WireWorld » Bicycling » Bike Blog » Disc brakes suck. There. I said it.

Disc brakes suck. There. I said it.

I've found it's actually quite hard to buy good mountain bike wheels that aren't set up to only work with disc brakes these days. And there's a bunch of fancy new designs for disc-brake specific road bikes out there. Disc brakes have buzz going for them. I can see why. Adding disc brakes to cars was a huge improvement because previous drum brakes had real problems with controlability and fade. But disc brakes on bikes pretty much mean that you move the braking surface from the rims to the hubs, both being equally "perfect" designs, so I tend to think of disc brakes as wasted weight.

Now, having the braking surface up on the hubs allows the brakes to work better when the rim is coated with water or ice. It also means that you don't need to worry nearly as much about overheating your rims while descending. On the other hand, people have been doing rainy descents for years and years without disc brakes without a huge rash of accidents.

In order to make a bike able to take disc brakes, you need to beef it up in all sorts of ways, some immediately evident, some not. The big thing to remember is that a rim brake is supported by the existing bike structure that needs to be beefed up in that region already. If you don't dish the front wheel inward to make room for the disc brake, it will be stronger than a front wheel built to an identical specification but dished. So, while some of the latest disc brakes made of exotic materials are fairly light, there's still an inherent weight penalty that is not offset by deleting the brake surface. And, for mid-end brakes the setup will weigh at least a half-pound more per brake set, likely more, just for the increased weight of the brake hardware.

One of the guys at the bike store pointed out that disc brakes will work when you've broken a spoke. I pointed out that I rode a 36 spoke wheel with four broken spokes and my V-brakes worked just fine against the wheel. Furthermore, V-brakes are also easy to service while on the road using only a simple multi-tool. Much easier than mechanical disc brakes and without the requirement of carrying hydraulic servicing equipment that hydraulic brakes require.

The thing that drives me crazy is excluding even the possibility of doing things any other way. Forks are losing the mounts for V-brakes. And I'm seeing several designs for bike frames that might be kind of nice, except that there's absolutely no way to not have disc brakes.

Most folks don't ride in conditions where a disc brake is said to be better. I do and haven't felt like my existing brakes were unsafe. I'd much rather spend the money and weight that disc brakes require elsewhere. Like on wheels that are strong enough to handle abuse. Or on safety gear.

I wrote earlier about the difference between being a weight weenie and reducing one's wasted weight. And I see the extra half-pound per wheel as wasted weight. The way I see things, if I were to decide that my v-brakes weren't suitable for my riding anymore, I'd most likely put a disc brake in front, potentially pairing it with a fork designed with a through-axle given that the fork manufacturers have finally realized that it's necessary to provide adequate rigidity and prevent wheel ejection. But, given that there's a very hard limit in bicycle dynamics to how much braking power a rear brake can offer... and also how the rear wheel and rim is naturally protected from spray and grime... I can't see any reason why I'd ever want to use a rear disc brake.

Given the troubles I've gone through trying to find replacement parts to my specifications, I'm just worried that I'll be forced to waste weight one of these days.

Posted by Matt :
It's a tough call sometimes. I understand what your saying to a point. I have 3 mountain bikes. My first has v-brakes! It's been reduced to a loaner, my nephew uses it most of the time. My other two are disc brakes. The v-brakes still work great. We don't ride in mud or rain so that's where I'm sure the differences will show up. I haven't ever adjusted the v-brakes except for the barrel adjustments at the lever. I have adjusted the disc brakes a lot more. I think the thickness of the pads makes the adjustment less with v-brakes. Disc pads clearly can't be as thick as v-brakes. Now, one clear advantage is when taking the front wheel off for top loading on a vehicle. I use a fork lock. The discs are no issue, the wheel just drops out. The v-brake has to be uncoupled to get the tire out. Not a major issue, but still annoying. Overall, I would never go back to v-brakes. I feel the disc brakes have more 'on the fly' adjustability without them dragging. They have more stopping power in all conditions. I can make them lock up with the slightest pull on the lever or give the lever lots of play and not have any drag on the disc where the v-brakes will drag on the wheel. Especially if the wheel has any bend at all, the v-brakes rub. Discs don't warp that easily. It's definitely not a cut and dry situation.
Posted by Sean :
Now even the throw away bikes are adding on these fancy useless bobbles. I would rather have a pink and frilly basket and matching bulb horn to skip ever having to maintain or paying extra for these.

At least we still have a choice not to buy dumb heavy rear suspension bikes.
Posted by Tom :
Agreed!!! Not to mention the constant need for maintenance and adjustment with disc brakes. I find rim brakes rarely need attention and work just as good if not better than disc brakes in my opinion. Why have manufacturers taken away our choice? May it have something to do with the train of people headed to their local bike shop to have their disc brakes maintained and adjusted? Never found myself needing their help when working on my rim brakes.
Posted by Mark :
Couldn't agree more. I don't mind my front disc, but the rear disc brake on my road bike is useless, extra weight, provides minimal braking, and the caliper hits my foot at the back of my pedal strokeā€¦ and like you say, the frame cannot accommodate a caliper or v brake.
Posted by Don Severs :

Agreed. I'd add that disk brake pads wear out in 700 - 900 miles. That's a month for a commuter like me. I rode my Schwinn Mesa's caliper brakes for 20 years without a thought.

I've had Shimano hydraulic lines leak, too. Only parts are covered by warranty, and it takes hours to run the back brake cables on my izip E3 Dash. For the average rider, hydraulic disc brakes are a gimmick to sell bikes. And a big step backward.