Get to Grips With Your Brakes

Guest Post by Rhian Roxburgh 2 x ETU Age Group Champion

In the last article, we looked at how reach can affect your comfort and control, and how you can set up your bike so that your reach is spot on. Today, we’ll look at how riders with smaller hands can get to grips with their brakes.

Problem #3 Can’t Reach the Brakes.

If your hands are on the smaller side, you might find that you struggle to use your bike’s brakes – especially when riding on the drops. Being able to use the brake levers with one or two fingers whilst riding on the drops is essential. If you need to use your entire hand or move your hands to reach the brakes, you are probably not in full contact with the handlebar, and this can be dangerous when descending - a bump in the road may make you lose contact with the handlebar!

Before we begin, remember, as we’ve mentioned in the previous articles, to ensure that your bike fits you properly. If you’re overreached, you will find it difficult to reach the brake levers. So, before spending money or making significant changes to your bike, ensure that you’ve got a good fit by either having a professional fit or following the advice in books such as Simply Road Cycling or good websites.

So, to business: there are three main solutions to the problem of not being able to use brake levers effectively:

  1. Position – if your handlebar or brake levers are in the wrong position, you will find it difficult to use your brakes. A handlebar that has been rotated upward, typically for a comfortable upright riding position, will make the brake levers impossible to reach when riding on the drops. Likewise, if your brake levers are positioned incorrectly, you’ll have problems.

  2. Shims - some brands of brake, such as Shimano, offer shims (a small plastic insert) that fit near the top of the brake lever and bring the brake lever closer to the handlebar. This is a cheap and easy solution, but it does have one problem – it reduces the amount of brake lever travel, and this means that you have less braking power. Any good bike shop will be able to advise you whether your brakes can take shims.

  3. Handlebar - a more expensive, but potentially more effective, approach is to change handlebar. Handlebars come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Don’t assume that a women’s specific bike will have a handlebar that suits smaller hands.  The size of the handlebar has three aspects:

    1. Width. The width of a handlebar should reflect the breadth of your upper torso. Most of the time the width of your handlebar will be ok, but if it is not it will splay your hands inwards or outwards when riding. This will lead to discomfort and make it hard to use your brake levers. If you are particularly petite or broad for your height, it could be worth asking at your local bike shop whether a different sized handlebar would suit you.

    2. Drop. Think of this as the height of the handlebar: the measurement between top of the handlebar and the bottom of the drop (the curved part of the handlebar). Drop is a personal preference but, generally speaking, smaller hands require a smaller drop and larger hands require a larger drop.

    3. Reach. The distance from the front to the rear of the handlebar – the depth, if you like. A handlebar with a shallow reach brings the brake levers closer to you and make it easier to reach the controls.

If you still find that you struggle with the brakes, you should try a bike with disc brakes because these require only a small amount of force to operate and, as such, help riders who struggle to gain enough pull on the brake levers.


Rhian Roxburgh

Rhian Roxburgh is two times ETU European Age Group Champion, a level three British Triathlon coach, and founder of TriRox Training that helps develop and improve athletes in a fun, positive environment.



Simply Road Cycling

Simply Road Cycling contains a wealth of information for new and developing road cyclists, with many tips and tricks specific to women riders. Accelerate your cycling progress by buying your copy today.