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Disc Brakes Or Rim Brakes? Mechanical Or Hydraulic?


V BrakesLike the argument over steel or aluminium frames, you can spend hours weighing up the merits of various braking systems.

Rim Brakes - Rim brakes in the V-brake design are a common choice. They have two arms which extend over the tire and grip the rim to stop the bike. These types of brakes are relatively inexpensive to buy and easy to repair. You can take care of V-brakes yourself using basic tools and any bike shop around the world should have the parts and knowledge to fix and adjust them.

On the downside, V-brakes are not as powerful or responsive as other types of brakes, especially in the rain. On a wet day or a steep descent, you may find yourself gripping the brakes for longer periods than someone with disc or hydraulic brakes.

For more stopping power, we like Magura’s HS33 hydraulic rim brakes. We had them fitted to our Santos touring bikes. They are extremely responsive and have a great reputation for reliability.

Nevertheless, make sure you know how to maintain them – just in case. It’s not hard to bleed the brakes, once someone has shown you how to do it. You’ll also want to take spare parts on longer journeys through less developed countries, and it doesn’t hurt to make sure your bike frame has the necessary V-brake bosses. That way, you can always fit a new set of V-brakes, if disaster strikes.

No matter which type of rim brakes you buy, they will slowly wear away your rim. This gradual wear will make the rim thinner and eventually cause the side of the rim to crack or break away. This rarely happens before you’ve cycled a significant distance but should be factored into your planned maintenance for the bike.

You should start looking for signs of wear to your rims after 10,000km and be prepared to replace them from 15,000km onwards. We have gotten as much as 25,000km out of a set of rims.

Dirt between your brake pads and the rims can accelerate the wear process so clean your rims with a rag occasionally, especially after riding on muddy roads.

Avid BB7s

Disc BrakesTraditionalists scorn them but disc brakes are becoming more common in the cycling world. They’re a little more expensive than their rim brake counterparts, but for the price you get unparalleled braking power (especially in rainy conditions). You’ll be able to stop more quickly and with more control than ever before. This may prove to be especially important if you’re planning on tackling rough trails and steep mountain passes.

Disc brakes also don’t wear down your rims like V-brakes do and that means your rims should last much longer.

In terms of repairs and replacements en route, be prepared to do it yourself in case you can’t find an experienced mechanic.

As for which disc brakes are best, the usual advice is to pick mechanical or cable-operated disc brakes over hydraulic versions but you’ll find tourers using all types. Avid’s BB7s are a popular cable-operated model, favoured by Stephen Lord, author of the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook.

“I’d feel very confident taking my Avid BB7s for a long tour. The pads are so small you could carry enough for a year or two in your back pocket, the cable is standard, and it’s not difficult to straighten a disk if it gets whacked and bent, although it is hard to get it perfectly flat again,” he says.

In terms of hydraulic options, Magura’s Louise hydraulic brakes get a good review from experienced adventure cyclist Tom Allen.

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29 Responses to “Disc Brakes Or Rim Brakes? Mechanical Or Hydraulic?”

  1. Phil Somerville says:

    Great article… I think it’s worth adding that disc brakes require a much stiffer fork and therefore you loose the tapered fork which offers a natural form of shock absorption… wouldn’t trade that for fashion..

  2. Kevin says:

    Hydraulic disc brake systems have clear advantages over mechanical systems.
    So I have no idea why anyone would recommend mechanical systems over hydraulic systems casually…
    It really comes down to preference whether performance is key or you want to be able to fix it easly, and ofcourse budget.

    Hydraulic systems are way better for technical riding, your action on the brake lever is smoother lighter and more precise. They also have more stopping power. Mechanical systems are more easly maintained and quite a bit cheaper especially if you don’t do your own maintenance.

    Disc brakes over rim brakes ofcourse have the advantage of not wearing down your wheels, which is quite a pricy thing.
    My hydraulic disc brakes are hardly affected by even the nastiest of rains, which is a thing as I bike in the rain a lot.

