Touring Bike FAQ #4: Disc Brakes or Rim Brakes (V-Brakes)?

There’s plenty of debate over whether V-brakes or disc brakes are ‘better’ for touring. And, as usual, there’s no clear-cut answer.

V-brakes, for our purposes, are a generic and misused term for the several varieties of caliper brakes that work by pinching the bicycle wheel’s rim between two brake blocks to create friction and slow the bike.

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Disc brakes on pushbikes are a relatively new appearance, having been modified and transplanted from motorbikes, and were primarily hydraulic and aimed at the high-end mountain biking market when they first appeared. Later, cable-actuated disc brakes appeared, using the same cables and levers as V-brakes. All of them feature calipers that act upon a metal ‘rotor’ bolted onto the wheel hub, rather than the rim.

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The big debate has arisen because disc brakes are a departure from established, proven technology and functionality. Tourers are generally reluctant to risk the reliability of their rides on new-fangled technology.

In the last few years, however, several models of cable-actuated disc brake have been round the world, and have been tried and tested. That they are now featuring regularly as standard or as optional upgrades on some of the most stalwart touring bikes available – the Surly Disc Trucker, for example – is a reflection of the fact that disc brakes have now well and truly crossed over from ‘new-fangled’ to ‘tried and tested’.

The case for disc brakes on touring bikes

Disc brakes’ advantages mainly lie in their braking functionality. They offer a finer degree of control over braking, known as ‘modulation’. All else being equal, they can also provide slightly more stopping power. With fully-loaded touring bikes easily weighing three or four times the weight of an unloaded bike, the prospect of an increase in braking power is a tempting one.

For ultra long term tours, disc brakes offer another perceived advantage: they won’t wear out your wheel rims. It takes far longer to wear out a disc brake rotor with disc brakes than it does to wear out a wheel rim with V-brakes. This is accentuated in wet, dirty conditions when grit and crap on V-brakes will grind away at wheel rims like sandpaper.

In the long term, using V-brakes will more or less guarantee that you’ll need to replace the wheels of your bike, or rebuild them onto new rims, at some point (you will get plenty of advance warning of this if you keep your eyes open; most good rims feature wear indicators for just this purpose).

Most long-haul tourers seem happy enough knowing this, and plan or prepare accordingly. They also know that a wheel is as likely to need rebuilding because of snapped spokes or worn-out hubs as it is because of a worn braking surface.

The case for rim brakes on touring bikes

In this light, it’s easy to see rim brakes as an old-hat, low-budget, sub-optimal choice for braking. But this is not true.

The braking power argument is often given undue importance. It might well help a downhill mountain biker win a race, and that’s why mountain bikers love hydraulic disc brakes – but that’s very different to 99.9% of the scenarios a touring cyclist could expect to encounter.

We’ve all ridden bikes with crap V-brakes that are poorly installed and badly maintained, but a properly-adjusted set of modern V-brakes can deliver a similar level of raw braking power to a cable disc brake, given due care and attention.

So that’s why you’ll still find V-brakes fitted to tourers with price-tags well into the thousands of pounds. At the end of the day, they simply work. They’ve been doing so since pretty much forever.

Rim brakes have one huge advantage for the long-haul traveller: compatible parts can be found in one form or another on almost every bike on the planet, whereas disc brakes still rely on non-standard, proprietary brake pads and calipers.

Rim brakes operate upon the simplest possible principles, and if kept properly adjusted they’ll do the same job of stopping a fully-loaded touring bike that they’ve been doing for decades. There’s a huge amount to be said for that simplicity.

As with so many noisy debates in touring equipment choice, then, the underlying point is easily forgotten. And in the case of brake technology, the more important question is not whether rim brakes or disc brakes are ‘better’. At the end of the day, they both stop bikes.

The real question is which would be more appropriate for your tour.

Big mountains and/or off-road touring in the short term? You might benefit from the increased control and power of disc brakes.

Long-haul bicycle travel all over the globe? Your priorities are likely to be better served by the simplicity, durability, ease of adjustment and the availability of spares that come with V-brakes.

Where do your plans fit into all of this?

Next in the Touring Bike FAQ series: Derailleurs or Internal Hub Gears (Rohloff)?

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68 Responses to “Touring Bike FAQ #4: Disc Brakes or Rim Brakes (V-Brakes)?”

  1. TOM RENNIE

    You have not addressed the issue of braking loads having to be carried by the spokes when disc brakes are employed; with V brakes the load is taken straight to the forks – any thoughts?

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      I wouldn’t call this an issue until we hear regular stories of people snapping spokes on their touring bikes while braking with disc brakes. It does depend on wheels being laced correctly, but any decent wheelbuilder would do that anyway.

      Reply
    • Dana

      The rotational load applied to a disc brake is roughly equivalent to the load on a rear wheel under heavy acceleration – a properly-laced 3-cross front wheel with double-butted spokes should do the job admirably. The real disadvantage I see with disc brakes is that discs are prone to bending under lateral loads, and are completely exposed to mud and grit. And, once your disc is contaminated or bent, it’s going to make horrible screechy noises until you replace both the pads and the brakes.

      And good luck replacing hydraulic hose or locating specfic DOT/mineral oil formulas in Mongolia – or even Northen BC.

      Reply
      • Dana

        Also, DOT fluid freezes at -50*C and Shimano mineral oil at -35* ish. I mean, most people don’t cycle in those temperatures, but I had to give up on hydraulic brakes on my winter bike after I burst 3 hoses, even after switching to Hayes from Shimano.

        Reply
        • Barny

          Hydraulic / Mechanical is a seperate argument from Vee / Disc. Mechanical disc brakes are very popular and for good reason.

          Reply
      • Andrew Norris

        I’ve been mountain biking for years in the muddy UK forests and gritty peak district Starting on V brakes and going to disc. Discs are MUCH better and more reliable in muddy gritty conditions. They wear less, make less noise and work better in these conditions.

        Discs are also safer in the wet, with little noticeable decrease in stopping performance.

