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Traditional VS disc brakes: a neverending debate

Traditional VS disc brakes: a neverending debate

Traditional brakes

What are traditional brakes?

For more than 100 years, road bikes have been equipped with so-called traditional brakes. They are the simplest variant but still quite effective. When you activate the brake lever, the tension on the cable increases and the brake caliper locks onto the wheel rim. The pads on the brake caliper create friction on the rim track, thus stopping the wheel.


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

  • Simplicity: if they’re not broken, don’t change them. Decades of research and technological advancements have not changed how traditional brakes work. In fact, they are the world standard.
  • Easy maintenance: the components of the traditional brake and its maintenance are elementary, so they are easier to repair than more complex braking systems.
  • Affordability: a simpler braking system equals a more affordable bicycle. Easier repairs and less expensive spare parts translate into savings over time.
  • Lightness: the simple system of traditional brakes requires only a few components, which implies a lower overall weight. Lighter doesn’t necessarily mean better, but if you need to save on weight they are the right solution for you.
  • Wheel condition indicator: since the caliper is in contact with the wheel rim, it’s easy to tell when you need to realign it by pulling the spokes again. If one of the pads is touching the rim’s braking track more than the other, then you know your wheel isn’t turning properly.


Although traditional brakes still dominate the market, that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. Let’s take a look at some of their disadvantages.

  • Less power: generally speaking, traditional brakes, despite having undergone several improvements, still apply less braking power than their counterparts because of their structure.
  • Reduced modulation: when using traditional brakes, controlling the pressure exerted during braking is more complicated. In fact, it is harder to control speed without the wheel suddenly locking. Even professionals struggle with this, especially on rainy days and with carbon wheels (and carbon braking track). 
  • Sensitivity to atmospheric conditions: when the brake pads get wet they lose much of their effectiveness and both power and modulation are greatly affected. Just think that during the rainy World Road Cycling Championships in Oslo, won by Lance Armstrong, the Italian national team and its legendary coach Alfredo Martini rubbed some onions and lemons on the track of their rims to increase braking power. Thanks to this old trick, they removed some grease that the rain had splashed from the asphalt to the brakes. This increases braking power but reduces the already suboptimal modulation.
  • Wear: all the friction generated by the brakes affects the braking track, causing gradual wear. When braking, the pads gradually consume, reducing the effectiveness and power of braking. Eventually, you will have to replace the entire rim.
  • Limited tire size: the caliper must wrap around the wheel in order to reach the rim. Unfortunately, due to their size, wider tires don’t fit on bikes with traditional brakes.

Disc Brakes

What are disc brakes?

Disc brakes on bicycles were the solution for those bikers who were tired of the mud and dirt that too often clogged their traditional brakes. Manufacturers started introducing disc brakes on road bikes a few years ago. They work like the brakes of motorcycles and cars: instead of acting on the rim, these brakes block a rotating disc placed on the hub of the wheel.

Simply put, there are two types of disc brakes: the mechanical one, which works with a system of cables under tension to activate the caliper (just like traditional brakes); and the hydraulic one, which activates the caliper with a brake fluid.


As I mentioned before, the debate is still very hot and you’ll hear several enthusiasts dissect the most varied arguments in favor of the newest disc brakes. Let’sproceed and see what the main points in favor of disc brakes are.

  • More power: these brakes are applied to a device which is especially designed to stop the whole bicycle and are therefore more powerful than rim brakes.
  • Better modulation: discs allow for more precise and fluid braking. Riders are thus able to balance the amount of force they want to apply more accurately, decreasing the possibilities of unwanted wheel lockup. Furthermore, hydraulic brakes are even stronger and mechanically better at modulating braking than mechanical disc brakes.
  • All-weather reliability: whereas traditional brakes struggle to get a grip on wet wheels, disc brakes have no issues in doing so. The rotating disc is much smaller than the wheel rim, therefore water can easily be removed from the caliper passage.
  • Wear: the pressure caused by the constant action of the traditional brake can lead to overheating or excessive rim wear and its consequent breakage. This issue disappears with disc brakes. Moreover, these are generally not affected by a possible wheel deformation.
  • Unrestricted tire size: Since tire size is not limited by the brake calipers, disc brakes allow for wider wheels. This can be very important for those who wish to have wider tires that improve the comfort and stability of the bike.


Disc brakes seem to outperform traditional brakes in many ways, however, it’s good to take into account what the downsides are before making a final choice.

  • Price: since they are more complicated and have more components, disc brakes are often more expensive, as are their maintenance and replacement. Hydraulic disc brakes are especially tricky, since changing the brake fluid is a more complex process that should be done every six months or so. 
  • Weight: due to their extra rotors, hoses, and reservoirs, disc brakes can weigh as much as 500g more than their traditional version. This may not seem like a big difference at first glance, but for experienced and professional cyclists it is a major factor.
  • Less aerodynamics: all the extra components we have just mentioned not only influence the total bike weight but also have a significant impact on the aerodynamics of the bike. In this case, too, someone might not care but, especially for competition-oriented customers, it is fundamental.
  • Heat in the system: where there is friction there is heat, and with disc brakes, the victim is the rotating disc. This happens only in very exceptional cases. Manufacturers like Shimano make sure that the heat is efficiently redistributed.
  • Noise: while it’s true that disc brakes are better in adverse weather conditions, an agglomeration of dirt (sand, mud, etc…) can cause them to whistle terribly (in jargon, squawk). Some cyclists have complained that disc brakes whistle for no great reason in particular. This is why they need additional and constant maintenance.

Final considerations

Even though disc brakes are gaining a very important share of the market, we will see rim brakes for some more time. Both solutions have their pros and cons, therefore each rider will have to choose according to their needs. Even among professional cyclists, you can still find traditional brakes as well as disc brakes advocates. In any case, it’s good to know that both are valid and reliable solutions.

So, whatever your choice, we have something for everyone!

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