The Angry Singlespeeder: Why You Should be Riding a Disc Brake Road Bike

Disc Opinion Road Bike

Editor’s Note: The Angry Singlespeeder is a collection of mercurial musings from contributing editor Kurt Gensheimer. In no way do his maniacal diatribes about all things bike oriented represent the opinions of Mtbr, RoadBikeReview, or any of their employees, contractors, janitorial staff, family members, household pets, or any other creature, living or dead. You can submit questions or comments to Kurt at [email protected]. And make sure to check out Kurt’s previous columns.

Have you ever been riding down a wet, leaf covered road, approach a corner and think “Ooh, I better be easy on this corner, it’s slippery.” You gently apply the rear brake and before you can think “I’m falling”, your backside is being grated like swiss cheese on the asphalt at 20 mph? In today’s modern litigious society, nothing is our fault anymore. We have to blame something or someone. So who’s to blame for you running out of talent on that slippery corner? How about that archaic caliper braking system on your bike?

All your friends are enamored with your new carbon fiber wheelset that you just dumped more coin on than your used Toyota Corolla. They look mighty fine, but hey, unless you want to try and pull a Fred Flintstone heel braking technique with your crotch on the top tube, don’t dare ride them in the rain. Oh, and if you damage the braking track on those spendy carbon hoops, you might as well make some stylish earrings out of them, because that’s about all they’ll be good for. Again, it wouldn’t be a problem without those blasted brake calipers.

These types of sleep depriving issues used to be the woes of even the hairy-legged caveman counterpart to the road biker; the mountain biker. But in the late 1990s, hydraulic disc brakes became all the rage, and have since become one of the greatest technological innovations in mountain biking history. Ask any mountain biker who’s been riding disc brakes if they would ever go back to V-brakes or cantilevers, and the response would be a unanimous and deafening “Hell no!”

So why are we still riding brake technology on our road bikes that can be dated back to the days when Orville and Wilbur Wright were busy inventing flight? Much of it has to do with tradition. Roadies are hardcore about die-hard rituals, even when they seem absolutely ridiculous; just take wearing a bicycle helmet as an example.

It took nearly a century for the UCI to mandate helmet use in professional bike racing. Throw in leg shaving, embrocation, frame waxing, sleeping in an altitude tent and using a scale to weigh dinner as well as every part bolted to a bike, and you quickly begin to understand the mentality of the road world.

The hardcore traditional roadie will scoff at the though of disc brakes on a road bike, not only because they add weight and wind resistance, but also because they simply don’t work. But what do they know? Have they ever even ridden a road bike with an adequately engineered disc braking system?

Detractors of the disc brake system say that one of the biggest issues is heat dissipation. Continued braking to slow a road bike from 50 mph to 15 mph down something like the Tourmalet or Ventoux causes enough heat to boil the hydraulic system. Well, I guess if you are riding your brakes all the way down a mountain, this might be a possible scenario. But if you were riding your brakes that way on a caliper system, you’d either blow an inner tube or run your brake pads down to metal.

A boiling disc brake system is not the fault of a properly engineered brake, it’s the fault of the knucklehead riding his brakes all the way down a mountain. And when you have the added braking power of a disc system, you can stop much faster in a far shorter distance, using the system less. There are numerous tour guides in Europe who have been riding disc brake road and cyclocross bikes down the biggest mountains in the Alps with no ill effects because they know how to properly use a disc braking system.

Additionally, many of the most vocal naysayers have never even ridden a disc brake road bike in the first place. Commonly known as “forum trolls”, these people spend more time behind their keyboard pecking buttons and criticizing everyone than actually getting out and riding their bike. And if they have ridden a disc brake road bike and had a bad experience, it’s probably because they ran some aftermarket, weight weenie system using rotors from some garage fabricator far too thin and small for the required conditions.

Other people say disc brakes on a road bike answer a question that’s never been asked. Really? For those people…you either ride in the flattest portion of the entire universe or you simply don’t ride enough. Now before you haul off on me in the comments section with a superfluous list of slander, not all naysayers of disc brakes are trolls. A few of them have valid points. Perhaps the biggest potential issue of disc brakes on the road is with wheel changes, particularly in a race where you receive neutral support.

