Over the past decade, disc brakes have become increasingly popular. In fact, they have pretty much replaced rim brakes across all categories of cycling. In the early 2000s, pro mountain bikers began adopting disc brakes. Over the past few years, pretty much all professional road cyclists have converted to disc brakes as well. These days, most mountain bikes, hybrids, touring bikes, road bikes, time trial bikes, and cyclocross bikes come equipped with disc brakes. Many manufacturers exclusively offer disc brake bikes. Still, rim brakes have their place. In this guide, I’ll explain the differences and outline the pros and cons of disc brakes vs rim brakes to help you choose the best brakes for your riding style.
In this guide, we’ll cover stopping power, maintenance, efficiency, safety, reliability, cost, parts availability, and much more. I’ll also outline the different types of disc and rim brakes and explain how they work. We’ll cover both mechanical and hydraulic disc brakes as well as different types of rim brakes including V brakes, cantilever brakes, and more. Over the past 20 years, I’ve ridden both disc brake and rim brake bikes extensively. In this guide, I’ll share my experience.
Disc brakes offer more stopping power, better modulation, better performance in wet conditions, less heat buildup, and smoother and easier operation. They also allow you to run wider tires.
Rim brakes offer lighter weight, easier repair, lower cost, easier maintenance, and better parts availability. They are also easier to adjust and are less likely to rub.
Disc brakes are the better choice for those who ride in wet weather, those who need more stopping power, heavy riders and those who carry a heavy load, those who ride in dirty conditions, mountain bikers, and those who ride technical terrain.
Rim brakes are the better choice for those on a tight budget, casual cyclists who only ride in fair weather, those who ride in remote regions where parts can be hard to find, and those who like to do all of their own maintenance.
Table of Contents
- Differences Between Disc and Rim Brakes
- Disc Brake Pros
- Disc Brake Cons
- Rim Brake Pros
- Rim Brake Cons
- Types of Disc Brakes
- Types of Rim Brakes
What’s the Difference Between Disc Brakes and Rim Brakes?
The difference between disc brakes and rim brakes is where the braking force is applied.
Rim brakes apply braking force directly to the sides of the rims. The rim acts as the braking surface.
Disc brakes apply braking force to a rotor or disc. The rotor is bolted to the hub. The rotor is much smaller than the wheel. These work just like disc brakes on a car or motorcycle.
The way the braking force is transmitted from the levers to the calipers can also differ. Rim brakes almost always use steel cables to transmit braking force. You pull the lever, which pulls the cable, which causes the brake to clamp down on the rim.
Disc brakes use hydraulics to transfer the braking force. Hydraulic disc brakes have brake lines filled with noncompressible fluid. When you pull the lever, it pushes a plunger which pushes the fluid through the lines. This pressure pushes a piston in the caliper and causes it to clamp down on the rotor.
Some disc brakes use steel cables, just like rim brakes. These are called mechanical disc brakes. When you pull the brake lever, it pulls the cable, which pulls a lever on the caliper. This causes the pads to clamp down on the disc.
Another difference is the location of the brake caliper. On a rim brake bike, the caliper sits above the bike’s tires. The brake arms reach around the sides of the tire to the rim. Disc brake rotors are mounted on the fork arm and seat stay and sit above the brake rotor.
Pros of Disc Brakes
- Disc brakes offer more stopping power than rim brakes- Disc brakes provide a greater mechanical advantage than rim brakes. They use leverage to multiply the force that you put into the lever. In other words, they’re more efficient. This allows the calipers to apply more force to the braking surface which helps to slow the bike down faster. Disc brakes also have a larger surface area for the brake pad to grip on to. This increases friction, allowing you to slow you down faster. If you need more stopping power, you can install larger rotors. Larger rotors increase stopping power. Hydraulic disc brakes offer even more stopping power than mechanical disc brakes because the hydraulic fluid creates less friction. Stopping power is important for those who descend hills quickly, heavier riders, and those who ride a heavy bike. For example, imagine the force it takes to stop 300 pounds of fully loaded touring bike and rider racing down a mountain pass at 40 miles per hour. In this type of situation, you need as much braking power as you can get. If your disc brakes don’t have enough stopping power, you can install larger rotors. Larger rotors produce more stopping power because the braking surface is larger. Disc brakes are the better choice if you need lots of stopping power.
- Disc brakes are more precise and are easier to modulate- With disc brakes, you can control exactly how much braking force you need to apply for the situation. They’re more precise. You can feather the brakes and just shed a bit of speed or you can brake hard and slow down fast. You can apply whatever force you need. This allows you to stop faster without worrying about accidentally locking up your wheels. This gives you more confidence when riding in wet treacherous conditions. For example, while winter cycling in snowy and icy conditions, you may want to feather your brakes to prevent the bike from losing traction. If a car pulls out in front of you, you may need to apply the brakes hard. While mountain biking, you may need to vary the braking force depending on the surface texture you’re riding. This is all easier with disc brakes.
- Disc brakes perform well in wet weather conditions- When your rims get wet in the rain or caked with mud or snow, disc brakes still stop the bike reliably. Water does reduce your braking power slightly but not as much as it does with rim brakes. With rim brakes, the wheel sometimes has to make an entire revolution to scrape off the water or mud before the brakes start slowing you down.
- Heat build-up is less of an issue with disc brakes- During long descents, your brakes generate a lot of heat. This heat is produced by friction from the brake pads rubbing against the braking surface. If your brakes create too much heat, the braking force can fade. The brakes can even fail. Disc brakes are better at shedding heat than rim brakes. They are less likely to overheat. This is because rotors have more surface area than rims. They are also thinner. Rotors also have cutouts and holes that allow more air to pass and cool the rotors. With disc brakes, you don’t have to worry about your rims overheating during long descents. You can ride harder and brake longer. Having said this, disc brakes can still overheat.
- Disc brakes allow you to use wider rims and tires- Disc brakes don’t limit your tire width. The only limit is your frame clearance. This is the case because the caliper doesn’t need to fit around the wheel and tire. When you use rim brakes, your tires must be narrower than the caliper’s arms because the arms must reach around the tire to grip the rim. This makes disc brakes a great choice for mountain bikers, gravel riders, cyclocross riders, bikepackers, and anyone who rides off-road. Road cyclists can also benefit. Some modern disc brake road bikes can accommodate tires up to 38mm wide. Running wider tires improves traction. Wide tires create a larger contact patch with the ground. Wide tires also improve comfort. You can run wider tires at lower pressures. The softer tires absorb more bumps and vibrations.
