Disc brakes: the pros and cons
There seems to have been a big ‘shift’ in braking tech in recent years. Nik Cook explains the benefits and drawbacks of disc brakes for winter road biking
Despite the procrastinations of the UCI, disc brakes on road bikes outside of the pro peloton are becoming more commonplace among recreational road riders and triathletes. With some early teething problems ironed out, brands embracing the concept and the availability of more affordable disc groupsets, they definitely offer some advantages, especially for a dedicated winter steed.
The most significant of these advantages is that disc brakes take the braking surface further away from all the muck and grime that comes off the road. This undoubtedly improves braking performance and, as the rims are no longer a sacrificial component being worn away by gritty braking, will prolong the life of your wheels too.
Well set-up disc brakes offer better modulation and braking control than rim brakes. This essentially means that braking is more progressive and less on or off. Although discs do offer more overall braking power, this isn’t really going to give you an advantage on a road bike.
The limiting factor to braking is the small contact area of your tyres with the road. We’ve all locked our wheels with caliper brakes so, although this shows they’re plenty powerful enough, it’s the modulation and control of discs that makes them superior. On slippery winter roads this could make the difference between stopping in time or not.
Disc brakes should offer more clearance than caliper brakes and give you the option of running a set of wider tyres. With a bigger contact area these can improve your grip and braking performance and, for those long winter grinds, will give you a plusher and more comfortable ride. Improved clearance should also make fitting mudguards easier, which are a must-have on any winter bike.
There aren’t really any significant disadvantages that, if you’re in the market for a new winter bike, would make you steer clear of disc brakes. If you’re buying into discs, it’s definitely worth spending a bit more and getting hydraulic rather than cable operated models as the performance is significantly better. Set-up and maintenance, such as bleeding, can be a bit of a faff but, once done properly, isn’t a regular job and changing pads is fairly easy.
Finally, if you ride regularly in a group, you may find that your braking performance will differ from your fellow riders who are using caliper set-ups. Bear this in mind, or you could easily find yourself at the bottom of a pile-up!