Disc brakes: the best option for road bikes

The Vuelta a San Juan, held in Argentina in January, doesn’t usually attract much attention in the cycling press, but this year it grabbed the headlines when the Belgian Quick-Step rider, Tom Boonen, won the bunch sprint to clinch Stage Two of the race and, in doing so, became the first ever pro rider to win on a bike equipped with disc brakes. 

The jury is still out on whether disc brakes on road bikes are the future, but now that the pro peloton has embraced this innovation - Boonen is a ‘huge fan’ -  is it time to consider disc brakes when debating your next upgrade? Several brands at the recent London Bike Show were exhibiting their new collection of disc brake road bikes and in the article below, the Spanish marque, Orbea, explain the manifold benefits of disc brakes.


Picture a scenario you know well: You are riding down a mountain pass at high speed, a pass that you know like the back of your hand. You know exactly when to reduce your speed and how to enter those hairpin turns that you love so much. Now imagine that you can brake later, with greater modulation on the brake, without any danger of the brake losing power or heating up the rim during a long, steep straightaway.

This is what disc brakes offer the road cyclist.

Corner speed and exit speed are the same, but disc brakes give you the confidence to wait a few precious seconds before slowing down to enter the turn. It’s ironic to say that a brake will make you faster, but it’s true. A more efficient brake gives you more confidence and it’s exactly what riders are discovering with disc systems.

Disc brakes offer more control and modulation. They are simple and they respond just as well in any sort of weather. The advantage they provide are undeniable and here is why:

Less force required at the lever and better modulation of power means shorter stopping distances.

Thanks to more consistent braking power as compared to traditional rim brakes, hydraulic disc brakes help you feel more comfortable stopping in less distance in complicated situations.

We have found that the low lever force helps braking power feel stronger especially when paired with wider 25- or 28-mm tyres, which can be run at lower pressures, thereby improving the grip of the rubber on the asphalt when braking.

Lower lever force and better consistency also means less stress on the cyclist’s hands and arms, as one can stop the bike with less effort. This stress accumulated in our hands, together with exertion of the upper body to counteract the deceleration of our body when braking is cumulative and can become quite fatiguing, especially if you’ve already covered a few kilometres.

With traditional brakes, we have undoubtedly run into problems at one time or another stopping the bike at high speeds. The overheating of the brake pad can cause us to have to squeeze the brake levers quite hard to reduce our speed when entering a curve.

With the disc brake system, this stress is considerably reduced, easing the stresses on the upper body. And that’s not all; since we can brake later and more easily, we are saving a lot of energy - energy that we can use to pedal instead of brake.

What’s more, the latest advances in disc brake calipers, pad compounds and rotors have optimized braking performance specifically for road applications. All of this results in even better disc braking, without compromises.

Better control

The feeling of a disc brake is smoother and more gradual than that of a rim brake. It will only take you a few short kilometres to realise how you can adjust your braking with little effort, making it less abrupt.

With rim brakes, one can experiment with different pad compounds, some of which are abrupt or grabby and others that are more progressive, but it is very difficult to achieve the same feeling that we currently have with disc brakes. They respond better to our commands, because while the braking is quite progressive and controlled, it is still easier to achieve maximum power (locking the wheel) without tiring our hands squeezing the lever.

Greater safety

One of the big disadvantages of traditional rim brakes is the loss of braking power in wet conditions and when rims overheat on long, technical descents. This is now, pardon the pun, water under the bridge.

The use of disc brakes dramatically reduces these disadvantages, offering the same power and modulation on any type of descent, no matter what the weather conditions are like. If you get caught in a passing shower while riding down from a mountain pass, you’ll have to worry about catching a cold, but never the safety of your brakes!

Another important factor concerns large cyclists and even cyclists who are traveling with backpacks and saddlebags, which double the weight on the bike. The controlled power of disc brakes enables the heavier cyclist to stop the bike easier and with less effort, whereas standard rim brakes might struggle in the same situation.

These are the three most obvious advantages of disc brakes on the road. Now let’s take a look at the rest of the aspects related to your cycling experience, in which brakes also play a part:

1) Weight

Currently, the traditional rim brake set is 300g to 400g lighter than disc brakes. This difference is shrinking all the time, and you have probably heard that this difference will almost certainly decrease over the next few years, with the improvement in the design and materials used in disc brakes.

It is clear that weight is an important factor, otherwise it wouldn’t have become an obsession for both manufacturers and users. But let’s be objective about it: when you are climbing a mountain pass with your group, do really think you’ll do it any faster without those extra 300-400 grams? And even if it were true, wouldn’t you prefer to have safer, more controlled braking on the descent, in spite of the weight difference?