- Disc brakes allow you to ride faster– Because disc brakes provide more stopping power and better brake modulation, they allow you to stop faster. This allows you to wait longer before you begin braking. For example, instead of applying the brakes 30 feet before a turn, maybe you begin braking 20 feet ahead. This saves time. Most riders see their track times improve after switching from rim brakes to disc brakes.
- Disc brakes are easier on your hands- Due to the mechanical advantage, you don’t need to apply as much force to the brake levers when you use disc brakes. Hydraulic disc brakes are so sensitive that you can brake with one finger if you want to. This reduces hand fatigue. Your hands won’t cramp or go numb. This is important on long descents where you need to brake for long periods of time.
- You can run multiple wheel or tire sizes with disc brakes- If you have one bike that you want to use for road, touring, and mountain use, you can build wheelsets of different rim sizes or tire sizes and simply switch them out with disc brakes. This is great for people who only have the budget or space for one bike. For example, you can mount a set of 700c wheels with slicks for road riding. When you want to go off-road, you can mount your pair of 650b wheels with knobby tires. This can make your bike multi-purpose. You can also use different rotor sizes on the different wheels. For example, you could use larger 180mm rotors on the off-road wheels and smaller 140mm rotors on the road wheels.
- You can still ride your bike if your wheel gets bent or goes out of true- The rotor stays the same and will stop you just as well even if your wheels are out of true. This comes in handy if you’re trying to make it to the nearest bike shop after an accident. Rim brakes rub or don’t work as well if your wheel isn’t perfectly true. Of course, if your rim is extremely bent, it could rub on the frame. In this case, the bike won’t be rideable until it’s repaired.
- Disc brakes can be safer- Disc brakes provide more stopping power, reducing your braking distance. This allows you to slow down or stop faster in an emergency situation. For example, maybe a car pulls out in front of you. Maybe a dog runs out in the road. With disc brakes, you can come to a complete stop in less time and in less distance. In an emergency situation, every fraction of a second is important.
- Disc brakes feel smoother and more solid- This point applies mainly to hydraulic disc brakes. Grabbing and pulling the lever just feels more solid and satisfying. This could be because there is less friction in the system. Hydraulic fluid can’t catch or rub like a cable can. The levers operate incredibly smoothly. This is kind of a personal preference. High-end rim brakes also feel solid.
- Disc brake pads last longer- Disc brake pads are made from a harder material than rim brake pads. The harder pads don’t abrade away as quickly. They take longer to wear out. This means less frequent maintenance. Exactly how long your brake pads will last depends on the material they’re made of, the conditions you ride in, and how you brake. On average, disc brake pads last 100-200 miles longer than rim brake pads. Resin pads, also called organic pads, often last 600-800 miles. Sintered brake pads often last 1000-1300 miles. When there is about 1 mm of brake surface left on the pads, it’s time to replace them. To compare, rim brake pads typically last 500-1000 miles depending on the material they’re made of.
- Disc brakes can be more consistent- Hydraulic disc brakes offer more consistent operation than disc brakes. This is because the hydraulic fluid in the line creates very little friction. There is no cable that can snag or get hung up. The system is also sealed so it can’t get contaminated with debris. This makes the braking force very predictable. Every time you grab the lever, you get the same result.
- Rims last longer when you use disc brakes- Because disc brakes don’t use the rim as a braking surface, the rims don’t suffer wear and tear from braking. Rim brakes remove a bit of material from your rims every time you stop. Friction also heats up the rims. This causes them to weaken over time. You’ll probably get a few thousand more miles out of your rims when you use disc brakes. For most riders, rim longevity isn’t an issue. Bike rims last tens of thousands of miles if they’re taken care of, regardless of the brake type. Rotors also suffer wear and tear from abrasion and heat and need to be replaced eventually. Rotors are much easier to replace than rims.
- Disc brakes are now allowed in racing- After years of bans, temporary authorizations, and re-bans, the UCI finally authorized the use of disc brakes in road racing. Professional cyclists can now use disc brakes in almost any category of cycling. At this point, most professionals have switched from rim brakes to disc brakes. If you plan to ride competitively, disc brakes are an excellent choice.
- Disc brakes are more technologically advanced- Over the past couple of years, professional road racers began using disc brakes. Mountain bikers have been using disc brakes for decades at this point. Cycling companies spend a lot of money researching and developing better, safer, and more reliable rotors, calipers, and pads to give racers an advantage. This same technology is available to average riders like you and me. Rim brake technology isn’t really improving anymore because rim brakes aren’t used competitively anymore. They are outdated. If you like to use the most technologically advanced cycling equipment, disc brakes are the way to go. Almost every mid-range to high-end bike comes equipped with disc brakes these days.
- You don’t have to clean your bike as often when you run disc brakes– Because the rotors sit higher off the ground than your rims, they don’t collect as much mud or sand. They stay clean. The pads also stay cleaner because they are smaller and are protected by the rotor. A clean braking surface allows you to stop faster and more reliably. If you use hydraulic disc brakes, you don’t have to worry about keeping the brake lines clean because the hydraulic system is sealed and pressurized. This keeps dirt and other contaminants out. When using rim brakes, you must clean your rims regularly. If you don’t you risk damage. Contaminants such as sand and mud can scratch the rims and get stuck in the brake pads.
- Looks- Many cyclists like the way the rotors look. They make the bike look a bit more modern and premium. Almost all mid-range to high-end bikes come with disc brakes these days. Rim brakes are sometimes associated with entry-level bikes. Of course, this point is entirely subjective.
Disc Brakes Cons
- Disc brakes are more expensive- Disc brake components are more complex. They have more moving parts. This increases costs. Disc brake calipers are more expensive than rim brake calipers. You also need to buy the rotors which aren’t needed on rim brakes because the rim acts as the braking surface. Disc brake pads are also slightly more expensive than rim brake pads. Disc brake compatible bike frames also cost more than frames that are designed for rim brakes. The reason is that more braking force is applied to the non-drive side of a disc brake bike. More engineering is required to design and build a frame and that can hold up to the additional forces. This adds to the cost. If you’re on a tight budget, it’s best to stay away from disc brakes. Having said this, disc brake prices have come down substantially over the past decade. These days, the price difference between disc and rim brakes is minimal.
