This post compares center-pull and cantilever brakes.
Center-pull Brakes – old-school rim brakes found on retro road bikes. Center-pull brakes attach to the frame and fork via two bolts.
A steel cable connected to the brake lever pulls a straddle wire attached to both brake arms.
The brake arms pivot around two independent fulcrums and grab the rim. The friction between the brake shoes and the rim slows down the bicycle.
Operation-wise, cantilever brakes are quite similar to center-pull brakes. Just like center-pull brakes, they have a straddle wire which pulls both arms. Thus, cantilever brakes are essentially center-pull brakes themselves. The difference is the length of the straddle wire and the design of the brake arms.
Unlike standard center-pull brakes, the brake arms of cantilever brakes do not form an arch and extend outside of the bike’s profile as shown in the figure below.
The Advantages of Center-pull Brakes
- Slim Profile
Center-pull brakes have a slimmer profile and do not protrude outside of the bike’s frame or fork. This property results in the following benefits:
- The rider is less likely to come in contact with the brakes when getting on and off the bike.
2. The brakes are less likely to get damaged during a fall.
- Retro Aesthetics
Center-pull brakes complement the look of old-school bikes. Hence why people into vintage bikes often find center-pull brakes aesthetically pleasing.
- Lower Chances of Fork Shuddering
If the fork is vibrating during braking, the bike is suffering from fork shuddering.
The explanation behind fork shuddering is as follows:
- The fork, the brake, and the brake cable hanger form a bow. The fork is the body of the bow whereas the brake and the cable hanger are the endpoints. The steel brake cable is the bowstring.
2. During braking, the friction between the front wheel and the ground causes the front tire to “grab” the ground. However, the bike keeps moving forward due to inertia. As a result, the fork has no choice but to bend backward.
3. When the fork bends, it stretches the brake cable which in return closes the brake arms and triggers the same cycle.
The fork keeps vibrating until the bike comes to a stop or the rider stops pressing the brake. The more aggressive the braking, the more violent the vibrations are.
This phenomenon is a lot more common for cantilever brakes with a brake cable hanger part of the headset due to the long distance between the brake and the hanger.
The usual solution is to get a brake cable hanger mounted on the fork to shorten the bow.
Center-pull brakes are less likely to create fork shuddering because the straddle cable carrier is closer to the brake cable hanger.
In the case of cantilevers, the straddle cable carrier is near the fork’s crown whereas that of center-pull brakes is above the lower cup of the headset.
Note: This doesn’t mean that center-pull brakes are immune to fork shuddering, but the chance is much smaller.
The Downsides of Center-pull Brakes
Truth be told, center-pull brakes are close to extinct now. The reasons are:
- Side-pull brakes are lighter, simpler, and just as effective. Thus, road bikes have no incentive to keep using center-pull brakes.
2. Center-pull brakes offer greater tire clearance than side-pull brakes, but they can’t match the clearance of cantilevers and V-brakes.
The low demand for center-pull brakes results in limited supply and a highly restricted choice.
Moreover, companies have no incentive to invest in the development of center-pull brakes because those models are seen as obsolete.
- Less Clearance
Center-pull brakes offer less tire clearance than cantilever brakes because the brake arms form an arch above the tire. Consequently, the rider cannot use maximally wide tires in combination with full fenders.
That said, in most cases, center-pull brakes provide enough clearance for the tires seen on typical commuters and hybrids.
- Mud Accumulation
The arch formed by the brake arms results in mud accumulation when riding off-road. Hence why you’re highly unlikely to see center-pull brakes on bicycles dedicated to diverse terrain.
The Advantages of Cantilever Brakes
- Tire Clearance
Cantilever brakes are the rim brake model that offers the greatest tire clearance.
- Lower Mud Accumulation
The extra tire clearance results in reduced mud accumulation. Moreover, the wider straddle wire has an easier time slicing through the mud thrown by the tire.
The extra tire clearance, the reduced mud accumulation, and the compatibility of cantilevers with drop bar brake shifters are the reasons why we see cantilevers on cyclocross bikes (read more).
- Modern models
Cantilever brakes do not enjoy great popularity due to the rise of V-brakes and disc brakes.
However, users can still find newer models designed for cyclocross racing.
Having said that, it’s highly unlikely that the market share of cantilevers will grow.
The Disadvantages of Cantilever Brakes
- Wide Profile
The brake arms of cantilever brakes stick out significantly. This makes the brakes more susceptible to external hits. The brakes may also come in contact with the rider’s body when walking the bike.
Another negative of cantilevers’ fat profile is that the brakes don’t blend nicely with a slim fork and frame.
- Higher Chances of Fork Shuddering
As explained above, cantilever brakes can cause vibrations of the fork during braking.
Who Are Center-pull Brakes For?
Center-pull brakes make sense when:
a. The rider wants to preserve the original appearance of a retro road bike.
b. The rider wants to install wider tires and fenders while still relying on drop bar shifters.
Who Are Cantilevers For?
Cantilevers are a logical choice when the rider wants to install maximally wide tires on a bike that uses drop bar shifters.
If that’s not the case, side-pull brakes or V-brakes will be a more logical rim brake choice.