2 different types of brakes for bikes that you need to know

Find bike brakes confusing? Wondering what the differences are between all the various types of brakes for bikes? Then you’re in the right place. This article will explain what all the different types of braking systems are that you’ll see on modern bicycles. What the pros and cons are of each and how to choose between them.

At first glance, bike brakes can seem to be incredibly simple:

Pull the brake levers. Bike stops.

Easy.

And yet, when you delve under the hood and take a look at bicycle brakes in a little more detail you find that there’s a whole world of complexity.

Bike brake systems are comprised of 4 separate elements: the lever, the cable, the brake pad, and what the brake pad pushes against to slow the bike down.

Brake levers are normally a pair of levers, with one on each side of the handlebars near the gear shifters. On some bikes though (think: road bikes), the brake levers also INCORPORATE the gear shifter. With these bikes, you pull the lever towards you to brake, and push it to one side or press a button on it to change gear.

The brake cable is what transfers the braking ‘request’ from the lever to the brake pad. Generally the plastic cable sleeve will have a metal cable inside that connects the lever directly to the brake pad. However on bikes that have hydraulic disc brakes, the cable has brake fluid rather than a cable inside it. Pull the brake lever and the fluid is pushed along through the cable housing. The resulting fluid pressure at the brake pad then causes the pad to connect and slow the bike down.

Brake pads can come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. However they all do the same job, which is to press against something to slow the bike. It’s that ‘something’ though which can vary from bike to bike.

Brake pads press against either the wheel rim or a separate metal rotor disc near the wheel hub. The pressure caused by this will slow the bike.

Brakes are brakes, yeah?

Not quite!

We’re going to move on and take a closer look at what the main different types of bicycle brakes are (and how to tell which is which) Plus, what the advantages and disadvantages are of each.

Why are there different types of brakes for bikes?

One of the main challenges with bikes since the day they were first created back in the 19th century…is how to slow them down.

In fact, one of the people credited with inventing the bicycle, Kirkpatrick Macmillan may well have been fined for knocking down a pedestrian whilst riding his invention around Scotland.

As with all challenges, many approaches are tried out in order to find the perfect solution.

That really is the main reason why there are different types of brakes for bikes.

However, there are also other reasons, including:

Bikes that work best with one type of brake vs another (the best brakes in wet muddy conditions are hydraulic disc brakes so are perfect for mountain bikes)

Brakes that are lighter and cheaper than others (rim brakes are cheapest and so variations are often seen on lower end bikes or where weight is paramount)

Many reasons. Many types of brakes.

Let’s move on and take a look at the two main types of braking systems for bicycles: rim brakes and disc brakes.

The 2 types of rim brakes

Rim brakes work by pressing a pair of brake pads against the metal wheel rim. The friction this causes slows the bike down.

There are two common types of rim brake on modern bikes: V-brakes and caliper brakes.

The major difference between these two types of brake is that v-brakes have a pad fixed to either side of the wheel on a pivot. The brake cable then comes down from above the wheel, connects to the brake pads, and pulls them in against the wheel rim.

Whereas, caliper brakes have a pair of curved metal arms holding the brake pads. These connect at a pivot above the wheel and the brake cable forces the caliper arms to close (like a pair of scissors) causing the pads to push against the wheel rim.

Caliper rim brakes

As with all brake types, there are many variations on the theme of caliper brakes. The essence, however, is a pair of curved arms holding brake pads and pivoting above the wheel. The brake lever pulls a cable which pulls the caliper arms, squeezing the brake pads against the sides of the wheel rim, slowing the bike down.

The beauty of caliper brakes (and, indeed, all rim brakes) is that you can see everything that’s happening with the brake as it operates. This is a major advantage (IMHO) over disc brakes.

Because you can see what’s happening, it’s easy to diagnose faults (such as the pads not connecting with the rims) and it’s also easy and cheap to make repairs.

Until recently (within the last couple of years) many of the top pro racing teams (i.e. those teams entering, and winning, events such as the Tour de France) were racing on bikes with caliper rim brakes. Why? Because caliper brakes WORK.

You’ll see caliper brakes on most road bikes, with the exception of some of the higher-end models, which are now starting to be fitted with disc brakes.

Advantages

  • Powerful braking
  • Easy setup and maintenance
  • Maintenance can be done at home rather than paying a bike shop
  • Brake pads are cheap, easy to purchase, and easy to replace

Disadvantages

  • Don’t work so well when wheel rims are wet/muddy/damaged
  • Can wear wheel rims down

V-brakes

V-brakes (also known as cantilever brakes, linear-pull brakes, and direct-pull brakes) are traditionally seen on entry-level hybrid bikes, touring bikes, and commuter bikes.

Brake pads are attached to pivots either side of the wheel. The brake cable pulls up on the brake pads so that they are pressed against the wheel rims, slowing the bike down.

As with caliper brakes, v-brakes are simple and cheap to maintain. You can also see all the workings, so diagnosing faults and problems is straightforward.

For commuters and bicycle tourers, bikes with this type of brake are a real bonus as brake pads tend to be easy to find wherever you happen to be near and they’re no problem to fit by yourself with a little knowledge and a bike multitool.

The downside of v-brakes is that they don’t work so well when rims get wet and muddy – so they don’t work well for mountain biking or gravel biking.

They can also be problematic to get setup correctly – one brake pad can often touch the wheel rim before the other has made contact, leading to uneven wear and iffy braking power.

Advantages

  • Cheap to buy (and buy replacement brake pads for)
  • Simple to maintain (DIY is easy and straightforward)
  • Fault diagnosis is fast as you can see all the workings
  • Light weight

Disadvantages

  • Variable performance in wet or muddy conditions
  • If wheel rims are buckled or dented stopping power will be impacted
  • Can cause wear to wheel rims

The 2 types of disc brakes

Incredibly, disc brakes on bicycles have been a reality since the 1950s.