  3. Phil Somerville says:

    I wonder where in the world you have taken your disk brakes and whether you’ve had to source brake fluid in the outback or had the fluid boil due to the excessive forces put on disks on long decents? XTR cables offer a very close comparison to hydraulics in terms of losses and modulation and can easily be changed in terms of failure. Also worth adding is that in the motorcycle world it’s pretty rare to find single disc set ups on the front any more because they put a twist on the fork (which is exaggerated on a loaded touring bike) which means you have to steer as you brake!!! Again I come back to the fork design as per my original comment… Also, for anyone debating the subject should have a look at Thorn’s comments on the subject! A very well respected manufacturer of expedition bikes from the UK.

    • Kevin says:

      I never said hydraulics are always the way to go. I was merely responding to the to me quite silly idea of always using mechanical brakes because that would be an equally silly thing to conclude.
      Not everybody buys bikes for long descents in the australian outback. I’ve got A mountain bike for example and use it for all sorts of riding, including distance, lot of times in wet conditions.

      You can’t deny my arguments for hydraulics and I can’t deny any you may have for mechanical brakes. Its called personal preference. At the end of the day someone can conclude its best touring the world on a kids tricycle. :)

    • sz says:

      You have to steer as you brake? Well, I have to steer all the time while riding anyway, so…

  4. Phil Somerville says:

    Kevin, I completely agree with you.. SZ, so.. if you ever have to brake suddenly with 15 kilos on your front forks, even with your steering skills (which you do all the time) you’ll find yourself halfway across a road!!!

    • sz says:

      That’s a bit more exaggerated than necessary, isn’t it?

      OTOH, if you ever have to stop suddenly in pouring rain with rim brakes and about 30kgs on your bike, then you’ll find that no matter how hard you pull the brakes, the stopping power just isn’t there.

      In the end it all boils down to this: we have two brake systems to chose from that are simply inadequate for the touring cyclist, and it really is a question of personal preference of which fundamental flaws you are ready to live with.

  5. I guess at the end of the day we all share a common interest and are so passionate about it to as to be debating this subject with such vigour.. I propose a truce :0)..

  6. Ian says:

    I use IRD Cantis, stop me fine, rain or shine……….. Oh and I weigh a pretty hefty 260 pounds on a good day lol

  7. Hughonabike says:

    Take it from me, disc brakes are miles better than rim brakes. Anybody telling you different are deluded and are lying to you. The frame and forks have to be disc ready of course. I would highly recommend Avid BB7′s with 203mm rotors. They stop my 240LB ass and luggage, at speed on a 10% long decent no problem. (I found that hydrochloric brakes on the same hill tended to fade and lost power). They work better than rims in wet and muddy conditions. Also they’re a breeze to set up, adjust and maintain. But Hydro’s are lighter, sexier and more expensive.

  8. Zapi says:

    I have the Magura HS-33 and my husband has a disc break. We did 5 tours within Europe and finally he decided never to go with a disc break again.
    The space between disc and pads are too delicate. So if your disc is lightly deformed, it will squeak until you are mad. And then the day before the alpine pass, it was deformed and braked all the time…
    No fun at all.
    We once had a rim break. Funny, it was not on my bike ;) (but it had nothing to do with the breaks of course)

    • ferruccio says:

      Avid BB7s are cable-operated disk brakes and offer a performance very close to fluid brakes. you can adjust the width of the pads in case the disk is not perfectly flat. If you try them you might change your mind.

    • sanremo says:

      Most those I know who use disk brakes for touring spend more time faffing with them than riding their bikes. Every time you take a wheel off its 20 mins of faffing get get it back on. Also the wheels being over dished to take the discs simply can’t handle the load. As for wear, my last rims lasted over 100k miles so I can’t complain.

      Yes discs do offer more control in really bad conditions but only if you have top end systems. And what kind of idiot would go tearing down a long 1 in 5 in the rain on a fully laden tourer anyway?

      Having said all that I still would consider using discs if I was to buy a new tourer but ONLY!!! if the wheels were built by a top pro builder.

  9. SpeedyLady says:

    People will always have their own preferences plus their own experiences.Each and all are valid….. I may have found the answer. I’m looking at a new bike with both Disc brakes on the front AND V type brakes on the back !

    Whoopee everyone could be happy and correct!!

