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So far it’s a solo ride.

AC Tech Talks - Rim vs. Disc

Derek Yarra |

Brakes. Of all the different components on a bicycle, it’s amazing how polarizing the topic of brakes can be amongst riders. People get damn near religious on their views of a bicycle’s stopping system. Even amongst the team here at AC, we’re pretty divided divided. Now, to be fair, it's not simply about the brakes, they influence quite a few things on a build. They inform your rim choice, hood ergonomics, frame design, and even your axle standards. Not to mention that for many, the choice between disc and rim is just as much a philosophical decision, just as much as it is a performance one. As we all know, the industry as a whole has been pushing full steam toward a disc only future, but is it warranted? Do rim brakes still have a place? Follow along as our crew weighs in on the bicycle stopping systems.

disc rotor

As we all know, brakes are a wildly hot topic. But given that the options are out there, and people have the freedom to choose, why do you think people get so passionate over the rim vs. disc debate?

Derek: You know, people like to get on their soap boxes. One thing “traditionalists” and “progressives” have in common is they both want to be right! But honestly, I think it’s just because it’s such a trivial topic and it’s fun to banter over.

Chad: That is a great question and I have to admit, one debate that I get into more than I care to.  When it comes down to it, who really cares what brakes you put on your bike, right?  I like the look and feel of rim brakes.  I also know that disc brakes are overall better performing brakes for the most part, but so much more goes into the decision.  Looks, lever feel, lever ergonomics, serviceability, on and on.  As long as both are an option I’m happy.  Now, if the industry said look, we’re only going to make one type, and the other is gone forever, I could really see the nonsensical tempers flair.  And, you may guess which side I’d be on, right or wrong.

Robert: I think it’s an aesthetic for some and functionality for others. Everyone is different.

rim vs disc campagnolo

Do you have a singular preference for one system over the other, or does it vary from build to build?

Derek: Disc brakes or no brakes! Okay, not really, but I’m basically fully committed to discs. I’d love to add a fairly traditional steel bike to my collection like a Pegoretti with mechanical shifting and naturally rim brakes, but that’d be like a bonus Sunday cruiser kind of bike for me. For my main daily driver bikes, I’m all for disc.

Chad: Up until now I’d say my preference is purely rim brake.  Main reason, lighter weight and do it yourself on the fly serviceability.  That being said, I am looking to get a new bike right now and gasp, it’ll be disc!  More on this at a later date.  After putting some good miles on this new bike when it comes, maybe I’ll change my tune, maybe not.  But in any case, there are certain bikes that I would only think of rim brake, mainly a super lightweight climbing bike.  I know that there are some really light disc brake bikes out there, but that same bike built with rim is usually and as far as I know, still going to be a good deal lighter.  Again, I’m talking mainly road bikes here, gravel, mountain, etc, for sure disc.

Robert: Rim brake every time & all the time for my bikes. All though the Misfit Open UPPER that VeloColour painted has me questioning a solid potential coffee shop bike w/disc brakes. That build was INSANELY light weight!!

disc tech

Other than braking power itself, has the evolution of disc brakes brought any other benefits or advancements to cycling?

Derek: Definitely. It’s opened up huge opportunities for lighter, more aerodynamic rims, with improved ride quality. I like big tires, rim brakes limit tire size, so to me that’s a huge bonus as well. I’d like to say that the improved hub/dropout interface due to thru-axles is a legit bonus, but if I’m being honest, I can’t totally say that’s something I can feel in practice. I know anti-discers will argue this, but for me, hydraulic lines are far more durable and in my experience, are lower maintenance overall. For bikes with convoluted internal cable routing, hydraulics are less affected by hard angles and long paths. While totally subjective, I think bikes look cleaner with nothing at the brake bridge/fork crown.

