This is a question we often get asked, and there are several considerations to take into account before making a decision.
The advantages of rim brakes (whether V-brakes or calipers) are:
- Lower overall weight
- Lower purchase price compared to discs
The disadvantages are:
- Lower power in wet weather
- The need for fairly frequent brake pad replacement
- Over time rim brakes will wear out your wheel rims
- There is also the danger with rim brakes that a worn or misaligned brake block can come into contact with the tyre, quickly wearing a hole in the sidewall.
The advantages of disc brakes are:
- Higher power
- Reliability in all weathers,
- Low running costs (usually) thanks to long-lasting pads and the fact that they don’t wear out your wheels.
The disadvantages can include:
- Higher initial purchase cost
- Susceptibility to contamination by oil or dirt
- Many disc brakes are harder for the average user to repair if anything does go wrong
The conclusions we’ve come to are these:
Cheap disc brakes are awful, so for any bike with a purchase price below £500 or £600 we’d recommend a model with V-brakes or calipers instead. A £400 bike will be supplied with either cheap and nasty disc brakes, or good quality V-brakes – and I know which I’d prefer!
For an average-distance commute on a ‘normal’ bike, rim brakes are probably best. If you’re not doing a huge mileage the brakes probably won’t wear out your rims for several years, and although you will need new brake blocks more often than with disc brakes, these aren’t expensive. Rim brakes are also easier to adjust and maintain than discs for the average user.
For a high-mileage commuting bike, disc brakes make good sense. They should be cheaper to maintain in the long run, thanks mainly to not wearing out your wheels rims. The potential disadvantages are contaminated brake pads and the possibility of costly repairs if the brakes are ever damaged (especially for hydraulic models), but generally reasonable quality disc brakes should be ‘fit-and-forget’ apart from changing the pads every few thousand miles, and eventually replacing the disc rotors if they wear thin.
Disc Brakes on Touring Bikes
Disc brakes are also becoming an increasingly popular option for cycle touring. The greater power, all-weather performance, and lack of wheel rim wear are very beneficial on a high-mileage, heavily-laden touring bike. The major disadvantage can be serviceability in the field. On an expedition to remote locations, the simplicity and ease of maintenance of rim brakes can literally be a life-saver. Leaking hydraulic fluid or worn out brake discs with no spares available would be a serious problem in some parts of the world.
For a touring bike used in Europe, North America, and more developed areas of the rest of the world, disc brakes are usually a really good option. For a round-the-world trip which includes travel through some pretty remote and undeveloped areas, rim brakes are probably a more sensible and less risky choice.