        The latest Disc brakes (e.g. Shimano Deore) and cheap, very powerful and have great modulation.

        A small amount of silicone grease on the pistons every now and again is really all they need. Bleeding is not that difficult to do either.

        I can still understand people doing a world tour on roads wanting rim brakes though.

        Reply
      • Bobby

        Which gives a larger penalty in terms of rotational weight on your tires: the need for a certain kind of rim on your tires if you have caliper brakes, or the adjustment in spokes or other specs if you have disk brakes?

        I was told disc brakes can add upwards of a pound in weight to your bike, but was also told the rims needed for calipers affect rotational weight and that rotational weight most affects your speed. However–and bear with me I’m not very knowledgeable here–I seem to be reading something about heavier or stronger spokes being needed with disc brakes?

        I’m a fair weather rider on fairly level concrete trails and am looking for speed /weight advantage. Don’t need impeccable braking power.

        Reply
  2. Doug

    You missed the other big advantage of disc brakes: the ability to run very bent wheels without loss of braking effort or the rubbing issues associated with rim brakes. Or do touring bikes have strong enough wheels that they don’t bend?

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      This is true, but I’m not convinced it’s a real argument in the case of touring on strong wheels that shouldn’t get bent in the first place (and can be trued if they do). Downhill mountain biking, on the other hand…

      (Also, disc rotors get bent too and are much more difficult to true than wheel rims!)

      Reply
      • Andrew Norris

        Disc brakes can be trued pretty effectively by eye and using a small adjustable spanner. Surprisingly easy.

        Reply
  3. Lewis Loh

    How about mechanical pulled discs? Best of both worlds.

    Reply
  4. Ed

    That’s true but you really want to ride a rim that’s way out of true as little as possible, ideally if you’re doing a long trip away from bike shops you should be able to true your own rims, and rotors get pretty easily knocked mostly by other people when you leave your bike parked up. But yes it is good that braking is entirely unaffected by rim condition.

    Reply
  5. Tiago

    Disc brakes also perform better under rain and wet conditions. Plus, they don’t freeze overnight in very cold conditions — the best advantage for me. Really annoying to have V-brakes freeze and not having any brakes at all. Sure, they have proprietary pads, but have you seen how tiny the pads are? And they last a LOT longer than V-brake pads.

    Reply
    • Shaun

      That depends on the pads. There’s not much in it between slot in V brake pads and disc pads so carrying spares isn’t that onerous. Using slot in pads saves a lot of faffing setting new pads up too.

      Also choosing disc pad compounds helps longevity. Often the cheaper disc brakes come with organic compound pads which don’t last long in wet weather, especially off road. Sintered pads last longer at the expense of some low speed braking finesse.

      Reply
      • Geoff Baker

        I disagree; I commute 15k miles a year and on V brakes I was changing pads every 5oo miles or so. Switching to disc brakes I now change pads every 5,000 miles or so.

        Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Indeed. Lots of people avoid riding in the rain or in sub zero temperatures, of course, because it’s generally quite miserable!

      Reply
  6. Shaun

    Elephant in the room: hydraulic or cable?

    I’m quite happy with my Magura hydraulic rim brakes and I’d use hydraulic disc brakes too if it was a bike packing off road type of trip on a mountain bike rather than an expedition tourer.

    I can see the attraction in cable operated brakes for keeping it simple but I don’t find the braking to be consistent, reliable, powerful enough and IME, they require more routine maintenance. On the other hand, if you snap a hydro pipe, which I’ve done once in 20+ years, replacing it requires you’ve brought spares with you and a refill kit.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Having used all of the above on tours (cable disc, cable rim, hydraulic disc and hydraulic rim), I would agree that all have their uses. My long-haul expedition bike has V-brakes for simplicity and ease of maintenance and because they just work, but I’d happily take hydraulic discs on a short off-road bikepacking trip where the extra braking control and power would make a real difference.

      I’ve never experienced any power or consistency issues with cable discs on a touring bike, though. If they’re good brakes in the first place, properly set up and bedded in, and the pads aren’t contaminated, they should provide plenty reliable braking power for most touring uses.

      Reply
      • Bill Heimann

        You talk about “V” brakes and not cantilevers. They are different. V brakes are very “on-off” with little modulation. Where as good canti levers have very good modulation. I have been using canti’s for many years on long distance (over a year) tours and have found them very satisfactory. Notice I only use satisfactory and not great. They and V brakes do suffer from fade on long descents and even with dual compound shoes are not very good in heavy rains like Northwest Thailand in the rainy season. BTW even with the best built of wheels broken or bent wheels do occur and are a problem for rim brakes.

        I am going to try the TRP Hylex brakes on my new Soma Saga for a 5 month or so tour in South Ameriaca

        Reply
        • Tom Allen

          Thanks Bill. I do talk about ‘rim brakes’ as distinct from ‘V brakes’ at various points in this article, and cantis come under the former category. Worth reiterating that V-brakes are mechanically more forceful for the same pulling torque, all else equal, and therefore more appropriate for a fully loaded touring bike. There’s also plenty of modulation available if you use them skilfully.

          Reply
  7. Paul

    I run Avid BB7’son my Disc Trucker, I wouldn’t go back to V-brakes, the bike is my do everything bike and frequently pulls a 50+ kilo trailer, the best way I can describe the brakes is “boringly reliable” Living in Ireland, where it rains most days, knowing you will have braking no matter how bad the weather is, with little lag, puts your mind at rest. Maintenance has consisted of a tweak of the adjusters on the caliper, 30 seconds work at most. Plus the added advantage of not having the rims and bike covered in brake muck every time it rains.

    Reply
  8. Jose

    Nobody mentions here cantilevers, which many touring bikes include for the only fact they are compatible with drop-bar STI levers, but which include the potential inconveniences of v-brakes but without its braking power (Btw, I am in love of cantilever brakes in my retro mtb, but I would not pay 1500 EUR for a touring bike in 2015 with those brakes).