Chad: Mainly larger tires for the all road bikes.  Maybe slightly lighter rims, but I’ve spoken to a number of engineers that work for some very big and very good wheel manufacturers and they say that the rims can’t really get that much lighter as they still need to have enough mass to be strong enough for what the road dishes out, but I could be proven wrong there.  The lightest wheels by far are still the tubular rim brake variety.  I don’t get the cleaning up the look of the bike point as you are just moving the mass from one place to another.  There could be something to the point that mass a little lower down can help handling though.  Through  axles are great, I would love to see a rim brake setup with through axles.

Robert: Job security. HA HA.. jk.. Aerodynamics: I’m mostly getting at the idea of the angles in which the brake lines are routed on these futuristic internally routed “aero” bikes. There’s also some safety theories that discs are safer for some. They definitely feel different when descending..

disc brakes 

Are there aspects to disc brakes that you actually like? Or has it all just been an excuse for the bike industry to move in a new direction?

Derek: Other than initial set up, I pretty much love everything about discs. There’s undoubtedly a difference in tactical feel between pulling a steel cable through housing or pushing hydraulic fluid through a hose. Maybe I’m biased as a mountain biker, but I just like the hydraulic feel better. There’s also a deeper level of fine tuning the feel and performance through pad compound and rotor size. Oh and there’s that whole thing where in the wet, you can actually stop.

Anti-discers tend to complain about disc being noisy. For me, that is so rarely the case. The last time I rode with Chad, you know back before Coronavirus, he was on a rim brake bike with some deep carbon wheels. His brakes rubbed audibly everytime he got out of the saddle and every time he laid on the brakes they screeched horrendously. My Sram Red HRD brakes we silent the whole time.

I also just think that they’re cooler. The technology is cooler. I think the brake rotors look cooler. Have you seen a Hope RX4 caliper with anodized bore caps? That shit is cool!

Chad: I don’t remember my rims making noise on any ride with Derek.  OK, maybe once.  But Derek, do you remember that time I was riding disc brakes and they were so loud that you couldn’t stand it? :-)  What do I like about disc brakes though?  For one, they are a better brake system for stopping, I’ve always said that.  But, good rim brakes are also so good at stopping.  I feel equally good descending our hills here with both options.  Again, maybe if I spent some solid time on a disc setup I’d feel different when returning to rim brakes.  We’ll see.  I do like the tech and for sure, we were reaching the end of the road regarding tech and rim brakes.  On some bikes, disc brakes do look better, mostly when the bike is designed around them, like a Bastion for example.  But again, some bikes look better with rim, like a Pegoretti.  And for bigger riders, I do think that disc is the best option.

Robert: IMO I do not like the aesthetic of the disc brake. The idea of the industry moving one way or another is.. IMO a way to “sell more” which I think is rad to have more folks riding. I think the disc brake hits a market for our larger clientele. I mean for example.. After descending 16km down a mountain.. there is the idea that a $50-70 warped disc is more economic to replace than say.. A melted $1k carbon rim brake hoop. Again I think it’s all about the rider and how they ride. I know for a fact that Tom Zirbel had a special HED wheelset laced with 14g round spokes just for him while riding with Optum Pro Cycling back in 2015 & I can’t say I ever say I recall any rim brake melt on his wheels. I think a few brands had some tech in development back in the day, but in “general” modern day rim brake hoops are much more durable than 5 yrs ago..

rim vs disc service and maintenance

Many people’s resistance to disc brakes stems from a fear of the new or different tech. Do you feel discs brakes are actually any harder to work on or require more maintenance than rim brakes?

Derek: Have you ever tried to dial in a cantilever brake to actually stop well? Haha. Certainly, the initial set up for disc brakes can be a little messy, annoying, and time consuming, but once you know what you’re doing it’s really not that hard. Honestly, I think disc brakes are less maintenance. It’s incredibly rare that I’ve ever needed to replace a brake hose. So long as they were set up correctly, they require bleeding far less than rim brakes need cables and housing replaced. Keeping things clean and changing pads is the same either way...

I will admit that if something does go wrong on a disc brake, it is surely a bigger ordeal to resolve, especially roadside. But, at least for me, that’s a pretty big rarity.

