Help I can’t stop!

26 01 2011

Rim brakes? they still make those?

I read with much amusement people posting online that rim brakes don’t work well when it’s wet out.  If you mention you ride a bike in a wet climate like the PNW or costal BC you are advised that you gotta get disc brakes.  Apparently rim brakes don’t stop your bike well and you’ll wear through your rims at an alarming rate.  Disc brakes on the other hand stop your bike on a dime and never wear through a rotor.

It sounds great – except for the fact it’s not true…

When I look around at 10 bikes I pass riding around the wetness of a Vancouver Island winter 9 out of 10 bikes I see use rim brakes.  These folks are stopping just fine. I haven’t seen anyone ram another cyclist for lack of braking power or plow through a stop sign while pumping their brakes furiously.  Keep in mind these are not all top notch bikes tuned to within an inch of their lives.  There are a lot of beaters out there who see very little maintenance.  Even these mediocre rigs stop without issue in the rain.

My two go to rain bikes are my Surly LHT and my Bike Friday Tikit.  Both have rim brakes.  Both stop fine in the rain.  I often carry cargo on my LHT and it still stops fine in the rain.  Not just fine as is in I am barely able to avoid a problem, but fine as in I don’t really think much about my brakes since I pull the lever and the bike stops when I want it to.  If they didn’t work I can assure you I’d be riding different bikes when it was wet out.

I own a number of bikes with disc brakes.  They work fine as well.  I can’t say that there is any practical difference between the two systems.  I don’t ride my Surly Big Dummy with hydraulic discs and think to myself “…this baby stops on a dime compared to my LHT…”

Both my LHT and Tikit are on their original rims.  I’m sure they’ll wear out – someday, but it’s hardly a major issue. I just checked my LHT’s front rim and there is no visible wear on the brake track.  This is my oldest bike that has seen a ton of Kms…many of which were loaded touring in the mountains.  My Tikit doesn’t see the mileage of my LHT, but it was my winter city bike for 2 years and has tiny 16″ rims which should suffer accelerated wear.  However, my Tikit rims are in excellent shape as well.  The Tikit’s drivetrain is worn out so I do ride it a lot and I have to brake a lot for city riding, but so far no rim wear issues.

When I contemplated building up Sharon a new commuter bike one of the issues was what type of brakes to use.  To be honest I started down the “…I guess I better use discs…” train of thought myself until I really thought about it point by point:

  • v-brakes are powerful
  • v-brakes are cheap
  • v-brake are light
  • v-brakes are easy to adjust
  • v-brakes are easy to examine [condition and adjustment]
  • v-brakes allow for a more vertically flexible comfortable steel fork
  • v-brakes work well wet or dry
  • rims don’t need replacing often even with wet weather commuting KMs

Sharon won’t be getting a new commuter bike for a long time after this so I wanted to make a good long term choice. In this case that was v-brakes.

So if rim brakes do work in the wet and rims don’t wear out in a few months of riding why is there so much pro-disc & anti-rim brake nonsense going around?

The two most basic reasons are:

  1. bike companies want to sell you new brakes, frames and bikes
  2. we live in a culture where new technology is worshiped irrationally

I won’t be shocked in 10 years when most bikes sold in a LBS have discs if we see bike companies tout the advantages of the “new and improved” rim brake.

I figure I’m pretty objective since I’ve lived all over Canada and ridden all sorts of bikes year round.  I own and like discs so I’m not a technology hater.  I ride rim brakes and discs back to back on the same day so I can compare them readily under the same conditions.

Now don’t get me wrong if you give me a free bike with disc brakes I’ll happily ride it.  If I want a specific frame [like a Pugsley] that only works well with discs I’ll use discs.  Good quality discs work great.  They stop your bike fine.  My only concern is that we don’t lose sight of the fact rim brakes work great as well.  Picking discs because they are a good fit for your needs is smart.  Picking discs because you think they are the only viable brake option is silly.