QUESTION: Are disc brakes really better than rim brakes on a road bike? I’m planning to buy a new bike soon and pretty much every bike has disc brakes in my price category, but I’ve always ridden rim brakes up until now. – Elliot G
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: The short answer is yes, but question may soon become academic, at least as far as new bikes go, because the bicycle industry is rapidly abandoning rim brakes in favor of disc brakes on all their new bikes — mountain, gravel, hybrid, road, touring, etc. As you have seen, when buying a new bike, the only choice you’ll likely have is between mechanically operated discs and hydraulically operated discs.
Rim brakes, however, have long been the industry standard and have performed well. They were still in use by at least one powerhouse WorldTour racing team — Ineos Grenadiers — as recently as 2020. They have now made the switch, but while still using rim brakes, they won a lot of races against teams equipped with disc brakes. And, of course, rim brakes will continue to give good service on the many bikes currently equipped with them.
In their favor, however, disc brakes provide increased stopping power, so much more that you often need to apply less force to the brake lever. That can mean less hand fatigue on long descents. Disc brakes also allow greater modulation — the ability to regulate the amount of clamp force on a rotor precisely and accurately — giving you better control while braking.
With rim brakes, each time you apply them, they put a tiny amount of wear on the rim, and some riders have worn their rims so thin that they had to be replaced. Disc brakes avoid wear on the rim. What’s more, disc brakes make it easy to switch to larger width tires, which is prohibited by the distance between the arms of side-pull, center-pull and dual pivot rim brakes, the types found on most road bikes that use rim brakes. (Cantilever rim brakes, found on some touring bikes and tandems, and V-brakes for rims, often used on mountain bikes, can accommodate wider tires.)
Disc brakes can be actuated by either a mechanical or a hydraulic system. Mechanical systems use a braided steel cable, just like the one used with rim brakes, to transfer braking force from the lever to the brake caliper. Hydraulic systems use a sealed fluid line to transfer braking power to the caliper, and they offer the most efficient braking. When they need servicing, however, you may need the help of an experienced bike mechanic who knows how to bleed the hydraulic line. The mechanical systems are less expensive, and you can usually service them yourself.
As long as you want to keep riding your current bike and it has rim brakes, they still work fine and you should! There’s no reason to think that brake pads and other replacement parts for them will not continue to be available.
The next new bike you buy will likely have disc brakes, but in the meantime, enjoy the rim-brakes bike you have.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.
David Frost says
I’ve been using and enjoying better Shimano and Tektro (on my 650B setup) dual-pivot rim brakes on my road bikes for the last 30 years. Love Kool Stop salmon pads! Plenty of brake usage in hilly Seattle and surrounding Pacific NW.
My wife, however, who is an avid rider but suffers from arthritis in her hands, made the welcome (for her) switch to hydraulic discs (Shimano Ultegra) on her Indy Fab bike six years ago, from Campagnolo Record dual pivots on her former Erickson. The much reduced lever force has enabled her to continue to enjoy road biking.
I do all the service on our bikes and take care to keep them clean despite the occasional wet ride (important for rim life!) and well functioning. On her bike I’ve replaced several pairs of disc pads ($33/pr) and one rotor ($70) in just 4,000 miles. No, the rotors have never been bent or rub, but she’s more likely to ride the rear brake on descents. During that period when I’ve ridden about 8,000 miles spread between two bikes, I’ve replaced two pairs of salmon pads (about $10/pr) and the rims are doing just fine.
Seems like I’ve got the right brakes for each of us!
Stan Purdum says
Seems like that to me as well. Thanks for telling us about your brakes and your wife’s.
Jim Langley says
Thanks for the detailed report on your and your wife’s brakes, David. That’s an excellent comparison. In my experience, Shimano rules in road disc brakes. Had your wife’s bike had other brands’ discs or mechanical discs her experience and your experience maintaining them would likely have been less impressive.
Someday, when materials improve, there will be another great revolution in bicycle braking. They’ll actually use the rim itself as the disk. It’ll be lighter, stronger, more aerodynamic, and have better modulation than todays disks. Until then….traditional disk brakes will continue to reign supreme!
Jim Langley says
Jim Langley says
Hmm, for me the short answer is NO, disc brakes are not better. Because as good as discs are for stopping and modulation in all conditions, they likely will never match the affordability, simplicity, serviceability, lightness and efficiency of rim brakes (discs are much more likely to rub).
Money talks so it’s easy to understand why the bike industry is forcing all-disc on us, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for cyclists or the industry. Rim brakes are still better in many ways and for many reasons.
Agree with all you say Jim! I am still riding rim brakes on all my bikes but sometimes on a muddy ride I wish for disc brakes on my mountain or cross bike.
I’ve never liked the thought of being in a road bike group ride pileup with a bunch of disc brakes. Those disc could do some real damage to my flesh! I’m surprised that UCI allows them for that reason.
Doug Kirk, Madison, WI says
I have disc brakes on my Gunnar Touring bike but Paul centerpulls on my Waterford Rando. I much prefer the Pauls. I have Canti’s on an old Trek 720, and Tektro side pulls on an 1978 Raleigh Super Course. I like all of them more than the disc TRP’s.
Jim Langley says
Thanks for sharing your assessment of your 4 different brake setups, Doug and from 4 great bikes, too!!
Very helpful and interesting,
My vote goes to rim brakes — agreeing with the above mentioned characteristics of affordability, simplicity, serviceability, lightness and efficiency. Add to that the time honored functionality meeting probably 95% of users 95% of their needs resulting in encouraging participation in cycling because of less hassle. Lastly as raised above regarding the future of rim as disk, though I’m not engineer and suspect there will be many anti statements…Is not a rim sandwiched between between the two rubber pads a giant disc brake equivalent?
Jim Langley says
Yes, it is “a giant disc brake equivalent,” AndrewK. I appreciate you making that point.