  10. James says:

    So the upsides:
    - More powerful than cable operated rim brakes, for less finger pressure
    - Work instantaneously, always, even in the wet
    - No rim wear
    - No rim cleaning after going through mud

    and the downsides
    - Get bent easily when the bike is packed/transported
    - Can fade on twisty long mountain descents fully loaded e.g. Hors Categorie
    - Difficult to set up and adjustment
    - Stronger fork required => less comfort?
    - Stronger wheel required => Heavier? Inherently weaker?
    - Make re-inserting the wheel into the frame more difficult after puncture repair
    - Spares less available?
    - Heavier

    Did I miss anything?

    That kind-of rules them out for me, but then I had a thought along the same lines as SpeedyLady, although the other way around (rim front, disc back), as my experience is that dirt tends to build up on the rear rim quicker. And my rear rim wore out after 10,000 miles, but perhaps the answer is discs all-round with the addition of a V-brake on the front operated by a cross-top lever. Having said that I like the cross top levers with the main brakes as I can sit bolt upright so that I get a bit of air-braking.

    • ferruccio says:

      Hi James.
      I’ll tell you my experience with brakes Avid bb7 which are the disc brakes of choice for expedition bikes:
      they are cable operated, very easy to adjust and can operate with a rotor banged back into shape after an accident.

      MY FINDINGS:
      - Get bent easily when the bike is packed/transported
      YES, BUT IT NEVER HAPPENED TO ME. IT TAKES 15 MINUTES TO TAKE THE ROTORS OFF THE WHEEL, BUT SOME NICE PADDING WILL DO THE JOB 99% OF THE TIMES.

      - Can fade on twisty long mountain descents fully loaded e.g. Hors Categorie
      THEY ARE MUCH, MUCH BETTER THAN V BRAKES.

      - Difficult to set up and adjustment
      DON’T THINK SO.

      - Stronger fork required => less comfort?
      IN THEORY, YES, BUT I NEVER NOTICED THAT.

      - Stronger wheel required => Heavier? Inherently weaker?
      NO, BECAUSE YOU DON’T HAVE THE EXTRA MATERIAL TO OFFSET RIM WEAR.

      - Make re-inserting the wheel into the frame more difficult after puncture repair
      WELL, IT PROBABLY TAKES YOU FIVE SECONDS LONGER THAN A V BRAKE.

      - Spares less available?
      FOUR SPARE QUALITY PADS WILL TAKE YOU AROUND THE WORLD AND THEN SOME.

      - Heavier
      YES

      I would like to add that a wheel with disc brakes can operate even if badly bent, that means that you don’t have to be a master truer to repair your wheels and that you can go a long way with several broken spokes and be able to brake in the meantime.

      • James says:

        Cool Ferruccio. It’s great that someone has actually done an A-B comparison. Which descents have you tested this on?

      • ferruccio says:

        I have tested them unloaded down the Stelvio Pass which is a 25 km descent and down a 6 km incredibly steep gravel road (40 kg bike + gear) on the via Claudia Augusta in Austria, halfway from Fussen to the Reschen Pass. I couldn’t notice any fading in the performance of the breaking and I was surprised myself since I had to break without pause for at least 15 minutes.

  11. James says:

    Disc brakes for unloaded riding seemed more-or-less to have proven themselves, and it seems more likely that we would have heard some stories about accidents due to discs fading. Also shorter descents are less likely to be an issue.

    Fully loaded HC descents (>10 miles ~8%) however, which, sorry I should have stated more clearly, is what I am wondering about, where the calipers, rotors, and hubs have a chance to fully heat through.

    Tandem use is a similar application, and Sheldon Brown has some words to say on the topic http://sheldonbrown.com/tandem-brakes.html, as does the CTC http://www.ctc.org.uk/file/public/bike-test-disc-braked-tourers.pdf

    Any more for any more?

  12. James says:

    I’ve just heard some more horror stories from a colleague who has been on tour twice with disc brakes. The first time they got horribly bent up during transportation. The second time there was continual rubbing even with a good quality hydraulic system. And pad life seemed to be 3-400 miles (related?). He’s going to add a V-brake to the front since he has bosses.