Nothing is more irritating than having the rotor rub on your caliper, making that godawful shing….shing…shing over and over and over. It’s more rage inducing than a Nicki Minaj song on infinite repeat. But for 99.9999 percent of cyclists who don’t do bike races with neutral support, this is really a non-issue. Let the hardcore club racers and UCI license holders deal with that problem. So long as you use a post mount surfacing tool on your frame and fork, and you have two sets of wheels with the same exact rotors, rotor rub is completely avoidable.

About the author: Kurt Gensheimer

Kurt Gensheimer thinks the bicycle is man’s most perfect invention. He firmly believes ‘singlespeed’ is a compound word. He sometimes wears a disco ball helmet. He is also known as Genshammer. He is a Gemini and sleeps outside in a hammock.

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  • Richie says:

    Who died and made Kurt the arbiter of what I should be doing? He sounds like the same idjit who told me I had to dump my 26″ MTB wheels for 29ers or hell would freeze over.

  • Tom Law says:

    Racing bike tires do not have enough contact area with the pavement to take advantage of the power of disk brakes.

    You think it is easy to lock up the rear with traditional brakes….how about with disks in the rain on a 23 tire?

    Sure you could water down the disk to make it less powerful, but then you are back to regular brakes…what’s the point?

    • francois says:

      Tom Law

      Road bikes have a lot of speed and traction. So more braking power is beneficial.

      More important is modulation. One needs to be able to control braking power and not just on/off pulse it.

      Lastly, with carbon rims, wet rides, rim dirt, pads with aluminum and glass, rim braking generally sucks under some real world conditions.

    • RKI says:

      Right you are Tom Law. Tires are a limiting factor. What would be the sense of those 6 piston Brembo Monoblocs on that Motogp bike without crazy grippy rubber and ABS? Francois also makes a great point concerning rim material.

  • Pablo says:

    The scenario that you picked to start the article is completely irrelevant to the type of brake being used.

    • John Wherry says:

      Good point Pablo. It’s similar to talking about the advantages of 4-wheel drive vehicles over 2-wheel vehicles when braking on ice (there are none). Btw this belief explains a fair number of such vehicles lying on their side in a ditch this time of year.

  • Jim Purdy says:

    The author makes the point that the rim of the wheel could be lighter since it doesn’t have a brake track. The rim will need to be strengthened at the spoke nipples to take the increased stress of the torque created by the braking action on the disk. Ain’t no free lunch there!

    • zen says:

      Not only that but the hub will need to be beefier and have threads and bolt hardware. Not a lot of mass, and it is closer to the center of the wheel but still.

      Let’s face it, this is not a must have. But, bike companies must create some new technology to keep you buying new hardware.

    • JayTee says:

      Carbon clincher rims usually come max pressure warning lower than what you would find on an aluminum rim. Removing material needed for the brake track probably wouldn’t apply in that regard but perhaps on an aluminum rim. Carbon frames also have to be redesigned the for blades have to beefed up to take the stress as well as the left seat and probably chainstay. Selling heavier frames and wheels to road cyclist is an uphill battle

  • zen says:

    I’m all in for hydraulic brakes on mountain bikes. I also can see the advantage on a set of light carbon rims that don’t have a good braking surface. But, the amount and intensity of braking on a road bike just don’t demand disks.

    Of course, bike manufacturers have to… well, they have to sell bikes and creating a whole new braking standard requiring new forks and frames should make money. If they can get them approved in the pro ranks, we’ll all be seeing them. I’m sure they’ll go mechanical at first, then make those obsolete and move to hydraulic which will then make your brifters obsolete so you have to upgrade again. Good revenue stream!

  • dindo says:

    one, i dont ride in the rain.
    two i dont take foolhardy risk
    three i ride for general fitness
    four the canti on my f1x works just fine
    five i am no racer
    so WTF

  • Robot says:

    The point that is being missed here is that one rides very differently bombing a sweet bit of single track than a road decent. Maybe in the most adverse situation a heavier rider would be better off with hydraulic disk brakes but is was in those very conditions during a suicidal SF Spring Classic ride where I saw disk brakes fail well before my canti. brakes ran out of pad.