    A point I don’t get is those Magura hydraulic rim brakes many touring German bikes include. No doubt they brake great, but they sum up all the inconveniences of both systems when travelling: the difficulty of repairs of hydraulic brakes on the road, and the wearing out of the rims.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Cantis are indeed sub-optimal for heavily loaded tourers in my opinion, even though V-brake-compatible drop bar levers are available these days. The Magura rim brakes I can kind of understand in Germany, because they’re so widespread there, and they are incredibly reliable and easy to maintain (in terms of brake shoe changing).

      Reply
      • Eugene

        But V-brake compatible drop bar levers with integrated Shimano shifters?

        Reply
        • Tom Allen

          No idea, but I wouldn’t use them even if they were available. Keep the mechanisms simple and separated, and breakages and repairs will be that much less of a problem.

          Reply
  9. Ian

    Thanks for the article and the discussion. I would guess that for a long distance tourer travelling the globe, rim brakes would be best as if your wheel collapses in a far off land, you are much more likely to get a replacement wheel to fit rim brakes rather than getting one to fit disc brakes

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Really it’s only ever the hub that’s disc-specific. You can use any either kind of rim with disc brakes, and the spokes are also the same, if usually shorter for disc hubs. Also many of the hub’s components are interchangeable across models and brands in a pinch. Wheels don’t tend to collapse unless in an accident, especially if well built in the first place, so as long as you maintain the hub appropriately, I’m not sure this is really an argument against disc-only wheels.

      Reply
  10. David

    I’ve just come across your blog. Great, thank you. I may have missed this in the discussion, but do disk brakes make spoke changing harder? Even hand-built wheels suffer under load and when I have toured, replacing spokes has been one of the commonest “major” repairs needed. (Tandem and solo – but more on tandem). My old tandem has a drum and rim brakes – you need to really anticipate when to brake with that set-up!

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Hi David. This is rather subjective, but the simplest answer is that disc brakes don’t make spoke replacement significantly more difficult. The hub flanges are broader which might actually make spoke insertion easier; on the other hand, depending on the spoke in question, it might be necessary to remove the disc rotor, although to do so is usually a simple case of removing some bolts. Certainly with rear drive-side breakages (the most common on tour), there’s every possibility it’ll be exactly the same routine with a disc hub as with a non-disc hub. I’d be interested to hear others’ experiences with this.

      Reply
  11. Jack Kapela

    I have several bikes. Road endurance (Campagnolo Centaur, caliper brakes), road race (Shimano Ultegra, caliper), hybrid (Shimano Tiagra, mini v-brakes), cross (Shimano SLX, hydraulic discs), trekking (Shimano Alivio, v-brakes), recreational MTB (no name, v-brakes), race MTB (Avid Elixir, hydraulic discs), old school Cro-Mo cross (canti).

    The advantage of hydraulic disc brakes that I see, is in few conditions. Using high speed on long descents and in wet conditions. So if you do a lot of hilly rides with long descents you might be safer on hydraulic discs. Also if you ride during winter or rainy spring/autumn, especially on paved surface and you have to stop quickly. Another advantage is on races or group rides when something suddenly happens in front of you or you need to go down on very steep descent in cross country ride or race. Then you will have more control and there is less chance of locking wheels when braking. Rim brakes (V-brakes, caliper, canti) have to clean the rim dry before braking starts and this lag might be of high importance in such situations. Especially in motorized traffic. In wet, the braking distance for rim brakes is much longer than disc brakes. In dry conditions there is not much difference.

    For most cyclists rim breaks are better choice. Especially for those who change or take out wheels and tires often. It takes few seconds to adjust caliper or v-brakes unless you put the wheel with different rim with. Adjusting disc brakes can drive you mad and can take minutes and sometimes hours. V-breaks need very little maintenance. You just need to watch out for pad wear and exchange excessevily used ones, once in a while. For some every few months, for some every few years. Despite what many people say, there is very little difference in braking power between many different v-brake brands. My properly adjusted no name brakes, on one bike, work nearly identical to much more expensive ones on others. What makes difference is brake pads. Good vs bad ones can make big difference. It is sligly different with caliper brakes on road bikes. Brake pads are still important, but the way different brakes are built results in different braking power and force needed for braking. My Ultegra brakes certainly brake better than my Campagnolo Centaur brakes and need less force to brake. I never had good experience with cantis. They squeel too often. Braking on dry is reasonable but braking on wet is pretty not existing. Disc brakes require proper maintainance which is going to cost you few times more than for v-breaks and needs to be done on regular basis. Disc brakes also use different oils. Some of them may have decreased performance in very low temperatures which affect some hydraulic oils.

    Excessive wear of rims when using rim brakes and tire blowouts are some kind of industry conspiracy. I’ve done thousands of kilometres every year for the past 20 years on flats and mountains and never had such an incident. I have friends who do 20 thousand every year and dozens who do thousands. None of them had to change rims because of exceesive wear and none had tire blowout. I heard of tire blowouts but most of them were related to using carbon rims that heated up on long descends during races. How many cyclist race? Very few. Maybe 1% out of which only some use carbon rims. So it is unimportant issue overall.

    There are two additional factors regarding braking worth mentioning. One is proper use of brakes. Many cyclist are not properly educated in that regard and don’t know how to brake. They’re afraid of using front brake and don’t know when and how to use it. They also don’t know that most of braking power comes from front brake. I didn’t know that too. You should never use your front brake when turning. You use it when your wheels are in straight line and before you turn. You should also be very carefull not to lock your rear wheel by using excessive force. Using front brake when turning and locking rear wheel probably account for vast majority of crashes.

