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Disc brakes vs. rim brakes: Everything you need to know

* Carsten Bach September 22, 2023

Which is better and why? Does anyone still need rim brakes ?

Since their introduction in the early 2010s, disc brakes have become increasingly popular on road bikes. The differences in performance, design and feel compared to rim brakes are so noticeable that almost everyone has an opinion and it's hard not to make comparisons.

Although the advantages of disc brakes in terms of performance are numerous, important factors such as maintenance needs, cost and compatibility must also be taken into account. To understand where we are at the moment, some historical context is helpful: Until the introduction of the first disc brakes in the 1970s, rim brakes were the ultimate in braking. Originally they were used exclusively for cars and motorcycles.

When mountain biking, the terrain became more and more demanding and required greater brake performance. Cable-operated systems were previously used, but hydraulic braking systems soon followed. Nowadays, disc brakes are ubiquitous and have established themselves as the standard. Even road bike groups like the Shimano 105 R7100 are now available in disc-only format and many brands are bringing disc-only framesets onto the market to meet the requirements.

Technology is constantly evolving and driving change. Nevertheless, there are many who long for the times when rim brakes were the measure of all things. Whether this is due to the ease of installation, cheaper operating costs or simply sticking to tradition - there are numerous arguments that suggest that rim brakes are just as good as their disc brake counterparts and should not be replaced.

However, we don't want to interfere in your decision here: We will present you with facts and everything you need to know about disc vs. rim brakes. So you can decide for yourself!

Disc brakes vs. rim brakes: At a glance

Disc brakes

  • Better braking power
  • No problems with the rims heating up
  • Longer component life
  • Better performance in wet weather
  • More new disc-only groups and new disc-only frames

Rim brakes

  • Cheaper start-up costs
  • Easier maintenance
  • More user friendly
  • Usually easier
  • Less strict framework requirements


We would like to point out that the following content contains a reservation. Disc brakes come in different versions: cable-operated, hydraulic and hybrid. Cable-operated brakes have many advantages - similar to their hydraulic counterparts - but they do not have the same power or self-adjustment.

In order to give you a clear overview of the differences between disc and rim brakes, in the remainder of this article we will focus exclusively on the type of hydraulic disc brake - which is considered the most common type and also brings with it innovative innovations.

Disc brakes vs. rim brakes: which holds better?


A high-quality Shimano Dura-Ace rim brake

The main function of brakes is to slow the driver. This function is affected by various factors such as weather conditions, user weight, duration and frequency of use.

Heat development is a problem for the effectiveness of the brakes, especially on longer descents. The braking system in particular suffers from this phenomenon of “brake fading” over a long period of time.

In order to get this problem under control, an innovation has recently emerged on the market: disc brakes. They are known for their ability to efficiently dissipate both braking force and heat - unlike the traditional rim system.

Disc brake sets have been equipped with specially developed cooling fins as well as recesses to increase their surface area in order to be even better equipped against the risk of overheating and to further improve their performance.

Disc brakes also perform better in rainy conditions, although the squeaking noise in the rain often causes discomfort.

This improved performance is mainly due to the different covering materials. Sintered metal coverings work particularly well in wet conditions.

Rim brakes typically use rubber-based compounds and can therefore have difficulty finding grip in adverse weather conditions.

However, dry conditions are ideal for rim brakes and they provide enough stopping power to cause a wheel to lock. High-quality brake calipers such as Shimano Dura-Ace hardly bend and provide an excellent feel at the lever.

Due to their smaller surface area and higher contact pressure from the brake calipers, the discs remain less susceptible to external dirt from water or rain showers; They also remove existing dirt faster than other systems

Emergency braking situations can also occur when cycling - but no one wants to have to experience such a scenario.

In general, hydraulic disc brake systems perform better than rim systems - which not only helps professional athletes react quickly in the peloton, but also benefits all outdoor riders.

All of these factors are significantly influenced by driving behavior: Correct adjustment of your disc or rim brakes is crucial for maximum efficiency; Incorrect handling can impair the driving experience. In this respect, rim brakes are easy to use and hardly require any special knowledge.

How hard is it to maintain disc brakes?



Brake lever with a rim brake system

Disc brake maintenance is known to be a challenge, which is not made any easier by numerous YouTube tutorials. Bleeding hydraulic brakes requires a fair amount of skill and tools from the home mechanic compared to simply adjusting rim brakes. Without a repair stand and the right equipment, repairs to bicycles with disc brakes can quickly become a tedious task. The minimal distance between the brake pad and rotor requires the highest precision, as even the slightest unevenness in the brake disc can cause unpleasant noises.

