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Winter Cycling Journal: The Pros and Cons of Disk Brakes

Monday, December 29, 2014


Caliper brakes are cheap and easy to repair, but are they as efficient as disk brakes in the rain?

Author note: In the coming weeks I'll be posting this weekly "Winter Cycling Journal" with information and inspiration to help you stay motivated in the wet, dreary months again, fondly referred to as Rainpocalypse. Stay tuned for topics ranging from how-to tips and tricks to advice from experts in health, fitness, and of course, bike gear and equipment. I'll also be reviewing wet weather riding gear to help you keep riding comfortably year round.  

Winter commuting and riding in the Pacific Northwest depends on having the right gear—including brakes that are in perfect working order. For years the debate has raged whether disc brakes are better than the age-old tried-and-true classic rim brakes on road bikes. Which brake system is better? It seems everyone has an opinion about which is better, and I'll tell you mine in a moment, but first let's just look at a simple run down of the pros and cons of each.


  • Provide strong braking action/superior stopping power
  • More effective in water and mud
  • Durable pads last longer
  • Spares your rims from wear and tear
  • No heated rims or related tire blowouts on long descents
  • Cleaner!


  • Place more stress on spokes
  • Stronger forks required, as uneven stress is put on one side
  • Not as easy to troubleshoot, repair or replace pads 
  • Can be noisy, squeal a lot, for no apparent reason


  • Simple, standard system with inexpensive replacement pads that are easy to install yourself
  • Better mechanical advantage using rim
  • Less stress on spokes
  • Less torque stress on front fork
  • Can indicate very clearly when your wheel is out of true


  • Wear and tear on rims which are expensive to replace
  • Risk tire blowout from overheated rims on long descents
  • Less effective performance in water and mud

Changing a flat in the rain is never fun, but particularly if you're riding rim brakes which produce this nasty brake dust.

So which is "better"? It really depends. I've ridden rim brakes for 25+ years and they work they way I expect them to most of the time. But there have been times when a quick stop had to be made, in the rain, while descending when I'd wished I had disk brakes.

The main reasons I prefer disk brakes nowadays are threefold: First of all, the provide superior stopping power in bad conditions. Secondly, the reduce wear on rims. And thirdly, they keep your wheels and bike considerably cleaner.

This last item might sound like pure vanity, but it's also a practical consideration for the urban cyclist who may not have a garage in which to store a wet bike. That black brake dust grime that coats your rims after a few spins in the rain drips off onto flooring and carpets. And of course, changing a flat is considerably less foul with disk brakes as there is no sludge built up on the rims to contend with. 

Standing out in the pouring rain changing a flat is never an enjoyable undertaking, but it's part of being an everyday urban rider. Riding a road bike with disk brakes in winter can not only be a bit safer, but it also makes the inevitable flat-changing part of the riding experience less objectionable, if not more pleasant. In my very humble opinion, for the average urban rider, the superior stopping power plus cleaner ride experience is worth opting for disk brakes.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Brooks via Compfight cc Grime photo courtesy author.



Üma Kleppinger is a Portland-based copy writer, author and bike addict. A recovering sesquipedalian who blogs about life in the saddle and outdoor adventure, she is also the author of Bike Yoga, a flexibility and recovery program for cyclists. When not writing, she can be found riding and racing her mountain bike throughout the Pacific Northwest. If you have cycling-related news to share, events to promote, or  deep thoughts about this or any other cycling related matters, shoot her a nice email.


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