    The other very important factor is tire pressure. Again, most cyclist don’t know what tire pressure they should use according to type of surface and conditions. If you use max pressure during winter on slush or icy road you will surely crash no matter what kind of brakes you have. You mustn’t believe what is printed on the side of the tire as minimum pressure. There is mostly no such thing as minimum pressure. Maximum pressure shouldn’t be exceeded. But minimum one is up to you. On my recreational 29-er with v-breaks, for off-road use, I use 2.0 inch tires from spring to autumn. With pressure ranging from 20 PSI to 30 PSI depending on conditions. For winter, when riding on snow and ice, I switch to 2.3 inch tires with pressure around 15 PSI. But I’m heavy. My son, roughly half my weight is using 10 PSI on his MTB bike with 2.0 inch tires during winter. On my trekking and cross bikes, I may use as much as 80 PSI on dry conditions and go down to 30-35 PSI on my 700x38C tires during winter. It is more difficult to drop pressure on a road bike. If you go too low, you risk pinch flats. I normally use 100 PSI in dry conditions. I may go down to 70 PSI on wet but I avoid riding road bike in wet conditions and never ride it in snow or ice. Lower pressure is going to increase your traction. You will go slower but bike will feel more stable nad your crash rate will surely drop.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Thanks for the detailed thoughts here, Jack. I’d just reiterate the warning that running tyres too low can result in pinch flats (a.k.a. snakebites), which goes for mountain bike tyres as well as road tyres.

      Reply
      • Andrew Norris

        Agreed. Pinch flats depend to some extent on the strength of the tyre. On my mtb I use schwalbe land cruisers, which are a very sturdy semi-slick. They weigh nearly 1kg each for the 2.0 version. They hardly ever pinch, even at low pressures, and when hammering a rocky descent in the peak district. My Schwalbe Nobby Nicks are a much gripper but lighter tyre. The 2.3 weighs about 650 g. Now this tyre pinches more more easily. I’m 13.5 stone but I need at least 30psi in the back as I like to really go at the descents with those tyres on.

        It’s very much a combo of the terrain and speed you are riding at. If you like to hammer rocky descents and are a heavy rider, using a low weight tyre, you will need high pressures. I know this from riding with mtb clubs and seeing who gets the pinch flats over the years. Some people need 30psi or more. Hardtails are worse too as the rear takes a hammering on rocks.

        Of course if you run tubeless you will not get pinch flats.

        Reply
    • Kelly Sanders

      “Excessive wear of rims when using rim brakes and tire blowouts are some kind of industry conspiracy. I’ve done thousands of kilometres every year for the past 20 years on flats and mountains and never had such an incident. I have friends who do 20 thousand every year and dozens who do thousands. None of them had to change rims because of exceesive wear and none had tire blowout.”

      Sorry, but you are wrong. Whilst I have never had a blow-out, to say that nobody ever had to change a rim due to it wearing-out, is nonsense. I commute only 9kms each way, through Copenhagen, and am on my third front rim, due to wear. They last approx 14 months, before wearing through. I use a hub-gear with a coaster brake on the rear, so the front v-brake gets most of the work (there is a lot of stop-start). The rims are mid-range 700c aluminium jobs and they wear-through.

      I also spent 2 years cycling round the world and had both rims wear-out during that trip. I had to true them a few times as well.

      Just because you and your friends haven’t had it happen, doesn’t make it an ‘industry conspiracy’ or myth.

      Reply
  12. Dan Gao

    The most salient difference between disk and rim brakes is that the “disk” of a rim brake is twice the diameter of the typical disk brake disk. This means the disk brake requires twice the force to achieve the same braking torque of a rim brake. The only ways to achieve this are: higher friction pads and disks; stiffer (so heavier) parts; higher mechanical advantage in the levers and calipers – so more grip force over longer distances. The latter is euphemistically referred to as “modulation”. And indeed it might be useful in gently scrubbing speed in a pack. But it only hurts when trying to stop a loaded tourer.

    The oft repeated claim that disks are better in the wet may be true. The higher pad forces and isolated disk surface perhaps give better performance. But I’d sure like to see some experimental confirmation given how badly the basics are misunderstood.

    Reply
    • Andrew Norris

      Interesting point about the diameter. Don’t forget discs are often hydraulic so they will get more force in that way. Plus my BB7s (mechanical disc) with new clean cables are not far off my Elixir 5s (hydrolic) in power. BB7s have more power than my lx v brakes!

      What I imagine explains this is that the pads in BB7 move only a small amount compared to the v brake pads when you pull the lever. Yes you have more modulation in theory with the mech disc, but it’s geared differently for more power, so the modulation and power end up the same.

      Reply
      • Dan Gao

        First apologies for writing off the top of my head and confusing the 6-7 inch diameter of a disk for its radius. Actually it takes 4 to 5 times as much force for a disk to stop like a rim brake. On another site I saw an Avid engineer acknowledging this. This does mean that disk brakes are inherently 4 or 5 times less powerful than rim brakes, as power has a precise definition. I don’t want to dwell on that, because power isn’t important after the first g of deceleration.
        Hydraulics might reduce friction and make the system stiffer, but they cannot transmit any more force than a cable and housing (short of failure of course;-). Their big advantage is that one can engineering any kind of mechanical advantage into it by varying the diameters of the pistons at each end. This is important for disk brakes which need the large MA that can be difficult to design in simple hand sized levers. And if they were that good, we would see a lot more Magura rim brakes!-)

        Reply
        • Andrew Norris

          the great point with discs if that you vary the diameter. Whereas with rim brakes you are stuck with the wheel size for your frame. Personally I have used discs ranging from 160mm to 200mm.

          You def feel the extra power as go up to 200mm. The main advantage is that it is easier to operate, less effort. Can one finger brake if you desire. With hydraulic or even cables with a 200mm it’s way more than all the v brakes I have tried.

          The disadvantage is that you lose feel / modulation.

          I tend to stick to 160mm for that reason as I don’t 1 finger brake.

          Reply
        • Bill

          As I have said before, there is a large difference between V brakes and cantilevers. The braking forces are different in addition to many other differences like fork stresses, cable pull and modulation. V brakes tend to be more on/off as opposed to the modulation that cantilevers offer. BTW, modulation (variation) is the ability to apply more or less force to the braking action as needed or required. Also BTW V Brake is a name invented by Shimano for liner pull brakes that have been around a long time.