- Disc brake parts can be more difficult to find- In some parts of the world, disc brake parts availability isn’t that great. This can be an issue in some parts of the world. If you need new pads or a replacement caliper or rotor while riding in the developing world or a remote region, you might have trouble finding them. Small bike shops in developing countries sometimes don’t stock disc brake parts. They only offer rim brake parts because that’s what the locals use. Small towns may not have a bike shop. Sometimes the only store that sells bike parts is a big box store. Sometimes disc brake parts are not available. This can be an issue for bicycle tourists and bikepackers. If your bike uses disc brakes, you might have to ship spare parts in or carry spares with you. For the average rider who lives in a city or developed part of the world, parts availability isn’t an issue.
- The wheels can go out of true more easily when you use disc brakes- Disc brakes put additional stress on the spokes. This is because the braking force is transmitted through the spokes rather than the rim. There is a torsional force on the wheel because the rotor is located on one side. Spokes on the side of the wheel with the rotor take the most force. Weak or poorly built wheels can go out of true easily with disc brakes. When this happens, you may experience broken spokes. You may have to true your wheels more often. To solve this issue, you can change the spoke pattern so the spokes are offset. If your bike has quality wheels that are well built, you won’t have any issues with your spokes.
- Disc brakes are heavier than rim brakes- Disc calipers weigh more than rim brake calipers. Disc brakes also require rotors. These add more weight unwanted weight to the wheel. Each rotor weighs around 100-130 grams. If you care about keeping your bike as light as possible, stick to rim brakes. One way you can reduce weight a bit when using disc brakes is to use disc-specific rims. These are thinner and lighter because the rim walls are not designed to be used as a braking surface. Even then, the disc brake setup will weigh more.
- The rotors can cause injuries- Cyclists have been cut and burned by their disc brakes. During a long descent, friction causes the rotors to get incredibly hot. Don’t touch the rotors after a decent or you could burn yourself. I’ve seen people pour water on their hot rotors to see it boil and turn to steam. In the event of a crash, the disc can cut through your skin. I have never seen it in person but I have heard of cyclists getting their legs gashed open by a disc brake rotor during an accident. This is part of the reason that road racers were so slow to switch from rim brakes to disc brakes. For some proof of the risks of disc brakes, check out this article explaining how Katie Compton, a cyclocross racer, had her knee sliced open by a disc brake rotor.
- Disc brakes put additional stress on the fork legs- Disc brake calipers mount toward the bottom of the fork. When you stop, all of the braking force travels through the thinnest part of the fork arm. Disc brakes also put torsional force on the fork legs because the rotor is located off to the side of the wheel. When you break, the fork arm can twist. You need a more robust fork that can hold up to the added stress to safely use disc brakes. Thin fork arms can fatigue over time and eventually fail. Rim brakes transmit the braking force through the top of the fork near the stem. This is a much stronger part of the bike. Fork wear is rarely an issue on disc brake bikes. Disc forks are designed to withstand braking forces.
- Disc brakes can overheat- Friction created by the pads rubbing against the rotors creates heat. When the pads get too hot, they become soft. This reduces stopping power. Hydraulic brake fluid can also overheat. Friction can cause the brake fluid in hydraulic disc brakes to get hot enough to boil. When this happens, the brakes stop working completely. There are several ways to avoid overheating your brakes. You can install larger rotors. These don’t heat up as fast. During long descents, you can simply stop periodically and wait for the brakes to cool down. You can also change your braking technique. Brake hard and shed speed then let off the brakes for a while and let them cool. Avoid riding the brakes.
- Less comfortable ride- Forks that are designed for disc brakes don’t absorb shocks and vibrations as well because the arms are thicker. The forks are more rigid. This can make the ride less comfortable. When you use rim brakes, you can get away with a thinner fork that offer some flex. If you use a suspension fork, this point doesn’t apply.
- Disc brake pads can rub the rotor- This is a common issue. Disc brake pads sit just a couple of millimeters away from the rotors. They can easily rub if something is just a tiny bit out of adjustment or if the rotor is slightly warped or bent. Listening to the pad rub the disc every revolution of the wheel gets annoying quickly. Rubbing brake pads also reduce efficiency slightly. The rubbing creates some friction. The solution is to carefully adjust your brakes until the rubbing stops. This can take some trial and error. It can be a challenge to get mechanical disc brakes adjusted perfectly. They’re touchy.
- Disc brakes can be harder to service in the field- If there is a mechanical problem with your disc brakes, it can be harder to diagnose. This is because disc brake calipers are sealed in a housing. You can’t see what’s going on inside. If you’re using hydraulic disc brakes and you sever a brake line during an accident or blow a seal and all of the fluid leaks out, the brakes become useless. Hydraulic disc brakes don’t work without fluid You won’t be able to repair them in the field. You’ll have to call it a day and go repair them at home or take the bike to a bike shop. Even though they are incredibly reliable, you don’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere after all of your brake fluid leaked out. For this reason, most bicycle tourists stay away from hydraulic disc brakes.
- Disc brake maintenance can be more complicated- Hydraulic disc brakes are a bit more difficult to maintain. They require additional tools and brake fluid. You’ll have to bleed your hydraulic disc brakes every year or so to keep them operating reliably and efficiently. This involves draining the old fluid and adding new fluid. This can be a bit of a tricky job if you’ve never done it before. The most common maintenance job that you’ll have to do is replacing the pads when they wear out. This job is about the same level of difficulty as changing rim brake pads.
- The pads can get stuck together- This is an issue with hydraulic disc brakes. If you squeeze the brake lever while the wheel is off the bike, the pads can get stuck together. It’s easy to do this while transporting the bike with a wheel removed. The pads get stuck together because the rotor isn’t there to act as a spacer. The piston in the hydraulic caliper is able to move too far out of the caliper. If the pads get stuck together, the easiest way to correct the issue is to pry them apart with a flathead screwdriver. You need to be careful when doing this so you don’t scratch the pads or introduce debris. If you knick a pad or introduce debris, the pads can damage your rotor. when you brake. If the piston came too far out of the rotor when you squeezed the lever, you’ll have to remove the pad and push it back in. You need to be careful when doing this so you don’t damage the seals and create a leak. Push them straight in. You can then replace the pads and wheel and the brakes will work as good as new.
