With the recent inclusion of disc brakes in today’s pro peloton, the debate between rim brakes and disc brakes has been heating up. This guide highlights the major differences between rim and disc brakes, the pros and cons of each braking system and whether the upgrade to disc brakes is worth the pricetag.
HOW DIFFERENT ARE RIM AND DISC BRAKES?
Aside from aesthetics, the major difference between traditional rim brakes and disc brakes is where the force is being applied. With a rim brake, the stopping force is applied by calipers to the outer edge of the rim itself.
Disc brakes, on the other hand, move the braking surface away from the rim to a rotor. The rotor is mounted to the hub, while the caliper is mounted to the fork near the axle. This design is more like what you would see on a motorcycle brake, and has been utilized for years on mountain and cyclocross bikes because the calipers are less likely to get clogged with mud.
The other major difference is how each braking system is actuated. Rim brakes use a cable system to close the caliper on the rim. With a disc-brake system, hydraulics are often used instead. When the levers are grabbed, fluid pressure builds, causing pistons inside the calipers to move toward the rotor. The friction that’s generated is what creates the stopping power.
ADVANTAGES OF RIM BRAKES
While disc brakes might be the shiny new toy, there are still plenty of advantages to the more traditional rim brakes on road bikes:
- Rim brakes are lighter than disc brakes — often as much as a pound.
- Rim brakes are more aerodynamic than disc brakes.
- Rim brakes are easier to repair.
- Rim brakes cost less.
ADVANTAGES OF DISC BRAKES
The inclusion of disc brakes into the pro peloton means more new bike frames are being made disc-brake ready. While it might seem like another way to make money since old road frames with rim brakes can’t be used if you decide to make the switch, there are actually several very important benefits to using disc brakes:
- Disc brakes offer greater stopping power, which can be helpful on long descents.
- Disc brakes don’t heat the rim, which has been known to cause tire blowouts on long descents when rim brakes are used.
- Disc brakes allow for more precise braking, making wheel lockup less likely.
- Disc brakes work better than rim brakes in wet weather.
- Changing rotor sizes allows you to adjust how much braking power you want.
- It’s easier to use wider tires with disc brakes.
WHAT’S RIGHT FOR YOU?
The trend is leaning toward disc brakes. As time goes on, and better technology is developed, rim brakes are likely to become a less-popular option. But that doesn’t mean everyone needs to make the switch to disc brakes immediately. For many of us, sticking with rim brakes for the time being may be the best choice.
For instance, if you aren’t in the market for a new bike, making the switch to disc brakes will require you to purchase an entirely different frame, wheels and components. Likewise, for road racers looking to gain small competitive advantages in areas such as weight and aerodynamics, high-end rim brakes are probably your best choice for the time being.
If you’re in the market for a new bike and are interested in improved stopping power and performance in harsh weather, you should consider disc brakes. While they may cost more and not be quite as fast, they are safer and can be used with a wider tire — which also improves your control, comfort and bike handling at high speeds.
At the end of the day, the choice is a personal one. Money, riding style and ease of repair are all factors that should be considered. If you’re on the fence, it’s probably best to stick with what you have until disc-brake technology improves and the costs drop. There will always be time to make the switch later.