          Now to disc brakes. Ask yourself why motorcycles don’t use rim brakes (really disc brakes also) as they once did. They changed as did autos because of the superior braking provided by disc. So, why do disc provide superior braking? Simply, disc brakes provide:

          1. Higher torque (more braking power)
          2. Stiffer braking surface Aluminum rim vs steel disc
          3. Better cooling (less fade)
          4. No heat at the tire bead (safer)
          5. More modulation.
          6. Longer life of components, no rim wear
          8. Less accumulation of foreign materials (water, mud, etc)

          These are just a few of the advantages of disc brakes. As to cons, they are heavier but remember if you use disc rims the revolving weight is moved inward and comes very close the to same. Also remember that the weight argument was used when brake lever shifters introduced. Seen a downtube shifter recently?

          Most of the arguments against disc brakes are the same as when cars first started using them. They were not true then and are not true now. If you would like a more technical and less emotional discussion read the scientific studies. It is amazing what you can learn. They discuss torque forces and such, very in depth.

          If you are looking for improved touring braking over v brakes (liner pull or direct pull) and do not want to expend the money required to change to disc go to something like Paul or other high end cantilever brakes. You will not believe how much your braking will improve.

          I have been touring for over 35 years covering more than 63 counties and am a retired bicycle industry professional.

          Reply
    • Andrew Norris

      I find a good hydraulic brake with a smallish disc is better than all the v brakes I have tried in terms of power and modulation. I have not tried XTR though! The disadvantage is system can overheat more readily on long descents. A rim brake uses the whole tyre to cool down! Whether this is your disc or the fluid that boils depends on your pad type. I use sintered pads and they cause the disc to overheat before the fluid boils. It rarely happens if modulate the brakes and you do yet a warning first with reduced power. I have fitted a quality disc (XT centerlock) which helps a lot.

      Reply
  13. Dan Gao

    1. Higher torque (more braking power)

    Of course not. This would mean an 80mm disk would be better than a 160mm disk and a 40mm better still! That would certainly upset the laws of physics!-)

    2. Stiffer braking surface Aluminum rim vs steel disc

    True, you can select a better surface than aluminum. (Although I’m surprised it’s stainless steel, given the bad results with the old steel rims.)

    3. Better cooling (less fade)

    Goodness no! The pads must deal with 4x the force/friction and are much more vulnerable to glazing. The smaller disks can get very heated and warped.

    4. No heat at the tire bead (safer)

    True.

    5. More modulation.

    No. Since rim brakes require less force, you can match the mechanical advantage of the disk brake lever and then match the “heavier” feel by adding a resistance spring. It’s a waste of energy, but, hey!, think of the modulation!

    6. Longer life of components, no rim wear

    I doubt it. The pads are facing much more abuse and I’m not sure that steel makes up for the higher (hotter) forces on a smaller surface of the disk. From a quick look, it appears an Avid replacement disk costs the same as a Sun CR-18.

    8. Less accumulation of foreign materials (water, mud, etc)

    True – making them an excellent second purchase after you put fenders on your ride;-)

    Reply
    • Christopher Underwood

      On the subject of brake pad wear on disk brakes. My current banger bike has a set of Avid BB5 brakes on it. The bike is used for commuting all year round (some years see more km than others). Most of the bike has been replaced, but not the brakes. I suspect that the brakes have about 9000km on them but that is a guess.

      Currently, the brakes have 4 winters on them with the original rotors and original pads. Last time I checked, the pads are still fine. I have not cleaned the rotors, not dealt with any bent rotors, nor have I had any brake failure or fade or strange sounds from them. They just work. Every single time.

      Granted, winter riding introduces different stresses on brakes than touring does, but speaking personally, I find it hard to accept arguments that disk brakes are somehow inherently less reliable than rim brakes just because they are disks, based on the experiences I have used cheap as dirt mechanical disk brakes in.

      In fact, in the conditions I ride in, rim brakes are often significantly less reliable. There are times when one stop equates to one set of brake pads destroyed (did that twice in bad weather).

      Again, I am talking about abusive commuter bike riding in really foul weather on icy, gritty, salty roads.

      My touring bicycle is a 2014 Kona Sutra, again with mechanical disk brakes (Hayes ones) which, after 8000 plus km in all but winter conditions, have no appreciable wear on them and zero problems with stopping, even fairly heavily loaded down. I have, however, had to replace the front chain ring, cassette, chain, and wheel set (not built properly and suffered from rim separation) in order to keep the bike rolling. But the brakes? Total non-issue.

      Again, I must stress that the bicycle is used as a longer distance commuter / gravel road / explore bike and that I do not do actual touring with it. I mention my experiences only to offer a perspective on disk brake reliability when abused heavily over time (particularly on the commuter bike which, poor beast, just gets ridden and largely ignored except for the odd bath and drivetrain cleaning).

      Reply
      • Christopher Underwood

        Note: @Dan Gao
        This was meant to be a general comment and not a reply to your post per say. Cheers!

        Reply
  14. Dwayne

    So I am a newbie to touring bikes. I am building a new touring bike. Starting with the Specialized AWOL Expert frame. The wheels are Velocity Dyad rims. Rohloff on the rear and Son 28 on the front. Gates Carbon drive. 180mm disc front and 160 disc rear. What I am having trouble deciding on is mechanical vs. hydraulic Disc brakes. What I originally wanted to use was TRP HY/DR but since I am using a Jones Carbon H-Bar I will not be using road levers. I email TRP to ask about using the HYDR on Jones Bars and they said NO. They are made for road style levers. So I am considering using TRP Spyke mechanical or Shimano SLX hydraulic or TRP Dash Sport hydraulic. As I stated above my struggle is between mechanical or hydraulic. At the moment my touring will be in the USA. Planning to ride the Seattle to San Diego PCH1 route this summer. My only experience with disc brakes is BB7’s on my Fatback fat tire bike. They are adequate for winter and summer fat tire riding. SO I would have to learn how to take care of hydraulic brakes. Hey you got to learn sometime right. I would like to hear your thought on this. Mechanical or Hydraulic?

    Reply
    • Andrew Norris

      I’ve used many types of brake and ride 5000 miles a year on average. Shimano SLX brakes are very reliable. More powerful than the BB7’s I used. They are also easy to bleed. They use mineral oil, which is less harmful. Plenty of instructions on youtube. They are very hard to beat. I’m not sure of mineral oil availability if touring in some countries. That’s the only possible downside I can think of.

      Reply
      • Tom Allen

        Other theoretical disadvantages of hydraulic brakes for touring include the difficulty of repairs and the proprietary nature of spare parts in the case of component failure or accidental damage (for example a brake hose being ripped out during transit or a lever being snapped in a crash). One advantage of cable-actuated brakes is that – with the exception of the caliper itself – parts are often interchangeable with bog-standard V-brakes.

        Reply
        • Herbert

          I would like to expand on the power question mentioned above. All things being equal (namely, comparing cable actuated v-brakes and disc brakes), the power of a properly maintained v-brake on a 700c rim will be 300% greater than an 8″ disc brake! It is equivalent to trying to remove a stubborn bolt using a tiny 4″ wrench (the radius of an 8″ rotor) and a 12″ wrench (the radius of a 700c wheel, which is, after all, a disc). Physics and leverage. However, cable disc brakes can be powerful enough for single bikes and they bring other advantages (although I’ve never been too impressed with them). Now, because hydraulic fluids can transfer the power from the hands much more efficiently than cables, hydraulic disc brakes change that equation, although I’m not sure by how much. The most powerful brakes will be the Magura hydraulic rim brakes – hands down. But then we still trash our expensive rims which is why hydraulic disc brakes for mtn bikers is a win-win. For touring, I think it is a toss up. Santana is a well known tandem bike maker and they talk about why they use v-brakes for their front rims and disc for the rear. Their tests have shown that disc brakes just are not powerful enough for the critical front rim. For the rear, on the other hand, we tend to squeeze those brakes harder for the entire duration of the stopping action which can generate a lot more heat than the front – so they go with discs in the rear to avoid tire blowout. I think those principles could apply to heavily loaded touring bikes.

          Reply
    • Dan Gao

      A couple points: It’s a Cr-Mo loaded tourer – use the biggest rotors you can fit – there is no penalty for having excess braking capacity. Also, use the same size front and rear. While it’s very unlikely you will ever damage your front rotor and have to swap them in an emergency, especially on PCH, it’s a touring way of thinking and it’s a touring bike…
      And while there’s no disputing taste, I sure wouldn’t put a $300 carbon bar on a $700 Cr-Mo frame (unless it was lying around the garage.) Experiment a little with cheaper alternatives (including drop bars).

      Reply
      • Dwayne

        I am not sure I might have posted my comment in the wrong spot so I am posting it again here hopping it gets to those that made comments.
        Thanks for all of the input guys. All is greatly appreciated and I have read and listened to all of it. Thanks again. It has been a long process to get this bike built. As you know they can get kind of expensive. It is in the final stages and could be done this weekend. In the end I am going with the TRP HY/DR disc brakes. I figured out how to make it all work out even with the Jones H-Bars. As far as using the carbon version. I currently have the aluminum version on my Fatback fat tire and love them to death. I have carbon drop bars on my cycle-cross bike and road bike and appreciate the road vibration elimination so I am hoping that come through on the new tour bike. I am also going with 160 mm disc both front and rear for the reasons stated in the comments. “Keep the disc the same”. I am looking forward to putting this bike to good use and many miles. A couple of months ago I had my Bianchi Sempre road bike in for its 20,000 mile overhaul. It is a full carbon, frame, handle bars, seat post bike with full Campy Record 10 starting/stopping. Even as a carbon bike it has held up great with only tires, tubes and two chains. Everything else is original and still running so I have a lot of confidence in the use of carbon for the John H-Bars. Know to just get everything finalized for the trip. I just travel arrangement today to get me from the Twin Cities, MN to Seattle, WA and from San Diego, CA to home. It should be a great trip. Thanks Again for the comments. Anything new is a bonus.

        Reply
  15. Alexander Lopez

    The folks at Rodríguez Bikes have a very detailed page about why they prefer cantilever brakes instead of disc or even V-brakes. After their 4-decades of experience building touring and tandem bikes, they summarize their preferences like this:

    Disc brakes:
    + Work well when riding into water streams.
    + Work well with bent rims.
    – Are heavier than other kind of brakes.
    – Require heavier, reinforced forks.
    – Can overheat and get warped easily, thus making loud scraping noises.
    – Brake pads and rotors are not easy to find in remote areas.
    – Make a more difficult work to pack/unpack the bike when travelling.

    Rim brakes:
    + Lighter (up to 2.25 lbs / 1kg than a disc setup),
    + Cantilevers offer easier modulation AND lots of braking power,
    + Even top-notch models are cheaper than disc brakes,
    + Longer brake pad wear,
    + Brake pads are cheaper and easier to purchase anyplace in the world,
    + Brake pads are easier to replace,
    – Can’t work with wet or dirty rims,
    – Can’t work with bent rims.

    I’d recommend to read their website to get more insight about this subject:
    http://www.rodbikes.com/articles/brakes.html
    http://www.rodbikes.com/articles/disco-fever/disco-fever.html

    Reply
    • Andrew Norris

      Largely true, which is why disc are better for MTB. However that was written over a decade ago and since then disc brakes have surpassed rims for power and modulation. Plus heat dissipation has greatly improved.

      And they forgot to mention rim wear when using in grimy muddy conditions. I have got through rims in one season easily when using in those conditions.

      Alos to be fair, rim brakes do work in the wet, but not as good as discs, which hardly seem affected.

      Plenty of spares if touring Europe.

      Personally I would still use rims for road touring, as it saves weight and they are more than powerful enough. Plus I don’t need as much modulation as I do riding my MTB in slipping conditions like a steep muddy descent, where the modulation of a well maintained (bleed and silicone greased up) modern disc brake really comes in.

      Not so sure what was meant about storage, as modern disc

      This article was written in the early days of hydraulic discs for mtb. Having used v brakes a lot and discs since those days, I can vouch for how much discs have improved in that period. The Shimano ones are now very reliable too.

      The fact that discs are recently an option on high end racing bikes, shows how much they have come on.

      Reply
      • Andrew Norris

        I guess with storage / transportation – the article meant 2 things

        a) discs can bend easily
        b) if you pull the lever a few times when there is no wheel in it will cause the discs to seize up and they can be tricky to pry apart.

        in reality this has has no proved a problem. you can quite easily remove the discs (6 bolts or even easier for center lock, one screw) – for transporting on a plane. and if they do bend they can easily be bent back with an adjustable spanner by eye. Or even bent back using your fingers (clean the disc after or use gloves ).

        To stop the pistons locking up, a cheap spacer can easily be inserted between them. This is designed for the purpose.

        Reply
        • Tom Allen

          I’ve done both of these things. A bit of cardboard is a perfectly decent spacer. The adjustable spanner method works well if you’re careful. Modern bike tool kits often now include a disc rotor truing tool…

          Reply
      • Tam Dl

        1) The first thing that has to be stated is whether we are talking flat bar MTB bikes, or drop type road warrior touring bikes. If the former, suit yourself, there are tons of options on the disc side, and most riders, certainly recent generation riders prefer them.

        If we are talking bikes with drops and road levers, and price points roughly equivalent to the cost of a cheap touring bike on down (for the brake system alone), you have no great options, and discs will not do much good. The reason is the greater modulation and power of discs is mostly the levers, once you adapt levers to drops, you will not get the performance of MTB Hydro with anything. That is the real reason why cantis remain popular, they are the best adapted to the drop touring bike of the caliper/non disc, lightest, work on wobbly wheels, make mounting racks as easy as it gets, etc…

        Number two thing you need to consider is whether you are swimming through mud or just riding the roads. The real situation where discs are supreme is in mud. The reason we are seeing discs on road bikes is: They aren’t road bikes, they are cross bikes, so mud is a factor. Demographics. If you can sell them they are much higher end and maybe more profit.

        If your touring is all dry and clean, discs are not a clear option.

        Reply
    • Tam Dl

      Cantis do work on wet rims, you need sintered blocks which are not as nice all around, but might be worth a try on say an Irish trip. Cantis work fine on wobbly rims, not as well as if not wobbly, but they work ok. Vs do not, so that is another thing in favour of cantis.

      One thing I think about at 74 inches and 250, is that I am in the tandem weight range, and what I really want is 3 brakes with a redundant system. They do that on tandems with a drag brake. My personal preference is double front brake, possibly a canti + disc option as many bikes allow that. This covers a lot of bases. You only have the bad features of a disc like weight and rack problems in one place. and you have the advantages where the do the most good. Use three levers and have the canti on the tops so you have an additional position for braking. Double caliper is another option.

      Reply
      • Christopher Underwood

        Regarding rack problems and disk brakes. It can be a fun one, that is for sure. On my Sutra, it has turned out to be a non issue for the rear end – designed right, as the Sutra is, any rack will fit. The rack tab is above the brake area, and the calliper is inside the rear triangle. If you are thinking of a bike with disk brakes, that should be the location for the brake or racks will become a problem. The front is more of a concern for rack fit but I have found that a Surly Nice Rack fits perfectly with zero brake concerns. The Blackburn low rider rack that the bike came with also had no problems clearing the front calliper (I got rid of it – did not like it much).

        Reply
  16. Alexander Lopez

    Oh, I forgot to ask: What about drum brakes for touring?

    These days Sturmey-Archer is offering a bigger size model (9″ instead of the usual 7″) and even a drum brake + generator hub model.

    AFAIK, drum brakes work very good under rain and require very little maintenance, and their pads are also very long-lasting. On the other hand, they are heavier.

    Can someone write about their suitability for touring bikes? Thanks!

    Reply
  17. Stan

    If you want to try both brakes (without having to buy a new bike) get a frame that has mounts for both like the 2016 Soma Saga DC or Thorn Nomad.

    Heck, if you feel Murphy’s Law is on your ass a little too much, you could actually install disc and cantis on these frames. Run one set to your aero levers and another to CX levers.

    I know a person who went from rim brakes to discs after heating up his rims on a descent and exploding his tube (yes, he crashed)—- and he knows a guy who went from discs back to rim brakes, because of a frustrating mechanical out on the road.

    Reply
  18. Nabeel Farid

    And I wonder why most of the new models made specifically for big expeditions by credible brands like Ridgeback are now moving to disc brakes e.g. the new model of Ridgeback Expedition 2017 model has got disc brakes ?

    Reply
  19. Dwayne Hess

    I just love this posting. It is like weather you like a Chevy, Ford or Dodge.
    So here is a short review of my tour bike set up with the TRP HY/RD brakes. They have been outstanding for me but my touring extent has been in the USA and not in a different country.

    I am running a pair of TRP HY/RD brakes on a Specialized AWOL Elite, touring/commuter/just all out fun riding machine. Almost 4,000 miles currently on this set up. 1200 miles riding PCH 1 this summer with just over 100 lbs bag weight. Let me tell you these brakes work with confidence under all situations. Even at 48 mph 14% grade coming to a complete stop (in a hurry) while touring PCH 1) These brakes defiantly saved my life. Great modulation. You need to use compression less brake cable housing. I used Jagwire Ripcord Brake Kit, Titanium, Hope 160mm Sawtooth Floating Rotors front and back, Avid Speed Dial 7 Levers mounted on Jones Carbon H-Bars. A great set-up for touring and we’ll all other riding. I am thinking about getting another set for my Fatback fat tire bike also with Jones H-Bars. I have had zero break maintenance at 4,000 miles. Highly recommended. I did contact TRP about using these on my Jones H-Bars and they did not recommend it. They said they were designed to wrap around bars only. I did not do the install. They were installed during the bike build by a LBS. These are the second generation brakes. I have had to tear down the bike twice for travel by train and air plane. No issues. Just packed the bike as I always do with spacers between the forks and padding on the bottom.

