The short answer is: it depends.
There is an often made claim that for raw stopping power and all-round practicality, disk brakes are best. In reality, however, any type of braking system can stop your bike, and the best choice for you may not be a disc brake.
There are several different types of braking systems on the market (and, within each type, there are differences between the various brands and models). The various brakes will have their own features. But if we step outside the spec sheets for a moment, you will see that choosing a suitable brake for you will depend greatly on what you use your bike for. And that's not all.
Whether you are comparing callipers with disc brakes, or anything else, a properly-tuned brake will beat a poorly tuned brake, hands down, any day of the week. Therefore, it is not only a matter of choosing a certain type of brake: the single most important thing is to keep your brakes well maintained, whatever brake you have. And, of course, your stopping power will also be affected by variables like your tires and the conditions on the ground.
With all this in mind, we wrote this little article to answer a few FAQs simultaneously. You might be shopping for a bike (should you get the one with disc brakes or the other one?). You might be considering upgrading or servicing your brakes (we've included some useful tips along the way). Or you might just like reading things. Whatever it is, here are our thoughts. Needless to say, if you want any more guidance from people who know and love bikes, please contact us!
Here we go!
You may recall the humble coaster brake (also known as a pedal brake) from your early childhood. This brake works on the back wheel when you push the pedals backwards. It has excellent stopping power, is virtually maintenance free, and visually unobtrusive. These brakes are an excellent choice for a leisurely bike used for commuting or pleasure. Because the mechanism is enclosed, it is not affected by rain and does not produce the black brake grime you might see on rim brakes.
If your ride involves long fast descents, this is not the best brake for you – the coaster brake's design provides less heat dissipation than other systems, meaning the brake can overheat during prolonged hard use.
Drum brakes, M-brakes and roller brakes
Drum brakes, M-brakes and roller brakes all belong to the same family of brakes and work on the same principle. The braking mechanism is enclosed in a low-profile drum attached to the hub, and the brake comes on when you pull the brake-lever with your fingers. Similarly to a coaster brake, the mechanism is low-maintenance, largely weather-proof, and clean. Unlike a coaster brake, it can be used on both the front and back wheels. This system is perfect for leisurely urban use, and is popular on classic European bikes. Some brake models offer heat dissipating fins, making them better suited for heavy-duty braking. For harder braking, this system requires more force to be applied to the lever as compared to other systems (those with smaller hands or arthritis for example may find this difficult).
Rim brakes: V-brakes, Cantilever Brakes and Calliper Brakes
V-brakes, cantilevers and callipers all work by applying friction to the braking surface of the bike’s wheel. All of these systems have some excellent advantages. To work at their best, these brakes require a clean and straight braking surface (rim), good pads, and periodic adjustment. Good quality cables and compressionless cable housing will improve things too.
If you are a heavy user, you may find that you go through brake pads quickly. For pure bliss, consider upgrading your ‘factory’ pads to Kool Stops with replaceable cartridges. These pads last noticeably longer, give you better braking power, and are easy to change (just slip the old out of its cartridge and slip in the new one). As an added bonus, these fine quality brake pads are cleaner – meaning less 'brake grime' on your bike as the pads wear down.
V-brakes produce decent power and come in a range of models that include some ‘budget friendly’ options. This makes V-brakes popular on a wide range of bikes, from commuter bikes, to tourers, to cargo bikes. Check out the Yuba Mundo v4. These brakes will require periodic adjustment, including adjusting cable tension and brake balance, and changing pads. This is do-able for the mechanically minded, and our workshop is happy to help you with some tips.
Cantilever brakes work similarly to V-brakes. These brakes were the gold standard in the 90’s, but have since been largely supplanted with the more powerful V-brakes. Now they remain the preserve of cyclocross and some touring bikes, thanks to cantilevers’ generous tyre clearance. Keep in mind that some cantilever brakes can be trickier to adjust compared to V-brakes, due to their cabling set-up and brake pad adjustment.
In their modern incarnation, calliper brakes are powerful: easily powerful enough to lock a wheel. However, with power, these brakes also offer excellent modulation – meaning that you can control very finely just how much braking force you apply. And, as a bonus, they also look sexy. Who can argue with a Linus Dutchi?
Calliper brakes weren't always so highly regarded and, consequently, sometimes suffer from a bad rap. In days of old, manufacturers used steel rims with hard brake pads, leading to poor braking (there are, in fact, lots of these older bikes still around). Even now, some kids' bikes and very low-budget bikes use this set-up with weak callipers that flex visibly when applied. Avoid these lower-quality set-ups.
Hydraulic rim brakes
Hydraulic systems offer excellent power, and hydraulic rim brakes are especially powerful: this is because they use the radius of the entire wheel as leverage when braking, and use the entire surface of the rim for heat dissipation (hydraulic disc brakes, in contrast, make do with a brake disc, which offers a smaller braking surface and less leverage on the wheel). Using the entire rim as a braking surface also allows for excellent modulation of power. For a shining example, check out the German and wonderful Kalkhoff Jubilee.
Hydraulic rim brakes seldom require maintenance (significantly less often than cable brakes). Brake pads tend to last for a long time, and are simple to replace (clip out the old, and clip in the new). As with any hydraulic system, when the time comes for hydraulic system bleeding and adjustment, most will want to have this done by a workshop with the right experience and tools.
Disk Brakes: The Hydraulic and the Mechanical
Disc brakes work by squeezing a brake disc or rotor, which is attached to the wheel hub. Disc brakes can offer excellent stopping force, and are less affected by weather than rim brakes. Because disc brakes do not use the surface of the rim, they are not affected by wheels being out of true. This makes disc brakes an attractive choice for especially demanding conditions: long descents, all weather riding, or heavy loads. Check out the mega-powerful Magura four-piston brakes on the Bullitt cargo bike. Not all riders will require this additional power, and disc brakes on the spec sheet will add to the price of a new bike.
There are broadly two types of disc brakes: mechanical and hydraulic.
Mechanical disk brakes are activated by a cable, in similar way to a V-brake. As the brake pads wear, the brake needs to be adjusted to compensate. The lower-end models will tend to have poorer stopping power. Higher end models, such as Avid’s BB7 (for example, on the Surly Disc Trucker), are very dependable and offer very good performance.
Hydraulic disk brakes are activated by hydraulic fluid pushing from the brake lever, through the brake hose, into the brake calliper - similar to a car. There are two different types of hydraulic systems: DOT fluid and mineral oil (mineral oil systems tend to be less onerous to maintain: check out the Shimano mineral oil brakes on the Yuba Spicy Curry cargo bike). As the brake pads wear, the pistons in the brake calliper advance, thereby adjusting automatically. This eliminates a part of the regular maintenance required by cable-actuated braking systems. Nonetheless, to work their best, all disc brakes will require attention from time to time.
To work properly, disc brakes require a disc that is straight and clean. To that end, take care not let the brake disc touch anything when transporting your bike, and keep your chain lube well away from the discs. Your brake pads should ordinarily last longer than many rim brake systems, but they are a consumable part and will need to be replaced before they are gone.
When changing pads, keep in mind that compared to other brake systems, disc brakes work on fairly small clearances. This means they can require very fine adjustment to brake effectively and at the same time not 'drag' on the disc when disengaged (this is especially relevant for those that remove and reinstall wheels for transport). In addition, hydraulic systems may occasionally need to be bled, to purge air bubbles from the system or replace fluid. All of this means that when the time for a tune-up comes around, most riders will want to have this done in the workshop.
That's a wrap
So should you have disc brakes? Other brakes? We hope that this article has been helpful. Of course, if you're still in doubt, contact us!