Road Bikes: Rim Brakes Vs. Disc Brakes

 

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The last decade or so has seen some massive changes for road bikes. The mainstream shift from aluminum to carbon fiber in the 2000’s marked the beginning of a new era in bike design, while the introduction of electronic drivetrains in the last 5 years or so has seen a fundamental rethinking of how bikes shift. But what about how bikes stop?

It started slowly. Very slowly, in fact. But in the last year or two, disc brakes on road bikes have really caught on, and are set to create yet another revolution. As always, there are fits and starts, and not everybody is on board (we’re looking at you, UCI), but like most changes, this one is gaining momentum.

Over the last year we’ve had a chance to test ride quite a few disc brake road bikes. Here’s how we thought they fared versus standard rim brakes.

STOPPING POWER

Disc brakes. There is no question about this. Disc brakes deliver incredible stopping power in pretty much all weather conditions. What’s more, that power is easily modulated, which means it’s easier to control how much brake you need at any given time. Often times no more than one-finger  is needed to stop the bike in a reasonable distance.

Rim brakes, especially with carbon wheels, can sometimes take a little bit to really bite into the rim and slow the bike. This is doubly true if your pads are worn or dirty.

The upward slant of the chainstay helps to minimize hits from bad roads, and helps perfectly position the disc caliper

Disc brakes provide superior stopping power and modulation over rim brakes

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COMPATIBILITY

Rim brakes—for now. Disc brakes are still going through growing pains, and in an industry where the term “standard” is pretty much meaningless, that can mean some headaches for consumers. Some disc brake bikes come with standard quick release wheels, some use thru axle. There are all different kinds of rotor sizes out there, and aftermarket wheel options are still fairly limited.

But these are actually fairly minor problems.

This year will pretty much guarantee a bumper crop of disc brake wheel options, and most of those will be interchangeable between QR and thru axle, making them more versatile for consumers.

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For the moment, rim brakes have fewer compatibility issues than disc brakes

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WET WEATHER

Disc brakes. This is a no brainer. No matter what is falling from the sky or laying on the roads, disc brakes don’t care. Snow, ice, and rain don’t have much of an effect on disc brakes—regardless of rim material.

Wet weather conditions can severely limit the effectiveness of rim brakes, especially carbon wheels.

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If you’re riding in wet weather, there’s only one way to go when it comes to brakes

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EASE OF INSTALLATION AND MAINTENANCE

Rim brakes. Frankly, these are pretty easy. Make sure they’re facing the right way, bolt them on, make sure they’re roughly centered and go. Every other year or so you change the pads.

Disc brakes…not so much. Mechanical disc brakes can be notoriously frustrating to install and get centered so they aren’t rubbing the disc rotor. Hydraulic disc brakes are easier to install, but maintenance can be an involved and time consuming, since you have to bleed the lines, replace hydraulic fluid, etc…

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For all their benefits, disc brakes aren’t always as easy to maintain as rim brakes

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WEIGHT AND AERODYNAMICS

Rim brakes. Because of the simple design, rim brakes are currently much, much lighter than any available disc brake system.

And, because of where the brake is placed, disc brakes are also much less aerodynamic than rim brakes.

Bear in mind though that this is  likely to change in the next couple of years. As disc brakes become more widely adopted and pressure builds to use them in racing, the industry is likely to begin refining the designs to be lighter, and better incorporated into frames for improved aerodynamics.

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What they lack in stopping power, rim brakes make up for in weight savings and aerodynamics

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THE VERDICT

More than any other decision, this is going to be a very personal choice. Disc brakes offer unquestionably better and more consistent stopping power than rim brakes, but at a cost of weight and aerodynamics, and they are still not yet race-legal.

It’s all a matter of what’s most important to you—and we don’t mean stopping power (that’s important to everyone).

What we mean is that if you love racing, fast road riding, and having plenty of wheel options, then it might be best to stick with rim brakes for the time being.

If you’re just looking for a road bike to ride for the love of riding, like to explore gravel roads, bomb big descents, ride in an area that experiences frequent bad weather, or even for racers looking for a second road bike for training and base miles, then disc brakes are probably the better option.

Without question though, disc brakes are the way forward—so love them or hate them, odds are in the next 5 years, most road bikes will be equipped with them.