    So, I remain unconvinced but resigned that the industry will move this direction simply to drive more sales.

  • Kanik says:

    Road discs are good for people who end up riding in the rain often, or people who live in mountainous terrain and who ride long descents. Or for people riding cross. Otherwise, rim brakes can be cheaper and lighter without sacrificing performance or very much wear life.

    I think current mechanical road discs are a poor choice. The calipers are heavy, the cables are heavy (compared to hydro line), and they don’t work that well because of the road brake actuation ratio and the fact that they’re usually used on small 140mm rotors.

    If these new all carbon rotors succeed, and companies release hydraulic drop bar levers, we will have a winner. The C59 Disc hanging in my shop already has this with DA Di2 (not the carbon rotors though). It has Formula brakes and levers, which is made easy with Di2.
    SRAM has the disadvantage here, as they have to fit both their shifter mechanism as well as a master cylinder and reservoir inside their lever, while Shimano (or Formula in this case) only needs to make a drop bar hydraulic lever with a few buttons on the blade.

    If the new carbon rotors work, that will clearly take care of weight issues, and overheating issues that can be found with the small 140mm rotors. And then discs will take off like they did for MTBs.

    • Richie says:

      Bingo, Kanik. There are reasons where they would make sense. Right tool for the job sort of thing. Where I am, this is not at all necessary. The article comes off like so many others on topics of new bike technology, where if you dont subscribe to the new thinking, something is “wrong” with you. I hate groupthink.

  • Britt says:

    I love it but sticking to my mechanical brakes and alloy rimed HED Jett wheels. Easy to service and reliable.

  • aclinury says:

    I ride mountains every weekend. I’m plenty familiar with 40+mph descend. Shimano Dura calipers on aluminum rims has more power than I ever need. Somebody, tell me why I need carbon wheels, and why I need discs? Granted, I don’t ride in the wet much, and honestly, most cyclists don’t ride in the wet (unless they live in a wet areas).

    And in a crit or on the flat, I don’t need disc. 99% of the time I spent pedaling the bike, not braking the bike. No need for here.

    In conclusion, I don’t need disc on the mountains and don’t need disc on the flat. And I don’t plan to ride my expensive bike in the wet. No disc for this guy. For all you newbies who can’t brake, please get disc by all means because I don’t want you to pack the rear of others.

    And regarding the brake track. It’s a support structure. So can’t simply make the rim lighter by removing the support structure (the brake track) and not expect to rim to taco when you hit that pothole. Have fun with watching your carbon rims implode.

  • camping_biker says:

    I like v-brakes a lot, and enjoy my huge rotors (rims). I wouldn’t care for any of that jury rigging with cables to hydraulic mountain bike levers, but I think a purpose built road bike, with matching levers, would be great. If I was shopping for a brand new bike, I’d be into it, but I don’t have that kind of cash.

  • Patrick Fournier says:

    Disc on road bike Is a joke !!! I’m a racer , i began to race on mtb with u-brake, than cantilever, than v-brake and now with disc, sometime i go back on a bike with v-brake and YES you have to work harder on a long descent or in a race with a lot of stop an go but for most of people how ride mtb they do not need disc brake.
    On the road bike the rear wheel slip very easyly if you use to mucht power even in heavy rainy condition and you do not want to much power on the front wheel, just a small lack of adderance and it is the fall. a grate ajust dual pivot brake is more than enought for the road. If TDF rider want disc brake to ride they Alps or the Pyrenee fine, but who realy need that much??? For real cyclocross racer disc are fatastic but they change the bike each lap on muddy condition. Who’s enthousiasm change is bike on the same ride….???iii

  • Jerry says:

    In a wet condition over asphalt, it is always the tire that lock and slides and not the breaks that fail. Judgement is the key when riding.

