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Traditional brakes vs. Disc brakes: An endless debate

Traditional brakes vs. Disc brakes: An endless debate

Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, once joked: 'In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.' It turns out he forgot a crucial aspect, a third element often overlooked: the ongoing debate over everything related to bicycle brakes. Whether they're coaster or manual, traditional or disc, mechanical or hydraulic, brakes have always been at the center of a fiery debate among cycling enthusiasts.

Jokes aside, today's debate over brakes is really heated regarding the choice between traditional brakes (rim brakes) and hydraulic disc brakes. We certainly don't want to add more fuel to the fire (there's already plenty!), but we will briefly outline some of the most important differences between the two categories.


Traditional brakes

What are traditional brakes?

For over 100 years, road bicycles have been equipped with what are, indeed, called traditional brakes. They're the simplest but still quite effective. When you activate the brake lever, the tension on the cable increases and the brake caliper closes on the wheel's rim. The pads on the caliper create friction on the rim's track, thus braking the wheel.


The setup still works well, which is why they're still widely used. What has made traditional brakes the first choice so far?

  • Simplicity: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Decades of research and technological advancements haven't changed the operation of traditional brakes, indeed, they represent the global standard.
  • Easy maintenance: the components of the traditional brake and its maintenance are basic, making them easier to repair compared to more complex braking systems.
  • Cost-effectiveness: a simpler braking system equates to a more affordable bicycle. Easier repairs and less expensive replacement parts translate into savings over time.
  • Lightweight: a simple system like that of the traditional brake results in fewer components, sometimes also lighter, which in turn translates into a lower overall weight. Lighter doesn't necessarily mean better, but if you're looking to save on weight, they're the right solution for you.
  • Wheel condition indicator: since the caliper is in contact with the wheel rim, it's easy to tell when it needs to be realigned by pulling the spokes again. If one of the two pads is touching the braking track of the rim more than the other, then you'll know that your wheel isn't spinning correctly.

Despite traditional brakes still dominating the market, that doesn't mean they're perfect. Let's see some disadvantages.

  • Lower power: generally, traditional brakes, despite having undergone several improvements, still apply less braking power compared to their counterparts due to the way they operate.
  • Reduced modulation: this is a technical way of saying that cyclists with traditional brakes have more difficulty controlling the pressure exerted during braking. With these brakes, it's harder to control speed without the wheel locking up suddenly. Even professionals have several problems especially on rainy days and with carbon wheels (and carbon braking track).
  • Sensitivity to weather conditions: when the brake pads get wet, they lose much of their effectiveness, and both power and modulation are significantly affected. Think that during the rainy World Cycling Championships in Oslo, won by Lance Armstrong, the Italian national team, led by the legendary CT Alfredo Martini, to increase braking power, rubbed onions and lemons on the track of their rims. This old trick allowed to degrease the wheels from the oily residues that the rain had brought from the asphalt to the brakes, increasing yes the braking power, but reducing even more the modulation, already not optimal.
  • Wear: all the friction generated by the brakes is reflected on the braking track of the rim, causing gradual wear. The marks that form over time decrease the area that the pads touch when braking, reducing the effectiveness and power of the braking. In the end, the entire rim has to be replaced.
  • Limited tire size: the caliper must wrap around the wheel in order to reach the rim. Unfortunately, because of their size, wider tires cannot be mounted on bicycles with traditional brakes.


Disc Brakes

What are disc brakes?

Bicycle disc brakes have been the answer to the demand of bikers who were tired of mud and dirt too often clogging their traditional brakes. Manufacturers, for some years now, have decided to introduce disc brakes also on road bicycles. To understand how they work, it is enough to think about the brakes of motorcycles and cars. Instead of acting on the rim, disc brakes pinch the rotating disc placed on the hub of the wheel.

Without getting lost in too much technicality, there are two types of disc brakes: mechanical, which works using a tension cable system to activate the caliper just like traditional brakes; and hydraulic, which instead of using classic cables uses a brake fluid to activate the caliper.


The debate, as said, is still very heated and you will hear several enthusiasts dissect the most varied arguments in favor of the brand new disc brakes. Let's together see what are the main points in favor of disc brakes.

  • More power: brakes applied to a device specifically designed to brake the bicycle offer more power compared to those applied on the rim.
  • Better modulation: discs allow for a more precise and fluid braking. Pilots are thus able to more accurately dose the amount of force they want to apply, decreasing the possibility of an unwanted wheel lock. Furthermore, hydraulic brakes are even stronger and mechanically better at modulating braking compared to mechanical disc brakes.
  • Reliability with any weather condition: when traditional brakes struggle to grip on wet wheels, disc brakes have no problems. The rotating disc is much smaller compared to the wheel rim, therefore, water is removed by the passage of the caliper much more easily.
  • Wear: the pressure caused by constant traditional brake braking can lead to overheating or wear of the rim and its consequent breakage. With disc brakes this problem is eliminated. Moreover, generally disc brakes are not affected by a possible deformation of the wheel.
  • Unlimited tire size: since the size of the tires is not limited by the calipers of the brakes, disc brakes allow mounting wider wheels. This aspect can be very important for those who want to have wider tires that improve the comfort and stability of the bicycle.

Disc brakes seem to surpass traditional brakes in many aspects, however, it is good to take into account what are the negative aspects before making a final choice.

  • More expensive: since they are more complicated and have more components, disc brakes are often more expensive. Even maintenance and replacement, obviously, result in more costly. Hydraulic ones in particular create more problems as changing the brake fluid is more complex, and experts recommend doing it every six months or so. More parts and more maintenance translate into a greater initial investment and a higher cost over time.
  • Weight: with extra rotors, tubes, and reservoirs, disc brakes can weigh even more than 500 grams more than the traditional alternative. This may not seem like a big difference at first glance, but for experienced cyclists and professionals it is a decidedly relevant factor.
  • Less aerodynamics: all the extra components we just named, not only change the weight, but also have a significant impact on the aerodynamics of the bicycle. Again, to someone it may not matter much but, especially for those who race, it is an element not to be overlooked.
  • Heat in the system: where there is friction there is heat, in the case of disc brakes the victim is not the rim but the rotating disc. All this happens only in really exceptional cases. Manufacturers like Shimano have inserted components that redistribute this heat more efficiently.
  • Noise: if it is true that disc brakes are better in adverse weather conditions, an agglomerate of dirt (sand, mud, etc ...) can make them whistle terribly (in jargon honk). Some cyclists have complained that disc brakes whistle without great reasons in particular. For this they need further and constant maintenance.


Final considerations

Even if disc brakes are gaining an important slice of the market, still for a long time we will have bicycles that will mount traditional brakes. As we have seen both solutions have several pros and cons that characterize them. Each of us will, as always, have to choose based on their own needs. Even among professional cyclists there are still those who prefer traditional brakes and those who prefer disc brakes. In any case, it is good to know that both are valid and reliable solutions.

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