Are Disc Brakes Better than Rim Brakes?

Technical Tom told me the other day that I should get disc brakes for my bike. Should I and why? disk brakes on a bike wheelDisc brakes are arguably the biggest technical change in biking over the last 10 years. Basically, everything else has stayed the same for years. Technical Tom would not agree, but as riders, disc brakes represent the biggest advance.

Our answer, is it depends. Disc brakes were first implemented on mountain bikes, which definitely benefit from their superior braking power. Anyone who rides on our steep North Shore mountain trails in a downpour will totally appreciate what I am saying. They are better for mountain bikes for sure. That is if you use your bike for mountain biking. I use my bike for riding around to work, to yoga and to shop, to go sailing etc. You get the picture.

If you ride an electric bike, disc brakes are almost imperative. The greater weight and speed of these bikes will chew threw rim brakes like crazy, so most ebikes come with disc brakes. And that’s another knock against the disc brakes. They are heavier than rim brakes. So how does a person decide?

One huge advantage that disks have over rim brakes is that they don’t wear out your rims. Coming into winter bike season, I cringe every time I ride down Chesterfield with my rim brakes. The sound that emits from them when the rims are covered with mud is like listening to Metallica with no words (sorry metal heads). It makes my teeth hurt. I know I am just stripping a layer of metal away from my rims. I commute on my bike and have to replace the rims every third year – or so. Earlier if I go on a tour as well. The cost of wheel replacements over time exceeds the price of (mid-level) disc brakes after the first replacement set. So it would seem like disc brakes are the right way to go just based on price.

On the other hand, disc brakes do complicate things on the bike. For one, they make it next to impossible to use my favorite kickstand, since it attached right where the brake housing is mounted. Also the front disc gets in the way of my panniers. The other major hassle with disk brakes, for me anyway, is that they ALWAYS seem to rub. The problem is that the pads need to be pretty close to the rotor, and yet the rotor seldom seems to be perfectly true. So, you get rubbing, which drives me crazy. But, then I sometimes get that terrible squealing sound with my rim brakes too so maybe that’s a draw.

People say that disc brake pads become useless if you get oil on them. Well, how often is that going to happen? I mean if you get oil on rim brake pads, they probably aren’t that useful either. Though with disc brakes, the disc rotor is smaller than a rim, so they can heat up more quickly. On long descents, a hot rotor can heat up the hub, which can be bad for the bearings inside.

But, the biggest problem I have with disc brakes is they can become damaged. If I am in the middle of nowhere (which it seems I often am) I can’t really fix disc brakes myself. I’ll need a part that I don’t have, a tool that I don’t have and mechanical knowledge that I don’t have. I can fix almost anything that might go wrong with my standard rim brakes. I have the tools, and can carry the parts.

Sigh. Rim brakes are perfectly fine. I just wish I had the disc brakes, like all the cool kids.

The Pedal Pushers are Dan Campbell, Antje Wahl, Anita Leonhard and Heather Drugge, four North Shore residents who use their bikes for transportation. They can be reached at bike@northshore-pedalpushers.com.

 

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