Chad: In some cases yes.  Let’s say both rim and disc were the same in terms of ease of installing and maintenance.  That would make the case for disc even better.  But, that is not really the case, especially in terms of installation.  If you have a rim brake that comes off center, it can take about three seconds to fix that.  If the brake disc is rubbing, it can be an easy fix or maybe not.  But on the road, it’s even more difficult.  I know it doesn’t happen a lot, but when it does…  

But set up well, I don’t think disc is harder at all to maintain.  Until they need bleeding, than they are much more so.  In the end, maintenance wise, when both are working well, I don’t think one is more difficult than the other.

Robert: I think it’s a different flavor, but yes - the disc brake calipers & spinning rotors have a significantly smaller tolerance of space to pad vs say a rim brake caliper.. which means.. minimal room for adjustment on disc bikes.

I think there are more moving objects with disc brakes and the calipers. Some folks get lucky when swapping wheels, but in general the hub, disc, & rim’s these days all vary. If you ever end up purchasing two disc wheelsets for the same bike I highly recommend using the same hub to help alleviate the need to re align brake calipers.

I have found ways that work for me, but TBH the mineral oil brakes tend to center themselves much better than the Dot 5.1 calipers. There's the idea that not all frame brands have a flat surface for the caliper to sit on, which creates another factor to consider when your brake doesn’t align. I resist the move over to disc due to a vivid image of a Sacramento cyclist, Devin I think was his name.. The video had shown him going over the bars in a sand pit and landing directly on the cyclists bike in front of him. The disc filleted his leg and I never looked at disc brakes the same way since.

  rim brake benefits

We know that disc brakes get all the attention, but obviously rim brakes should never be overlooked. What advantages do rim brakes have that discs don’t?

Derek: There is an inherent simplicity for rim brakes that will always be valid. Servicing and replacing cables is usually a pretty straightforward task needing minimal tools. Oftentimes, wheel changes are easier. Generally, they yield a lighter overall bike. A Dura-Ace rim calliper on a nice, aluminum wheel is pretty hard to beat, so, in some configurations, they still can provide plenty of stopping power.

Have you seen the dropouts on Chad’s Prova? He doesn’t build em like that for disc brakes, so that alone is an advantage!

Chad: Lighter, for now.  Easy to work on, if even needed.  Easy to adjust once set up well.  You can also use lighter and more aero wheels with less spokes.

Robert: Weight weenies haha.. Although that’s not entirely valid.. I did see a carbon disc bike fully built at about 6.2kg the other week. I think the ease of swapping wheels, tires, & brake alignment is the true advantage of a rim brake bike. It is much easier to see where your brake pad life is at & TBH I can skid a rear wheel in the rain with no issues on my RIM brake bike. #savetherimbrake

rim brakes

In what instances would you personally choose to build a bike with rim brakes?

Derek: If was in a position to have an extra road bike, I’d love to have a Pegoretti or Prova road bike, built up with mechanical Campagnolo and rim brakes, but every time I have money to burn on a new bike, it usually ends up for a dirt-oriented bike ;-)

Chad: Pure climbing bike for one.  Then for a travel bike where I just don’t want to dick around with components when I land in another country with no known shops around.  I would fear that if something happened while in transit to the bike, I could (and have) fixed my mechanical shifting, rim braked bike in the hotel room in minutes.  But if I had a bent rotor, or needed to bleed the brakes for some reason, that would suck.  Not saying it would happen a lot, but if it did...

Robert: Practicality - actually most of my bike build imaginations revolve around a zombie apocalypse theory. Derek and I go back and forth on what set up would be best for a doomsday. The rim brake for me takes the win.. I don’t have time to deal with a noisy rubbing brake in my zombie apocalypse scenario. Also, brake pads & cables will be much easier to source when shit hits the fan vs say a bottle of hydraulic fluid that’s compatible with brand X,Y,&Z.. :)

And what instances would you choose disc brakes?

Derek: For the last five plus years, all of my bikes have had disc brakes, so you could say I would pick discs in nearly all instances! The only bike I currently have without disc brakes is a track bike with no brakes.

