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Brakes for Tandem Bicycles
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by Sheldon "Stop!" Brown
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Since Tandem bicycles have roughly twice the payload of solo bicycles, and often go faster, brakes that might be adequate for a solo will often prove inadequate in tandem service.

Rim Brakes

Most modern tandems have at least a pair of hand-operated rim brakes, either calipers, cantilevers or hydraulic. These may be special tandem models, or may be brakes intended for solos.

For pure stopping power, good rim brakes, properly adjusted, can stop a tandem as well as they can stop a solo.

The greater momentum of a tandem reduces the margin for error in brake setup, however, so if the brakes are not properly adjusted, or there are cable routing problems, poor quality brake shoes, or slippery rims, braking power may be inadequate.

Cyclists with inadequate braking often are tempted to cure the problem by buying more expensive brakes, but this is usually not worthwhile if you have a decent quality bike to begin with. Before replacing the brakes, make sure the ones you've got are working up to their full potential.

This site has several articles on brake setup that can help you with this:

Types of Rim Brakes


Few tandems come equipped with caliper brakes these days, because it is widely believed that caliper brakes don't have sufficient stopping power for tandem service. This belief is incorrect. Tandems set up for racing can get perfectly adequate braking from good quality caliper brakes.

The limitation of caliper brakes is tire clearance. Since a caliper brake has arms coming down from above the tire, the use of a large tire, especially if you want clearance for fenders, would require a caliper with long arms. The longer the arms, however, the lower the mechanical advantage of the brake, so modern high-performance caliper brakes are only available with short arms, and typically provide clearance for, at best, 28 mm tires. 28 mm tires are definitely on the narrow side of what's practical for tandem use, so bikes equipped with short-arm caliper brakes are not generally suitable for touring or for use on rough pavement.

In the 1970's, center-pull caliper brakes were common, which did provide reasonable tire clearance, but these have gone out of fashion and are not provided on new bikes.

Cantilever (conventional)

Since cantilever brakes have the pivots mounted below the rims, tire clearance is a non-issue with them. A tandem with cantilever brakes can have as much tire/fender clearance as desired with no adverse effects on the braking.

The mechanical advantage of conventional (center-pull) cantilevers can be adjusted by varying the lengths of the cables. This is explained in detail in my articles on Cantilever Adjustment and Cantilever Geometry.

One drawback of conventional cantilevers is that the mechanical advantage varies over the course of the stroke, in most cases, becoming less the closer the shoe gets to the rim. This is the opposite of what would be desirable.

Self-Energizing Cantilevers

Because of the myth that conventional cantilevers aren't strong enough for tandem use, some people favor self-energizing cantilevers. These don't have a simple pivot, instead, each arm moves on a steep multi-start screw thread, so that as the shoe approaches the rim it also moves forward. When it rubs on the moving rim, the forward pull tends to increase the inward pressure, providing a "positive feedback."

This design can apply greater braking force for less finger force than a conventional cantilever, but is difficult to modulate. The original Scott Pedersen SE brakes were available either for front or rear use (opposite direction threadings), but when Sun Tour bought the design, their legal department vetoed the front version, so only the rear model was made by Sun Tour. I advise against the use of Self Energizing brakes, because they make it too easy to lock up the wheel.

Cantilever (direct-pull)

The newest thing in cantilevers is the "direct-pull" cantilever. The best known version of this is the Shimano "V-Brake" ®. These are an elegantly simple design. The mechanical advantige is fixed, high, and doesn't significantly vary over the course of the stroke.

Because the mechanical advantage of direct-pull cantilevers is so high, they require special brake levers with reduced mechanical advantage (the levers pull twice as much cable, half as hard.) Although the necessity for special brake levers is unfortunate, it has the happy side effect that the cable tension is cut in half, which reduces the effect of cable "stretch" (a significant concern on the rear brake of a tandem, due to the long cable.)

For tandems with upright handlebars, direct-pull cantilevers are definitely the best choice.

Unfortunately, there are only a few models of brake lever for drop handlebars that work with direct-pull cantilevers -- see our advice on brake levers later in this article.. These levers are a fine choice if you have barcon shifters, but won't help you if you prefer integrated brake/shifters such as Campagnolo Ergo or Shimano STI.

