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Do you want the best brakes? Bicycle disc brakes are the answer.

My bicycle disc brakes allow me to stop with confidence.

Bicycle Disc Brakes

There is no more important component to the safety of a tandem bicycle than the brakes. Having the best possible braking system for your tandem is not really an option, it is essential! You don't want to take a chance on not having enough braking capacity on your tandem and find out when you are on a long descent. The feeling of squeezing the brake lever and having nothing happen is a gut-tightening moment to say the least. Don't let it happen to you.

There are two defining types of bicycle disc brakes:

Hydraulic Bicycle Disc Brakes

bicycle disc brakes, tandem disc brakes, avid disc brakes

Avid Code

These brakes adhave come a long way since they were first introduced. The norm used to be tiny rotors, small fluid reservoirs and single pistons. These brakes were not suited to tandem use. Now with 200+mm rotors, dual piston setup and large fluid reserves to absorb the heat, bicycle disc brakes are now really ready for tandem use.
The problem with the old hydraulic bicycle disc brakes was many fold:
  • Spongy feel
  • Pain to set up with shims
  • Had to bleed them all the time

Let me first say that if you have the owners manual that came with your bicycle disc brakes, nothing I say here will supersede what the manufacturer has to say about your braking system.

If you want to go beyond replacing the pads or putting the new brakes on your bike itself, I would recommend that you go to the shop you trust and have them do the work.  I will only outline general maintenance and setup here.  If you do a search on hydraulic bicycle disc brakes on Google, you will find tons of pages just telling you about how they work.  I really don't need to go that deep here.  Let me give you a simple overview of how hydraulic bicycle disc brakes work.

Let's start at the top, the brake lever.  The lever has a piston attached to it which fits inside a cylinder (this is the master cylinder).  When you pull on the brake lever, it pushes that piston into the cylinder and displaces some hydraulic fluid.  The fluid needs to go somewhere, in the case of these brakes, it goes down a piece of tubing and into the brake caliper. The brake caliper has a cylinder with a piston (called the slave cylinder if you really want to know).  The fluid presses on this cylinder and pushes outward causing the brake pad to contact the disc rotor.  You stop.  You can generate a really large amount of force with a small amount of movement of the brake lever because you can't compress the brake fluid and the pressures can reach over 3000 psi, that is a lot!

Basic Maintenance for Bicycle Disc Brakes

You really don't have to do a great deal to keep your hydraulic bicycle disc brakes in top shape.  
  1. Keep the parts free of oil and grease - Don't get oil or brake fluidbicycle disk brakes, disc brake cleaner, bicycle degreaser on on your brake pads or you will be buying new ones.  If you do happen to get a little oil or brake fluid on the pads, and I mean a little, you can try quickly cleaning it off with rubbing alcohol or some bicycle disc brake cleaning fluids like White Lighting Clean Streak.  I you find your pads are soaked with oil, pitch them and buy new ones.  Your safety isn't worth the relative low cost of a set of pads.
  2. Don't be a clean freak on your discs - The little bit of dirt and mud that builds on your discs during daily riding is actually good.  Big chunks of mud will get cleaned by the action of the pads against the rotors.  The everyday dirt and stuff will actually make your brakes work better because it creates more friction, stopping you in a shorter distance.  
  3. Remember that new brakes are not as effective as brakes that have bedded in. A good explanantion of the bedding in process was described to me by Bob Sutterfield and I'll post his email on the subject here (reproduced by permission of Bob Sutterfield)

Based on my experience with disc brakes on cars and motorcycles and airplanes, the "bedding in" process has nothing to do with foreign impurities on the rotor or on the pads. It refers to two things that happen shortly after new pads and/or rotors are installed:

1) Biggest effect: The rotor and the pad each have a manufacturing process, with dimensional tolerances and imperfections. They don't meet perfectly at first. Worst case, the high points on the pad align with the high points on the rotor, so there's relatively little surface area actually in contact to make friction. So brakes are less effective after pads and/or rotors have been changed. During the bedding-in process, the rotors machine grooves into the pads that are complementary with the ridges in the rotors. After some use, the pads' ridges mate up with grooves in the rotors, and the pads' grooves mate up with ridges in the rotors, and braking effectiveness is at a maximum.