Chad: If I wanted to run larger tires, 30c or wider.  For a pure winter bike, where I’d be mounting fenders, then it’s a no brainer, disc for sure.  Anything off road.

Robert: Coffee shop flex bike with Lightweight 32mm gum wall tubulars on an OPEN UPPER full Tune cockpit. I’d name this bike “Mr. Loud” - because disc brakes make more noise than rim brake

rim brake improvements

Caliper rim brakes have been around for, well... ever. Today, in 2020, is the technology maxed out or is there still room to improve the classic system?

Derek: I think there’s a long way to improve in braking performance on carbon rims, especially in wet weather. That said, I don’t spend much time on rim brakes these days, so I haven’t tried all the latest offerings. Things like more flexible cable/housing solutions for better performance on internally routed bikes, or better options for bikes with bigger tire would be great, but the further I get down this list I realize disc brakes already solve all of these issues.

Chad: Through axles!  I have ridden a lot of great clincher carbon rims and with the right pads, they work phenomenally well in the wet.  In bad weather though, rims, carbon included can wear out pretty quickly, especially near the coast where there can be more sand and grit on the road. So, making a tougher rim brake surface could be beneficial.

Robert: IMO some brands such as EE-Cycle & THM are still reaching for the lightweight rim brake calipers, but the “Aero” part of the brakes will need to be improved. As most brands are currently developing an internally routed handle bar and frameset to “wow” the industry I can only imagine that the rim brakes will slowly disappear on the newer “aero” frames. I think there may need to be more research as to where you can place a rim brake “safely” on some of these futuristic bike frames.. For the record the under BB area on TT bikes is a giant no go for me..

missfit open

Chad and Robert, we know you’re firmly in the rim brake camp, at least for road bikes. Would any advancements in disc technology lead you to converting?

Chad: Look, I obviously see the writing on the wall.  Talking to our wheel manufacturers and most frame manufacturers, this is the way it’s going.  It’s the way technology is going and anyone who says it’s not here to stay is living in a bubble.  That being said, there are still choices, if you like rim brakes, great, they are going to be around for a long time, parts will be available and custom frame builders will still build frames with rim brakes in mind.  So don’t fret, you can still have it the way you like it.  Looking at a bike like a Bastion for instance, that makes me want to have disc brakes.  It just seems natural with a frame like that.  I also like the look of more moto style rotors, like the Shimano XTR and some others.  I also like smaller 140mm rotors, though for sure, I have rim braked bikes that have more stopping power than a disc bike with 140’s.  So, give me more friction on a 140 and I’d be happier.  Also, make the levers smaller, like Shimano does and I’d be happier.  I will have a personal disc bike soon and then I’ll let you know how I feel after some time on that.

Robert: If you could tell me that a disc brake adjustment could be as simple as a rim brake caliper adjustment - I’d seriously reconsider which side of the line I stand. In my odd imagination.. it would be great if we could remove the hoop, tire, & spokes while leaving the hub and disc intact on the bike or as a separate piece to come on and off the bike. This imaganairy re-design would have easy-on & easy off to swap tires while maintaining the position of the hub & disc brake caliper adjustment. I have an imaginary drawing somewhere in one of my note books, but I’m no engineer so.. All we can do is wait and see what the industry comes up with :)

mosaic RS1

Derek, we know you’re all in with discs. Would you ever own another rim brake bike?

Derek: Again, if I was doing a road bike that was more classically styled, sure, but it wouldn’t be my day-in day-out bike. Would I survive if I was forced to ride only rim brakes? Of course, it would never keep me from riding, but I'm sure glad disc technology is where it is today!

disc vs rim ender

Well, we certainly didn't solve a debater here, but to be honest, our goal here wasn't to crown a winner, but simply shed some light on our personal perspectives on choosing one route or the other. What's the deal for you? Are you full disc from her on out? Are you rim brakes for ever? Maybe you've got  a few of each? Let us know in the comments and let's keep the discussion alive!

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