7th September 2017. When was the last time you paid attention to your bicycle's brakes when you weren't doing maintenance on them? If you're like many riders, you probably don't pay them a second thought; however, there is a very vocal debate ongoing in the cycling community about which type of brakes are best for road bikes. Perhaps you've heard about some of the controversies, or even met someone who has ditched the regular rim road-bike-brakes-discbraking methods commonly found on today's road bikes. So, what's the big deal? The latest craze is all about disc brakes, a method which involves entirely different hardware. Bicycle brakes have remained relatively similar for decades, so the appearance of a competing choice naturally brings out a disagreement between riders as to which method is the most effective. Whether you are looking for any competitive edge you can find, or you just want to know more about your modification options, learning about brakes is important. There are many situations when just coming to a stop can be a challenge ? and an advanced set of brakes could be just what you need. Before we get in to the pros and cons of disc braking, though, let's first look at how this method works. Why is it so much different than a rim-mounted brake?

The basics of disk brake operation

On a standard bike with rim callipers, the brakes are a purely mechanical function. You squeeze the brake road-bike-brakes-rimhandles, and it pulls a cable that causes the callipers to squeeze the rim. The friction between the two brings you to a stop ? and that's all there is to it. A disc brake eschews this method in favour of a disc mounted on the wheel itself. It functions in much the same way that disc brakes on a car operate. Instead of using a mechanical action like a tightening cable to apply friction to the disc, it uses hydraulics instead. When you squeeze the handle, it forces a hydraulic fluid to operate a piston that works the brakes. The friction on the disc similarly slows your speed, but with several advantages. Not all disc brakes use hydraulic operation, but it is common. We'll go into what those are later, but first, let's look at how we arrived at the point of departure from rim brakes. How did we get here?

Where did hydraulic disk brakes originate?

Rim-mounted brakes have been the gold standard for bikes for nearly a century. They first appeared in the road-bike-brakes-early-disc-brakesearly 20th century, and due to their ease of use, became the choice for almost all bicycles. There were other braking methods in use on bikes during this period, of course: coaster brakes (where you reverse the pedals) and drum brakes see limited use even today. Believe it or not, disc brakes aren't actually a "modern" invention. They've been around on bikes for more than 50 years, but they've only recently become widely popular. There were some bicycles in the 60s and 70s that featured early disc brakes, but these systems were very heavy and cumbersome. They performed well, but they added too much weight to the frame. The result was a more challenging cycling experience on a frame that handled poorly compared to lighter bikes that used rim braking. Today, those problems aren't as present. Disc brakes still add more weight, but better materials and engineering have reduced the problems of the past.

Why so much debate over these brakes?

Previously, disc brakes weren't very popular or accessible to those who used road bikes. Instead, they were the domain of mountain bikers who needed the extra stopping power on demand to contend with rough terrain. As systems have developed, however, more people began to use these systems on road bikes. The debate over whether they are the superior option has continued ever since. For those who still swear by traditional brakes, it is a matter of cost, maintenance effort, and weight. For the other side that advocates a swap to disc brakes, the performance gains outweigh any potential downsides. So, which is really the best choice? In the end, it comes down to personal preference, as is the case with so many other biking modifications. To develop a better understanding of the pros and cons, consider what advantages they offer.

Why people choose to use disc brakes

The primary advantage to be found with these brakes is stopping power. With rim brakes, you must apply considerable force to the callipers with your hands to come to a complete stop. During hilly sections or a downhill portion of a race, this can lead to a lot of fatigue in your arms and hands. Disc brakes transfer power more effectively, allowing you to apply less force for greater power. It also means you can more easily gauge how much strength you must use to modulate your speed at any moment. Have you ever struggled to brake in wet weather? Rim brakes are susceptible to water and can slip and slide, requiring you to squeeze even harder. Disc brakes don't have such a problem, usually operating with reliability in adverse conditions. Overheating and damage is less of a problem than with traditional braking methods as well. Overall, it provides a better experience regarding control. So why would anyone opt to continue using regular methods if this equipment affords so many advantages?

When to stick with more traditional options

As mentioned earlier, disc brakes do add weight to the bicycle. Today, this is usually no more than a pound or two ? but for a serious cyclist, that's weight you would definitely notice. The loss of speed and agility might not be worth the added gains in braking power. Beyond that, you may not be able to afford an upgrade to disc brakes. Kits are typically pricey and upgrading an existing bike to a hydraulic disc braking system requires some serious time and effort. If you aren't already something of a "gearhead" when it comes to your bike, that might be an over-ambitious project. The only other option is purchasing a new cycle with disc brakes as a standard feature. If you seldom cycle in the rain or if you live in an area with plenty of flat ground, there are fewer distinct advantages to disc brakes. Besides less fatigue, you might find the more sensible power requirements to be preferable. With pros and cons on both sides, how can you decide?

Which choice is right for you?

To decide on where you stand on disc brakes, consider the situations in which you cycle most often. For competitive racers and those in cycling clubs, the upgrade can be worth the time and effort: you will save more energy and feel better at the end of a long ride. Why worry about hand cramps when you can give your handles a quick squeeze to drop down to the perfect speed for coasting? Navigating a downhill in the rain will be far less harrowing, too ? you won't have to wonder if your brakes will get a grip in time. For other cyclists, we've already seen there aren't as many "pros" to the situation. However, even without the challenges of hills, you could still enjoy the added safety of faster, less dangerous stopping. Disc brakes also don't wear out your rims, and maintenance over time is usually limited to replacing the discs or the hydraulic lines. For some, even that will be too much effort; traditional brakes will "just work," which means less hassle and uncertainty over time. It's not hard to spot the fact that there are clear reasons to use disc brakes, but there's plenty of information available on the other side of the issue too. Ultimately, the choice will come down to the type of cycling you do and the situations in which you find yourself the most often. Don't forget that if you currently have rim-mounted callipers, a switch to discs can be challenging and costly. If you don't have the funds to make the change now, you can always wait until it's time to purchase your next bike. Then you can examine all the potential options. Whether you favour the added control and speed of discs or the traditional feel of old style brakes, there's only one thing that really matters: stopping your bike on time!