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Maintaining and Enhancing the Performance of Disc Brake Systems on Bicycles

February 04, 2024


With the rapid proliferation of disc brake systems in the cycling domain, cyclists are increasingly benefiting from their powerful braking capabilities. To ensure the efficient operation of the entire disc brake system, it is crucial to understand the key components that require special attention and maintenance. In this article, Dave Palmer, a seasoned technician and the manager of Cycleworks bike shop in the scenic Surrey Hills of South London, provides insights into maintaining and upgrading disc brake systems.

1. Contamination Issues:

Dave emphasizes that a decrease in braking performance may not necessarily warrant upgrading to larger discs or more powerful brake pads. Often, the culprit is contamination, and addressing this issue can restore braking efficiency. Contaminants, such as oil, can affect the brake pads and rotors, leading to annoying brake squeals.

"Terrifying brake squeals sound like a flock of geese flying behind you," says Dave. Wet conditions exacerbate the problem, and if the noise persists after a few wheel rotations, it may indicate contamination beyond regular wet weather issues.

Contamination can stem from various sources, including oily fingerprints during maintenance or brake fluid dripping onto the rotors. To remedy this, Dave recommends replacing brake pads and thoroughly cleaning the rotors with alcohol.

In winter, increased rainfall in the UK helps mitigate contamination as road oils and grime are washed away. However, cyclists should still exercise caution and use appropriate cleaning agents for different components.

Dave advises using brake cleaning solutions specifically designed for disc brakes and avoiding cross-contamination with general bike cleaners. Considering the cost of a pair of high-quality Shimano brake pads, around $36, regular attention during rides and maintenance can save unnecessary expenses.

2. Sticking Brake Pistons:

Another factor affecting braking power is sticking brake pistons. Dave notes that riders might not notice a gradual decrease in braking force due to sticky pistons, as they adapt to the change over time.

To address this issue, technicians lubricate the pistons, replace brake fluid, and bleed the system. Dave suggests that these maintenance steps can significantly improve brake performance and restore them to factory settings.

Identifying sticky pistons is simple – by removing the wheel and brake pads, manually compress the brake lever to observe the piston movement. If one piston doesn't move or has limited movement, it indicates a sticky piston. Routine maintenance involves using disc brake system cleaning solutions on calipers and pistons, followed by lubrication based on the brake fluid type used (e.g., silicone oil for DOT brake fluid systems like SRAM).

For Shimano disc brake systems, Dave recommends cleaning without additional lubrication, as Shimano calipers tend to attract oil, causing potential issues.

If issues persist, seeking professional help for correct resolution is advised, as not all cyclists may be familiar with the intricacies of their bikes.

3. Consider Upgrades:

If riders still find the braking performance lacking after addressing mechanical issues, considering upgrades may be a viable solution. Upgrading components like rotors and brake pads can significantly enhance braking capabilities.

Dave shares a recent customer experience where upgrading to RT800 rotors and high-quality brake pads noticeably improved braking performance. He emphasizes that seemingly similar components from different brands can have varying braking efficiency due to factors like caliper rigidity and piston quality.

The latest generation of Shimano disc brake calipers, in particular, exhibits substantial improvements, reducing lever travel and enhancing initial brake engagement. The increased clearance in the new rotors facilitates easier adjustments, allowing riders to fine-tune their braking systems.

Dave recommends upgrading the brake system if, after several seasons of riding in diverse conditions, cyclists still experience dissatisfaction or discomfort. Investing in a brake system upgrade can provide a customized solution to individual preferences and riding environments.


Maintaining and enhancing the performance of disc brake systems on bicycles involves proactive cleaning, regular checks for contamination, addressing sticky pistons, and considering upgrades when necessary. By understanding these aspects, cyclists can enjoy reliable and powerful braking performance, ensuring a safer and more enjoyable riding experience.

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