First joint of index finger + lever hook = perfect set-up

The problem with brake levers is they’re designed around average sizes and come pre-set position. Tune in your reach to upgrade your control.

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Paul Burwell works for The Trail Academy, a coaching, guiding and trail building company based in the Surrey Hills. For information on skills lessons, school clubs and guided rides contact the

A claw shape means the lever’s too far out

Take the lever test

To check if the brakes are too far out I conduct a simple test. First, I get the rider to hook their thumb under the handlebar and then try and reach the hooked part of the lever just back from the tip, which is where you’ll get optimum leverage, with their index finger. If they have to rotate their hand or wrist forward into a claw shape and decouple that thumb, the lever is too far out and needs to come in. My advice is to adjust the lever a few millimetres at a time, make a note of what you did and then ride a small loop activating the brakes as you do so. You can always bring the lever in or back out again if it’s not right.

First joint of index finger + lever hook = perfect set-up

Also, while reaching to grab the lever, if you have to angle your hand across or it’s overlaps the end of the bar, then the lever is in the wrong position along the bar. Loosen the fixing bolt and move it left or right until you index finger (or two fingers if you have to use them) is exactly in-line with that indent with you palm fully engaged on the grip and you thumb hooked underneath.

Braking correctly is one of the core skills and I can’t stress this enough – if you compromise on lever position you’re compromising on safety and control. With you brakes in the right position you can moderate your speed, stay in control and stop safely, and that’s something we should all get right, no matter our age.

How to set your brake levers

One of the biggest mistakes I see on all rider ages, skill levels and abilities, is poor bike set up. The primary reason for this is because getting your bike set up correctly is a complicated and lengthy process and most riders, and skills coaches for that matter, don’t want to devote half of an hour’s lesson to this, they just want to get on with the good stuff, like learning how to do a drop or corner. Also, the owner’s manual that comes with your bike, it’s just a health and safety leaflet, there’s usually zero information in there about set up.

Top of my list of things that cause the most problem is not being able to reach the brake levers. I see this all the time with the kids on our courses and that’s because the levers are still in the same position as when the bike came out of the factory. This usually means they’re too far out, and if the rider wants to brake, they often have to reach forward, loosening their grip on the handlebars. This can lead to a loss of control or worse, your hands bouncing off the handlebar.

The problem with brake levers (and components in general) is they’re designed around average sizes (which for hands is a 9) and come pre-set in this average position. Fortunately, you can adjust the reach of the lever to match the size of your hand via a grub screw on the body of the lever. This adjuster can be tricky to access and is usually stiff, which is also another reason why people don’t bother fiddling with it, but with the right tools you can really dial in the reach so it matches you hand size.