2) Smaller effect: A brake pad leaves a microscopic layer of residue on the surface of the rotor. It consists of both friction material and binder. Different pad compounds leave different sorts of residue. The speed and evenness of residue build-up vary with temperature and speed and pressure. If that residue is uneven (e.g. it's washed off part of the disc) you'll feel uneven pulsing when you apply the brake while rolling.

The closest I've come to foreign contaminants like you describe is after a car was parked outdoors in the rain, and parts of the rotors were rusty. That gave a pulsating feel for a couple of stops, but it wore off pretty soon.

When rotors are delivered they are covered with an anti-rust protective coating of oil. I wash that off the friction surfaces with aerosol brake parts cleaner (Berryman or CRC or NAPA or whatever). After I work on brakes or suspension parts the rotors typically have my gunky fingerprints on them. I wash those off too. Sometimes when I change pads on the same set of rotors I clean the old pads' residue off the rotors, but usually I don't bother.
Bob Sutterfield
Saratoga California

Some Simple Things to Remember

When you are working on your bicycle disc brakes, there are a few things you will want to keep in mind.

First of, don't try to save a little money by buying brake fluid other than what is recommended by the manufacturer.  Sure you can go to Auto Zone or Pep Boys and buy a bottle of brake fluid pretty cheap.  bicycle disc brakes, magura bleed kitWhen you get a drop of that on your bike's paint job and don't see it you will be pretty sorry when the paint peels off.  Step up and buy the right stuff the first time and save yourself some future problems.  Magura uses Magura Blood and it comes in a kit just for bleeding Magura brakes.  
hayes bleed kit, bicycle disk brakesHayes has a similar kit that is specific to their brakes as well as their own disc brake fluid.  Something that I noticed on the Hayes bicycle disc brakes bleeding kit is that the bottle says "DOT 4" brake fluid.  I know it would be tempting to go out and buy plain DOT 4 fluid, but how do you know if they have a special additive or something in the fluid to make it work better with their parts?

Shimano offers a specific kit which contains the fluid and things you will need to bleed your brakes.  You can get the fluid in two sizes, a 1-liter bottle and a 50ml bottle which comes in the kit.
Second, you also want to keep in mind when you are working on your hydraulic brakes is don't squeeze the brake lever!  Doing this could cause the pistons to come together so tightly that you will have a very hard time getting them apart.  I keep a little piece of cardboard in my toolbox that I put in between the brake pads when I take the wheel off.  This way, if I do squeeze the lever, the cardboard will ensure there is a space between the pads I can get a tool into so I can separate the pads.
Avid has some of the most advanced disc brakes youbicycle disc brakes, tandem disc brakes, hydraulic disc brakes will find on the market.  Their Code brake system has a 203mm front and rear rotor available and features 4 pistons for superb stopping power and unmatched resistance to fade.  These are the brakes if you are looking for the most impressive stopping power available.

The hydraulic systems available today are as advanced as you will find. About the only thing that hasn't made it to bicycle disc brakes is an anti-lock system, and that is probably coming.

Mechanical Disc Brakes

Back in 1998, Giant Bicycle came out with mechanical bicycle disc brakes. To put it mildly they were terrible. Couldn't stop a bike with no rider let alone a bike and a rider.
That all changed in late 1999 with the advent of the Avid mechanical disc brake. These were amazing. I was riding Magura Marta bicycle disc brakes at the time and didn't really think a mechanical disc brake could match up. I ordered my tandem from Davinci and saw they had an option for Avid bb7 disc brakesbicycle disc brakes. I took a shot at them. Boy was I glad I did!

