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Braking 101: Choosing the right brakes

Monday, January 24th, 2011 at 04:54 PM

It’s a question that gets asked a lot, and as always there is a lot of opinion on the subject: Are you better off with rim brakes or disc brakes? If you are a consumer looking to make a purchase it of little use to use vagaries and opinion to form your decision, only later to find out you made the wrong decision. But because opinions run rampant you are sure to run into a few along the way of gaining brake enlightenment. I’ll give you the information, pros and cons peppered with a bit of my bias and experience and then let you make up your own mind.

Rims – Yes, they do the job.

Rim brakes have been around for a while and have always kind-of-sort-of got the job done in some shape or form. In all honesty they do a pretty good job of stopping you when you need, not to mention they often make a nice squealing noise to warn pedestrians of you impending approach. Though discs have taken a large share of the market rim brakes still rule the roost when it comes to road, cyclocross, BMX, some commuter bikes and city bikes and lower end mountain bikes.

There are basically three types of rim brakes that made it through the shake-down of the late 90’s when disc’s started to gain popularity. The only style of brake that is used on road bikes, Caliper style brakes have been around for a long time. Technology and materials has continued to evolve and has allowed manufacturers to develop incredibly light brakes that offer great stopping power. The sky is the limit when it comes to price, with a pair of Shimano’s high-end caliper’s costing around $600 and specialty brands can be even more expensive. Despite their geriatric age if you are riding a road bike, these are your brakes.

Cantilever brakes, which many had hoped had been killed off with the abysmal fashions that plagued the late eighties and early nineties continue to be found on cyclocross bikes. They are light, they are difficult to clog up and if you have the patience to set them up they can work very well. If you race cyclocross these are your brakes. And that is all I have to say about that.

Finally, V-brakes which you will find mostly on commuters, city bikes and lower-end mountain bikes are the brakes that came along and pushed cantilevers out of the picture back in the day. Easy to set up, powerful and lightweight and easy to maintain they are great brakes for cruising around town, commuting and light-duty trail riding.

A decent set of rim brakes are lightweight, relatively easy to adjust and offer fairly predictable braking so long as they are properly maintained. In a moderately dry environment rim brakes are great. If you find yourself only riding in the summertime or are what you might call a fair-weather rider then these brakes will work great for most applications.

Where they start to fall down is when the weather turns ugly. As you brake the rubber pads of the rim brake rub off onto the rim, think of the dust an eraser leaves on paper, at the same time some of the rim material is also removed when braking. If you look at a well used set of brake pads will probably notice a nice sheen on them, when this sheen gets wet it can make braking rather unpredictable.

To make matters worse if you are putting some serious miles in wet conditions then the grime and muck from the road will wear down your pads and eventually your rims that much more quickly. When the rim is pitted (you’ll be able to feel a groove) it will reach a point where the whole rim has to be replaced. It can take a while to get to this point but it is one of the big draw backs of rim brakes.

Another drawback is that your wheels need to be true for the brakes to work properly or they may rub and cause uneven braking.

But worry not. Rim brakes are not all bad and there are a lot of times when they are preferable. If you own a road bike or cross bike you will be relegated to Rim brakes. If you like simple, aren’t putting a lot of miles on your bike and are riding in nicer weather most of the time then rim brakes will be great.

DISC’s – For that extra something

Disc brakes give you power, predictability and performance. If you are riding hard off road they are a no brainer. If you are commuting long distances year round then they are awesome, some would say a must – I agree. But not all disc brakes are created equal. Some are bad, the cheap ones are really bad; finicky, unreliable and annoying to set up, if budget is a concern stick to the rim brakes. But for many applications they are better than their rim gripping counterparts.

You have two choices in the disc world: mechanical and hydraulic. Mechanical or cable actuated brakes use a traditional brake cable to engage the brake. If you get a bike with a decent set of mechanical disc brakes then you will enjoy great, predictable braking. Get a brake where you can adjust the pad contact on both sides and you will be set. These brakes are great for commuter bicycles because they are simple, easy to set up and service and work very well in any weather condition.

Hydraulic brakes are activated by fluid either a DOT fluid like your car or mineral oil. One of the problems with hydraulic brakes that use DOT fluid is that the fluid is a little less than pleasant on any material that it comes into contact with so they can be messy to set up and service. But when you need power and long lasting fade free braking then hydraulic discs are the way to go.

The upside to disc brakes is power, reliability and performance. Instead of wearing out an expensive rim you just replace the disc. They are very predictable and for long distance, year round riding and commuting and off-road riding. They can be a little tricky to set up but once they are dialed, they are good to go for a while and if you ever bend your rim, it won’t affect your braking, unless something has gone horribly wrong.


Both types of brakes have their place in the bicycle world; in reality it is your riding style, environment and preference that will help you make your braking decision. I know that here in Vancouver if you are commuting any distance than disc brakes are considered by many to be essential where back east they are less of a requisite.

Commuting Med – Long Distances

The gist of it is that if you are commuting long distances in adverse weather or year round, aren’t bothered by a slightly heavier brake system and want predictable, powerful braking then a rim brake is not the best choice for you – you’ll find disc more to your liking , probably mechanical. On the other side of the coin, if you want lightweight, simple brakes that get the job done are you are a more fare-weather rider or your bike only let’s you ride with rim brakes then the decision is easy, go with the rim style of brake.

Commuting Short Distances and City Riding

Rim brakes are probably a good choice for you here. If you aren’t riding often or in adverse weather then rim brakes is a simple choice. They are often inexpensive and will do what you need them to do: stop.

Road and Cyclocross

You really aren’t offered a lot of choice here; rim brakes are you’re only option. However, you will find that some lower to mid end cyclocross bikes make awesome commuters and do actually have disc tabs. If you are going to use it as a commuter then a pair of mechanical discs is ideal. Just remember you can’t race cross with disc brakes.


Go disc if you are riding off road with any regularity or if you are riding aggressively. If your mountain bike is for gravel paths on the weekend then rims will do the trick.

There you have it, one long blog post on brakes. When it comes down to it this certainly doesn’t cover everything and you will still encounter a lot of opinion out there when looking at brake choices for your bike. Hopefully, though, this will give you a good start on your way to finding the perfect brake for your riding.

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