Through the latter half of the 20th century, manufacturers (such as Shimano) began to experiment with moving the braking action from the wheel rims to a smaller metal disc near the wheel hub.

By the early years of the 21st century, disc brakes were commonplace on many bikes (particularly mountain bikes) and in recent years they’ve also become de rigeur on ebikes and road bikes, amongst others.

You can tell if your bike has disc brakes by looking for the metal rotor disc and caliper by the wheel hub:

Disc brakes come in two flavors: hydraulic disc brakes and mechanical disc brakes.

How do you know if your brakes are mechanical or hydraulic?

At first glance it might be hard to tell one from the other, but there’s an easy way to distinguish between the two.

Mechanical disc brakes have an exposed metal cable which attaches to the brake caliper, like this:

mechanical disc brake metal cable

Hydraulic disc brakes don’t have this metal cable as they operate using fluid pressure to squeeze the brake pads together.

Mechanical disc brakes

Cable-operated mechanical disc brakes are the entry-level version of this braking system.

The have the benefits of powerful braking in wet/muddy conditions, but the downsides of using metals cables, which can slip and stretch over time leading to reduced braking performance.

Mechanical disc brakes tend to be found on bikes in the lower end of the price range.

But don’t let that fool you that these are sub-standard brakes. Mechanical disc brakes give great braking in tough conditions, so are great for MTB trails, gravel, electric biking and commuting.

They can also be much easier to care for than hydraulic brake systems – maintenance of those is usually a job best left to the experts.

Advantages

  • More powerful braking than rim brakes
  • Better performance in wet/muddy conditions
  • Unaffected by damage to wheel rims
  • Easier to maintain than hydraulic disc brakes

Disadvantages

  • Can be heavier than rim brakes
  • Harder and more expensive to maintain than rim brakes
  • Can’t see inside the calipers easily so faults are harder to diagnose
  • Less powerful than hydraulic disc brakes and power can weaken over time due to cable stretching

Hydraulic disc brakes

The crème de la crème of bike brakes, hydraulic disc brakes are powerful, laugh at mud, puddles and ice, and don’t care whether your wheel rims are worn and dented.

That said, hydraulic disc brakes can be a fickle beast to deal with as problems can be hard to fathom out and maintenance is really only something to be done by the experts at your local bike shop…and you’ll pay good money for their time too.

Squeeze the brake lever on a bike with these brakes and the hydraulic fluid will be forced along the hose until it reaches the brake caliper and squeezes the brake pads against the rotor disc.

Hydraulic disc brakes are, to a certain extent, self-adjusting in the sense that the brake pads will automatically move a little closer to the rotor disc as they wear down.

You’ll find hydraulic disc brakes on most good quality mountain bikes – which require awesome stopping power in any condition. You’ll also find them on many e-bikes too – these bikes tend to be going at faster speeds than regular bikes, so riders need the reassurance of uber-reliable braking.

Hydraulic brakes are now also being seen on more and more road bikes – making inroads into an area that was traditionally dominated by caliper rim brakes.

Advantages

  • The most powerful type of bike brake
  • Works in any conditions – wet and muddy trails, snow-covered roads
  • Self-adjusting brake pads – get the same braking performance throughout the lifespan of the pads
  • Doesn’t rely on metal cables to operate

Disadvantages

  • Expensive to maintain
  • Hard to diagnose faults

Which is better: rim brakes or disc brakes?

It feels as though the trend these days is for all bikes to be kitted out with some variety of disc brakes. With the more expensive bikes having the more expensive hydraulic disc brakes.

But, are hydraulic disc brakes really better than rim brakes?

The answer, as with so many things in life, is that it depends.

It depends on the type of cycling you do and in what conditions – mountain biking on tough singletrack trails is best done with the benefit of disc brakes to cope with the mud.

Road biking on dry, good surfaces (such as well-maintained road and pavement) can be more than adequately covered by caliper rim brakes. Which also gives the benefit of lighter weight and easier (DIY) maintenance.

If you do your cycling far from a handy bike shop, then rim brakes (which are easier to look after) can make the difference between carrying on with your bike tour, or commute…or a long walk back home.

Electric bikes (which are often cycled at higher speeds thanks to the powerful motor and battery) are best complemented by disc brakes for dependable and strong braking.

Are rim brakes dead?

It’s easy to assume that the latest version of tech will supersede the old. Banishing it to some dusty old museum with the T-rex bones.

Will rim brakes go the way of the dinosaurs?

I don’t think so and I actually think that their future is safe.

For one, rim brakes are cheaper to buy and fit than disc brakes, so it’s likely that they’ll always have a home on many entry-level bikes.

Rim brakes are also a darn sight easier to diagnose faults with (and fix those faults) than disc brakes, especially hydraulic disc brakes.

They’re generally a DIY job, rather than a LBS (Local Bike Shop) job.

It’s telling that pro road bike teams have only just completed their switch over to disc brakes (from caliper rim brakes)…and that’s with bikes costing more than many cars and the backing of an army of bike mechanics.

Conclusion

There are two main types of braking systems on most modern bicycles – rim brakes and disc brakes.

Of rim brakes, there are caliper rim and v-brakes. Disc brakes come in two variants – hydraulic and mechanical.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both and the decision as to which is ‘best’ will inevitably come down to the type of riding you’ll tend to be doing, your budget, and the extent to which you like doing bike maintenance yourself (or are able and willing to pay others to do it for you).

Whichever system you choose, it’s important to make sure that your brakes are properly maintained and suitable for the terrain and conditions in which you’ll be cycling.

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