- Disc brakes are less aerodynamic- The brake calipers and rotors stick out to the side and widen the bike’s profile. This creates more wind resistance. The faster you ride, the more important aerodynamics becomes. At speeds over around 10 mph, wind resistance becomes the main force acting against you.
- Disc brakes are a bit harder to adjust- Disc brakes can be temperamental. You have to keep them properly adjusted so the pads don’t rub the rotor. They need to be adjusted more precisely than rim brakes. This is because disc brake pads sit closer to the braking surface than rim brake pads. There is very little margin for error. If your disc brakes aren’t adjusted perfectly, they can rub the rotor. This causes an annoying rubbing sound. It’s also inefficient.
- Mechanical disc brakes can lack power- Disc brakes may not stop your bike any better than rim brakes. If you’re looking to upgrade, make sure you’re actually gaining performance and not just getting something newer. Hydraulic disc brakes offer the best possible stopping power available on a bicycle. Quality mechanical disc brakes also offer excellent stopping power. Cheap disc brakes may perform worse than rim brakes.
- It can be dangerous to mix disc and rim brake bikes when racing or riding with friends- Some riders complain that differences in stopping and cornering speeds between disc and rim brake bikes make riding with others more dangerous. For example, maybe a disc brake rider is leading down a hill with a rim brake rider close behind. The disc brake rider applies the brakes and slows down quickly. The rim brake rider following close behind, can’t slow as quickly because their brakes don’t provide as much stopping power. They could slam into the back of the other rider. This same type of accident could occur while approaching a corner. The disc brake rider approaches the corner faster and then brakes harder. A rim brake rider could slam into them because they can’t slow down as quickly.
Rim Brake Pros
- Rim brakes are lighter- Weight is probably the biggest benefit rim brakes offer over disc brakes. If you strive to build the lightest possible bike, you’ll save about 8-16 ounces (226-450 grams) by using rim brakes. Rim brakes are lighter because are no rotors. This alone saves a couple of hundred grams. Rim brake calipers are also smaller, which saves you weight. Rim brakes aren’t always lighter. These days, there are some ultralight disc brake setups that are just as light or lighter than standard rim brakes. Of course, these do come at a higher cost.
- Rim brakes are easier to repair- Rim brakes are simple. If there is a problem, you can take the whole brake apart on the side of the road with only a multi-tool. It is easier to diagnose a problem with rim brakes as well because the calipers are completely open. You can easily see if there is something wrong. It’s also easy to replace cables and pads. It’s easy to service your brakes in the field if you need to.
- Easier to maintain- Rim brakes are a lot less touchy than disc brakes. If they aren’t adjusted perfectly, they still work. It’s easy to replace rim brake pads and cables. Anyone can work on rim brakes. You don’t have to have any kind of special tools or knowledge. You can watch a couple of videos on Youtube and learn everything you need to maintain your breaks.
- Rim brakes offer excellent parts availability- Rim brake parts and spares are easy to find anywhere in the world. Rim brakes have been the standard bike brakes for decades. If you’re riding in the developing world or in a rural region, you won’t have any trouble finding replacement calipers or levers or spare brake pads. Parts availability is excellent. You can find spares in every corner of the world including the smallest village bike shop. If you’re touring in the developed world, you can find replacement pads and cables in most department stores. This is particularly important for bicycle tourists who often find themselves in rural or remote regions where finding spares can be a challenge. Having said this, disc brake parts availability has greatly improved in the past few years.
- Rim brakes are cheaper- If you’re on a tight budget, rim brakes are the way to go. Parts and spares cost less because they are simpler. There are fewer moving parts in rim brakes. This makes them cheaper to manufacture. You also don’t need rotors because the rim provides the stopping surface. This saves a bit of money as well. On average, I would guess that rim brake components cost 10-20% less than comparable disc brake components. Used parts are easily available as well. Older rim brake components are extremely common. If you need a caliper, you can buy a used one for just a few dollars at most bike shops. Pads are cheaper as well. For example, I bought a replacement pair for my Schwinn High Sierra for around $1 in Mexico.
- Your wheels may stay true longer- Rim brakes are easier on spokes. This is because the brake applies stopping force directly to the rim. Less strain is put on the spokes. Your wheels may stay true longer as a result. You may be less likely to break spokes as well. For this reason, rim brakes are a better choice if you’re using lower-end wheels. Of course, a well-built wheel will stay true regardless of your brake choice.
- Rim brakes are easier on the fork legs- Rim brakes are mounted high up on the fork near the stem. This is a stronger part of the fork. This position puts less force on the fork legs. This allows you to use a fork with thinner and more flexible arms. Fork arms with some flex can absorb some shocks and vibrations. This improves comfort. Your fork will last longer as well.
- High-quality rim brakes perform just as well as lower-end disc brakes- If you’re planning to upgrade your current bike to a disc brake model for better braking performance, make sure you’re actually upgrading. Modern rim brakes are very good. Cheap mechanical disc brakes are not that great. In some cases, you may be better off sticking with what you have. One way to improve the braking performance of your existing rim brakes is to install premium brake pads. Different pads are made from different compounds. Some perform better than others.
- Rim brakes don’t rub- Rim brake pads sit further from the braking surface. As a result, they are less likely to rub. They only rub if they are poorly adjusted or if the wheel is way out of true. If they begin to rub, it’s easy to make a slight adjustment to fix the problem.
- Rim brakes are more aerodynamic- On flat and downhill sections, you gain a slight aerodynamic advantage when you use rim brakes because you don’t have calipers and rotors sticking out to the side causing drag. The calipers sit in the center. They don’t create additional wind resistance. The faster your ride, the more important aerodynamics become. At speeds over around 10 miles per hour, air resistance becomes the main force acting against you.
- Rim brakes can be safer- You may be less likely to suffer an injury during an accident when you use rim brakes. Professional cyclists have suffered pretty severe cuts by disc brake rotors during an accident. This isn’t a concern with rim brakes because there is no sharp rotor. You’re also less likely to burn yourself when you use rim brakes. The rims usually don’t get hot enough to burn you if you touch them after extended braking.
- Rim brakes can provide excellent stopping power- Quality rim brakes that are properly set up can perform almost as well as disc brakes.
- Rim brakes are classic- You probably grew up riding a bike with rim brakes. They were the standard for over a hundred years. A bike with rim brakes looks classic.
