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If you’re in the market for a commuter bike, you may have noticed most modern bikes have disc brakes, whether mechanical or hydraulic.
On the other hand, some of the more affordable bikes still use rim brakes.
Is a commuter bike with disc brakes a better choice for you?
This article looks at the pros and cons of disc brakes and whether they’re a must-have feature for your commute.
Why Use Disc Brakes For Commuting To Work?
First up, if you already own a bike with rim brakes, it’s impossible to switch to disc brakes without replacing most of the bike!
Hence, this is a question for those that are considering a new commuter bike. Why should you favor disc brakes over rim brakes?
Disc brakes are more efficient in wet weather than rim brakes. Although you can improve this situation by investing in high-quality brake pads for rim brakes, disc brakes rule when it comes to performance, rain or shine.
There are various reasons why disc brakes are more efficient. Rim brakes are made from rubber or cork. Water causes these materials to substantially lose grip, and rim brakes are less powerful than disc brakes to begin with.
Disc-brake pads come in three types: sintered/metallic, organic/resin or semi-metallic.
Many new bikes come with sintered brake pads. These are good for wet-weather bike commutes because they perform better and last longer under these conditions. They also don’t glaze over through overheating.
Semi-metallic pads are a good choice for all-around performance, incorporating some of the benefits of organic pads (good bite and modulation, quieter) and sintered pads (durability, wet-weather performance).
Disc brakes are also better shielded against the weather. Rim brakes are directly hit by rain and the braking surface they engage with rotates close to the grimy road.
Read more: How to fix squeaky brakes
Video: How Do Disc Brakes Work?
A major benefit of disc brakes for the commuter is they allow greater clearance for wider tires. With road bikes in particular, rim brakes may only let you install 28mm or even 25mm tires. An equivalent disc-brake bike will normally allow tires over 30mm.
The main benefit of wider tires is you can run them at lower pressures, which makes the ride more comfortable.
Tire width isn’t the only thing that affects ride comfort, but it’s a useful option when you’re riding on tires that aren’t supple (i.e., most of them) or uneven riding surfaces. Wider, softer tires soak up vibration better.
Wheel Longevity & Safety
The brake track on rim-brake wheels wears down. In foul weather, grit and contaminants can easily find their way onto the brake track, so braking with rim brakes can sometimes score the braking surface.
On a bike with disc brakes, you replace the disc rotor with brake wear. This is vastly cheaper than replacing wheels, not to mention more eco-friendly.
Video: Checking The Wear On Rim-Brake Wheels
Rim brakes can also pose safety problems. For instance, if you descend any steep hills on your commute, excessive braking can heat the rim, causing the tube inside to expand and a blow-out to occur.
With carbon wheels, there is also the possibility of delamination with excessive braking, where the wheel rim starts to deform with heat. This is dangerous when riding at high speed downhill.
Tubeless tires reduce the risk of tire blow-outs, but disc brakes are a superior solution.
Can I Get Away With Using Rim Brakes?
People were bike commuting with rim brakes before any of us were alive. So, yes, you can definitely get away with using them. Indeed, they still have some distinct benefits.
Disc brakes are stronger and perform better in all weathers, so you’ll be able to stop faster and with more control. But how often is this likely to make a difference on the average bike commute?
Think about factors on your commute like the climate, terrain, traffic, your likely speed and the weight of the rider and any luggage. These things affect your need for ultimate stopping power. If all factors are moderate, rim brakes should suffice.
Carbon wheels with rim brakes are often terrible at stopping in the wet (alloy wheels less so). If you envision upgrading to fancy lightweight wheels, disc brakes make sense.
General consensus says rim brakes are easier to maintain than disc brakes. They can be a bit fiddly to set up, but once installed they’re low-maintenance.
In turn, hydraulic disc brakes are easier to maintain than mechanical disc brakes. You’ll usually find the latter on lower priced disc-brake bikes.
Ease of maintenance helps make rim brakes a viable, practical choice for commutes. They can be fitted and adjusted at home with minimal mechanical knowledge and a little YouTube tuition.
Read more: Guide to road bike rim brake pads