Are Cantilever Brakes and V-brakes Interchangeable? (the most detailed explanation with graphs)

Cantilever and V-brakes are affordable rim brakes often found on cyclocross, entry-level MTBs, touring, and commuting bicycles due to the greater tire clearance that they offer.

Both systems mount to the fork and seat stays of the frame. Most models are mechanical and triggered via a cable pull.

The obvious similarities between cantilevers and V-brakes are the reason why people often wonder whether the systems are interchangeable.

Cantilever brakes and V-brakes use the same mounting bosses and from that regard, they could be seen as interchangeable.

However, each system requires different cable management and specific brake levers operating with dissimilar pull length.

The brake pads used by older cantilevers and V-brakes differ too.

Similarities Between Cantilevers Brakes and V-Brakes

Note: The term V-brake is a trademark of Shimano. People often use it when referring to direct-pull or linear brakes.

In their heart, V-brakes are side-pull cantilever brakes and share many similarities with regular cantilever brakes.

The overlapping points are:

1. Mounting Bosses

This is a frame built for cantilever brakes. The bosses could accept V-brakes too.

Usually, brake mounting bosses a.k.a. braze-ons designed for either cantilevers or V-brakes allow the installation of both brake systems.

The only exceptions are older touring bikes produced around the mid-80s.

Those models have narrower braze-ons engineered for cantilever brakes with small tire clearance. In consequence, you will not be able to fit V-brakes on them.

However, with the appearance of the first mountain bikes, the bosses were standardized.

It’s still possible to find some minor discrepancies between cantilever and V-brake braze-ons, but most of the time, they are fully interchangeable.

2. Mechanical Cable Pull

The vast majority of cantilever brakes and V-brakes are cable-actuated. Hydraulic rim brakes are available, but they aren’t widely popular among consumers.

The main advantages of hydraulic rim brakes are:

а. Greater modulation

b. Minimized power losses due to the absence of complicated cable routing and housing flex.

3. Operation

The braking mechanism of cantilever brakes and V-brakes is fairly similar.

The brake lever pulls a cable and initiates a small rotation of the brake arms which then grab the rim like a set of pliers. The brake pads begin rubbing against the rim and slow down the bicycle.

When the lever is released, powerful springs push the brake arms to their original position and free the wheel.

Differences Between Cantilevers Brakes and V-Brakes

1. Mechanical advantage

The major difference between V-brakes and cantilever brakes is the mechanical advantage of each system.

V-brakes have a fixed, high mechanical advantage whereas the leverage of cantilever brakes can be increased or decreased by adjusting the length of the transverse cable and the angle from which it pulls.

To fully understand this difference between V-brakes and cantilevers, one first has become acquainted with the term mechanical advantage.

Mechanical advantage a.k.a. leverage is a measure describing how much a tool amplifies one’s input force.

The most basic example of mechanical advantage would be the use of a pry bar to lift or move an object.

The longer and thicker the pry bar/lever, the greater the mechanical advantage and the amplification of one’s force.

To determine the mechanical advantage of a tool, one has to divide the output force by the input force.

For example, if the output force is 5N whereas the input force is 2N, the mechanical advantage would be 5/2=2.5.

The mechanical advantage of an instrument can also be expressed by dividing the input displacement/distance by the output displacement/distance.

The input displacement/distance is the movement of the end/tool whose mechanical advantage is being measured.

The output displacement/distance is the travel of the tool’s end directly transmitting the force or the object receiving it.

If the output distance/displacement is bigger than the input distance/displacement, then the tool has a poor mechanical advantage.

The graph below illustrates such a scenario.

The “B” side of the lever has a poor mechanical advantage because it’s shorter. When you apply force, it moves less than the “A” side.

Or in other words, the input distance is smaller than the output displacement.

Low Mechanical Advantage

Figure 1

High Mechanical Advantage

Figure 2 showcases a high mechanical advantage. A larger input generates smaller output because the lever is longer and in a more advantageous position.

Figure 2

The mechanical advantage of V-brakes is very high thanks to:

1. Direct pull. Unlike cantilevers, V-brakes don’t have a transverse cable (image below). The brake cable is directly pulling the brake arms.