Rim Brake Cons
- Rim brakes don’t have as much stopping power as disc brakes- Rim brakes don’t give you as much mechanical advantage as disc brakes. They have less leverage. We know this because the rim brake pads have to travel further than disc pads for the same amount of brake lever pull. Rim brake pads have to move around a centimeter to touch the rim. Disc pads only have to move a couple of millimeters. This means the calipers can’t apply as much force to the braking surface to slow the bike down. Rim brakes also have a smaller surface area where the pads hit the braking surface. This means they produce less friction. Your stopping distance will be slightly longer when you use rim brakes. For an average recreational rider, rim brakes offer plenty of stopping power. If they’re properly adjusted, they can easily lock up the wheels. For those who need to carry extra weight, such as bicycle tourists, rim brakes may lack power. Those who descend steep hills at high speeds may also need more stopping power. For riders who demand performance, rim brakes can be insufficient.
- Rims don’t last as long when you use rim brakes- Every time you brake with rim brakes, a tiny amount of rim material rubs off. This is caused by the abrasion from the pads rubbing on the rim walls. The friction created by rim pads rubbing on the rims also heats the rims up. The cycle of heating the rims up and letting them cool off again also weakens the rim over time. Over the course of thousands of miles of riding, your rims eventually wear out. All else being equal, you’ll probably get a few thousand fewer miles out of rims when you use rim brakes than disc brakes. Of course, disc brakes also wear through rotors over time.
- Rim brakes don’t work as well in wet weather- When the rims and brake pads get wet, they get slippery. The water reduces friction between the pads and rims. This reduces the stopping power of the brakes. Sometimes, your wheel will need to make an entire revolution before the brakes begin to slow you down. During this revolution, the pads displace the water. In other words, they squeegee the water from the rim. They can then create friction and start slowing you down on the next revolution. This makes the stopping power inconsistent in wet weather. You may not be able to stop as quickly as you’re used to when it’s raining. Rim brakes with carbon rims perform particularly poorly when wet. Disc brakes are much more reliable in wet conditions.
- Heat build-up can be an issue with rim brakes- During a long, steep descent, the friction between the brake pads and rim causes your rims to heat up. This heat can cause a number of issues. Most commonly, the heat causes the air pressure in the tire to increase. If enough heat builds up, the tire and tube can blow off the rim. This is called a blowout. If this happens, you’ll at least need a new tube. A bad blowout can destroy a tire as well. Worst case, the rim can blow out and you need a new wheel. The best way to avoid blowouts is to stop during long descents and let your rims cool off before continuing to the bottom. It can also help to
- If your wheel gets bent or goes too far out of true, you can’t ride the bike- If your wheel is bent or warped, the pad will rub on the rim making riding impossible. This happened to my buddy last year. He took a spill and bent a rim pretty bad. His wheel would hardly spin after because it was rubbing the brake arm. With disc brakes, this wouldn’t have been a problem because the wheel isn’t the stopping surface.
- Rim brakes can be more dangerous- Rim brakes generally have a longer stopping distance than disc brakes because they have less stopping power. You may need a few extra feet to come to a complete stop. This can be an issue in an emergency situation. You may not be able to slow down fast enough if a driver pulls out in front of you or if you take a corner too fast. In an emergency situation, every fraction of a second counts.
- You can’t easily run multiple wheel sizes when you use disc brakes- Some riders like to have one bike and swap out the wheels for different purposes. For example, maybe they have a 700c wheelset for road riding and a 650b wheelset for mountain biking. You can’t really do this with rim brakes because the rim sits at a different place in relation to the frame when you use different wheel sizes. If you want to ride different wheel sizes, you’ll need another bike. Brake rotors always sit in the same location no matter the size of the wheel.
- You have to clean your rims and brake pads often- Sand mud, and dirt gets stuck on your rim and in the brake pads. When you apply the brake, the pads pres these contaminants against your rim. This can scratch your brakes up. If you don’t clean the debris off, it can eventually destroy your rims. I learned this the hard way after riding on the beach and not cleaning my rims immediately after. My rear brake pads got caked in sand. The abrasion scratched my rims. I didn’t destroy the rims but I had to replace the brake pads.
- Rim brakes aren’t as precise- With rim brakes, you can’t control as accurately how much brake you apply. This is due to the leverage that the levers create. With rim brakes, a smaller movement of your hand creates a larger movement of the brake pad. The leverage is different. You can’t control the braking force as precisely. Your wheels are more likely to lock up if you brake too hard. This makes riding loose or slippery terrain a bit more challenging because you are more likely to lose traction. This increases your stopping time. It’s also hard to feather the brakes when you just want to shed a little bit of speed.
- Using rim brakes isn’t as satisfying- This may be a personal preference or it may have to do with the quality of brakes that I’ve used but rim brakes just don’t feel as solid when I grab the brake lever.
- Brake pads don’t last as long- Rim brake pads are made from a softer material than disc brake pads. This softer material improves rim longevity. Because the pads are made of a softer material, they abrade away and wear out faster. You’ll have to replace the pads more frequently as a result.
- Rim brakes can limit your maximum tire width- Rim brake arms have to reach around your tires so they can grip the rim. Your tires need to be narrow enough to clear the brake arms. This limits your maximum tire width. Some rim brake calipers are too narrow to accommodate wide tires. The tires will rub the brake arms or simply won’t fit between the pads. Your frame and rims might be able to fit 2.5″ wide tires but your rim brakes may only be able to fit 2.1″ wide tires. Disc brakes don’t limit tire width.
- Rim brakes are less technologically advanced- After the recent switch from rim brakes to disc brakes in professional cycling, more research and development is going into disc brake technology than ever. The automobile industry has been using disk brakes for years. Some of that technology can be applied to bicycles as well. The result is incredibly smooth, consistent, and reliable braking technology. Rim brakes have kind of been left behind at this point. No more research and development is going into rim brakes. They are quickly becoming obsolete.
- Rim brakes are outdated- The cycling industry is moving away from rim brakes. If you’re in the market for a new bike that you plan to ride for many years, you may want to go with disc brakes to help make your bike more future-proof. Almost all new bikes that are mid-range or higher come with disc brakes these days. Only lower-end bikes come with rim brakes. Who knows, maybe new rim brakes will be hard to find 20 years in the future. Probably not though.
More Cycling Pros and Cons Analyses from Where the Road Forks
Disc brakes use calipers that bolt directly to the frame. The brake pads are mounted inside the calipers.
