When it comes down to it, your bike only really needs to do two things.
The second one, however, is most likely to save your life – so give yourself (and your brakes) a little TLC.
Clean your Rims
The grayish-black “dirt” on your rims is created from the friction of braking wearing down your rim – and can be a big pain. It not only makes a mess, but also significantly decreases your braking power.
Luckily for you it only takes but a moment to wipe down the braking surface every 100 miles or so. This black grime tends to smear if you use a spray cleaner, so a dry rag is usually best.
If your rims are completely covered in grime and in need of a deep cleaning, use a bucket of soapy dishwater, a gentle hose and a big sponge to rinse the grime away. While a small amount of water will make it smear, a sopping sponge will help it run off the rim. Pay special attention to the crease between your rim and your tire where grime can build up and hide.
Clean your Pads
That same nasty grit tends to build up on your brake pads, as well, creating a slick, shiny braking surface that’s terrible for stopping and can cause an outrageous squeal. Remove your wheels and check the pad braking surface. If it looks shiny, buff it with a piece of sand paper or emery cloth until you’re down to the dull rubber.
If you find small flecks of metal imbedded in the pads, it’s best to replace them. The pieces of metal are tiny fragments of your rim. By braking with it in your pad, you’re further damaging the rim braking surface and wearing out your wheel.
The best pad for the Pacific Northwest is a softer, wet weather pad. These softer compounds wear down a little faster, but increase your braking power in wet conditions and help prevent the black stuff from forming. They also increase the life of your wheels, which is a bonus since wheels of the most expensive parts of your bike.
Check your Cables
Most brake cables need to be replaced every year or two, depending on how much you use them and what conditions you ride in. For example, a wet weather commuter – frequently stopping at lights and stop signs – will need new cables more often than a fair weather distance rider who mostly rides on country roads with fewer stops.
Still not sure about your cables? Pull slowly on your brakes and slowly release them. It should feel smooth and release as quickly as it pulls. If your brake lever is slow to retract, you feel a gritty sensation, see any kinks in the housing, or notice that your cable is frayed, it’s time for a new cable and housing .
Tori Bortman is a bike mechanic and the instructor/owner of Gracies Wrench.