Although Shimano claims that their new 105 brakes offer more clearance than previous models, disc brake system maintenance can often seem daunting for DIY enthusiasts - but they are by no means invincible!

Rim brakes are a real blessing for DIY enthusiasts. If the pads are worn out, there's no need to worry - just loosen the screws, remove the old pad and install a new one. It's also very easy to adjust the tension of the brakes and even changing cables isn't a big challenge once you know how. Another advantage of rim brakes is how easy they are to clean. They can be covered with GT85 or can easily withstand all kinds of cleaning agents. Disc brake systems, on the other hand, are seen as more delicate flowers in this area. If general degreasing products, lubricants or even oil get on your brake disc, this can quickly lead to disaster: the disc pads need to be replaced and often entire sets of brake discs need to be replaced at the same time as soon as they become contaminated.

Frame Compatibility: Disc Brakes vs. Rim Brakes


Brake lever from a Shimano Ultegra disc brake system

As you already know, disc brakes provide stronger braking performance. However, when higher force is applied, bicycles also need to be reinforced accordingly to withstand the load - especially the fork. That's why bikes are usually designed from the ground up to accommodate either disc or rim brakes. Only a few special models can accommodate and use both types.

Another advantage of disc brake calipers is their larger tire clearance. This makes them the standard choice for gravel bikes and other types of off-road bikes.

Typically, road bike rim brakes limit the size of the tires in terms of height and width, while disc brakes, which are attached directly to the frame, do not cause any restrictions. Conventional road rim brakes usually do not fit tires over 30 mm wide.

This also has positive effects on the design of wheels. Performance gains can be achieved by using wider rims and there is no need to consider braking surfaces or dissipate heat. Therefore, they can be designed to be lightweight and optionally designed without hooks.

Although disc brakes initially only found their way into the middle class, they quickly found their way into professional road racing. At the 2021 Tour de France, Ineos Grenadiers was the only team with rim brakes - but even they are foregoing them for the 2022 Tour.

More and more brands are foregoing the option of equipping high-end bicycles with rim brakes. For this reason, many cheaper models now have disc brakes. This change comes alongside the controversial introduction of disc-only groupsets by manufacturers such as Shimano 105 R7100 and SRAM Rival eTap AXS. This doesn't necessarily mean the end of the brands' production of rim brakes, but it could become more difficult to source them in the future.

Are disc brakes more expensive?

A rim brake system consists of the brake caliper, the brake pads and a wheel with a machined braking surface. With disc brakes, however, the system also consists of a brake caliper and pads, but a special disc is required as an addition. The advantage of rim brakes is that they can be purchased in individual parts and are therefore more cost-efficient in terms of procurement and maintenance compared to their colleagues with more complex structures.

Nevertheless, the issue of sustainability also plays a role: In terms of service life, the latter components often perform better - not least because the contact point between a rim or a brake disc group can be quite different: the contact points of the two variants differ in this respect fundamentally different from each other; While when using bicycle rim tires, these are contacted directly (and suffer corresponding wear after a certain period of time), wheel systems for disc brakes only use pads, which can then simply be replaced with new ones without having to replace the entire wheel at the same time .

So conclusion? Although disc brakes may be more expensive in terms of purchase price, quality disc brakes offer long-term benefits and can therefore ultimately offer better value for money.

So which is better: disc brakes or rim brakes?


Campagnolo Ekar disc brake

Is it clear who is ahead here? Are rim brakes outdated and disc brakes only for WorldTour professionals?

When we look at absolute performance, there is no getting around the benefits of disc brakes. They are particularly indispensable in bad weather or long descents as well as in emergency situations. Manufacturers are investing more and more resources into the development of disc brake technology and so we can expect continued progress in this area - while traditional rim brake systems tend to lag behind.

If you are looking for a bike, it is currently only worth considering looking at models under 2000 euros. The offer is currently very limited and so you should better look at the cheaper models. It should also be noted that disc brakes are now widespread and are almost considered indispensable - especially if you want to buy a complete bike. But if you, as a budding home mechanic, mainly drive in good weather or want to keep your repair costs low, a reliable rim brake will be there for you. However, in a world of pressure to innovate, it is important to keep conscious choices open: there are options for both traditionalists and pioneers!