Are road disc brakes better than rim brakes?

Words by Harry Archer

on 11/05/2018 10:57:40


Written by TeamRutland Ambassador, Malcolm Smith. Find out more about Malcolm >

Once the UCI and British Cycling approved the use of disc brakes for road racing I wanted to join the club of disc brake users.

I have had disc brakes on my Specialized Diverge which I have used for winter training for a couple of years now. My winter riding over the years has been hard as my ambitions required that the training gets done under any circumstances and my bikes have taken the toll of the grit and salt particularly the wheel rims and brake blocks. Damage was always reinforced by the lack of cleaning the winter bike gets when I return home. A cursory wash with soapy water was about it. Come the Spring most years I was throwing the worn-out parts away including complete wheel sets. The Diverge has been a revelation for winter riding having plenty of clearance, factory fitted mudguards and above all, Shimano Ultegra hydraulic disc brakes. These brakes have worked wonderfully effectively, particularly on wet grimy days relative to the rim brakes of my training partners. I have to drop to the back of the group on descents in order to ensure that my pals don't run into me as we apply the brakes and I slow down whereas, they don't! The only downside with the disc brakes has been the squealing noise they emit. They make a real ear-piercing racket throughout the application of pressure on the brake levers. The feel is great and you can sense the bite and the confident reduction in speed. The noise though has been a burden to carry and leads to plenty of abuse from the people I ride with.

I have been able to reduce the nose from the Diverge brakes by replacing the brake pads and through regular and frequent (after most wet rides) cleaning of the disc rotors with a disc brake cleaner and an abrasive cloth. The noise returns through when I go out in the wet. I have read that deposits of diesel on the brake pads are in part to blame. So, when deciding to switch to a disc road race bike I had high expectations about stopping but some dread about the noise. Surely this noisy downside has been addressed?


So are disc brakes better than traditional rim brakes?

My new Giant Propel Advanced Disc, recently reviewed, is a superb bike. There is not a lot I want to change on it. I have now raced on it three times and on each occasion, in the rain. One of my reasons for switching to a hydraulic disc brake race bike was stopping speed in any conditions. The peloton in general is quite an eclectic affair as you have lots of vigorous youngsters with lots of energy and time to train but riding often quite ordinary team issue bikes, and older riders like me who have less vigour but a greater choice of equipment. Then there are the real old school riders who choose to repair and make do. In any event even prior to the introduction of disc brakes there was a fairly large range of quality in the stopping arena. The variants are around the quality of tyres, brake blocks and their state of repair, the callipers, the cables and the levers which may or may not have been involved in crashes or just been poorly maintained. My braking has been good in all conditions in the past, courtesy of Mavic's Exalith rims with compatible brake blocks. None the less they did not scrub off speed that quickly, but still quicker than 'standard' alloy rims. On the flip side, I've found carbon fibre braking surfaces do not work as well in the wet as standard alloy rims.


My experience with the Diverge told me that disc brakes, under any conditions, stop quicker than an equivalent set up with rim brakes. Racing the Giant Propel Advanced Disc has confirmed this. My braking is far more controlled and assured than that of most of the bikes in the peloton and my theory holds true. The extension of my logic as well, was that in the event of the need to brake hard, I'd want to have someone run into the back of me because I had stopped quickly rather than for me to run into the back of another rider who stopped quicker than me, given that reaction time erodes stopping ability as well.

Since I am one of those guys in the peloton who is now equipped by disc brakes I notice others who are too - I've also noticed their stopping abilities which are all more assured than our rim brake competitors. In two of my three road races so far this year there have been almighty crashes with between 8 and 20 riders hitting the deck. Not good. On each occasion I have been within spitting distance of the stack and on each occasion - whilst the world slows down - I have been able to scrub my speed and unclip before immersing myself into the unfolding catastrophe. On each occasion I have had another rider hit me from behind. My theory about preferring to be hit from behind rather than run into the back of another rider is good and holds true. The guys who have hit me have all lost control of their front wheels and then toppled over. I have been solid and not run into the back of the riders in front, normally rolling across the road in front of me.

In short, my reasoning for switching to disc brakes for my race bike is sound. I can stop more quickly than most other riders and therefore am less likely to hit riders ahead of me when stopping quickly, and although it does seem to increase the chance of being hit from behind, this is the lesser of two evils. It is not all an experience without downside though. I noted above that I notice other guys in the peloton who are on disc bikes. You might have thought this was due to my laser like attention to the details of my competitor's machines. No! It is because I can hear the noise of the disc brakes when dropping the anchors, compared to those on rim brakes. In addition to the noise of the brakes I can also hear the abuse which other riders dish out when they panic due to the noise made when a 'disc jockey' grabs a fist full of brake lever in a hurry.

Guide To Racing Road Bikes > Guide to Road Bike Disc Brakes >

Are disc brakes better than rim brakes?

Yes, they are...

In short, I believe that the disc brake works better than the traditional rim brake on road bikes in that their purpose is to stop you and the bike as quickly and safely as possible. It does this with aplomb in all conditions. The lack of traditional rim brake callipers also gives the disc road bike beautiful lines. They may take a while to catch on as the noise that they make in the wet (and presumably when dirty) is a bit of a hurdle at first but once dealt with, I think we'll see a lot more road cyclists making the sensible choice of performance over a little extra noise.


  • More stopping power
  • Better performance in the wet
  • Better braking feel


  • Noisier than rim brakes

Our most popular disc brake road bikes

Malcolm Smith

Starting out as a competitive track runner, Malcolm turned to cycling following an ankle injury in his early 20s, and started off with some 3rd category racing and a burgeoning sportive scene around Paris, where he was based for work. On his return to the UK, and with more free time to ride in his early 40s, Malcolm progressed through the ranks of British Cycling and LVRC racing, winning the LVRC National Road Race Championships. In 2014 he won the British Masters Road Race title, the LVRC time trial title and was 4th in the World Championships road race in Llubljana. Malcom's pursuit of Masters road glory led to him setting up a sports marketing business with Tom Caldwell in 2015 and establishing the Tour of Cambridgeshire as a pathway for British age group riders to compete in the World Championships.