Adjusting Centerpull Bicycle Brakes Without a Third Hand

Since I started biking to work a few years ago, I have owned two late-seventies road bikes, which have each used centerpull brakes. Adjusting these brakes has always been the bane of bike-riding for me. As soon as I loosened the anchor bolt, the struggle began to pull the cable tight without losing my grip and letting the cable fly through the bolt. Professionals–and people who are a bit more serious about fixing up their bikes than me–generally use what is called a “third hand” tool. But, I like to avoid purchasing new tools as much as possible. I’ve come up with a couple methods that might help you in the midst of your own frustration.

Bolt/lasso

The technique I used on my first bike (a Penn-Speed from J.C. Penney) was to take a narrow rope or clothing line and tie it through the brakes with a slipknot to help hold the brakes tightly. Eventually, I found a nut and long skinny bolt (I think it was from a light fixture) that I could use to pinch the brakes together while I worked. This made adjusting the brakes on my Penn-Speed a breeze.

Bolt for adjusting bike brakes

Socket

My second bike’s brakes didn’t drop below the rims, so connecting them with a bolt was not an option. I honestly can’t remember all the tricks I tried, but I think sweat and maybe a few tears were my go-to resources. Just yesterday, it was time to adjust my brakes once more. While trying to think of ways to hold the brakes together, I had the epiphany that my goal wasn’t necessarily to hold the brakes, but to raise the cable yoke (which I have also seen referred to as a cable bridge). This opened up my options. I started to imagine a compression spring that could fit between the wheel and yoke to force it up… Or something ridiculous along those lines. In my case, there was an arm for a reflector just under the yoke, which was the perfect space to slide in a socket.

Sliding the socket into this space forced the yoke up and held the brakes in place as I tightened the cable. I bumped the socket a couple times and sent it flying, but it was the most success I’ve had adjusting the brakes on this bike by myself.

Socket for adjusting bicycle brakes

Another technique I’ve used, though I am not sure anyone recommends this, is to loosen the barrel adjuster almost all the way before tightening the brakes. This allows me to tighten them up significantly afterward. But, I’m just a technologist.

I’d Rather Be Riding

The helmet taunts me from a distance. My eyes drift between the blue dome on the coffee table and the baseball cap in my hand. “I would probably get hit,” I think, and reluctantly place the cap on my head. It seemed strangely comfortable sitting down in the driver’s seat and starting the obnoxious engine. Even a little engine at 3:00AM roars through the open night.

It’s time for a maintenance window in the server room. Hardly anyone is on the road, but it only takes one sleep deprived driver like myself to change a cyclists life.

It was only a couple days ago that I started biking into work: nearly eight miles of bad shoulders, no shoulders, steep climbs, and sharp descents. This ride was nothing like the flat paved trail I had grown accustomed to. As I drove in, I watched every inch of my biking route. I came around the big curve and crossed the overpass. It all looks so different from here. Strange what a few times on the bike can do. As my little engine roared along, I wondered if I was alert enough to avoid a cyclist.

The previous day’s ride certainly provided more interesting events than others. A large stone kicked up by a semi dodged me by about two yards, I got buzzed for the first time, and a hubcap flew off a car into my path about ten seconds ahead. Seeing other hubcaps abandoned on the side of the road does nothing to reassure. Still, the ride is pleasant and most of the drivers courteous. A welcome thought as I remember my own doubts setting out that first morning.

Athletic? No, I wouldn’t call myself that. From a wider perspective, my challenge to ride eight miles is probably laughable. And I don’t think three days of commuting in the saddle earns me the title or reputation of a cyclist. Maybe it’s a passing interest. Maybe I will wear out. Maybe I will be too scared to ride in bad weather. But now, as I look out over the dash, I can’t help thinking, “I’d rather be riding.”