This is an old bike that I am renovating. The triangular cable above the brake is known as transverse cable and is found on cantilever brakes. V-brakes do not have it.
The construction of V-brakes eliminates the transverse cable found on cantilevers brakes. As a result, the cable is pulling the effort arm from a very advantageous position. Also, V-brakes have a longer rigid effort arm which increases the mechanical advantage in comparison to cantilever brakes even further.
Cantilever brakes have a longer total effort arm, but part of it is a soft connection (transverse cable) which pulls the rigid arm from an angle with a fairly low mechanical advantage. V-brakes eliminate this loss of energy.

2. Advantageous pulling angle. The pulling angle from which the cable on V-brakes operates is very advantageous. In consequence, the rider can apply a lot of force onto the rim.

Since V-brakes don’t rely on the transverse cable found on cantilever brakes, both systems utilize different cable guide systems.

Bicycles designed for cantilever brakes have two additional final cable hangers/cable stoppers – one above the fork and one over the seat stays.

This creates the following scenarios when converting from one type to the other:

Option 1: Cantilever to V-Brakes Conversion

If you are converting a bicycle from cantilever brakes to V-brakes, you won’t be able to use the final cable stops because they’re designed for cantilever brakes and pull from the center.

This is a cantilever frame. Notice the rear cable hanger on top of the seatstays. If you want to install V-brakes, you will have to bypass this region.

If the frame allows it, you could use the cable routing of the cantilever brake up to that point and then simply bypass the final cable hanger/cable stop.

If that’s not possible, the most simple solution is to run a long housing from the brake lever to the brake and zip-tie it to the frame.

Тhis method isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing, but it does work because the housing protects the cable across the entire length.

The final option is to buy clamp-on cable stoppers and place them on the top tube of the frame as needed to create the necessary cable infrastructure.

Option 2: V-Brakes To Cantilever Conversion

If you want to replace a set of V-brakes with cantilevers, the first problem that you will face is the lack of a cable hanger over the fork and the seat stays.

To go around this issue, you will need bolt-on solutions.

For the front brake, the two main possibilities are a cable hanger that wraps around the steerer as part of the headset or a cable hanger attaching directly to the fork.

This is a Tektro cable hanger that mounts to the fork.

For the rear, the option is an adaptor attaching either to the seat post or the binder bolt.

This is a rear cable hanger made by Origin8. It attaches to the seat post collar.

2. Different Brake Levers

The different mechanical advantages of cantilever brakes and V-brakes necessitate the use of brake levers specialized for each system.

Since V-brakes have a high mechanical advantage, a squeeze of the lever results in a smaller movement of the brake arms.

To compensate, V-brakes use brake levers that pull a greater amount of cable.

Without this tweak, the lever of a V-brake may fail to move the brake arms enough before bottoming out. Or in other words, the lever may reach the handlebars before maximally engaging the brake.

This sounds a little counter-intuitive because the mind naturally associates high mechanical advantage with ease of movement. Therefore, one may wrongfully conclude that a small movement of a tool in a high mechanical advantage results in greater displacement, but this isn’t the case.

It’s the opposite – if a tool has a high mechanical advantage, the output is smaller than the input as demonstrated in figure 2 above.

Meanwhile, cantilever brakes have a lower mechanical advantage. When the lever is squeezed, it triggers a greater movement of the brake arms. Or as already mentioned, the input is smaller than the output.

In consequence, cantilever brake levers are designed to pull less cable than those made for V-brakes.

For that reason, the levers of V-brakes and cantilevers are not interchangeable.

If you want to make a conversion, you’re left with the following options:

a. Buy levers corresponding to the style of the brake.

b. If you’re converting from cantilever brakes to V-brakes, you can use an adaptor known as a Travel Agent to increase the amount of cable pulled by the lever. While this method could work fine, it adds more parts to the system and complicates it unnecessarily.

3. Different Pads

The pads of V-brakes and cantilever brakes are specialized too.

The older cantilever models rely on brake pads/shoes with a smooth post attaching to the brake arms via separate washers and bolts.

Cantilever Pads

The pads of V-brakes, on the other hand, come with an attachment system. They are mounted to the brake arms with a bolt sticking out of the pad. There are also oblong washers used to modify the angle from which the pad comes in contact with the rim.

V-brake Pads

It some situations it may be possible to install V-brake pads on older cantilevers, but it’s a hack rather than proper practice.

At the same time, older cantilever brake pads cannot be used on V-brakes because they come without an attachment system on their own – just a smooth post.

