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.



31 responses

26 01 2011

i agree with everything you say, except all those parts that don’t fit my mold of what cycling should be.


don’t tell my IF with rim brakes. lots of dark rides in the rain.
it seems to stop just fine.

it even has (gasp!) a dyno driven euro style light that throws light where i need it.

26 01 2011

WHAT? don’t agree with EVERY SINGLE THING I SAY????….OMG….hahahaha…I’ve been a fan of your bikes for a long time. I would say we don’t agree on every little point, but that would be weird and a bit creepy if we did….=-)~

26 01 2011
Ty Smith

Agree as well. I commute every day, rain or shine, with my Tikit, and have had no problems in the rain with my rim brakes, even coming down the big hills we have here in SF.

26 01 2011

You make a good point, though I’m on the verge of siding with the disc brake fans. I’ve long been dissatisfied with the stock (Tektro Oryx) brakes on my LHT. But, they are cheap. I just upgraded the rear and it’s definitely an improvement. I do have to think about it when it’s wet … a lot, actually. I personally do think discs are better in wet conditions, but that doesn’t mean that rim brakes don’t work.

My biggest problem with rim brakes is that mine seem to ice up a lot. I live in southern Indiana, and usually when it snows here, it’s a wet snow that sticks to everything. I have much better luck in these conditions on my disc brake 29er than my rim brakes on the LHT. They just ice up too easily. Any ideas on how to deal with that?

26 01 2011

@Apetome – there are lots of crappy rim brakes/pads out there as there are crappy low cost OEM discs. Try Koolstop Salmon pads on whatever rim brakes you use for improved wet weather braking.

As for the ice on your rims that’s one scenario where you’ll do better with discs. There are some climates where that’s an issue, but it only happens where the temps fluctuate up and down around freezing. In super cold climates it doesn’t happen and in warmer climates it doesn’t happen.

I commuted daily with rim brakes in such conditions on Lake Ontario and it was an occasional nuisance, but not a major problem. There were no disc brakes at the time so commuter cyclists just got on with it regardless.

26 01 2011

Yeah, I already use Salmon Koolstops. They *do* make a huge difference, but it’s not always enough.

Unfortunately the climate I live in, the temperatures right around freezing are a frequent occurrence. I live with it, and my brake upgrade has helped some, but it still get sketchy sometimes. Any ideas about clearing the ice off the pads and/or rims, once it’s there? I poke at it with a stick sometimes, and that helps a little, but there’s got to be a better way.

26 01 2011
Rob E.

Timely. Especially since disc brake compatibility is part of what attracts me to the Troll. But in reality while icy-weather stopping sounds good, we don’t have much icy weather where I live. Making any bike decisions based on the 3 or 4 days a year when conditions are right to ice up my rim probably doesn’t make sense. Even if disc brakes /are/ the newer, shinier option. Thanks for talking me down. Also, I spent a fair amount of time working with my local bike co-op. We recycled bicycles sometimes older than me. Of course when you get that old, you’re usually looking at steel rims, which are a different animal, but steel or aluminium, I don’t remember rejecting many (any?) rims due to excess wear on the brake track. In fact, it seems like we would sometimes decide a whole bike was beyond salvaging and trash the whole thing, except the rims. I’m sure they do wear out. I certainly plan on riding my rims into the ground, but I expect to wear out a lot of other components before I’ve logged enough miles to worry about my rims.

26 01 2011

I had never worn out a pair of rims until I moved to the west coast for a few years (Seattle). There, a set of wheels was lasting less than a year and the ultimate wheel failure was fairly dramatic. Then I replaced that cross bike with a commuter cross bike that had disc brakes – I didn’t know anything about discs and didn’t seek them out, it was just what the shop had in my size and price range. Three years of year round riding and I’ve only replaced the pads once and ongoing adjustments are dead simple. I’m now sold on discs for in-city use (though have v-brakes on my Tikit). Making sure I had disc brakes on a cargo bike was one of the factors that pushed me to the Big Dummy over other options. I would be reluctant to buy a commuter bike without something like BB7s in the build.

