Disc vs. Rim Brakes: How Do They Differ and Which Are Better?

Disc vs. Rim brakes: Canyon Endurance road bike with rim brakes on the left side vs. YOELEO R12 road bike with disc brakes on the right side

Whether you like it or not, rim brakes are becoming an endangered species. About 83% of the road bikes on the market came with disc brakes in 2021.

I’ve been using both types of brakes, and to be honest, I didn’t like disc brakes when they started to appear on road bikes. But, once I tried them, I changed my opinion.

Below, you learn how they work, their pros & cons, how to choose between disc and rim brakes, and more.

Let’s dive in.

How Do the Disc Brakes Work?

Disc brakes apply the braking performance to the rotor (disc). They work just like the brakes we know from cars, motorbikes, etc.

There are two basic types of disc brakes:

  1. Mechanical disc brakes
  2. Hydraulic disc brakes

Mechanical disc brakes use steel cables, while hydraulic use a sealed fluid system for applying the braking performance.

The mechanical ones are more affordable but less efficient because of the friction between the steel cables and bowdens. They also require more often maintenance (replacing the steel cables).

Hydraulic brakes are more efficient but more expensive. But, on the other hand, they don’t require so frequent maintenance.

Shimano Ultegra front disc brake
Shimano Ultegra front disc brake
Shimano Ultegra rear disc brake
Shimano Ultegra rear disc brake

How Do the Rim Brakes Work?

Rim brakes apply the braking performance to the wheels’ rim. They use steel cable routed from the brake lever to the brake to control the braking performance (like mechanical disc brakes).

They require more frequent maintenance (replacing the brake pads and cables) and are less efficient, especially in wet conditions, than disc brakes.

Shimano 105 rear rim brake
Shimano 105 rear rim brake
Shimano 105 front rim brake
Shimano 105 front rim brake

Pros & Cons of the Disc and Rim Brakes

The following table shows the pros and cons of the disc and rim brakes. I will explain them more in detail below.

Brake TypeProsCons
Disc Brake• Much better braking performance
• Less frequent maintenance (hydraulic disc brakes)
• Wheels use through-axles that better keep the wheel in place
• Aesthetics
• Higher price
• Higher weight
• More complicated maintenance
• Different wheels may require adjusting the brake to avoid rubbing
• Through-axles take longer to remove than quick-release axles
Rim Brake• Lower weight
• More affordable
• Easier maintenance
• Worse braking performance
• Frequent maintenance (brake pads and braking cables replacements)
• Wear out rims (especially true for carbon wheels)
This table compares the pros and cons of the disc and rim brakes.

Braking Performance

The braking performance is the most important feature of brakes. In this respect, disc brakes have an edge over rim brakes.

This is because they are not affected as much by natural elements. So you can rely on them in the rain, in the mud, or on long descents.

Rim brakes are more prone to elements. Especially if you use carbon wheels with poor-quality brake pads.

Shimano 105 front brake detail
Detail of the rim brake calipers and brake pads

One of the next differences between disc and rim brakes is how they “dispense” the braking force.

While disc brakes are very consistent, rim brakes are not. This behavior is very difficult to describe. Therefore, I recommend that you try both types of brakes for yourself.

Disc brakes also don’t require applying as much force on the brake levers as rim brakes.

Weight

Disc brakes have a weight penalty that varies depending on the brake type but is about 500g.

Many road cyclists raise their fingers and point at this downside of disc brakes. But let’s be honest, how many of us frequently ride in high mountains to notice the difference?

Aesthetics

When disc brakes started to appear on road bikes (mountain bikes used them much sooner), I was strongly against them. I didn’t like their aesthetics.

But they started to grow on me. They also allow easier integration of internal cables. So today’s road bikes look much cleaner.

My YOELEO R12 road bike with disc brakes with a countryside background
My YOELEO R12 with disc brakes

Which brakes do you like more aesthetically? Let me know in the comments below.

Bike Compatibility

Rim and disc wheels are incompatible because rim wheels use quick-release skewers, while disc wheels use through-axles. Through-axles come in many standards, so this brings compatibility issues.

So, you have to buy a dedicated rim or disc brake wheels with Centerlock or a six-bolt interface where you attach the rotor.

Shimano Ultegra front disc brake detail
Detail of the disc brake rotor and calipers

Additionally, due to different places where the braking force is applied, disc brake bikes and wheels require different construction and reinforcement of some parts to handle the stresses.

Remember, rim brakes can wear out carbon rims in extreme cases.

Disc brakes also allow using wheels with wider tires. That’s also one of the reasons they are so popular among mountain, gravel, or cyclocross.

Maintenance

Rim brakes are known for their simplicity. You don’t have to be a pro mechanic to maintain them or replace the braking pads.

Probably the biggest issue riders encounter with disc brakes is rubbing their rotor against the braking pads, which causes unpleasant noise.

However, 90% of the time, you can easily fix it using the technique in the following video.

The maintenance “difficulty” of disc brakes is with hydraulic brakes. They use a sealed fluid system that requires bleeding every 2-3 years.

It is a more complicated process than just replacing the cables. So, if you are unsure, feel free to visit your local mechanic.


Disc vs. Rim Brakes FAQ


Disc vs. Rim Brakes Conclusion

The difference between disc and rim brakes is that disc brakes use a rotor (disc) while rim brakes use wheels’ rims to apply the braking force.

Disc brakes provide better stopping power, especially in wet and muddy conditions. But they are more expensive and heavier than rim brakes.

After using both brake types, I prefer disc brakes on my road bike for the braking performance and aesthetics (less visible cables).

What about you? Do you prefer disc or rim brakes? Let me know in the comments below!

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