In any case, if we focus on performance, let’s suppose that you really are penalised by a few seconds in the climb. Now consider the descent. Thanks to disc brakes, you’re going to be able to brake later and therefore gain one or two seconds per curve. The end result is that your fellow cyclists who do not have disc brakes are going to have to take more risks on the descents to keep up with you. But that’s not the point.

A final point: we can’t stress enough that the division of weights on the wheel is very important to the entire assembly. The disc brake system makes it possible to create lighter rims, since no reinforcement is needed on the braking band. Less weight on the peripheral mass of the wheel favours better acceleration.

2) Maintenance

Both systems require routine maintenance in order to provide quality braking and optimal safety, either by replacing the brake shoes and cables or by bleeding brake lines and replacing the brake pads.

It is less complicated to maintain a disc brake system, since no special knowledge is required to replace the pads: just remove the safety pin, remove the brake pads, install the new ones and replace the pin. Changing the brake fluid or purging it if air gets in the circuit is a job that can be completed in less than five minutes and is normally done on a routine basis once a year.           

3) Durability

Due to the wear from the rims on traditional brakes (even more so if we use high-profile carbon rims) the lifespan of disc brakes is potentially longer than that of traditional brakes.

Friction, overheating or improper maintenance of the brake shoes can deteriorate them to the point of rendering the rims unusable, which poses a serious danger if it occurs in the middle of a descent. The hydraulic disc brake system is much simpler than a rim brake system, as it reduces the number of moving parts on the unit: parts, screws, bushings, etc.

4) Mounting

There is a popular belief that it is more complicated to install and remove a disc brake wheel. We can tell you that the operation is practically identical, it simply requires a short period of adaptation. Even with through axles, this task is completed in the same amount of time as with a traditional fastening system. Through axles provide greater safety than a quick release, and the extra rigidity they provide is quite noticeable, improving tracking and cornering stability.

5) Rubbing

Rubbing from an out-of-true rim disappears, even if we lose a spoke or the wheel is thrown off centre in the middle of our route. And for heavier riders, the use of through axles substantially improves the lateral rigidity of the bike and decreases the likelihood of frame rub.

Because of their safety, effectiveness, power, modulation, maintenance, ride, comfort, confidence and once again, safety, the disc brake system far exceeds the traditional rim brake system.

Hydraulic brakes have been firmly established in many sectors for a long time now. Up until now on the road, the brands have focused on anything that will make us go faster (such as weight, aerodynamics, etc.), but we know that users also value other factors, such as comfort.

From this perspective, more efficient braking, such as that provided by disc brakes, is a very substantial improvement. Take the example of mountain bikes: twenty years ago, we started to hear about the arrival of disc brakes for MTB (after having used V-brakes or hydraulic rim brakes). Back then, there were many sceptics. Nowadays, no one even discusses them anymore and all mountain bikes come with disc brakes. The performance increase is worth it in every case.

Changes can be hard, but if they’re for the better, there is no doubt about it - the time has come to improve the safety of cyclists, and that truly is a great investment in the future for all two-wheel lovers.


This blog post was originally published on the Orbea website, where you can check out their range of road bikes, that include the disc break equipped ORCA, the racing performance orientated model used by UCI World Tour team, Cofidis, and the AVANT, which is aimed more at the endurance/sportive rider.


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Comment by Mike the Bike on March 6, 2017 at 17:29

I'll lay my cards on the table here, I am a big fan of discs and two of my three bikes use them.  Way back in the dim and distant nineties I realised their superiority on MTBs and when they became available of hybrids and then road bikes I didn't hesitate.  I don't care if they are heavier, I don't mind if they are uglier and I'm not interested in the over-hyped 'safety' concerns of certain impressionable pro's.  I just want the best brakes I can get and that's discs.  No debate, no argument, no question.

Comment by Dave Rowe on March 6, 2017 at 4:37

'Greater  Safety' said the subtitle. 'Aha!' thought I, 'this is the bit when they talk in a balanced manner about 'safety issues for other riders' but rather like a showroom catalogue for the equally 'I'm alright Jack' 4x4's that clog up our urban streets, nothing, nadir, zip...

Comment by Middle Ringer on March 6, 2017 at 0:56
If I were buying a new bike tomorrow I'd stick with rim brakes, simply because I like to switch wheels and the rest of my bikes are rim braked.

That said, I'm looking forward to the next few years of progress as road discs get lighter, better designed and manufacturers (hopefully) settle on a single standard! Then I'll take the leap to hydraulic road bike discs.

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