There are aftermarket devices to change the mechanical advantage at the cantilever by the use of an eccentric pulley, and these are sometimes a good solution for rear brakes, especially on smaller frames where there may not be sufficient clearance above the rear cantilever for optimal adjustment of a conventional cantilever. See my cantilever articles for details on this.

Some conventional cantilevers can be converted into direct-pull operation, again a good choice for rear brakes. See my cantilever articles for details on this.


While most bicycle brakes are operated by Bowden cables, some high-end brakes, most notably Magura, use hydraulic lines instead. Hydraulic brakes are costly, but work very well indeed. In particular, hydraulics on the rear avoid the problems associated with the loooong rear cable.

To mechanics unfamiliar with them they appear a bit daunting at first, but they're actually quite easy to work on.

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Hub Brakes

Hub brakes operate on the hub of the wheel, rather than the rim. On most tandems, the hub brake is not intended to stop the bike! Common hub brakes do not have sufficient braking power to stop a tandem in a short distance. (Disc brakes are an exception)

Why have a brake that won't stop the bike? All brakes work by turning the energy of the bicycle's speed into heat. If a heavily-laden tandem is used in hilly conditions, especially for long, slow, descents, the rim brakes can heat up the rims and tires to the point that the tires will blow off the rims! Using a hub brake to help keep the bicycle's speed in check on long descents heats the hub, instead of the rim, reducing the risk of blowouts.

Types of Hub Brakes



Old-time bikes, and very cheap models used for resort rentals and the like, sometimes use a coaster (back-pedaling) brake as the primary brake.

This is not a good arrangement if the bike will be used at anything much above walking speed. Tandems of this sort commonly have idler-adjusted synch chains, and when the brake is applied, the idler is subjected to fairly considerable loads from the captain's braking action. This increases the risk of the chain falling off, making the coaster brake inoperable.

Tandems with coaster brakes often are set up with the assumption that the coaster brake will be the primary brake, and they commonly have rather pitiful caliper brakes in front. These calipers are generally inadequate to stop the bike in an emergency. The coaster brake, as with any rear brake on a tandem, becomes almost useless when the bike is ridden without a stoker, or with a child stoker, because there's not enough weight on the back tire to provide adequate braking traction.

A further objection to coaster brakes for tandem use is the difficulty of getting the pedals set at a good position for getting started. This is a problem with coaster-brake bikes in general, but tandems are always harder to get started than solo bikes are, so the difficulty is compounded.


Disc brakes have considerable potential for bicycle applications, and are becoming a mainstream product for tandem use. Some early ones, such as the 1970's Phil Wood, could be quite dangerous, and fail completely without warning. Some other disc brakes, while more than adequate for solo use, are at risk for overheating and fading in tandem service.

There is a lot of current work being done on disc brake design, and this may be the way of the future. Some new Santana models have a rear disc brake which is supposed to be powerful and reliable enough to dissipate heat in downhill speed control, and to eliminate the need for a rear rim brake. Here's a link to the page about the Santana brake.

Except with this disc brake, a rim brake should also be installed.

I would not like to see disc brakes in the front of bikes that don't have suspension forks. A "rigid" fork is actually designed to flex a bit, to provide a small measure of natural suspension. A hub brake with a reaction arm pressing on one side of the fork causes unpleasant feelings. I speak from some experience, having run a front drum brake on a tandem for a while.

Suspension forks have very rigid lower blades, so a suitably-designed suspension fork can work well with a disc brake, if you don't mind the extra weight and the extra stresses on the spokes. Be aware of the issue of the brake's potentially pulling the wheel out of the fork: see our article on quick releases.

Some disc brakes are designed to work with long cable-pull levers also used for direct-pull brakes, others with conventional levers.


Drum brakes, either built into the hub or screwed onto threads similar to freewheel threads have long been popular for heat dissipation on tandems used in hilly terrain. Drum brakes suitable for tandem use are a specialty item, with extra-large heat-dissipating fins. Everyday drum brakes are not up to the task.

The standard of the industry used to be the very reliable Japanese Arai unit -- unfortunately, no longer made, though still available reconditioned as of 2018 and even found on some cheap Columbia tandems which can be worth buying just for the brak -- though these tandems can be worth the trouble to upgrade. The Arai brake is external to the hub shell, avoiding potential overheating of the grease in the hub bearings. The drum screws on to the left side of many tandem rear hubs, and the mechanism plate with the internal expanding shoes is secured to the axle by a locknut. There is a reaction arm which must be securely attached to the chainstay...all of the braking force is transferred through this arm, and if it comes loose, it creates a mess.

