Disc brake vs Rim brake – Which one is better?

Disc brakes versus Caliper brakes – the classic debate when it comes to buying your new road bike.  Whilst disc has been growing increasingly popular, the traditional rim brake seems here to stay and rightly so. Unsure what to go for? Ash puts them head to head to see which brakes suit you better…

So, Disc versus Caliper, which is better?

Well both in their respective application to a certain degree. We take a look at our Endurance SL and Endurance SL Disc  on the pro’s and con’s of different brakes.

Check out our full range of road bikes here

Conditions

The inevitable wet weather ride! Mudguard capability is a feature throughout our 2019 rang
Where wet weather is concerned there is no denying that the disc brake will provide a more consistent and responsive stopping force over a traditional rim brake and will also eliminate that awful sound of a gritty wet pad meeting your nice shiny wheel rim. That being said there is something to be said for the simplicity of a cable actuated brake.

The stopping power of discs also means much less force is needed to be applied at the lever, therefore relieving the strain and muscle fatigue, particularly on those long descents.

Tyre Clearance

The disc brake option will allow you to run up to a 32mm wide tyre (on our Endurance SL Disc) as opposed to a 28mm on the rim version allowing you a much bigger tyre footprint and the ability to use a much lower tyre pressure for optimum comfort and traction.

The Endurance SL Disc has a wide clearance for 32mm tyres
Check out a selection of  road disc bikes here

Reliability and Maintenance

A cable actuated rim brake caliper with easily replaceable brake pads.

There is an admired simplicity to a traditional cable-actuated rim caliper that will rarely let you down in terms of reliability and if you do have a problem, are much easier to fix on the side of the road. Consumables for rim brakes are cheaper too! Most would argue that modern disc brakes are also reliable and cheap to maintain, however, they can be slightly trickier to fix should something go wrong.

Ultegra disc brakes with Icetech cooling fins.

It’s also best to mention that contracting your brake lever with a wheel not present in your bike will also not be the end of the world with your trusty rim caliper. But it is to be avoided with a disc brake! However, disc brake caliper spacers are provided to avoid such issues.

Rim brakes contact the braking surface and will eventually lead to rim replacement.

With regards to maintenance, this will heavily depend on how technically capable you are. Replacement of a rim brake cartridge should be achievable by even the most ham-fisted of riders requiring you to simply loosen a grub screw slide out the old pad, pop the new one in and tighten the screw back up after (repeat).

The Endurance SL family in warmer climes!

Disc brake pad replacement can be a little more involved, however, it is much the same apart from a simple tip of pushing the pistons back before removing the old pads as the pistons self-adjust as the pads wear etc but sometimes the caliper may require re-centering… where riders often come unstuck. The biggest difference is a set of hydraulic brakes will need bleeding rather than simply replacing a set of brake cables and if you are not that mechanically minded this would be best left to the experts.

Aesthetics

Each to their own on this topic I guess. Flat mount technology and ice-tec rotors have done a lot to improve this personally, also cleaning up the bridge of the fork and the seat-stay junction on frames has made for some really tidy lines in the bikes we see these days. On the contrary, you may argue that the hub/drop-out area of these bikes now look a little daunting and a little bit busy.

Axles

A standard quick release with cam lever system

A big factor and mostly overlooked is how both of the braking systems use different types of axles. The traditional tried and tested method of securing the wheel on a traditional road bike with rim brakes is with Quick release skewers. The downside to this type of flex, wheels can flex and your rim can contact the brake pads when under load.

A thru axle bolt with allen key head requiring an allen key to be taken on each ride

On the whole the majority of disc brakes employ a bolt thru-axle system.  A thru axle screws through the wheel and directly into the fork legs using an allen key on one side. This provides additional wheel security and also improves the stiffness of the front end. This in turn provides better steering control and improves the handling of the bike.  The effects of this are particularly noticeable when cornering.

Check out the Endurance SL Disc here

Cost

An Endurance SL Disc is put through its paces during vigorous testing

It is going to cost you more to have your bike in a disc brake version. This is for a few reasons as it costs more to produce a disc frame due to the braking forces being placed all on the non-drive side of the bike as opposed to the centre of the bike via a traditional caliper and also the engineering for the bolt-thru style axles used in combination with disc brakes which is now becoming the standard.

Then there is the cost of the braking components themselves which cost more to produce due to the complexity of these parts especially in the preferred and recommended hydraulic format as there is an awful lot going on inside an 11-speed hydraulic shifter lever as you can imagine.

The Endurance SL is put through its paces
Check out the Endurance SL Caliper here

In summary

So, which do you go for then?!

My advice to you if you’re unsure which way to go is determined by a few factors:

    • Is this going to be your best weather show and shine bike because you have a winter bike as well? Then go rim brake if it is never likely to see wet/rough weather as you will still receive more than enough braking power performance on your fair-weather dry rides.
    • Is this going to be your one and only bike and you’re out no matter what the weather? Then go disc – you’ll have more consistent braking regardless of conditions and you’ll get more longevity out of your wheels as you won’t be wearing your rims in those adverse conditions.
    • Is the weight of your bike your #1 priority? Then go for rims – they’re lighter!
    • You want the best bike you can possibly get and your budget allows it? Again, go disc as the disc brake will always have the more optimal braking performance.
  • I’m new to cycling? Then come into one of our showrooms to try both and see which you prefer!

Either way, there is no right or wrong choice – hence why our new 2019 range offers both options across our Endurance and R872 models.

Check out our full range of Ribble bikes

Written by Ashley Brough – Triathlete, CrossFit King, Ribble Mailbox Store Manager and Super Dad to Lola!