  • john ward says:

    I am an ultra distance and brevet rider.there is nothing scarier then doing a 5 mile climb and as you start the decent the clouds open up. Rim brakes will barely even slow you down before you hit that first 15 mph turn at 30.I have had this happen more then I would like, but it goes with my type of riding. I now have a disc brake cyclocross bike with the avid cable brakes.They are heavier yes but you can lighten the bike to make up the difference.I just put 700x 35 cross tires on it and now ride it everywhere I have ridden with a mtn bike. For all the naysayers check out how many recreational riders are killed or injured the first time they are caught in the rain and acar

  • john schmidt says:

    Hmmm. I am convinced the only good reason for a disc brake is to prevent wearing out a rim. But this is moot too except for a carbon wheel. For my gritty street commutting wheel, the rim is all of $10-$20 (will probably last ~ 5 years) , and takes 30 minutes to transfer the spokes over and re-tension. Given PROPER rim pads, in my personal experience, my rim brakes were better than disc at quick hard stops. In others words, I could flip the bike with caliper pads if I had too. But with Disc and with the lever to the bar, Oh the discs, such sweet modulation, right through the rear window of the hard stopped SUV in front of me ! This is with the brakes set up to be dragging slightly while coasting. Discs are also more difficult to set up correctly! For wet weather, Discs are affected just as much as a wet weather rim pad would be. Now for heat dissappation. Go ahead and calculate the heat capacity of a 500 or 600 gram deep v aluminum rim versus a disc rotor. So now you know why, for say a tandem, you want a large 10″ disc, that you want to weigh almost as much as your rim ! (and yes no need for it either since the rim is perfectly capable of “mulitple” functions..) So yes You need that mass for the heat capacity to suck up the energy ! The convection simply isn’t fast enough for say a hard downhill stop from 40 mph. Now also calculate the heat convection of all that aluminum surface area vs a disc. I know what’s going on my tandem ! do you? Now you can’t be as stupid with rim tape and tire selection with a rim braked tandem. They will be heat ! So yeah if you wish to run cheap tires/ plastic rim tape on your tandem, then yes, disc brakes are for you, but get the biggest/heaviest rotor you can ! JMS, PE.

  • Craig says:

    Are disk brakes on bicycles “anti-lock”?
    It’s never mentioned once and so I suppose it is supposed to be obvious.
    Would be great but sounds difficult.

  • DrSmile says:

    I’m going to put these brakes on my tubeless clincher wheelset because I can’t find regular clinchers anymore as they’ve become a museum novelty!

  • DrSmile says:

    Just remember the weight and price for a high end hydraulic disk brake are per wheel, not per set. Compared to even a moderately lightened conventional brakeset like Planet-X the cost is 5x higher and the weight is almost 3x more! 200g vs 570g, we’re talking over a pound! A lot of conjecture about making this up by the gain from aerodynamics, but as is currently clearly the disk systems are less aerodynamic and the wheels are heavier! Maybe this will happen… but not with what’s currently available.

  • my 2 cents says:

    I’ve been riding discs on my road bike for more than 7 years now. They’re great, especially if you have dusty or gritty areas to go through. That grinding sound at stops was never very appealing.
    HOWEVER, the discs are as heavy as a Buick compared to a nice pair of TRP cross brakes. 😉

  • Focus503 says:

    ” if they would ever go back to V-brakes)

    Idk, if forced to choose, I’d still probably trade off my disks to keep my suspension. Though it’d be a tough decision and glad it’s one I don’t have to make. (I’m currently going through my hairy legged caveman phase of the year)

    I have 6 wheelsets that I don’t relish trading out, which coincidentally is why I won’t be buying a frame with any of this oddball 135 rear spacing or weird wheel diameters either.