So tell us your thoughts. What do you think about using disc brakes on road bikes?

Top 10 Things For 2014

This year saw a lot of innovation, but coming out of all the trade shows, blogs, and our own meetings, there are a few things that really stand out and have us all kinds of excited for 2014. But these are just our thoughts – post a comment below with what cycling gear or rides you’re most pumped to try out in the new year!

1. Disc brakes on road bikes: we’ve had a chance to play around with these a little bit lately, and we’re excited about the performance advantages we’ve seen so far. Hopefully, we’ll see more manufacturers offer a bigger range of bikes with disc brakes.

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We love the performance of disc brakes on the Diamondback Century Sport Disc

2. 1×11 drivetrains for MTB: Who knew that losing a front derailleur could be an improvement? OK, so many folks have already gone down this path of simplicity, but the improved gearing range of 1×11 makes it a possibility for almost any mountain biker. They’ve proven to be a reliable, durable and quiet – we can’t wait to see it come stock on even more bikes. SRAM’s XX1 and (more affordable) X01 systems are the only one’s available right now, but you can go part way towards this system with a ‘narrow-wide’ single front chainring to ditch the front derailleur on your current bike.

We love the new crop of 1×11 MTB drivetrains

3. Hydraulic brakes for the road: The unfortunate SRAM recall aside, we’re excited about the potential for improved braking power. The idea is there, and the applications and benefits are obvious, it just looks like it needs more refining. We’ve been using the TRP HY/RD mechanically actuated hydraulic system the last few weeks, and are pretty impressed, so we’re looking forward to more innovation in 2014.

TRP Hy/Rd mechanically actuated hydraulic brake calipers drastically improve braking performance

TRP Hy/Rd mechanically actuated hydraulic brake calipers drastically improve braking performance

4. SRAM electronic drivetrains: Hey, we’re suckers for new technology! Spotted at the Illinois State CX Championships, it looks like SRAM is finally set to introduce an electronic shifting system to compete with the tried and true systems from Shimano and Campagnolo. Since SRAM seems to like names like “New Red” and “New Red 22″, anyone want to venture a guess about the product name? Click here to learn more from Bike Radar.

5. 27.5” wheels: 27.5″ (aka 650B) wheels on mountain bikes were huge this year, and we bet that next year they’ll gain even more prominence as more folks upgrade their rides. As a mountain biker you owe it to yourself to test out one of these ‘in-between’ bikes if you’re in the market for a new off-road steed – they really do combine some of the best traits of a nimble 26″ bike and a roll-over-anything 29er.

27.5″ wheeled mountain bikes, like this GT Force Carbon, were all the rage this year

6. Giro Air Attack Shield helmets (black, size medium): Literally the only thing on my Christmas list and I didn’t get one. Hopefully one will find it’s way to me in 2014. They make a great Valentine’s Day gift (and that’s a science fact, you guys). But seriously – aero bikes, components and gear will continue to make inroads into more every day rides. It’s free speed with very little trade-off when it comes to weight or comfort.

Maybe next year…

7. New power meter designs: The Garmin Vector and our new completely awesome, formerly super secret wheel project are making power readouts more accessible to cyclists, improving the way we ride and train. Hopefully, the designs will continue to get more affordable and easier to install.

Innovative new power meter designs are bringing power to the masses

8. Fat bikes: Fat bikes are the new fixies, but more fun. Want to experience a trail in a new way? Power through snow? Roll over boulders like it ain’t no thang? Then you need a fat bike – if you have never tried one, then you’ll be blown away by how much fun they are!

Go anywhere on a fat bike. Seriously…you can pretty much go anywhere.

9. Some exciting new stuff added to our bike and clothing lineups: We’ve got some awesome new stuff getting ready to fill up our bike inventory, including some exciting new brands. We can’t say what yet, but we’re really excited. And our clothing team is hard at work improving our already amazing high-value Performance brand apparel – we think you’re going to like what you see!

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More great Performance gear is on the way.

10. More great rides with friends: Whether it’s a lunch time hammerfest with coworkers at the office, an epic Gran Fondo, a ride with the family, or a leisurely weekend excursion with your best riding buddy – we’re here for the ride, and we hope that 2014 brings all of us even more great adventures on 2 wheels!

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Here’s to great rides in 2014!

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