Give Me a Brake

Do you ever find yourself with an abundance of extra money and/or free time? Then I highly recommend learning to maintain and repair your own bicycle. To get started, you’ll just need a few simple tools, a can-do attitude, and access to a good internet debugging proxy.

Here’s the step-by-step guide I recently used to replace the front brake rotor on my mountain bike:

  1. Determine if your rotor even needs to be replaced. This can be done by checking its wear with a fancy digital caliper or waiting until you have to frantically drag your feet through the dirt to stop (NOTE: The loud screeching noises you’ll hear at this point are coming from your mouth).
  2. Remove the wheel from the fork. Most modern bikes are equipped with something called a “quick release” lever which was specifically engineered to make this step trivial except whoever installed it last undoubtedly overtightened it. Like, WAY overtightened it. Expect some light bruising and an outpouring of PG-13 language.
  3. Detach the rotor from the wheel. It’s important to use the tool that matches the rotor type, usually either a 6-bolt or center-lock. The former will require a screwdriver with a specialized head and the latter needs something that looks like a snowflake-shaped cookie cutter but isn’t. Either way, you won’t have the right one, even if you’ve successfully completed this step before.
  4. Drive to your Local Bike Shop (LBS) to buy a new rotor tool. It will be very expensive. Still, you should support your LBS whenever possible. Unlike the big online retailers, they’ll provide you with crucial usage instructions based on your appearance and bicycle vernacular. (PRO-TIP: For the most comprehensive advice, show up in a collared shirt covered with grease and fresh blood and add “thingy” to the end of every bike part description, e.g., “I need something to remove this brake-thingy.”)
  5. Back at home, use your new tool to remove the rotor then check to ensure the wheel’s hub spins freely and silently. It won’t. This is because the bearings are trashed which is something that happens after years of normal wear-and-tear or whenever you check them, whichever comes first.
  6. Take the entire wheel back to your LBS* and have them replace the bearings because you didn’t sign up for that sort of hell. Ask them to go ahead and install the new brake-thingy while you’re there. This will be very expensive. (*You should consider going to a different LBS since labor prices increase exponentially with the number of times you visit per day.)
  7. Back at home, prepare to remount the professionally overhauled wheel. First, though, check to ensure your existing brake pads grip the new rotor safely and securely. They won’t. This is because they are completely worn out and, in hindsight, the likely cause of your stopping issues. Regardless, you can’t go back to your LBS today, or maybe ever, so you’ll need to order new ones online. They’re not very expensive. Normally. But now you’re going to have to pay for overnight shipping because you promised to go riding with a friend tomorrow and have already told your boss you’d be “working from home” all day. Worse, you’ll need to use a dubious website because all the reputable ones are out of stock due to the ongoing global shortage of everything you currently need.
  8. Drink something with a lot of caffeine then set up your debugging proxy like usual since the programmers who built the website are idiots and didn’t bother to handle even the most basic validation errors that can come from asynchronous service calls which means now you’ll have to spoof valid network requests because nothing is going to stop you from getting new brakes at this point. NOTHING! (PRO-TIP: If your spouse comes into your office and asks why you’re up so late, just say you’re looking at porn. This will be much less shameful than admitting you’ve been working on the same bike repair all day.)
  9. After receiving and installing the new brake pads, snug the wheel back onto the fork using the precise torque specs provided by the manufacturer. There’s never any reason to overtighten it. Still, go ahead and give the quick release lever a couple extra full twists for good measure. Use a hammer if necessary.
  10. Go ride!

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