Roller brakes that don't work

A new brake can be fitted to an existing roller brake hub
For 20 years, I rode a Gazelle city bike to work and covered around 25,000miles on it. Very reliable and comfortable it was, so on retirement I bought another, a Tour Populair. Everything is better except the Shimano roller brakes, which are ineffective. I have tried running them in for nine months, but no change. I tried some of Shimano’s special grease, but again: no change. Can I improve them? Should I try fitting a disc brake onto the front? Or maybe a rim brake? Changing the hubs looks difficult and expensive.

Nick Clatworthy

Shimano Multi-Condition roller brakes seem to divide opinion, with some users liking their all-weather commuting capability even as others damn them for limited effectiveness, erratic performance, and finicky service requirements. The basic design employs three steel shoes, which are pressed against the inside of the steel drum by rollers on a cam plate turned by the actuating arm. The steel-to-steel braking surfaces need lubrication with a special grease to prevent seizure. Dragging a roller brake for prolonged periods or using it at speed on a steep descent can boil the grease, leaving the braking surfaces damaged and prone either to snatch or not work at all. 

Not knowing which outcome is more likely does little for user confidence. Some reports suggest that a brake that has overheated can’t be restored to full power by replacing the grease. A roller-brake-compatible hub also incorporates a ‘power modulator’ designed to limit maximum braking powerand prevent wheel lock up…

The good news is that the roller brake is a self-contained unit, attached to its hub via a splined interface, and can be replaced without major disturbance to the wheel. There are several versions, with the most expensive offering greater braking power and additional cooling fins. If you don’t fancy simply replacing the brake, one option might be to substitute a Sturmey Archer drum brake, although this would need a complete new wheel. Changing the front wheel only would keep costs down. To fit a disc or rim brake, you would need to find a way to mount the hardware.  

Richard Hallett

​​​Cycle’s Technical Editor

This Q&A was published in 'Cycle' the magazine for members of Cycling UK. To contact the experts, email your technical, health, legal or policy questions to or write to Cycle Q&A, PO Box 313, Scarborough, YO12 6WZ