The front caliper mounts to the left fork blade. The rear caliper usually mounts to the left chainstay. Sometimes it’s mounted to the left seat stay.
Usually, the calipers mount to posts that stick out from the bike’s frame. This design is called post-mount. It is common on mountain bikes.
Sometimes the calipers mount to a flat section on the frame. This newer design is called flat-mount. This design is common on road bikes and gravel bikes. Some cross-country mountain bikes are also flat mount these days.
A rotor (or disc) mounts to the wheel’s hub. The rotor spins between the brake pads.
Most disc brake rotors are made from steel. Disc brake rotors come in a range of diameters from 120mm to over 205mm. Larger rotors produce more stopping power than smaller rotors because they have more surface area. The braking surface is larger. Mountain bikes tend to have larger rotors than road bikes because they need more stopping power. Heavier riders also require larger rotors than lighter riders.
The rotor can connect to the hub in one of two ways. Most commonly, the rotor bolts to the hub with six bolts. Some rotors use Shimano’s Centerlock system. In this case, the rotor slots onto the hub and is held in place with a lockring. The lockring tightens in place with a cassette lockring tool or a bottom bracket tool. Bolt-on rotors are more common on mountain bikes. Centerlock rotors are more common on road bikes.
When you pull the brake lever, the brake pads squeeze against the rotor. This creates friction, which slows the bike down. The brake pads can be made from a number of different materials including organic, sintered, or metallic compounds. Each material has its own pros and cons. The best pads depend on the type of riding you do.
Rotors can get extremely hot during extended braking. There are several designs manufacturers use to reduce heat. Rotors often feature fins and cutouts. This increases the surface area of the rotor which helps dissipate heat faster.
Sometimes the rotors are made from a piece of aluminum sandwiched between steel sheets. Aluminum dissipates heat 15 times faster than steel because it is a better conductor. It’s lighter as well.
Some rotors are floating. These rotors are made from two pieces. The braking surface and the carrier (the part that attaches to the wheel). The braking surface is riveted to the carrier.
This design serves several purposes. It allows the rotor to expand more without warping. This helps the brakes perform better when they’re hot. The floating rotor can also move slightly to conform to the shape of the brake pads. This increases the size of the braking surface, which increases braking power.
Mechanical disc brakes
Mechanical disc brakes are actuated with a braided steel cable (Bowden cable), just like rim brakes. These are sometimes called cable-operated disc brakes.
The cable runs from the brake levers to the calipers. When you squeeze the brake lever, the cable pulls a lever on the side of the caliper. This lever pushes a piston, which squeezes the pads against the rotor.
In most cases, only the outboard brake pad moves toward the rotor when you pull the brake lever. The inboard pad is static. On some higher-end models, both pads move toward the rotor.
The pads squeezing the rotor create friction which slows the bike down. Mechanical disc brakes usually use the same pads and rotors as hydraulic disc brakes. There are some exceptions.
The main benefit of mechanical disc brakes is their simplicity. They are easy to repair and maintain and they can be serviced in the field. Parts availability is also good. They are compatible with the same brake levers, cables, and integrated shifters as rim brakes. They are also significantly cheaper than hydraulic disc brakes.
The main disadvantages of mechanical disc brakes are that they don’t perform as well as hydraulic disc brakes. They don’t provide as much stopping power, they are less sensitive, and you have to pull the brake lever harder to stop the bike. They are also a hassle to keep properly adjusted. If the cable isn’t just right, the pads rub on the disc. The cable can stretch over time and cause the brakes to go out of adjustment. Mechanical disc brakes are also heavier than hydraulic.
Hydraulic disc brakes
Hydraulic disc brakes operate with a fluid-filled line. When you squeeze the brake lever, you are moving the master cylinder. This pushes hydraulic fluid into the brake line. This causes the brake line to pressurize. The pressure moves a piston in the caliper. The piston pushes the brake pad against the rotor. When you release the brake lever, a spring pushes pads away from the rotor and back into the caliper. This is the same technology used in car and motorcycle disc brakes.
Most hydraulic disc brakes have a piston on each side of the rotor. Both pads move toward the rotor when you squeeze the lever. Some models only have a piton on the outbound side. Some models that are made for downhill mountain biking feature 4 pistons, 2 on each side. This allows the brakes to apply more force to the rotors, creating more braking force.
Hydraulic disc brakes use a number of different pad shapes and sizes. Before replacing your pads, you’ll want to check which type your brakes require. Not all disc brake pads will fit.
Different brands also use different types of hydraulic fluid. Some use DOT brake fluid. Some use mineral oil. It’s important to check which type of fluid your brakes use before bleeding the brakes and replacing the fluid. Using the wrong fluid can cause damage to the seals.
The main benefit of hydraulic disc brakes is performance. They offer strong and consistent stopping power. This is possible because the fluid creates almost zero friction in the hose. This allows more force from your hands to be transmitted into braking force. You don’t have to pull the levers as hard. They are efficient.
Hydraulic disc brakes also operate smoothly, consistently, and precisely. This is because the system is sealed and pressurized. Dirt, sand, and other debris can’t enter and create friction. Every time you pull the lever, the brakes respond the same way. You can easily modulate the stopping power.
Another benefit to hydraulic disc brakes is that they require less maintenance once they are set up. They self-adjust. The system is also lighter.
The main drawbacks of hydraulic disc brakes are the cost, maintenance, and complexity. The system is simply more expensive. The levers, calipers, and brake lines all cost more. Maintenance is also more complicated. Even though it’s less frequent, you have to bleed the brake lines periodically because braking performance degrades over time as air bubbles make their way into the fluid in the lines. If a brake line gets severed or if a seal fails and the fluid leaks out, you can’t repair it in the field. Parts availability also isn’t as good.
For more in-depth info, check out my guide to hydraulic Vs mechanical disc brakes. Also, check out my YouTube video on the subject.
Types of Rim Brakes
Rim brakes have been the standard for both road riders and off-road riders for decades. They are lightweight and simple. Rim brakes can provide strong braking performance when they’re properly set up and adjusted.
Over the past few years, many competitive road cyclists have moved away from rim brakes. Mountain bikers stopped using rim brakes a couple of decades ago. Having said that, rim brakes are more than sufficient for the vast majority of casual riders.