  • Kiwi John says:

    Most of the naysayers do not know what they are talking about. Nor does it appear that they have actually used discs they are expressing an opinion on something they have not used nor even seen. I note John Schmidt’s comments and while I respect them, I do not agree. I spend a considerable amount on bikes and equipment and cost does not concern me but working efficiency does. I believe rim brakes do not work anywhere as efficiently as discs especially when wet or muddy. I possess two sets of hydraulic road brake levers manufactured by Magura in the 1990s and discontinued because of archaic UCI race rules and the change to shifter/brake combos. Hydraulic road brakes do exist and are nothing new! Options are for electronic transmission, Shimano or Campagnolo both make these or, dare I say it, an internal geared hub. I ride my disc and Rohloff equipped cyclocross bike on the road I do own a Campagnolo record equipped race machine as well, I use this for racing. My MTB is also disc equipped. I have left behind all the grinding noises of rim brakes and the excessive wear they cause. I have been racing quite some time now and still take great pleasure in finishing in front of younger competitors who have all the so called up to date gear while I’m on my on my disc equipped bikes. Speed on the bike is determined by the rider who is assisted by his equipment and not by the equipment itself. If weight is an issue lose some off the body or throw away the second water bottle!

  • Mitch K. says:

    You forgot to mention the nicest cable actuated hydraulic system out there: The Hope V-Twin

  • peter van Cadsand says:

    I race mtb’s and I know disc brakes, in conditions where there is any moist on tyre’s or road. you will not have better braking preformance with disc’s.
    the tyre’s are the weak spot when wet!

  • matt says:

    On one hand I would argue that the best brakes ever made for road bikes is the dual pivot brake. As far as on rim braking goes, I’ve never used anything that’s matched it.

    I’ve been a cycling commuter since 1999. I’ve used every type of brake on a bicycle short of hydraulic discs in just about every type of weather and road condition. And the best brake I’ve ever used on a bike, hands down, was when I converted my mountain bike to mechanical disc brakes.

    It took awhile to get the hang of it – learning to modulate a mechanical disc brake (I’ve heard it’s easier on a hydraulic setup) takes a few weeks. But once you do, you have the ability to stop more on a dime than any other kind of brake system in multiple weather conditions, AND improve your handling in different road conditions (potholes, loose gravel, etc) by having a greater degree of control with a brake that actually stops the bike.

    Maybe riding up or downhill in 6 inches of water and pouring rain doesn’t necessarily apply to your weekend warrior road racer, but it sure does to commuters who have to ride in any kind of weather. And also, I wonder how the riders that have to do the Paris-Roubaix would enjoy a nice set of discs.

    There’s really no way to argue the advantage of discs vs rim brakes. All I’d really say is if you have a bike with the mounts, give a pair of Avid BB-7’s a try for 6 months – they’re quality, relatively inexpensive mechanical disc brake calipers – and if you’re not sold, well, then you’re not. But you have to ride with them to understand how much better they are.

  • Geoff. Lomas. says:

    Sorry to spoil the fun for all you trollers but if you really want an answer contact the Lomas Racing Car Co. at The brakes on their solar powered bikes will rip the tyres off the front wheel if they are a little bit perished. The troll bait is the question, Which is the most efficient, a 26 inch disk brake or a 6 inch disk brake? The answer is obvious. I don’t want to insult any trollers but if you don’t see that. Try this; Take a bike with a 6 inch disk brake, turn it over and get a friend to squeeze the 6 inch disk between his fingers to stop you rotating the wheel at the tyre, then to do the same at the 26 inch disk. Be careful not to injure your friends fingers on the 6 inch disk. If you want the most efficient brake you must start with the largest disk which gives you the widest range of leverage ratios to set the feel of operation of the brake to suit your hand/brain coordination. There is no need for hydraulics unless you want to use it to change the leverage ratio, which would be a silly reason anyway. There is a lot to this. Our solar bikes drive through the front wheel and therefore have to have a front tyre tread to assist braking efficiency as well as traction. For a normal bike, fit a tyre with the best tread for braking and make sure you fit it the right way round, especially you guys who keep falling off.

  • MarioWario says:

    Retarded engineering is the main reason for rim brakes, today. Ernesto Colnago is surely a great bike rider and designer – it’s a shame that the UCI haven’t changed the ruling for safer (disc) brakes. You can compare it with home computer design: Apple designs a MacBook Air and the market is following. BTW clincher tyres haven’t improved safety (compared to tubular or tubeless) – hello rims. The times are mainly PRO-STUPID (put more led into the carbon frames and be a jerk about disc brakes)

  • jl_H says:

    Disk brakes would negate all of the aerodynamic and weight advantages of carbon rims. I would never have them on a racing bike.

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