Disc brake vs Rim brake – Which one is better?

Disc brake versus Rim brake – the classic debate when it comes to buying your new road bike.  Whilst disc brakes have been growing increasingly popular, the traditional rim brake seems here to stay. Unsure which to go for? Ash puts them head to head to see which brakes may complement your riding style better…

So, Disc versus Caliper, which is better?

Well both in their respective application, at least to a certain degree. We take a look at our Endurance SL and Endurance SL Disc bikes to examine the pros and cons of each brake type.

Check out our full range of road bikes here.

Conditions

The inevitable wet weather ride! Mudguard capability is a feature across our entire range of bikes (except MTB of course).

Where wet weather is concerned, there is no denying that the disc brake will provide a more consistent and responsive stopping force. It also eliminates that awful sound of a gritty wet pad scouring away at your nice shiny wheel rim. That being said, there is something to be said for the simplicity of a cable-actuated brake.

The extra stopping power of disc brakes also means that much less force is required at the lever. Thereby, relieving the strain and muscle fatigue when continuously jamming on the lever, particularly on those long descents.

Tyre Clearance

Tyre clearance on the Endurance SL is dictated by the brake calliper itself, with most brands being compatible with 28-30mm max.

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

The Endurance SL Disc’s extra frame clearance is clear to see.

Check out a selection of  road disc bikes here

Reliability and Maintenance

A feature of cable-actuated rim brakes is the easily replaceable brake pads.

There is an admirable simplicity to a traditional cable-actuated rim calliper that will rarely let you down in terms of reliability. If you do encounter a problem, they are much easier to fix by the roadside. Consumables for rim brakes (i.e brake pads and cables) tend to be a little cheaper too! Though most fans of disc brakes may argue that they are equally as reliable and cheap to maintain. However, they can be slightly trickier to fix should anything go wrong.

It’s also worth mentioning that squeezing the brake lever with the wheels off the bike doesn’t cause an issue with your trusty rim calliper. But it is definitely to be avoided with a disc brake! Doing so activates the pistons and you will soon find that there is insufficient clearance for the pads to clear the rotor. However, disc brake calliper spacers are always provided to prevent such issues. Simply pop in the spacer whilst you carry out any maintenance.

To replace disc pads it is necessary to pop out the wheel and ensure that the pistons are pushed back to accept the new pads.

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. It only requires you to loosen a grub screw, slide out the old pad, pop the new one in and tighten the screw back up afterwards (repeat).

Disc brake pad replacement is a little more involved. After all, you have to remove the wheels to do so. However, it is much the same, apart from a simple tip of pushing the pistons back before removing the old pads. The pistons self-adjust as the pads wear, but on occasion, the calliper may require re-aligning. This is often where riders come unstuck. Where they differ most is that a set of hydraulic brakes will need bleeding instead of simply replacing a set of brake cables. If you are not that mechanically minded, this is probably best left to the experts.

The Endurance SL & SL Disc in action!

Wheels

Rim brake compatible wheelsets require a braking surface for the brake pad, disc brake wheels do not.

There are two major features that separate a rim brake compatible wheelset and disc brake-specific wheels. Namely, the hub axles (see axles section below) and braking surface. Standard wheels have a braking surface and disc wheels don’t, as they have no need for one. Why do we mention this? Well, it is one of the minor drawbacks of the rim brake.

If ridden throughout the year and in all weather conditions, it’s possible to wear out the wheel rim prematurely. Certainly much more quickly than someone who only rides their bikes infrequently and only ever in fair weather.

Aesthetics

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

Ultegra disc brakes, complete with Icetech technology for extra cooling power.

Axles

A standard quick-release with a cam lever system

A big factor and one that is most often overlooked is how both types of braking systems make use of different axle designs. The traditional tried and tested method of securing the wheel on a traditional road bike with rim brakes is the humble quick-release skewer. The downside to this particular design is wheel flex. No matter how tight the skewer is, if you grab the tyre you will always be able to flex the wheel from side to side. This results in the rim making contact with the brake pads when under load.

A bolt thru-axle with Allen key head, requiring an Allen key to be taken on each ride. Though you can buy axles with a cam-lever for easier wheel removal.

The majority of disc brake-equipped bikes employ a bolt thru-axle system.  The axle slides through the wheel and screws directly into the dropouts of the frame. Some versions require an Allen key to tighten and remove them. Others, however, use a cam lever design in much the same way as a quick-release skewer. The thru-axle provides additional wheel security by stiffening up the junction between wheel and frame. Consequently, leading to better steering control and superior bike handling. Particularly when high-speed cornering under full load.

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 number of reasons, not least of which is that it costs more to produce a disc frame. Due to the braking forces being applied on the non-drive side of the bike. In direct opposition to the centre of the bike via a traditional calliper.

Then there is the cost of the braking components themselves of course. These cost more to produce due to the complexity of these parts. Especially in the preferred and recommended hydraulic format. 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 award-winning and extensive range of bikes are available in both options across our Endurance and R872 models.

Check out our full range of Ribble bikes


Written by Ashley Brough – Triathlete, CrossFit King, UK Territory Manager and Super Dad to Lola!


View all Ribble Disc bikes


Design your dream Ribble bike with CusomColour in BikeBuilder. Find out how to add your unique design here.


Need help with selecting the right gears, check out our gearing explained guide


20 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.

  16. Personally I love the disc set up on my current ride in cool damp conditions they’re untouchable. However I have also noticed they are not so good when the going becomes really tough. I’m currently riding in a hilly area of Spain and I have noticed that on very long high speed descents the front wheel (hub spoke assembly) is making a lot of complaining noises. I think I might be overloading it (88kgs body weight) . I’m starting to think that a duo set up would be best…front rim brakes, rear disc. I think the rear is best with a disc because on a long descent you can trail brake with the rear just to control your speed without troubling the rear hub assembly because of the weight transfer to the front. Then when you need true stopping power the front rim brakes can be used without overloading the front hub. This will be the set up on my next bike.

  17. I have had a rim wear through due to the rim brake wearing the aluminium away. There is no get you home bodge when this happens other than take the tyre and tube off and ride on the metal rim which got me home – at very slow speeds. I long for a nice pair of wheels but with that experience I am loathed to fork out – hence my interest in disc brakes. I have cable disc brakes on one bike but they are not as good as the hydraulic ones on a rented bike I rode. I think the disc and caliper designs are becoming very neat and I like the disc brake look. One day carbon frame and hydraulic discs…dream on.

  18. Rim brakes every time for me based on simplicity, easy maintenance and aesthetic appeal. BUT DON’T GET CHEAP ONES. If you’re worried about stopping power try Shimano DuraAce or Ultegra and you will find them the equal off most expensive discs brakes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.