bicycle. The most commonly taught and used one is the 25-75 technique. This method entails supplying the majority of the stopping power to the front brake (75%), while using a much lower amount of power for the rear (25%). This is one of the most effective means of slowing a bicycle. The reason for this is that during braking (either with the front or rear brake), the bicycle's deceleration causes a transfer of weight to the front wheel. This means that there is much more traction on the front wheel than the back wheel. Therefore, the front wheel can generate more braking force than the back wheel before locking up and skidding. In any conditions (especially in wet conditions) the rear brake can exert relatively little braking force before the wheel locks and starts skidding. For a more-detailed analysis, see Bicycle and motorcycle dynamics.
The problem arises when there is too much power applied to the front brake which then causes the momentum of the rider to propel them over the handle bars thereby flipping their bicycle. Some front brakes have a spring that limits the applied force. On tandem bicycles and other long-wheel-base bicycles (including recumbents and other specialized bicycles), their long wheelbase and lower relative center of mass makes it virtually impossible for heavy front braking to cause these bicycles to flip.
There are a few special situations where limited use of the front brake, and heavier involvement of the rear brake is advisable: