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.
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.
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)?