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Disc vs rim bicycle brakes – pros and cons

This post provides a short overview of advantages and disadvantages of bicycle disc brakes, compared to rim brakes (whether they are cantilever, road, or V-brakes). When comparing, it is understood that the brakes are of a good build quality and set up properly.

Update: if it helps anyone, I made a series of videos on hydraulic brake service.

It should be noted that there are two types of disc brakes: hydraulic and mechanical. Separate post(s) will explain the differences and the (mechanical) causes of disc brake advantages and disadvantages compared to rim brakes.

Mechanical bicycle disc brake
Mechanical bicycle disc brake


1. Advantages of disc brakes

  • Greater stopping power – although the tyre grip is often the limiting factor, so there often isn’t a much shorter stopping distance caused by disc’s greater stopping power (the main reason for shorter stopping distance with disc brakes is explained in the next point). Exception are conditions with ice and snow, or mud, when disc brakes are superior.
  • Better (more even) brake force modulation, especially when it’s wet and/or muddy.
  • Hydraulic disc brakes automatically adjust brake pad distance (position) as the pads get worn – no need to manually adjust them. This is not the case with mechanical disc brakes though.
  • They don’t wear the rims from braking – only pads and discs get worn, while the rim stays untouched, so there’s no need to re-lace a new rim after it gets worn from braking.
  • If a wheel gets out of true (from some damage, broken spoke etc.), the brakes will not start rubbing or stop working properly.


2. Disadvantages of disc brakes

  • They cause more load on the (front) fork blades and the steering column, because the brake caliper is anchored near the bottom of the forks. This calls for stronger (and heavier) forks.
  • With front disc brakes, if a wheel (and the fork) doesn’t have a modern “through axle,” (it’s not technically an axle, but that’s for another time) braking force tends to pull the (front) wheel out of the dropouts. This requires the wheel to be tightened with more force in the dropouts and regular inspection whether it is still in place and not loosened.
  • The whole system is heavier than a rim brake system.
  • Tendency of annoying rubbing of pads to the disc, due to very small clearance of pads from the discs (otherwise there would not be enough stopping power generated using the hand brake levers and a disc of relatively small diameter, without using a servo – principle of lever, same as explained for mechanical brakes). With motor vehicles, this rubbing can not be heard (engine sound and greater speeds), while the motor provides a lot more than human 100-300 watts, so the mechanical losses are negligible – this is not the case with bicycles. It is often the case when reinstalling a wheel (fixing a flat etc) that this rubbing occurs and some fine tuning is needed – again.
  • Higher price


3. Disc brakes – yes, or no?

All the noted pros and cons are of objective, mechanical nature. Each cyclist must decide for themselves, based on their riding style, riding conditions and budget, whether disc, or rim brakes are an optimal choice for them. With the exception of (extremely) muddy and snowy conditions, all the good quality, properly set up brakes provide decent stopping power and modulation – whether they are disc, or rim brakes.


4. Author’s personal opinion

Disc brakes in cycling, with the exception of fast MTB off road riding in mud, especially down hill, are more a trend, marketing and money making invention, than an improvement. The main advantage: stopping power and modulation, is achieved using small pad to disc clearance (enabling a greater mechanical advantage when pulling a brake lever), and exactly that often causes pad rubbing – which is annoying and creates unacceptable drag. Human race has not yet produced disc brakes that do not rub. There were some experiments in auto industry, but only after realizing that rubbing is a necessary evil (that doesn’t cause any practical problems for motor vehicles), the disc brakes have shun with their full light (again, in motor vehicle industry).

Because of this, I think that, in cycling, disc brakes have a limited range where they should be chosen as an optimal solution – most of it is marketing and money making.


Chris Froome’s experience with disc brakes on his road bicycle:


Related post – Bicycle braking technique:

Proper cycling braking technique explained
Proper bicycle braking technique explained

Author’s recommendations from Amazon on-line store. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Good quality Shimano Deore V-brakes (i.e. non-disc brakes) – Amazon shopping link:

Shimano Deore V-brakes
Shimano Deore V-brakes   @ Amazon

Good quality mechanical bicycle disk brake – Avid BB7 – at Amazon:

Avid BB7 mechanical disk brakes @ Amazon
Avid BB7 mechanical disk brakes @ Amazon

Shimano Deore hydraulic disk brake – at Amazon:

Shimano Deore hydraulic disk brakes
Shimano Deore hydraulic disk brakes @ Amazon

3 thoughts on “Disc vs rim bicycle brakes – pros and cons”

  1. For me the lack of rim wear with disc brakes is a major advantage. I have been a cycle commuter for 40+ years, and being a big bloke (85 – 90 kg) always had problems with rim brake wheels going out of true. Sometimes there has been sufficient wear on the braking surfaces that rims actually fail, with outermost sections of the rim breaking away. On my last commuter bike I replaced the rear wheel twice and the front once. Since switching to disc brakes, I have not had that problem, and apart from crashes, the wheels have stayed true. Instead, now that I don’t have rim wear and buckling, the wheels have lasted long enough to need to have the bearings serviced.
    The second thing I really appreciate is the better performance in the wet (I live in Scotland). Hydraulic disc brakes for flat bars are quite cheap now, but Shimano STI levers with hydraulic brakes for the ‘roadie’ market are stupidly expensive.
    Great website, by the way .

    Reply
    • Hi John,

      Thanks for the feedback.

      Wet conditions + hilly terrain do wear rims a lot faster. You may laugh now, but when you mentioned the rim wear problems and wet performance, I thought: “this man must be from a rainy, hilly area” – and a split-second later I saw it’s Scotland! 🙂

      That’s certainly a scenario where the downsides of rim brakes play a more major factor (for me, living in flatlands and cycling along the local mountain when there is no rain, at least not when I start, 🙂 the situation is practically the opposite). This is why I listed all the pros and cons, so that everyone can choose based on their criteria and priorities.

      P.S.
      I haven’t had problems with wheels coming out of true – even on very bad roads (and “off-roads”), as long as I built them with enough spokes, used a strong rim, and made sure the tension is even and high enough (optimal). In other words: I’m not sure that rims coming out of true has much to do with the type of brakes (even though the opposite is a common misconception, i.e. that disc brakes put more stress on the spokes – I made a video on wheel strength debunking that myth – yes, with a pretentious sounding title 🙂 ).

      P.P.S.
      Scotland football supporters came to my city and set an example of how guest supporters should behave.
      Volunteered to help clear the pitch from snow, cheering and supporting even after going 2-0 down, behaved like champions, making no fuss after the match – only singing, laughing and drinking.
      Earned my respect ever since. 🙂

  2. rim brakes main disadvantage is they do chew up rims but i still run them,mainly because they are very easy to maintain and find spares for,my rim brakes will pull me up just as fast as any disk brake,disk brakes just dont have the same nice look as caliper brakes,alot of folk also prefer disk brakes,both systems have advantages and disadvantages,its a personal preference thingo really

    Reply

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