By Stefan Abram
Whether you’re slowing into a corner or pulling up at a junction, the consequences of cycling with an unreliable set of bike brakes and pads don’t bare thinking about.
Better brake pads are a surprisingly cheap upgrade, especially for something that so dramatically effects both your safety and your performance.
>>>Watch: How to set up your brakes
A high-quality set of brake pads, with a compound specifically formulated for the conditions, can have a transformative effect on your stopping distance.
The callipers, cable housing, and brake levers all have a role in determining how a braking system performs but it is the pads that have the greatest singular effect.
>>>Watch: How to service caliper brakes
This guide is road bikes with calliper rim brakes only. If you have a hybrid/mountain bike with V-brakes and pads with threaded stud, these won’t be suitable. The same goes for touring/cyclocross bikes spec’d with cantilever brakes that take a smooth stud.
Which pad for which rim
Carbon rims and aluminium alloy rims require different brake pads. For carbon rims especially, it is very important that the correct pads are used.
Carbon isn’t as good as aluminium at conducting heat, meaning that they have a greater tendency to heat up. If the rims get too hot, you risk starting to melt the resin that holds the carbon fibres together and causing your inner tubes to pop. The brake pads designed specifically for carbon rims are constructed to help control the amount of heat build up by sucking it away from the rim.
These pads shouldn’t be used on aluminium rims because they are quite soft and will wear quickly. Also, if the pads are used on aluminium rims, little bits of metal from the braking track will embed themselves in the pads. If the pads are then used on carbon rims, the little bits of metal will abrade the carbon and damage the rims.
We’ve split this guide into best brake pads for alloy rims and best brake pads for carbon rims to make it easier to find the brake pads you need. Some manufacturers require you to use only certain makes of brake pad on their rims. If you use a pad that is not recommended, you risk voiding your warranty, so it is best to double check before using a different set of pads.
Best brake pads for alloy rims
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Kool-stop Salmon Dura 2
These pads have something of a cult following for how well they perform in the wet. The soft compound is super grippy, although that does mean they wear faster than other pads.
Arguably, this is not much of a problem. In being quite soft they are easy on the braking track, meaning that you’ll get more life out of your rims. Swapping pads a little more frequently is cheaper - and a lot easier - than rebuilding your wheels.
The dura 2 is thicker version of this pad, so even considering the wear rate, you won’t actually have to replace them that often. There are versions of the compound that are suitable for Campagnolo as well as Sram/Shimano brake shoes.
This is one of the more economical ways to get Dura-Ace components on your bike. If you are going to have top-of-the-range parts anywhere on your bike, the part that controls your speed is probably the best place for it.
These are versatile pads that offer powerful and consistent braking in both the dry and the wet. Naturally, the pads are only compatible with Sram/Shimano brake shoes.
Swissstop Flash Pro BXP
Swissstop's nomenclature for their pads takes a second to get your head round, but it makes sense once you know it.
If the name has “flash” in it, the pad is good for Sram/Shimano, if it has “race” instead then the pad is suitable for Campagnolo. “Pro” means that the pad is thicker for a longer service life. Alternatively, there is “evo” which is good if you have particularly wide rims which can only really accept pads once they are half worn.
For alloy rims, you then have the choice of the “Original Black” compound or “BXP”. The Original Black is recommended for general use, whereas the BXP is their wet weather compound. Given the stochastic nature of the UK’s rainfall, we’d recommend the BXP compound for everything but the height of summer and foreign training camps.
Best brake pads for carbon rims
Kool Stop Dura 2 Carbon Red
These are the top choice for cyclocrossers looking for some real braking performance on carbon rims and road racers who aren’t put off by the wet. Although carbon rims have a reputation of sketchiness in the wet, these pads deliver confidence where others don’t.
They can be a little difficult to get hold of in the UK, but a definitely worth the extra effort for those who are concerned about performance. Both Sram/Shimano and Campagnolo versions are manufactured.
Campagnolo Carbon Caliper Inserts
These deliver the strong and consistent stopping power you would expect from top-flight Campy pads. What is less expected is that Campagnolo also produce a Sram/Shimano version of these pads as well - so that those on the dark side can enjoy superb braking on carbon rims as well.
Swissstop Flash Pro Black Prince
As with the alloy pads, the “flash” means these are for Sram/Shimano and “pro” means the pad is thick. For carbon rims, there are two compounds to choose from, “Black Prince” and “Yellow King”. Yellow king provides a little more in terms of absolute stopping power - but what is power without control?
Although the Black Prince compound might not induce the same stomach-flipping raw deceleration as the Yellow King, it does offer superior modulation. This allows you to really get the most out of your breaks.
You’re able to get right up to (but not exceed) the limits of your tyres’ grip - that precise point before the wheels lock up and the tyres start to skid - where you’re exerting the maximum braking force possible for the conditions.
Shimano Dura-Ace Inserts for Carbon Rims
The fact that these are used widely by the top cycling teams says something of their quality. These are also relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of other Dura-Ace components and deliver assured braking performance in all conditions.
If you’ve already bought yourself some fancy carbon rims, it’s worth getting some top-quality pads to go with them.
What to know about brake pads
Cartridge vs blocks
Some brake pads come as a single brake block, whereas with others the brake pad functions as a cartridge that is inserted into a brake shoe.
A cartridge system is stiffer because of the brake shoe providing extra support for the pad, making the brakes more powerful and responsive. They have the added benefit that when it comes to changing the pads, you can just pop the old pads out and slide the new ones in. You don’t need to readjust the brake position.
One-piece pads are cheaper to manufacturer and so are often spec’d on lower value bikes or bikes that are trying hard to come in below a certain price point. The brakes tend to feel a little mushier and they tend to be made from lower performing compounds to keep the costs down.
A softer compound will be more grippy and offer better braking - especially in the wet. However, because the compound is softer, it will wear faster than a harder compound. On the bright side, a soft compound is easier on the rims, meaning they’ll last longer before you have to replace them.
A super soft compound might work well in the wet, but they can be a little too grabby in the dry. Using a mixed compound, or one that is designed for the dry, will improve the brake’s modulation. It's therefore easier to control the amount of braking power you’re exerting, so you don’t accidentally lock up a wheel.
Little bits of grit can be picked up as you ride, and they embed themselves in the pad. Then, when you brake, these wear down the braking track like sandpaper. It’s also relatively easy to pick up contaminants which reduce the amount of friction between the pads and the rim.
Regularly cleaning the braking track and pads will increase both their longevity and performance. You can use a dedicated brake cleaner or isopropyl alcohol (90% or stronger). What you don’t want is to use anything that will leave a film behind, as this will reduce the power of your brakes.
After the pads, the next most significant improvement you can make to your brakes is upgrading to compressionless cable housing. When you squeeze the brake leaver, some of the force goes into clamping the pads against the rim, but some is lost as the cable housing is compressed.
By mitigating this, the brakes feel a lot more responsive and less mushy, outright power is increased and so is modulation. This is also a relatively cheap upgrade and costs a similar amount to the pads.
Starting off riding mountain bikes on the South Downs way, he soon made the switch the road cycling. Now, he’s come full circle and is back out on the trails, although the flat bars have been swapped for the curly ones of a gravel bike.
Always looking for the next challenge, he’s Everested in under 12 hours and ridden the South Downs Double in sub 20. Although dabbling in racing off-road, on-road and virtually, to date his only significant achievement has been winning the National Single-Speed Cross-Country Mountain Bike Championships in 2019.
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