    The 10 or 15 minutes spent removing 6-bolt discs and putting them back on would make assembly at the airport/rail terminus take a lot longer and cut in to ride time on those days, particularly if travelling across Paris and re-building between termini.

    A possibility is to use Shimano’s centrelock disc mounting system but I would have to test the NBT lockring remover tool to see whether it would work so far from the dropout. I wouldn’t want to carry a full-sized lockring removal tool.

    In my case, this would seem like a lot of aggravation when my cantis work fine on any kind of slope without fade, just not very good after riding through gritty mud, and I will have to continue put up with black splodges on my legs on rainy descents, and rim cleaning afterwards.

  13. ferruccio says:

    hydraulic breaks do rub but avid bb7 are cable operated and have a huge clearance (relatively speaking), rubbing won’t be an issue.
    pad life depends on pad quality, as I said, a quality pad will last for at least 10000, most cyclist are not aware of that, they think that a pad’s a pad. I used to think that.

    about horror stories:
    I’ve heard horror stories about schwalbe tyres, msr hubba tents, ortlieb bags, you will always find people telling you they had the most atrocious experience with those products.
    By the way, how about horror stories concerning blown-out rims on V-brake bycicles due to excessive wear happening in the middle of nowwhere.

    I have heard of bent rotors, stolen bikes, broken derailleurs, broken spokes, cracked frames, you name it.

    I have never heard of people using bb7 brakes going back to V-brakes because they didn’t like them, have you?

  14. James says:

    His are Avid Code R and he wants to go back.

    All these things depend on what kind of touring you do, and for you they may be perfect. Thinking about the kind of touring I do, there would seem to be too big a downside, plus the unproven aspect on HC descents.

  15. ferruccio says:

    Avid Code R are hydralic, I wouldn’t go on a far-away place on them.

    I don’t think V-brakes are better than disc brakes or viceversa, in the end it’s just a matter of belief.
    In Italy we say: it’s either panettone or pandoro.
    myself, I love panettone.

    • James says:

      Ferruccio, previously you said “THEY ARE MUCH, MUCH BETTER THAN V BRAKES.”
      I’m confused now. Did you change your mind?

      • ferruccio says:

        Sorry for my confusing wording, what I meant is that I believe that disc brakes are better thant V-brakes but if you feel more comfortable with V-brakes just go ahead. Neither choice is dramatically better than the other.

  16. James says:

    Interesting discussion about pad life here

    http://forums.roadbikereview.com/components-wrenching/how-long-do-
    shimano-hydraulic-road-disc-pads-last-333736.html

    and more here particularly about BB7s

    http://www.bentrideronline.com/messageboard/archive/index.php/t-63359.html

    This would suggest 10,000km is the outer limit for pad life for the best pads, but that is still comparable with aluminium rim wear for heavy duty use.

  17. Qhawe says:

    Can you help me with the advantages of the hydraulic disc-brake comparing to the drum brakes?

    • James says:

      Short answer: Not recommended for touring

      Long answer:

      Drum brakes are rare on bicycles.
      Source: http://sheldonbrown.com/gloss_dr-z.html#drum

      Shimano make the rollerbrake which is a type of drum brake:

      “The Rollerbrake is most practical for urban cycling in areas without long, steep descents. A Rollerbrake is weatherproof — both in use and in storage — and requires little maintenance. It also is replaceable as a unit– unlike other drum brakes where the hub, and as a practical matter, usually the entire wheel — is replaced if the drum is worn out. Several models of Rollerbrake of different sizes have been sold. Even the smallest Rollerbrake can skid the rear wheel of a solo bicycle.

      Disadvantages? Only Shimano Nexus and Nexave hubs have fittings for Rollerbrakes. Only large Rollerbrakes with large cooling fins have enough heat dissipation for speed control on downgrades. No Rollerbrake is suitable for use as a drag brake on a cargo bike or tandem. There have been reports of grease’s catching on fire during long descents! Serious overheating will require replacement of the brake, and rebuilding of the adjacent hub bearing. One more reason to carry a water bottle on your bicycle….”

      Source: http://sheldonbrown.com/rollerbrakes.html

    • James says:

      Sorry should have said the comments were about drum brakes not being recommended for touring, whereas there is lots of discussion above about disc brakes for touring.

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