Buyers guide to road bike brakes

by Kate Shulga on May 19, 2019

We explain everything from traditional caliper brakes to cutting-edge hydraulic disc brakes.

Road bike brakes are divided into disc brakes and rim brakes.

Although disc brakes aren’t common right now, they will be more prevalent on some types of road bikes in the coming years. You cannot use disc brakes on bikes that are not designed for them. They don't have the necessary mounts or cable routing.

Most road bikes use rim brakes. They are lighter than disc brakes, and they fit the bikes better.

Rim brakes

There are two types of rim brakes: V-brake and caliper.

Calipers can be attached to the frame or fork by one hole. Cantilever and V-brakes are made up of two arms, which attach to the frame or fork via one mounting hole.

 

Calipers are the standard. Calipers are the norm when someone refers to a road bike brake.

In the past few years, road caliper brakes has come a long ways. Modern dual pivot designs are much more efficient than older models.

Although V-brakes and cantilever are still very common on hybrid, touring, and cyclocross bikes, many manufacturers now use disc brakes.

Caliper

The simplest design is One Pivot. In this case, the pivot is located in the top-middle (in the same spot as where brake mounts to frame).

 

Modern road bikes have Dual-Pivot Calipers. These calipers, which have two pivot points, are now standard on most modern road bikes. This doubles the leverage, allowing for better braking and more power delivered in an easier way.

 

Shimano also developed a Direct Mount brake system. This brake system is designed for aerodynamically focused bikes. Direct Mount brakes are low-profile, drag resistant brakes that attach very close to the frame or fork of the bike. Direct Mount calipers can only be used on specific frames and fork mounts.

Cantilevers and V -brakes

They are rarer on good bikes.

 

Canti's are two separate, r-shaped arms that mount on the frame or fork. One is each side of the rim. These arms are connected at the tops by a straddle cable that has a central cable pulling upward from the centre. The arms are pulled together by the cable and the brake pads press against the rim.

Canti's cantilever brakes (canti) are most commonly found on hybrids and cyclocross bikes, as well as lower-end mountain bikes. Canti's with low ends are less expensive than caliper brakes. Canti's can also accommodate larger tyres that caliper brakes.

Canti arms brakes can be used with almost any canti brake lever.

 

V-brakes look similar to cantilever brakes, but the arms of V-brakes have a longer arms and are straighter than r-shaped. For best results, the longer arms provide more power but must be used with a V-brake compatible lever.

Many bikes that had cantilever brakes in the past are now offered with disc brakes, or being superseded. The weight penalty is not so significant and disc brakes offer many performance benefits (power, consistency in every condition etc.

 

Note about brake levers

It is better to not mix and match brands.

Different brake levers pull different amount of cable at different rates and pull it at different speeds. Incorrectly paired levers/cantis can cause a spongey feeling, under-powered, or alarmingly unpredictable brake performance.

 

The disc brake hype

In a short time, the number of road bikes with disc brakes has increased dramatically. This is the most significant technological advancement in road bikes in years.

It started with cyclocross and touring bikes, where the benefits were obvious (wider tires, better clearance, wheel can take some abuse without rubbing on brakes, etc.). But now it is expanding to include road bikes. Typically the longer distance, comfort-over-lightweight sort of bikes.

The UCI, cycling's governing body, has allowed professionals to use disc brakes. This will only increase their popularity.

However, there are many experienced riders who still prefer caliper brakes. They're lighter and more powerful than disc brakes. Many traditionalists don't like disc brakes. It's fair enough. It takes some time to get used to them.

Hydraulic and mechanical disc brakes

Road discs can be ordered in mechanical and hydraulic formats. Cable-actuated mechanical disc brakes can be used. Hydraulic disc brakes are sealed with fluid systems.

 

These are the most common. These are the most affordable and can be used by riders with their existing brake levers/STIs.

 

Hydraulic calipers provide more consistent performance (no inner and outer cabling that can bind up or become gritted up), but they are more expensive and require a dedicated lever/STI.

Remember that disc brakes require compatible frame and fork mountings. They won't fit on a standard braked roadbike.

This is your excuse to buy a brand new bike!

What do you get from more money?

For rim brakes, spending more money will result in a lighter brake. Also, a brake that flexes less under pressure will be cheaper. A brake with less flex means more power and feel.

It is surprising how much the difference in caliper stiffness and strength can make a difference. Many riders think that caliper brakes don't work well and are considering switching to disc brake bikes. This is because they are using poor quality calipers with low quality brake pads.

In 95% of cases disc brakes are outperformed by calipers that are good in quality. Particularly when paired with brake pads and high-quality cabling.

You can choose between expensive hydraulic systems and inexpensive cable/mechanical disc brakes with disc brakes.

Cable systems are still susceptible to water and dirt ingress into the cable, which can lead to stiff brakes. Also, you will need to adjust the pad wear manually by turning a dial on your caliper body just a few clicks every now and then. Relatively speaking, mechanical systems can be quite heavy.

Hydraulic systems can be expensive for a reason. They're amazing. Power. Consistency. Relatively light weight. It's easy to forget.

General advice

You can get better brakes by getting a good caliper setup with quality cables and brake pads.

You can save your money for a fully hydraulic system if you already have the above and still want better or more consistent braking. This could save you money for a new bike.

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