I listened to the zingers bounce back and forth between cyclists like Ping- Pong balls; each cyclist had their own opinion and a flurry of information to support it. If you want to fire up a little conversation between die-hard cyclists, just ask which one is better: caliper brakes or disc brakes. Because I can attest to this: disc brakes versus caliper brakes is a hot topic, even among besties. I have my personal favorite, and while some of my old school buddies might say it’s a bunch of nonsense, I’m all in when it comes to disc brakes, with a few caveats that will affect a beginner triathlete.
Brake types are a hot topic among cyclists. Pic by Pavel Danilyuk.
Caliper, or rim brakes, have been around for a long time. Pro-cyclists, triathletes, and casual cyclists have been riding with calipers for years. When you squeeze your brake lever, it pulls the brake pads tight against the rim of your wheel, causing you to slow down. The harder you squeeze, the harder you brake.On the other hand, a disc brake also uses brake pads. But when you squeeze the brake levers, the force of the pads is applied to a brake rotor, which is attached to the wheel, rather than applying pressure to the wheel itself. Mechanical disc brakes rely on the strength of your hand to stop the bike, while hydraulic disc brakes multiply the force of the brake levers so that you can stop your bike at high speeds with very little pressure on the brake levers.There are pros and cons to both caliper and disc brakes.
This Pinarello is a great example of caliper brakes. Pic by Glory Cycles.
Caliper brakes, or rim brakes, are simple to use and maintain.For example, if you ride a fixed-gear bike, there may be times when you want to add a brake (for a little road riding) and remove the brake (for track racing). This is really simple with a rim brake. It’s also easy to change out the pads on a bike with rim brakes.Rim brakes are less expensive.
Rim brake parts are less costly and might be a little easier to find than disc brake parts. Also, new bikes with rim brakes are usually less expensive than new bikes with disc brakes.
Rim brakes don’t brake as well in wet weather, although you can purchase brake pads that are specific to different weather conditions.Over the course of a long race, you may have to change out your brake pads if you’re using them a lot.
Rim brakes don’t work as well if your wheel is out of true.Your ride could get derailed by a pothole if you use caliper brakes. If your wheel is out of true (or not straight), your brakes won’t be able to work as effectively. This can happen if you hit a pothole, crash, or go over some rough terrain.
Caliper brakes don’t grip carbon wheels as well, especially in wet weather. Aluminum wheels actually work better with rim brakes than carbon wheels do. If you need to run carbon wheels, you might be better off with disc brakes.
Rims can overheat on long descents.If you are riding a long steep descent, you may have problems with your rims overheating when you ride the brakes. This can cause the brakes to stop working and may even blow out the tube in your tire.
The amount of braking power is directly correlated to your hand strength and how hard you squeeze the brake lever.If your hand strength isn’t that good, if you have carpal tunnel, or if you suffered a hand injury, you may have trouble squeezing the levers hard enough to brake.
Caliper brakes have limited tire clearance.There’s only so much space in-between the brake pads on caliper brakes for your wheel to fit. So if you need to run extra wide tires, you might not be able to fit them inside the brake mechanism. This may not be a problem for triathlons; however, gravel triathlons are becoming increasingly popular. So you might not be able to use your regular triathlon bike because you’ll need wider tires for gravel.
There are two types of disc brakes: mechanical and hydraulic. Mechanical disc brakes use your hand strength to stop the bike, while hydraulic disc brakes multiply the force of the brake lever to stop the bike. Hydros are my preferred type of brakes because they are consistent, and they easily stop your bike in all kinds of weather and riding conditions. However, mountain bikes have been using disc brakes for many years because of the extra stopping power, even in mucky conditions.
This bike uses a brake rotor to stop. Pic by StromBer
Disc brakes have more substantial braking power, especially in rough terrain and bad weather.That’s why mountain bikes have used disc brakes for a long time – they have better stopping power and are less affected by rain, dirt, and mud.
Hydraulic disc brakes do not rely on hand strength.If your hands aren’t strong, then hydraulic disc brakes are a huge asset when descending. When it comes to hydros, a little braking goes a long way!
Disc brakes can accommodate wider tires.When you have disc brakes, the brake pads stop the rotor, which is attached to the wheel. Therefore, you don’t have to worry about fitting the wheel in between the brake pads, so there is no limit (in regards to the brakes) of how wide the tire can be.
Disc brakes are more complex and could be more difficult to maintain,especially for a beginner cyclist or triathlete.If you do your own bike maintenance, I’ll admit disc brakes are more complicated, especially if they are hydraulic. But there is plenty of information available if you want to work on your own disc brakes.
Disc brakes can be more expensive.Disc brakes themselves are a bit more expensive, and purchasing a new bike with disc brakes is also more expensive. Hydraulic disc brakes are even more expensive than mechanical disc brakes. However, in my opinion, the extra stopping power is worth it.
Disc brakes can be noisy when they are wet.
When the roads are wet, disc brakes let out a telltale squeal that is unmistakable. It isn’t permanent, though, and the squeal goes away as soon as things dry up.
Triathletes on their bikes with caliper brakes. Pic by Jimmy Harris.
Technically, you might be able to upgrade your rim brakes to disc brakes, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Your brake setup is attached directly to your frame, and a bike with rim brakes just isn’t set up to accommodate the parts you would need to attach for disc brakes. And while you may be able to find adapters, they just won’t have a professional look and won’t be as strong and sturdy as using the brakes that your bike was designed for.So if you’re in the market for a new bike, I personally would recommend purchasing a bicycle built with disc brakes. But if you’re keeping the bike you have, there isn’t really a good way to upgrade the brakes.If you’re having a little trouble with your rim brakes, it doesn’t mean you should automatically ditch them in favor of something else. Instead, they might just need some adjustments. It’s pretty easy to make adjustments to your rim brakes, such as tightening the brakes or adjusting the cables.
Caliper brakes were used for this Iron Man race. Pic by triangleevents.
If you are currently riding a bike with rim brakes, then keep riding your bike with the rim brakes. First of all, you’re used to them! You know how to use them, and they will work just fine. If you are a triathlete, your bike riding is probably TT style, so you won’t be bombing down any mountains, hitting gravel roads, or flying over rollers. Unless you’re doing gravel triathlons, you probably won’t need extra wide tires, either, so your rim brakes will work just fine! Spend your energy fine-tuning your braking and descending techniques.
When you’re ready to upgrade your entire bike, you might want to consider ditching the rim brakes for a bike with disc brakes. Over time, like other types of bike technology, rim brakes will probably fade away as more and more bike manufacturers turn to disc brakes. This will make rim brake supplies harder to find and replace, and you’ll get the benefit of the extra stopping power.
If you’re unsure which type of brakes are right for you, visit your local bike shop and test out a few bikes with different types of brakes. You’ll quickly get a feel for which type you prefer. You need to be able to trust your equipment and feel confident riding your bike, no matter which type of brakes you have.
Personally, I love my hydraulic disc brakes, and I only use rim brakes for my fixie. But if I were just starting out with a triathlon and needed a used bike at a reasonable price, a bike with rim brakes would definitely fit the bill. Whether you ride caliper brakes or disc brakes, there is no substitute for hard training and excellent bike handling skills.