Arai drum brake on Santana tandem with cable quick-release
and "Pac-man" fitting for reaction arm, allowing quick wheel removal and replacement

arai drum brake

Here's a tip for installing the Arai brake:

After the drum unit is in place, slip the mechanism plate over the axle, then squeeze the activating arm by hand while tightening up the lock nut that holds the mechanism plate to the axle. Doing this presses the shoes against the inside of the drum, and helps ensure that the mechanism plate is properly centered.

Here's a tip for removing an Arai drum:

Have somebody sit on the stoker's saddle (for traction), apply the brake, and forcibly roll the tandem backward until the drum starts to unscrew from the hub. This is the easiest way to break it free.

Also see our article about drum brakes and Precision Tandems's article about the Arai brake.

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Control Setup...3 X 2

So, for a heavy load in hilly terrain, you need 3 brakes: 2 on the rims, and 1 on the rear hub. How are you going to operate 3 brakes with 2 hands?

Dual-cable levers

One traditional solution has been to use a special brake lever for one hand that pulls two cables. I don't recommend this setup; here's why:

Stoker Brake

Some teams set up the hub brake so that it is operated by the stoker. This can be a good solution for some teams. The drum brake doesn't normally need to be applied very suddenly, so if the stoker operates it when the captain asks for it, everything is fine.

The danger of this setup is that a fearful stoker might apply the brake at an inappropriate time. For instance, suppose both the captain and stoker notice a car approaching on a collision course from a side street. The captain may try to put on a burst of speed to clear the intersection...if the stoker panics and grabs the brake, the results can be disastrous!

Another example...flying down a twisty mountain road, the stoker may decide that the bike is going too fast and apply the brake...but the captain may decide the bike is going too fast at the same time, and apply both brakes. The extra rear braking from the drum may be enough to break the rear tire loose, and cause the bike to skid out on the next switchback.

A stoker entrusted with a brake control must never use it unless the captain asks for it!

Friction Control Drag Brake

The most common, and most satisfactory system is to set up the rim brakes, one to each conventional brake lever, and operate the hub brake by a friction-type derailer shifter. This may be a "Barcon", a mountainbike-type thumb shifter, or a Sun Tour Command Shifter.

A friction-type shifter allows the captain to set the hub brake to apply the desired amount of drag, even once he or she has let go of the hub brake control. The captain then uses both hands on the rim brakes to modulate the bike's speed, and to stop if it becomes necessary.

Front Brake/Rear Brake

On a conventional solo bike, the maximum braking force is created when the front brake is being applied to the point that the rear wheel is just about to lift off the road. Since the rear wheel has no traction in this condition, the rear brake contributes nothing to maximum braking.

Due to the greater length of a tandem, it is not possible to lift the rear wheel off the road by applying the front brake...the front tire will skid first. Consequently, maximum braking for a tandem involves the use of both brakes, at the point just short of what will skid both wheels.

For less than maximum braking, it is best to just use the front brake in most circumstances, as with a solo bike (if this strikes you as a bizarre suggestion, read my Braking & Turning Article!)

Using the rear brake can be particularly dangerous if you're riding with a light stoker or with no stoker, when the traction on the rear wheel is less than normal.

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Brake Levers

Brake Levers for Upright Handlebars

If your tandem has upright (straight) handlebars, you need to match your brake levers to the type of brake calipers/cantilevers you're using. This boils down to the fact that you either have direct-pull cantilevers, or you don't. If you have direct-pull ("V-type") cantilevers, you need to use levers made for that application, levers that pull a lot of cable.

If you don't have direct-pull cantilevers, conventional levers will work fine. Some, but not all, levers made for direct-pull cantilevers have a mechanical advantage adjustment feature which allows them to work with either system.

If you use levers made for direct-pull cantilevers with conventional cantilevers or calipers, the reduced mechanical advantage will not let you stop unless you squeeze very, very hard on the levers.