A wide range of rim brake designs have been used over the years. The three most common types of rim brakes include V-brakes, cantilever brakes, and caliper brakes. There are a number of different caliper brake designs including single-pivot caliper brakes, dual-pivot caliper brakes, direct-mount caliper brakes, and center-pull caliper brakes. Other rim brake designs include U-brakes and roller-cam brakes. Many of these designs are extinct but you may find them on older bikes.
They all work more or less the same way. The main differences are where the caliper mounts and whether the caliper is comprised of one piece or two pieces.
Single Pivot Caliper Rim Brakes
These were the standard road bike brakes for many decades. Single pivot caliper rim brakes attach to the frame and fork with a single bolt in the center directly above the tire. The front brake bolts to the fork crown and the rear brake bolts to the brake bridge. The calipers have a single pivot point in the same place. This design allows the arms to center themselves. This allows the brakes to track a wheel that is slightly out of true. Single pivot caliper brakes perform best on narrow wheels so they are more common on road bikes.
These days, single pivot caliper brakes are pretty much obsolete. You may find them on older road bikes from the 80s and earlier. They have been replaced by newer designs including side pull brakes and dual pivot caliper brakes.
Dual Pivot Caliper Rim Brakes
Dual pivot brakes are very similar to single pivot brakes. They mount to the fork crown and brake bridge with a single bolt in the center of the caliper. The difference is that dual pivot brakes have two pivot points instead of one.
Each brake arm has a separate pivot point. One arm pivots in the center where the caliper connects to the frame. The other arm attaches to the side of the first arm at a second pivot point. This pivot point is offset. The cable pulls from the opposite side of the caliper. Both arms pivot toward the rim independently when you squeeze the brake lever. Both arms follow different arcs toward the rim because they pivot at different points. Dual pivot brakes are kind of a cross between side pull and center pull brakes (more on those in the following sections).
This design creates a greater mechanical advantage than single pivot brakes. The dual pivots create more leverage. This increases stopping power. It’s also easier to center the wheel between the two pads. Dual pivot brakes are common on higher-end road bikes. They work extremely well.
One drawback to dual pivot brakes is that tire clearance generally isn’t very good. The widest tires you can fit between the arms is around 28mm. Some models have longer arms that can accommodate slightly wider tires.
Center Pull Caliper Brakes
Center pull rim brakes operate similarly to dual pivot caliper rim brakes. The difference is that a straddle cable attaches to both brake arms. The main cable attaches to the straddle cable in the center. When you squeeze the lever, the cable pulls the straddle cable. This causes the brake arms to move toward the rim in a slightly upward direction.
Center pull caliper brakes offer excellent stopping power. They offer great modulation. They also offer good clearance for wide tires. The main drawback is that they require extra hardware including the cable hanger and straddle cable. This increases the weight of the brakes somewhat. It also makes the brakes slightly harder to set up and adjust.
Center pull brakes were popular on rod bikes through the early to mid 1980s. They kind of fell out of popularity after that. You’ll still find them on vintage bikes from that era. A number of manufacturers still produce center pull brakes with modernized designs. Some bicycle tourists and distance cyclists still use them.
Direct Mount Caliper Brakes
Direct mount caliper brakes attach to posts that are built into the frame. They are only compatible with frames that are designed for these specific brakes. Direct mount caliper brakes look and operate very similarly to direct mount center pull brakes. The main difference is that they do not use a straddle cable. The cable attaches directly to both arms of the caliper. When you squeeze the cable, it pulls both arms together.
These are the current standard on high-end rim brake road bikes. Direct mount caliper brakes offer strong braking performance thanks to their stiffness. They also offer good tire clearance. They are also slightly more aerodynamically efficient than other rim brake designs because they are low profile and sit close to the frame. This design creates less wind resistance.
V-Brakes (Direct Pull Cantilever Brakes)
V-brakes work very similarly to cantilever brakes. In fact, they are basically a redesigned version of cantilever brakes. The main difference is the pull ratio. V-brakes pull more cable. The cable also pulls from the side rather than the top. V-brake brake arms are also longer and run at a different angle than cantilever brake arms.
V-brakes mount to bosses that are welded onto the fork blades and seat stays. There are two mounting points per caliper. Each brake arm mounts to the frame and fork on opposite sides of the wheel. Each brake arm pivots at the mounting point.
The brakes are side actuated. The cable runs from one side of the brakes to the other across the top, passing through both brake arms. When you squeeze the brake lever, the two brake arms are pulled together. This moves the pads toward the rim.
From the lever, the cable runs to the caliper through a ‘noodle.’ This is a small hollow metal tube with a slight bend in it. The cable then passes through one brake arm. In the center, the cable runs through a ‘boot.’ This is a rubber piece that helps to keep dirt and debris out of the cable housing. The cable then attaches to the other brake arm at an anchor point.
It’s important to note that v-brakes have a different cable pull ratio than cantilever brakes or caliper brakes. For this reason, v-brakes require different brake levers called long pull levers. These pull about twice as much cable as standard levers when you fully squeeze the brakes. This means that v-brakes are not compatible with standard pull road levers or mountain bike levers. If you want to upgrade from cantilever brakes to v-brakes, you’ll need to also upgrade your levers as well.
There are some exceptions to this. Short arm v-brakes are designed to work with standard road brake levers. Clearance can be an issue with these. Cable pull converters also exist. In most cases, you’re better off upgrading the levers to models that are optimized for v-brakes.
V-brakes were released at the same time that suspension mountain bikes were just becoming popular. At that time, most mountain bikes used cantilever brakes. Cantilever brakes require a fixed cable hanger on the frame and fork to hold the cable at tension. V-brakes don’t require this. Most manufacturers switched to v-brakes because they’re easier to implement on suspension bikes.
In recent years, v-brakes have started becoming less and less common. These days, they have been replaced by disc brakes on most mountain bikes. Some expedition touring bikes, commuter bikes, hybrids, and tandems still come with v-brakes.
The main benefit of v-brakes is their performance. They provide plenty of stopping power. They are also affordable. There are some drawbacks to v-brakes. They can rub if they’re not properly adjusted. The two arms can pull unevenly. One pad may hit the rim first and rub. The ‘straddle cable’ (the cable that runs between the two brake arms) can get contaminated while riding in muddy conditions because it sits right above the tire. Mud, dirt, and sand gets flung up onto the cable. V-brakes also don’t offer much clearance between the pads and rim.
Cantilever brakes use two separate brake arms that attach to bosses that are welded on the fork blades and seat stays. The brake arms attach on either side of the wheel. Each arm has its own pivot point where it attaches to the frame.