The mechanical bicycle disc brake works nearly the same way as the hydraulic disc brake does except a cable takes the place of all of the fluid components.  A brake lever pulls a cable leading to the caliper, much in the same way as a rim brake.  Where a standard set of rim brakes would have a set of arms that pull in, the mechanical disc has one fixed brake pad (see exception) and one that is mounted to a large screw.  When the motion of the lever actuates the cable, a lever arm down at the brake caliper moves and turns the screw.  This pushes the mobile pad against the disc rotor and when pushing against the disc it pushes on the fixed pad on the other side.  There is a very slight loss in power because you are using some effort to deflect the rotor against the other pad bad this is negligible. 

The Avid mechanical bicycle disc brake is a very good system out there. At around $60-$70 per wheel for the setup (suggested retail that is), these brakes are amazing. I have been running them for many years on my tandem with the 203 mm rotor and can't believe the stopping power to this day.

bicycle disk brake, tandem disk brake, tandem bicycleHere is a photo of the front brakes on my tandem. My wife and I pull a trailer behind our tandem and have never had an issue with not having enough stopping power with these bicycle disc brakes.

There is a new set of two piston mechanical brakes on the market that I have not had a chance to review although they sure look like they will offer superior feel and modulation compared to my Avid mechanicals.

bicycle disc brakes, mechanical disc brakesInterloc makes this Dual Banger Mechanical Disc brake system that is the only mechanical bicycle disc brake system on the market with dual piston action - that is, BOTH brake pads move in sync to sandwich the rotor (compare this with my Avids, where 1 pad is fixed).  Last time I checked, these were going for around $89 per wheel with the 203mm rotor you would want to put on the front of a tandem.  If you wanted the smaller 160mm rotor it would be around $75.

Common points with both hydraulic and mechanical bicycle disc brakes.

Putting the disc on the wheel used to be different for the myriad of bicycle disc brakes out there.  Now that some standards have come into the market, lead by Hayes in the mid 90's, you can pretty much use any brand disc with any brand caliper.  Two basic types of mounting are out there.  6 bolt IS (International Standard) and Shimano's Spline-Lock hub. If you are really set on one or the other there are adapters out there that let you mount a 6 bolt rotor to a Shimano hub.  This is way better than it was in the past because every manufacturer of disc brake systems had it's own mounting style and you were pretty much locked into the hub that worked with those brakes.

Once you have the disc on the wheel, you have to mount the caliper to the bike.  I am sure by this point you have checked to see if your single bike or your tandem can have disc brakes mounted on them.  This is important, the forces generated by bicycle disc brakes can be so large that you need to check with the fork manufacturer if you are going to use a very large disc, say over 160mm.  If you are mounting them on a tandem and it has disc brake mounts, don't assume the fork is right. Make the call and find out.  If the tandem comes with disc brakes, you are pretty much covered on this part.

Mounting the caliper on the bike is the second thing you need to do with all systems.

Bicycle disc brakes have two very common methods of mounting the caliper to the bike.  The floating mount and the shim mount.  Hayes and Avid use the floating mount.

To put a floating mount caliper on a Hayes system uses an adapter that you must put on the bike and then center the caliper over the rotor.  Avid  disc brakes come with the adapter mounted to them.  Just put the assembly on the bike with the supplied bolts.  Both manufacturers supply instructions on how to center the caliper from here.  Follow those instructions and you are good to go.

Hope, Shimano, Magura and some other manufacturers of bicycle discbicycle disc brakes, mounting shims, tandem bicycle brakes use really thin shims between the caliper and the mounting tabs on the fork or frame.  You put multiples of these shims in place until the caliper is centered.  Again each manufacturer has specific instructions you need to follow to properly mount the caliper.

There are some very good bicycle disc brakes out there that you may not know about and I hope that you are very aware of them after reading this page. Some people call them "disk" brakes (or even "breaks") According to Shimano and Avid, to name two companies, it is "disc".

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