    Reply
    • Christopher Underwood

      I have never understood how people burn through brake pads quickly on disk brakes outside of the down hill mountain bike world.
      Granted, on this forum I am an outlier in that I don’t do loaded touring, but I do a lot of loaded commuting and have done so in all sorts of foul weather which should induce crazy brake wear (southern Ontario winters).
      My touring bike which gets all sorts of bad weather but no salt as of yet has about 9000km on the original pads with no visible signs of wear while my crappy beater has well over that on a single set – including four winters. The only time I had to replace a set of pads on it was when I accidentally got rust proofing oil on the front pads – that did them in. But road grime, salt, water, mounds of snow, slush, muck, and all that did nothing to hamper pad life and virtually nothing to hamper brake performance. Compare that to riding like that with rim brakes where sometimes ONE stop kills a set of pads… (happened to me twice in the winter).
      Granted, most don’t ride in those conditions, but it is telling to me that dirt cheap disk brakes (Avid BB5s) will go that far through that much crap on a heavy bike with heavyish bags on it with zero maintenance.
      Modulation on both bikes – beater with flat bars and touring bike with drop – is perfect.
      As an aside my cross bike, now sold, was a Jake the Snake with Cantis on it. Its brake performance was dismal in comparison to the disk braked touring bike. Not even close. Seen in isolation, the brakes were great, but not when ridden back to back against the much much heavier tourer which could stop in a significantly shorter distance.

      Reply
  20. Martin James

    A really excellent thread!
    I am about to pull the trigger on a new frame for mixed touring purposes (on road/off road) in the Tirolean Alps where I now live.
    I have several bikes – A Giant Anthem 27.5 with upgraded Zee Downhill hydraulics, a Gunnar Roadie road bike using rim operated Ultegra and an old Klein Pulse using V brakes (this is the bike I am about to replace). I have been contemplating for over a year now what it is I want. The Giant is great for my pure off road rides with extreme alpine descents, but these are extremely fast downhill – 1000m+ descents. My road bike I actually do not enjoy riding anymore due to the 25mm tyre restriction and the limitation to tarmac. So I am now mostly using the Klein, which has other inherent problems due more to geometry than anything else.
    I will replace the Klein with an Oxford Bike Works 26″ using V brakes. This I believe will offer me more than adequate braking on/off road for the thing I want it to do – touring, day tours/2/3 day self supported. I am not racing, I am enjoying myself. The Giant braking power is great but this is a 13.5kg machine on extreme downhills taken at extreme speeds (60/70kmh) and even then after 1000m descended you need to have a break to let the discs cool. They are a pain to maintain, need frequent bleeding and pad replacement (twice per season), and the rotors do deform and need frequent tweaking. Even the Ice Tech rotors and finned pads take a hammering and are not what I expected.
    So, for me the simplicity and relative long life of rims V brakes and pads (rims are now 6 years old and holding up well, I change pads once a season) will give me the ideal set up.
    As mentioned before, it is all about analysing what you are using your machine for.
    If I were to (and I hope to one day…) undertake an extreme tour I would use the V brakes every time.

    Reply
    • Jack Kapela

      Martin,

      It just happens that Tirolean Alps is one of my favourites destinations that I visit. For the past two years we did lots of road cycling in that area. We built the bike for my friend based on Focus Mares CX cyclocross carbon frame with Hayes CX-5 mechanical disc brakes and Shimano Tiagra 4700 components. The bike was fitted with Specialized 700x30C Espoir Tires, custom 48×32 crankset and 11-34 cassette. It seems to be a winner. For hard alpine ascents it has 32×34 lowest gear on which my friend climbed Rettenbachferner, Stelvio, Kaunertal, Kuhtai and many different climbs. He did thousands of kilometres over last two years including some rough off road in Czech Republic (Rychlebske Stezki) and so far he didn’t change his pads even once. 700×30 tires are good for both road and light off road use. He usually pumps around 80 PSI which gives enough comfort. Braking is very good and predictable.

      Reply
      • Martin James

        Thanks for the info. I am not really a fan of carbon, I am a bit rough with my bikes. The terrain is off/on road so a bigger tyre is a must. I guess I am looking for a happy mix of durability and simplicity. I want to carry some luggage and mudguards are essential.

        Reply
  21. Pony AM

    Rims fail while hubs last.. and its not always easy to tell how far gone a rim is so you end up replacing them sooner than later to be sensible. So less metal to chuck away and a bit more confidence in your bike on the longer road. I agree also.. with a small adjustable you can true a disc rotor quite easily.
    I’ve only recently come to this conclusion and it’s having rebuilt a wheel for the third time, same spokes and same hub and chucked away another bit of metal. V brake pads wear out fast and I like the extra braking in the wet with a loaded bike.

    From experience I don’t think it’s that easy to know quite how far gone a rim is so you end up replacing it with less wear to be sensible when touring in remote areas and hubs tend to last.. it’s the rims that fail. Also I’d like to reduce the amount of consumables and disc pads last much much longer than v brakes and don’t eat your wheels. So a bonus having less metal to chuck away.

    Reply
  22. Lewis E

    I’m thinking of going touring around Thailand-Laos-Vietnam. However, this will be during the rainy season in which I am told it will typically rain heavily, but only for short periods in the day and the rest of the time it is fine. My concern is having enough braking power in the mountains if I get caught out in the rain, but not being able to find replacements if something were to go wrong with disc brakes (especially in Laos). Does anybody have any suggestions or experience over there during the rainy season?

    Note: Because of how cheap it is over there I wouldn’t need much stuff and should hopefully be able to have everything I need at around 30kg or under (including the bike).

    Reply
  23. Abal

    Nice Post. thank You So much!

    Reply

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