If you use conventional levers with direct-pull cantilevers, there will be too little cable travel and too much mechanical advantage. The lack of travel can mean that the brake shoes will drag on the rims even when the brakes are released, or, it can mean that you can squeeze the levers all the way to the handlebars without having the brakes all depends on how they're adjusted. If you get this setup adjusted just right (wrong) the brakes will work but grab too abruptly, possibly causing skidding.

Brake Levers for Drop Handlebars

Brake levers for upright handlebars bend away from the handlebar; levers for drop handlebars bend toward the handlebar. They are not interchangeable.

Drop-bar Levers and Direct-pull Cantilevers

At present (2018) there are several drop-bar brake levers designed to work with direct-pull cantilevers: the Dia Compe 287V, Cane Creek SCR-5V "Æro" levers, Tektro RL520 and perhaps others. Due to the nature of drop-bar levers, it is not so easy to make a suitable lever that can be operated both from the drops and from the hoods.

There are also accessory devices that change the mechanical advantage so that the mismatch is avoided. These are pulley devices that mount on one of the caliper arms. The most readily available of these is the QBC "Travel Agent." The "Travel Agent" uses a stepped pulley to change the mechanical advantage of the cable..

Since the mechanical advantage change occurs at the cantilever-end of the cable, the cable-stretch benefits of the direct-pull system are lost, but this can still be a very worthwhile system, especially for rear brakes on small frames.

These devices allow direct-pull brakes to be used with combined brake-shift levers, which are made for use with conventional cantilevers and caliper brakes.

Note however that any pulley with a diameter smaller than about 2 inches will fray the cable and result in its failure sooner or later. Check the cable frequently for frayed strands.

Drop-bar Levers and Conventional Cantilevers

Drop-bar levers fall into two families, traditional and "æro" styles.

Traditional drop-bar levers have exposed cables running straight up from the fronts of the hoods, and arching over in mid air as they run toward the brakes. This design is virtually extinct today.

"Æro" levers have concealed cables, running out the back of the hoods and underneath the handlebar tape toward the center of the handlebar. Combined brake/shifter units, such as Campagnolo's Ergopower and Shimano's STI incorporate æro-type brake levers.

Æro levers have a number of advantages besides the cleaner look of the concealed cables:

"Æro" levers also have two disadvantages:

Too Much Mechanical Advantage

Yes, you can have too much of a good thing. The greater mechanical advantage of æro levers comes at the cost of reduced cable travel, especially when they're used with newer "low-profile" cantilevers. If you wind up with insufficient cable travel, you have to choose between having the cables so tight that the brakes drag lightly on the rims even when released, or, having the cables so loose that you can squeeze the levers until they bottom out against the handlebars. Neither of these adjustments is satisfactory.

Since the mechanical advantage of conventional cantilevers can be adjusted, the usual cure is to raise up the cable yoke, as described in my Cantilever Adjustment article. This is generally not a serious problem with the all-important front brake, but the added stretch of a long tandem rear brake cable may preclude a satisfactory adjustment of the rear brake. If the suggestions in my Cantilever Adjustment article don't solve this problem for you, you may need to buy levers made specifically for cantilever use, such as the Dia Compe 287, or convert to a direct-pull system with a pulley.

No Adjusting Barrels

"Æro" levers have no place to install adjusting barrels for fine-tuning the cable length as the shoes wear. This is not a problem when they are used with caliper brakes, but cantilever brakes these days are designed more with MTB applications in mind. Since MTB-type brake levers always have built-in adjusting barrels, there may be no provision for cable adjustment when cantilevers are used with drop bars. This is unacceptable. A bicycle that doesn't have brake adjusters is dangerous and defective, and no manufacturer or retailer should let such a bike go out of the store. This applies especially to bikes with drop-bar levers and cantilever brakes, because this combination is particlarly finicky about cable adjustment.

Fortunately, inexpensive adaptors are readily available to let you add a cable adjuster anywhere the cable runs through housing.

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This site has quite a few other tandem related articles. See the:

Tandem Sub-Directory

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Articles by Sheldon Brown and Others

Reports of the demise of this Web site are greatly exaggerated! We at thank Harris Cyclery for its support over the years. Harris Cyclery has closed, but we keep going. Keep visiting the site for new and updated articles, and news about possible new affilations.

Copyright © 1997, 2007 Sheldon Brown

Harris Cyclery Home Page

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Last Updated: by Harriet Fell