Having said that, some modern cantilever brakes operate with standard V-brake pads rather than the so-called “post mount” brake shoes common for retro cantilever brakes.

Ultimately, if you’re making a conversion, it’s best to purchase the proper pad for the braking system that you’re installing.

What Are The Advantages Of Cantilever Brakes Over V-Brakes?

Even though cantilever brakes are older technology, they have the following advantages over V-brakes:

1. Better tire clearance

Cantilever brakes offer better tire clearance than V-brakes and decrease the chances of mud accumulation.

2. Compatibility with drop bar brake-shifters

Unlike V-brakes, cantilever brakes are compatible with brake-shifters. This is one of the main reasons why we find cantilever brakes on touring and cyclocross bicycles.

Having said that, there are drop bar brake levers designed for V-brakes too.

However, those models are brake levers only and require a separate shifting system. (e.g., bar-end shifters).

It’s possible to make V-brakes work with brake-shifters by using a Travel Agent adaptor increasing the cable pull.

Another option would be mini V-brakes – a smaller V-brake model compatible with standard drop bar levers.

The downside of mini V-brakes is that they have poor tire clearance.

3. Retro appearance

Some people like the classic look of cantilever brakes and consider V-brakes “generic”. Obviously, this point is subjective.

At the end of the day, however, most people are trying to get away from cantilevers rather than keep them.

In consequence, conversions from V-brakes to cantilevers are very rare, although not unheard of.

What Are The Advantages of V-Brakes Over Cantilevers?

V-brakes a.k.a. direct-pull brakes are considered an upgrade over standard cantilever thanks to the following improvements:

1. Better leverage

As already discussed, V-brakes are pulling the brake arms from a more advantageous position. This makes them more powerful than cantilever brakes.

2. Discrete profile

Cantilever brakes operate with a center-pull and always have an exposed piece of cable above the fork or the seat stays. This part of the cable is highly susceptible to external damage.

V-brakes eliminate this problem because they are pulling directly and don’t use a transverse cable.

3. Quicker and easier adjustment

V-brakes have a pre-set mechanical advantage and subsequently require fewer adjustments. Meanwhile, cantilever brakes come with extra settings which make the set-up a bit more complicated and less friendly to people who don’t have the necessary experience.

In theory, one could set-up a cantilever brake to be almost as powerful as a direct pull brake (V-brake), but most people are unlikely to achieve this effect.

This makes cantilever brakes less user-friendly while offering lower braking power.

4. More variety

Direct pull brakes are more popular than cantilevers. As a result, the market offers more options at a decent price.

Cantilever brakes are still being produced and the modern versions are certainly better. However, the power offered by a mid-level V-brake is hard to beat for the price.

5. More options when using a suspension fork

The suspension fork models that use cantilever brakes are outdated. You will need a time machine to find one. And even if you do, its performance will not be comparable to its updated rivals.

The suspension options which work with direct pull brakes are far greater and better performing.

That said, if the fork has a mount in the middle of the arch and V-brake bosses, it may be possible to install cantilever brakes via a cable hanger attached to the arch.

However, the practical value of such a conversion is very low and not worth the trouble. In most cases, it’s better to embrace new technology and go with V-brakes or discs.

Due to the reasons above, people are a lot more likely to initiate a switch from cantilever brakes to V-brakes.

What Does a Conversion From Cantilevers To V-brakes Require?

A conversion from cantilevers to V-brake would require the following components:

1. A set of V-brakes

2. V-brake compatible levers or travel agents capable of increasing the cable pull of the present levers.

3. New cables and housing

4. Clamp-on cable stops (potentially).

Some frames necessitate the use of clamp-on cable stops that wrap around the top tube and allow you to anchor the cable housing.

5. Booster plates

Some frames and forks designed for cantilever brakes tend to flex too much when converting to V-brakes due to the extra braking power.

One way to mitigate these side effects is to add booster plates to the brake set-up. They stiffen the seat stays and the fork pivots. The end result is more stability and improved braking.

What Does a Conversion From V-Brakes To Cantilevers Require?

A conversion from V-brakes to cantilever would require:

1. A set of cantilever brakes

2. Cantilever compatible brake levers

3. New cables and housing

4. Two cable hangers – one for the seat stay area and one for the fork or headset.

5. Clamp-on cable stops (potentially)

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