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17 Comments
  1. The brake performance of a good set is fantastic, especially in the wet but discs and the Caliper saddle to the weight and create wind resistance, rim brake 2, disc 1, on performance. Discs also really shine because they don’t wear the rim, important both for alloy and carbon rims, so discs 1 rims 0.

  2. Discs are great but come with an extra weight penalty compared to rim brakes which is not discussed in the article.

  3. A further comment regarding weight could be that in the more recent performance disc wheels have lighter rims because the rims are specifically designed for disc wheels and a brake track isn’t necessary. So although the total system weight may be higher the rotational weight is less.

  4. As well as wearing your rims, leading to wheel replacement periodically you also can get away with out of true wheels. Commuting to central London I would get through a set of rims (wheels) every two years and have to have them trued 2-3 times a year which offsets the extra cost of discs very quickly.

  5. Rim brakes wearing out rims??? No, I’ve been cycling 38 years and never worn out a rim. Weight differences are negligible unless you are riding as a professional. The biggest claim is improved braking in bad weather however this will depend just as much on your tyre choice as ultimately that’s the contact between you and the road, all rim brakes will be powerful enough to lock up your wheels on a wet descent so discs in that scenario are over engineering the issue. Cycle cross YES! discs, carrying a lot of weight ie touring? YES! Will give braking security and allow larger tyre clearance. Disagree totally with the assessment that rim brake wheels are more flexible, that depends on the build as for looks discs IMO look hideous! Personal choice and use in the end but discs are for most over part over engineering the solution needed on the road

  6. Disc brakes don’t need to be hydraulic. We have a mechanical disc on the back of our tandem which, combined with a Magura hydraulic caliper brake on the front, provides superb braking. I’ve never been able to set up cantilever/V/caliper brakes at the back of a tandem capable of locking the wheel in the dry before. That’s despite using the heaviest cable with minimal outer.

    I’ve replaced the rims on my wife’s bike several times because of braking wear. Replacing a disc is cheap and easy. Even hydraulic disc brake sets are well under £100 and will outperform even the best rim brakes (except perhaps the Magura hydraulics). Discs actually work in the wet without that sickening wait for the rim to dry.

  7. Flexibility increases with disc brakes as on many bikes you could run different wheelsets depending on what you are doing. Of course, this is expensive, but cheaper than having one bike for tarmac and another for gravel.

  8. I have ridden in excess of 5000kms per year for more years than I like to remember across a whole range of Reynolds,&Columbus Steels, Carbon and Aluminium and have never ever had to replace my wheels because my rims have reached their braking limit. Having been in excess of 15stone for much of my working life, I still have Mavic Open Pro clincher rims and GP4 SSC tubular rims that are over 30 years old never having seen a spoke key. The secret is i) matching them to top quality hubs – Campag Record or Mavic ii) Stainless steel butted spokes, iii) Correctly adjusted brakes be these Campag or Shimano and of course iv) a first class bespoke wheel builder who will build your wheels relative to your weight and type of use matched to Continental or Vittoria tyres. There simply is no excuse for lateral movement of the rim whilst climbing or cornering if properly built and maintained. I should state not since I was a teenager have I ever bought an “off the peg bike” straight out of a LBS without first paying extra for my own choice of wheels even on my old Raleigh winter hack. Classic example – I bought a Trek Domane 5.2 whilst in South Africa but the LBS agreed to give a good discount on my Factory built Campag Shamal Ultras whilst he retained the original standard Bontrager’s, back in the UK my Son recently bought a Trek Edmonda and within 2months suffered 2 broken spokes on his rear disc wheel. In fairness to Trek they immediately gave him an entirely new wheel BUT “you pays your money and makes your choice”

  9. Disc
    Better braking.
    Less cables/stetics
    Less effort, less fatigue

    Rim brakes
    Maintenance, Simplicity
    Weight
    Easy to mount and dismount
    Less cost

  10. One thing this article fails to discuss is the requirement to change spoke patterns. Rim and disc brakes apply forces on the wheels differently, and disc brakes must have off-set spokes, rather than the radial you see on a rim brake (front). After the experience I had with disc brakes on a Ridgeback Flight 05 I am loathe to try them again, having had multiple spoke failures. Rear wheels have always had off-set spokes to deal with the torsional force arising from acceleration – now they have to deal with the torsion from braking also – and you can brake a lot harder than you can accelerate.

  11. I find routine maintenance on disc brakes easier than rim brakes
    The disc pad slips into the caliper and essentially sets itself in position by loosening the boles and then applying pressure.
    Rim brakes not so easy.
    More technical repairs I am going to let my local bike shop handle

  12. I’ve had discs on a 2018 Giant Propel for about 9 months and can’t stop them squealing very loudly in the wet. Tried every fix out there until this week finally got rotors and pads replaced and… still squealing when wet.
    I want to go back to calipers.

  13. Maybe it’s a learning curve but I see a lot of people having issues with squealing disks, rubbing disks, or disks just not able to stop a wheel as well as a rim brake.

    Rim brakes are so simple and I can’t ever remember needing more power.

    I’m happy with rim at the moment – and i have a few sets of wheels I can swap over to.

  14. Just for the record, I have worn out a rear rim to failure, fortunately as coming to a stop off road so no injury. The side of the rim simply peeled off as I was braking. It doesn’t half go with a bang.

    A kind passing cyclist offered assistance with a puncture repair but with 1/4 of the side of the rim missing, it was time to walk.

    I’d love to have disc brakes. They weren’t around when I got the bike in ’92…

  15. I am ready to make the leap to disc. With rim brakes on carbon rims the braking braking is terrible under less than ideal conditions. Tried the ultra expensive carbon rims and the braking was great in the wet, until it was not. Worn out brake tracks. The USA manufacturer said that the wheels were within tolerance. No way! I was not able to stop. Not addressed under warranty. Yeah right.

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