Disc Brakes vs. Rim Brakes – Which Is the Better Stop?

The brakes are one of the most important components on a bike. Not only are they the first and last line of defense as far as safety goes, but they also have a huge effect on handling, cadence, and overall performance.

The two most common types of brakes on the market today are disc brakes and rim brakes. You might not be familiar with the differences between the two – but even if you are, knowing exactly how they differ – and what each option entails, can be a huge advantage.


Disc Brakes vs. Rim Brakes

No matter what type of cycling might be your forte, braking is an essential skill. Knowing how to brake properly, and when, is of the utmost importance.

Knowing is half the battle – but in this case, it would be more accurate to say “only half the battle”. You need a good set of brakes to back you up.

bicycle brake kit

We’re going to go over the two most popular types of brakes – with an overview of the differences, pros, and cons of each. This brief guide will give you a solid outline of the basics – so that you can make an informed decision that works for you.


Different Mechanisms of Action

All brakes work by applying force to a certain part of a bike’s wheel to reduce speed or bring the bike to a complete stop. However, the inner workings, mechanisms, and perhaps most importantly, the performance of disc and rim brakes differs – to quite a large degree.

Let’s begin with a basic overview of the differences in order to get a better understanding of this long-standing debate.

Getting to know some of the technical details regarding brakes, as well as the differences between rim and disc brakes, can not only make you a better cyclist – but it can also help you find the perfect upgrade or a suitable replacement for your bike.

How Do Rim Brakes Work?

Rim brakes are a staple and a classic – they’re a tried and tested design, and if you haven’t ridden a bike with a coaster brake, they’re probably the brakes that your childhood bike had.

bicycle rim brakes

Rim brakes, which are also often called caliper brakes, work by applying force to the rim, via a set of friction pads. The material of the friction pads or braking pads varies, but all rim brake designs use cables to transmit pressure.

How Do Disc Brakes Work?

Disc brakes, on the other hand, are a more recent invention. With the use of disc brakes, the braking force is applied to a hub-mounted rotor that is located near the middle of the wheel.

There are two types of disc brakes – mechanical and hydraulic. Mechanical disc brakes are more similar to rim brakes – and operate by using a cable to transmit force.

bicycle disc brakes close up

Hydraulic disc brakes, on the other hand, use fluid. When you engage the brakes, fluid is released from a master cylinder, compressing the fluid already in the system, which exerts force onto the brake pads and rotor.


The Comparison

Now that we’re armed with some technical knowledge, we can move on to the actual, concrete differences.

Maintenance and Upkeep

Brakes do the most important job on a bike – so keeping them maintained and functioning properly is an absolute must. This is one of the key areas in which rim and disc brakes differ.

Rim brakes require much more frequent and regular maintenance – but luckily, maintaining them is quite easy. So easy in fact, that you can do it by yourself with a couple of common tools like bike stand and an online tutorial.

If you’re going to be replacing your brakes, rim brakes also have the benefit of being quite easy to install and set up. However, brake pads on rim brakes do tend to wear out quite fast – and even your rims themselves will eventually wear down, which will warrant a replacement.

replacing disc brakes

Disc brakes are almost the complete opposite in these regards. Setting them up is a longer, more delicate, and more difficult process – but once that’s done, they require very little maintenance, as they use a sealed system – and they last much longer than rim brakes. They also won’t wear out your rims.

However, when something does go wrong, you’re more than likely going to have to visit a bike shop – as repairing and adjusting disc brakes yourself is quite difficult and time-consuming. However, the infrequency of such occasions means that it isn’t a huge concern – neither cost-wise nor time-wise, all things considered.

As far as upkeep and maintenance go, we call it a tie – this question comes down to personal preference – do you prefer regular, simple, hands-on maintenance, or an infrequent but in-depth approach taken care of by a professional?

Price

It’s obvious from the get-go that the most burning question is that of performance. But before we get to that, let’s take a look at the less interesting but ever-present question of price.

Rim brakes are cheaper than disc brakes. Much cheaper. Both when it comes to up-front costs and maintenance.

popal city 28 inch woman 6sp rim brakes

But we’ve chosen to tackle the issue of price first because the fact that rim brakes are cheaper in no way implies that they are worse. In fact, they may be a much better choice for you – but more on that later.

Disc brakes are quite a bit more expensive – and even more so if they are hydraulic. Although infrequent, disc brake maintenance and repair are also expensive, and replacing disc brakes is far more expensive than replacing rim brakes.

Performance

The biggest difference between these two systems lies in performance. To start with, rim brakes are noticeably lighter than disc brakes. An entire pound of weight is nothing to scoff at, and such a large difference isn’t uncommon. Rim brakes also have the benefit of being more aerodynamic.

However, that’s where the list of advantages ends for rim brakes. Disc brakes offer much greater stopping power and are much more responsive and easy to use.

SES Disc Brake Technology

This also allows you to fine-tune how much force you want to apply – making it easier to adjust speed. The precise braking of disc brakes also allows them to perform much better in wet and muddy conditions.

Disc brakes also allow you to experiment with wider tires, as the width of rim brake calipers limits your tire choice.

As far as pure power, precision, and versatility go, disc brakes reign supreme – and by a long shot. All of this holds true – to an even greater degree, for hydraulic disc brakes.


Which Type of Brake Should I Get?

The fact of the matter is that the brake type that you’re currently using is the type you’re stuck with, as these systems aren’t interchangeable.

But if you’re looking for a new bike, hydraulic disc brakes are the gold standard, with mechanical disc brakes being a close second. With a full-suspension mountain bike, hydraulic disc brakes are always a must.

Although rim brakes are declining in popularity, the fact of the matter is that not everyone needs high-power disc brakes – for quite a lot of people, rim brakes will do just fine.

Rim brakes can’t compete, performance-wise – but if you’re after a simple, reliable design that costs less and weighs far less, rim brakes are a perfectly valid option.

Mechanical disc brakes are fine for mid-range and affordable mountain bikes. On the other hand, road bikes are likely to benefit the most from the weight-reducing aspect of rim brakes.

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Disc Brakes vs. Rim Brakes – Which Is the Better Stop? — Bike Hacks