The brake cable attaches directly to one brake arm. The second brake arm attaches with a transverse cable that runs between the two arms, over the tire. This design doesn’t limit tire width, making cantilever brakes a popular choice for mountain bikes and cyclocross bikes. They are also used on some touring bikes and tandem bikes.
The main benefit of cantilever brakes is that they offer plenty of clearance for wide tires. They were standard on mountain bikes for many years for this reason. They also provide good leverage. Cantilever brakes are also lightweight.
The main drawback of cantilever brakes is that they are tricky to adjust. When they’re not properly adjusted, they perform poorly and make lots of noise. Cantilever brakes have been pretty much replaced by v-brakes and disc brakes at this point. They are considered obsolete.
These brakes mount to bosses that are welded on the fork blades and seat stays. They pivot at the mounting points. The arms cross above the wheel and a traverse cable connects the arms. The brake arms form a u-shape. These are common on BMX bikes because they have a low profile. U brakes also use the same mounts as roller cam brakes, making them interchangeable.
There are a number of drawbacks of u brakes. They don’t offer much leverage. The stopping power can be poor. They also don’t offer much clearance. They can get clogged with mud and other debris. Adjusting u brakes can also be a challenge.
Another type of brakes that use the same mounting points are roller cam brakes. For more info, check out my guide to roller cam brakes here.
Hydraulic Rim Brakes
These use fluid-filled lines to actuate the caliper, just like hydraulic disc brakes. Pressure from the brake fluid pushes a cylinder on the caliper, which pushes the pads against the rim. They offer many of the same benefits of hydraulic disc brakes including better braking power, precision, and a smooth feel. They can also be installed on older bikes that are not designed for disc brakes.
Hydraulic rim brakes have many of the same drawbacks as hydraulic disc brakes as well. They are harder to maintain and repair. They also use lots of proprietary parts. Parts availability is not very good. Only a couple of companies offer hydraulic rim brakes.
Who Should Choose Disc Brakes?
Those who need extra stopping power should also go with disc brakes. For example, heavier riders and those who carry a heavy load, such as bicycle tourists and bikepackers, can benefit from the extra braking performance.
Disc brakes are also the better choice if you ride in dirty conditions where your rims might get covered with dust, sand, mud, and other debris. Disc brakes provide consistent performance, even when the road or trail gets sloppy. As an added bonus, you don’t risk scratching up your rims if they get caked in filth. Rotors tend to stay clean because they are raised up off the ground.
Those who ride on mountainous terrain will also be better off with disc brakes. You don’t have to worry as much about overheating your rim and having a blowout during a long descent. Disc brakes dissipate heat more efficiently. Braking performance doesn’t fade, particularly if you use hydraulic disc brakes.
Mountain bikers who ride technical terrain can also benefit from disc brakes. It’s slightly easier to modulate your braking force with disc brakes. This allows you to more precisely control the braking power depending on the conditions.
Riders with a higher budget should also go with disc brakes. If you can afford it, you might as well get the best performance you can get. You’ll feel safer and more confident if you can always stop reliably and consistently.
Who Should Choose Rim Brakes?
Rim brakes are ideal for those who only ride casually or in fair weather. If you only ride around your neighborhood, on flat bike paths, or along the boardwalk, rim brakes provide more than enough stopping power. You don’t need disc brakes.
Bicycle tourists and bikepackers who ride in remote regions and developing countries may also find rim brakes preferable due to parts availability. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, it’s easier to find rim brake parts because the technology has been around forever. Used parts are common. This is the reason that most expedition touring bikes still come with rim brakes. You can find replacement calipers or levers in pretty much any city.
Those on a lower budget should also stick with rim brakes. Components and replacement parts like pads and cables are cheaper. Calipers and levers are also more affordable.
If you like to do all of your own maintenance, you may also prefer rim brakes. They’re slightly easier to set up and maintain. Repairs are also a bit easier because the calipers are open.
If you’re the kind of rider who counts every gram on your bike, you’ll also be better off going with rim brakes. They’re slightly lighter than disc brakes.
Converting From Rim Brakes to Disc Brakes
Your bike frame and fork determine which type of brakes you can use. Some disc brake bikes include mounting points for rim brakes as well. Most rim brake bikes aren’t compatible with disc brakes because they don’t have the required mounting points for disc rotors and calipers. Usually, rim brake bikes are only compatible with one specific type of rim brakes. To determine which types of brakes you can use, check the mounting points on your bike’s frame and fork.
For most casual cyclists, rim brakes perform just fine. They’re cheap, reliable, and easy to maintain. They were the standard for many decades. If your rim brakes provide enough stopping power for you, there is no reason to upgrade.
Some types of riding require more stopping power or better braking performance. For example, for fully loaded bicycle tourists or a mountain biker who rides steep technical terrain, the upgrade to disc brakes will be worthwhile. The additional stopping power, superior modulation, and the ability to descend long hills without overheating come in handy.
In the end, the choice between disc brakes vs rim brakes comes down to the conditions you ride in, the type of riding you do, and your personal preference. Performance-wise, they are similar enough that it’s probably not worth the money to buy a new bike just to get disc brakes. If you’re already in the market for a new bike, disc brakes are worth the additional cost in most cases. The added weight and complexity make up for themselves with the added safety of more powerful braking performance. A disc brake bike is more future-proof as well.
Do you prefer disc brakes or rim brakes? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
More from Where The Road Forks
- Hydraulic Vs Mechanical Disc Brakes
- Electronic Vs Mechanical Shifting
- How to Convert an Old Mountain Bike into a Touring Bike
- Review of My First Bicycle Tour
- How to Build a Low Budget Bikepacking or Bicycle Touring Setup for Less Than $100.
- Touring with a Recumbent Bike: Pros and Cons
- 17 Types of Bicycle Handlebars
Zachary Friedman is an accomplished travel writer and professional blogger. Since 2011, he has traveled to 66 countries and 6 continents. He founded ‘Where The Road Forks’ in 2017 to provide readers with information and insights based on his travel and outdoor recreation experience and expertise. Zachary is also an avid cyclist and hiker. Living as a digital nomad, Zachary balances his professional life with his passions for hiking, camping, cycling, and worldwide exploration. For a deeper dive into his journey and background, visit the About page. For inquiries and collaborations, please reach out through the Contact page. You can also follow him on Facebook.