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Brake problems
I just installed a new set of brakes on a bike at a hostel I've been staying at and I can't get them to work right.

First, the front brake lever has a ton of lateral play and they don't have much power when applied.

Second, the rear brake arms won't release. It doesn't seem to be an issue of the brake nut being too tight, I can loosen it to the point where I can easily move the caliper by hand and the cable pops out of the lever and caliper when I apply the brake and they still won't release

They're side pull caliper brakes
Before starting, check to see if the barrel adjusters are dialed out any in the handle. If they are, dial them in all the way.

Now, follow these simple steps to properly adjust the calipers.

First: Check how secure they are on the back locknut. Too tight is not right. The tension is very sensitive. Loosen this and tighten it with just a snug amount of torque. Make sure the caliper is centered when you tighten it down. You can also make subtle adjustments tilting left or right before tightening it down also as a hotfix to other issues (such as bad centering of the tire or pad rubbing).

Second: Check the front two axle locknuts. The rear one needs to be just snug enough so that the calipers can engage and not wiggle between each other. The front one then needs to be tightened down and into the rear one. You have to turn them in together to successfully lock them in place. Meaning, you turn the back one up and the front one down at the same time. You will need two wrenches to do this, and typically will need one of them to be a cone wrench or flat multi-wrench tool.

Third: Undo the cable, squeeze the calipers together into the rim. Keeping them squeezed into the rim, pull the cable down as firmly as possible to remove the slack from the cable. Now, keeping the calipers squeezed into the rim still, use your other hand to tighten down the cable locknut firmly. Don't get too overzealous, but understand you should feel some torque in the hand when anchoring the locknut to hold the cable. If you find yourself in a rough spot with the pads seized this way, you can undo the cable, let up a tiny bit of slack on the calipers when you squeeze them into the rim (typically it will be the left side on the rear—or whatever side on the front); then re-tighten down the cable and check everything again.

Fourth: Check the alignment on the pads. After you adjust them to the rim, and ensure they aren't rubbing on the tires or anything, you may have to undo the cable and refasten it as explained in Step 3.

Let me know if this helps.

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