Let’s Compare Caliper and Cantilever Brakes

This post compares the advantages and disadvantages of caliper and cantilever brakes in relation to one another.


Before comparing the two types of brakes, it’s necessary to describe them.

Caliper Brakes

Calipers are rim brakes attaching to the frame or fork via a single bolt. They encompass the top of the wheel and are normally found on road bikes.

Caliper brakes are split into two main categories – single and dual-pivot.

The brake arms of single-pivot brakes are pivoting around a shared point (image below). In different, each arm of dual-pivot brakes is pivoting around an independent point.

The benefit of dual-pivot caliper brakes is extra stopping power.

Note: Caliper brakes are also known as side pull brakes because the brake cable is located to one side.

Caliper Brakes On a Road Bike

Cantilever Brakes

Cantilever brakes are center-pull rim brakes. The brake cable is pulling a straddle cable which in return pulls the brake arms towards the rim.

Cantilever brakes are the predecessor of V-brakes. In the past, cantilever brakes were found on MTBs, commuters and touring bikes, but they’ve lost a lot of market share to V-brakes and disc brakes.

Currently, they’re used primarily on vintage bikes, older touring rigs and some cyclocross models.

Unlike calipers, the brake arms of cantilevers do not encompass the top part of the tire and attach to brake bosses welded or brazed to the frame and fork.

The Advantages of Caliper Brakes

  • Simplicity

Caliper brakes are among the simplest bicycle brakes to adjust and operate. They have fewer settings to play with than cantilevers. This property makes them beginner-friendly.

  • Aesthetic

Caliper brakes have a slick design that suits the overall look of a road bike.

  • No Need For Brake Mounts

Unlike cantilever brakes, calipers are secured to the frame and fork via a single bolt. This mounting system complements the aforementioned simplicity of the brakes and removes the need for welding or brazing special mounts. As a result, it’s possible to install caliper brakes on a great number of frames.

The absence of brake mounts has a positive effect on mass frame and fork production too. One less steps results in a million saved steps when operating on a higher scale.

  • Compactness

Caliper brakes are as compact as a brake can be. As a result, the chance of hitting the brake with your body is small. For that reason, some freestyle BMX bikes use caliper brakes.

The Disadvantages of Caliper Brakes

  • Poor Tire Clearance

The main downside of caliper brakes is that they encompass the upper part of the wheel and prevent the use of wide rims and tires. Apart from BMX calipers, all other models are designed for road bikes and thus greatly limit the width of the wheel that would fit through the calipers.

For road bikes, this isn’t a major issue because they use slim tires (23-28mm) and are rarely equipped with full fenders.

  • Mud Accumulation

Another problem that results from the shape of caliper brakes is mud accumulation. The brake arms form an arch accumulating dirt. If the bike is ridden on off-road terrain, the mud can increase significantly and slow down the bike.

This is one of the reasons why you won’t see calipers on bikes designed for off-road.

The Advantages of Cantilever Brakes

  • Tire Clearance

Of all rim brakes, cantilevers offer the greatest tire clearance and allow riders to run the widest tires that the fork and frame can accommodate. It’s also possible to use cantilevers with full-fenders.

Consequently, cantilevers are seen on cyclocross and touring bikes.

  • Reduced Mud Accumulation

The brake arms of cantilever brakes are far from each other and do not accumulate mud. They’re connected via a straddle wire which slices through the mud thrown by the tire.

The Disadvantages of Cantilever Brakes

  • Bulky

Cantilever brakes are the widest rim brakes out there. The brake arms and cables protrude to both sides of the bicycle. This increases the chances of touching the brake when performing tricks. Hence why you’ll never see cantilever brakes on bicycles designed for stunts.

  • Fork Shuddering

Front cantilever brakes operating with a cable hanger part of the bike’s headset are known to cause vibrations of the fork during braking (a.k.a. fork shuddering).

The explanation behind this phenomenon is as follows:

  1. The fork, the brake and the cable hanger form a bow. The brake cable is the string of the bow, whereas the fork is the body.

2. When the brake is activated, the wheel is partially or fully locked. As a result, the tire “grabs” the ground, and the bike starts slowing down. Since the bike keeps moving forward due to inertia, the fork bends backward.

The bending of the fork stretches the brake cable which in return squeezes the brake arms and causes more of the same cycle.

The fork keeps vibrating until the bike slows down tremendously or the rider stops using the brake.

Fork shuddering can be minimized by using a cable hanger that attaches to the fork (image below). This setup decreases the distance between the two points and minimizes the bow effect.

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

Note: Caliper brakes do not create this issue because they don’t use a cable hanger.

  • Tricky to Adjust

Cantilever brakes require a bit of extra work to set them properly. For an experienced mechanic, this isn’t a huge issue, but a beginner might find the process frustrating.

FAQ: Are cantilever and caliper brakes short or long pull?

Cantilever and caliper brakes have a smaller mechanical advantage than V-brakes. Consequently, they are coupled with short pull brake levers.

If that condition isn’t met, the wheel would get locked before the associated brake lever has reached its full travel. If that happens, the modulation (control over the braking force) will be quite poor.

For that reason, drop bar brake levers are engineered to pull less cable.

If the above sounds confusing, consider reading this post to understand the effect of a brake’s mechanical advantage over the cable length pulled by the lever.

Who Are Caliper Brakes For?

Caliper brakes shine when used on road bikes. They can also be installed on some commuters, but the limited tire size is too much of a negative to ignore.

A quality set of caliper brakes that’s also adjusted properly offers plenty of stopping power when riding on paved roads.

Who Are Cantilever Brakes?

Cantilever brakes have two main benefits – tire clearance and compatibility with road/drop bar levers. This makes them a good choice for cyclocross bikes and touring bikes equipped with drop bars.

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