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

Disc Opinion Road Bike

Another issue that nattering naybobs of negativity bring up is that disc brakes add weight and increase drag, which has some validity. Yes, disc brakes definitely add some weight (about ¾ pound more than a Dura-Ace caliper system), but with disc brakes you’re able to shave weight in perhaps the most important place on a bicycle – the outer portion of the wheel where the rotating mass is.

Rims that used to require a heavy brake surface track can be eliminated, and more aerodynamic designs can be used. As disc brake technology on road bikes becomes more developed, naturally the weight of a disc system will continue to come down. And with the millions of dollars that bike brands spend in wind tunnel testing, drag will also be reduced as disc brakes become the norm.

Better braking safety, control and modulation in all-weather conditions, the ability to use lighter, stronger carbon wheels without braking tracks, effortless one finger braking power without sudden lockup and better clearance to run bigger tires; they’re all reasons why you should be riding a disc brake road bike.

What’s available now?

So you’re sold on disc brakes, now you’re probably wondering what the options are. Well, forget about cable-actuated disc brakes. It’s akin to running drum brakes on a Ferrari. At Interbike this year, I was dumbfounded by the number of high-zoot, ultra-super-duper high modulus, custom molded, limited edition Formula 1 Torayca carbon fiber frames with next generation electronic shifting systems and bank account busting carbon fiber wheels only to find them equipped with prehistoric Avid BB7 cable-actuated disc brakes you can find on a $700 commuter bike. Huh?

From a hydraulic perspective, there are really only two viable options at this point, both of which are cable to hydraulic adapter systems, allowing you to run any cable pull lever with a hydraulic mountain bike disc brake unit.

TRP makes a contraption called the Parabox, which mounts the master cylinders off the fork steerer tube underneath the stem. I’ve ridden this system, and in all honesty, I was underwhelmed. The whole point of hydraulic is to have smooth lever actuation and terrific modulation, neither of which the Parabox has. There are simply too many bends in the cable part of the system, giving the rear brake feel that same notchy sensation as a poorly set-up cable operated caliper.

The other much simpler, cleaner and superior functioning solution comes from 324 Labs. They make mounts that work with the lightest mountain bike disc brake system on the market, the Formula R1. The 324 Labs system works because the cable is no more than a foot long, and is as direct of a pull as possible. The result is a system that feels exactly the same as the Formula R1 mountain bike lever; incredible modulation, no notchy cable pull feel and the absolute lightest hydraulic disc brake setup available, with only an eight gram total mass gain over the standard Formula R1 mountain bike setup. The best part is, even as Shimano and SRAM eventually come out with their own dedicated hydraulic system, the 324 Labs setup allows you to run any existing cable brake lever, regardless of brand.

The hydraulic disc road bike wave is about to come tumbling upon us. Shimano and SRAM are leaking photos of their dedicated systems, Colnago released the C59 with a proprietary hydraulic road unit developed by Formula, and Volagi – the sole manufacturer that designs only disc brake road bikes – had a line of gawkers a mile long at Interbike. So if you’re in the market for a new road bike, get ahead of the curve and start looking at frames with disc brake mounts and 135 millimeter rear hub spacing. Because within a couple years, caliper brakes will be a museum novelty like Biopace and downtube shifters.

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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