This post compares the advantages and disadvantages of V-brakes and center-pull brakes in relation to one another.
V-brakes. Bicycle brakes consisting of two brake arms controlled by a cable inserting from the side. When the rider squeezes the lever, the two brake arms close, and the brake shoes at the ends grab the rim to slow the bike.
Center-pull Brakes. From the side, center-pull brakes may look somewhat similar to a set of V-brakes, but there are fundamental differences. Center-pull brakes are also rim brakes and operate by grabbing the rim.
However, the brake cable is pulling a transverse cable from the center which then pulls both brake arms together.
As a result, center-pull brakes require a different set-up and have a smaller mechanical advantage than V-brakes.
Mechanical advantage or simply leverage describes how much a tool amplifies the input force. A basic example would be a lever. The longer the lever is, the more it amplifies the force of the user. The shorter the lever is, the worse the leverage becomes.
When it comes to rim brakes, the mechanical advantage is dependent on two elements:
- The length of the brake arms
- The angle from which the brake cable pulls the brake arms
V-brakes are the successor of cantilever brakes. The main changes are the rigid brake arms and the angle from which the cable controls them. The cable of V-brakes pulls the lever from the side and forms a 90-degree angle.
Meanwhile, the cable of cantilever brakes and center-pull brakes is first pulling a straddle wire which then pulls the brake arms from a less advantageous angle. Consequently, the lever has less leverage over the brake arms.
Another mechanical advantage of V-brakes are the long and rigid arms (the longer the lever, the greater the leverage.)
In different, center-pull brakes have shorter arms and a transverse cable connected to both brake arms. The soft connection results in energy and leverage losses.
Simplicity of Operation and Installation
V-brakes are simple to install and modulate because there isn’t a transverse cable.
The transverse cable is eliminated thanks to the so-called noodle which represents a metal enclosure allowing the brake cable to directly pull the brake arm.
Meanwhile, center-pull brakes require a cable hanger. The cable hanger ensures that the brake cable section connected to the straddle wire is straight and does not touch the bike.
Hence why older frames designed for such brakes come with hangers. If the frame does not have a cable hanger, it’s possible to attach one to the seat stay bridge. The front cable hanger is usually part of the stem or the headset.
The requirement for a cable hanger automatically limits the frame pool that can be combined with a center-pull brake and introduces another complication to the system.
It’s also worth mentioning that the transverse cable and the hanger can be damaged and/or come in contact with various bike accessories such as handlebar bags, saddlebags, and reflectors.
Center-pull brakes are old school and thus unavailable at most bike shops. It’s still possible to acquire a set via the Internet, but the prices are high for what you get and the stock is limited.
In different, V-brakes are still being produced in large quantities and have reasonable prices.
The high availability of V-brakes gives freedom of choice and makes it possible to find replacement parts when traveling.
Suspension Fork Compatibility
V-brakes are fully compatible with suspension forks because the entire brake can be mounted to the fork arc. When the fork compresses, the brake moves with it.
In different, center-pull brakes cannot be used with a suspension fork by default because normally the brake cable goes through a hanger that’s part of the headset.
If such a brake is used in conjunction with a suspension fork, neither the fork nor the brake will operate as intended.
That said, there are add-ons that place a cable hanger on the fork’s arch. Such an adapter makes it possible to combine a suspension fork with a center-pull brake. Due to the low demand, you won’t find such an adapter in most bike shops.
Both types of brakes are safe when maintained in proper condition and adjusted adequately. However, center-pull brakes have one notable downside in regards to safety.
If the brake cable of a center-pull brake tears, the brake arms will pull the straddle wire into the front tire and jam the wheel. This creates a very real scenario for the rider to go over the handlebars.
Another problem that may occur with center-pull brakes is known as fork shuddering (vibrating of the fork).
The explanation behind this phenomenon is as follows:
1. The fork, the brake, the cable stop, and the brake cable form a bow. The fork is the body of the bow; the brake and the cable stop are the endpoints; the brake cable is the string.
2. During braking, the front wheel slows down gradually and “bites” the ground. The bike continues going forward, however, due to the inertia. As a result, the fork bends backward.
3. When the fork bends, it stretches the brake cable (the bow’s string) which in return closes the brake again. This motion triggers the same cycle. The shuddering continues until the rider stops braking or when the bike slows down tremendously.
This problem is quite common for cantilever brakes that use a cable stop that’s part of the headset. The center-pull brakes seen on retro road bikes are less likely to behave like that due to the shorter distance between the cable stop and the straddle wire.
Meanwhile, V-brakes do not generate the same issue because there isn’t a straddle wire. The brake cable goes directly from the lever to the brake.
Brake Lever Compatibility
The different leverage of center-pull and V-brakes results in dissimilar cable pull (the amount of cable that the lever pulls when braking is initiated).
(Note: The effect of leverage on cable pull is explained in detail in this post.)
Center-pull brakes are short pull whereas V-brakes are long pull. Consequently, center-pull brakes can be combined with cantilever levers as well as drop bar levers whereas V-brakes require a different set of levers.
If this rule isn’t respected and the brakes and levers are mismatched, the braking modulation (control over the braking force) will suffer.
It’s possible to combine center-pull brakes with V-brake levers with the help of an adaptor known as a “travel agent” which increases the amount of cable pull. However, those adapters aren’t readily available in most bike shops.
The compatibility of center-pull brakes with drop bar levers is why we see them on retro road bikes and touring rigs. Additionally, cantilever brakes, which are essentially center-pull brakes themselves, were the norm for cyclo-cross bikes for a long time.
Some people prefer the look of classic center-pull brakes as it compliments the silhouette of a vintage bicycle. Meanwhile, V-brakes appear a bit too modern and simplistic for a retro build.
Of course, this is a subjective point, and people don’t always agree on it.
Summary: What You Need To Know
The advantages of V-brakes are:
- Supreme stopping power
- Lower weight
- Easier adjustment
- Potentially safer
- Readily available worldwide
- Easy to find replacement parts
- Compatible with suspension forks by default (as long as the fork has V-brake mounts)
The downsides of V-brakes are:
- They don’t always look “right” on a vintage bicycle.
- Not compatible with classic drop bar levers. (Some companies make V-brake drop bar levers, but the choice is limited and the levers don’t come with shifters.)
The advantages of center-pull brakes are:
- Vintage looks
- Compatible with drop bar levers
The disadvantages of center-pull brakes are:
- More difficult to adjust due to the straddle wire
- Lower stopping power
- Difficult to find
- Limited replacement parts
- Potential for fork shuddering
- Not compatible with suspension forks by default
Ultimately, center-pull brakes make sense only if the user wants to replicate a certain vintage look or use drop bar levers. That said, cantilever brakes are compatible with drop bars too, and there are more up-to-date models thanks to the cyclo-cross scene.
If the user doesn’t care about vintage looks and doesn’t plan on using drop bar levers, V-brakes are the clear winner.