26 01 2011

Steel rims are different. They’re slippery. I agree that you don’t need disc brakes to ride in the rain, but you definitely do need to be careful if you’re riding an old bike with steel rims when it’s wet. They lose a huge amount of stopping power when they’re wet. I had a friend who ended up on the hood of a car because she couldn’t stop her cool retro roadbike, and the next day she was shopping for alloy rims.

26 01 2011

The only rims I wore out were on my electric recumbent (20 inch, aluminum). It had been used in hilly Seattle for years.I would only really want discs if I was going through gritty mud a lot. A while after I set up an Xtracycle, I converted the rear to disc because the original brake fixture was in a clumsy location and I couldn’t get it to stay tuned. So it is great to have options.

26 01 2011

i think some of the ‘disc over rim’ comes from the mountain bike scene…as in the people who actually use their bikes in the mud. discs stay out of the mud, whereas rims, of course, get covered in mud. i rode for 10 years in the mud in victoria using cantis. sure, there were times discs would have been better, but the cantis worked just fine. on the road its only rim brakes. i think each has their place, but i have to admit a nice pair of polished Paul Component cantis are real lookers! 🙂

26 01 2011

it’s funny that you post this as i just upgraded my cross check to v’s from tektro oryx. the improvement is night and day difference in braking power. it may be fair to say that i wasn’t that good at setting up canti’s, but i don’t care, this is way way better. 🙂

here in Portland, i notice the same thing – most people use rim brakes just fine. i am seeing more and more cheaper bikes on the road with discs such as the kona dew, etc. i think the problem with rim wear here is a little more pronounced. the road filth is pretty bad and you can hear it on your rim, though i don’t think it is as bad as it sounds when you brake. my boss claims to have to get new rims every other year, but that might be the bike shop selling him stuff too 😉 it may also depend on the type of rim – touring rims i think are thicker than mavic open pros. i have noticed a groove forming in my old lht rear wheel after about 3 years of use now (and i do check the pads).

26 01 2011

Caveat: I happen to ride with Apertome sometimes, so there.

The one issue I’ll bring is heavy wet snow and ice. We’ve had an unusual mat of regular snows this winter. I’ve done most ofmy snow rides on the disc 29er and subjectively I like the oomph of the disc stop over the “maybe?” of the rim stop. I’m no Jan Heine, but I’ll take discs in the white stuff. Otherwise, linear pulls are great.

26 01 2011

I would have agreed with you until this year when we made a commitment to not use our vehicle to go places inside the city of Buffalo. That salty mush that coats everything on the bikes brings a new challenge for braking. Just today my wife and I were riding to pick up a hundred pounds of wheat berries on the other side of town. She kept complaining about not stopping well. Her V-brakes with one month old pads on the front were not gripping well at all while the back pads were significantly worn, so much so that I had to make a cable adjustment at the next stop. I was carrying the weight in a Madsen with a cheap disc brake on the front which has not gotten any worse in the weather. Tomorrow I need to sand the pads and clean the rims. I would bet that the rims have already worn significantly this winter.

26 01 2011


I couldn’t agree more. Also, disc brakes are considerably harder to service.

Ride Happy!

27 01 2011

@Mark – if she’s wearing out pads in a month [I assume she’s not on a cargo bike] than there is something wrong worth investigating. BTW – I’ve had people in Calgary [dry dry dry in the summers] complain about wearing out pads fast so there may also be something to how people use their brakes. I tend to use them hard, but infrequently vs. dragging them at low pressure for long periods to stop. The later definitely heats up the rim a ton more – perhaps it also results rapid wear of pads?

When I get back home I’ll try to brake like that and see what happens. I rode through whole winters on Lake Ontario without wearing through a set of brake pads and I was using cheap OEM pads not something fancy and after market.

@Dan – Now that I am coming up on a year on the Wet Coast of BC I keep waiting to wear out rims, but having checked after 6+ months and no significant wear on rims that are many years old. I’ll check again after a full year, but I doubt there will be anything to report even on 16″ rims.

@Apertome – sorry my Lake Ontario winter commuting days are 20years+ ago I don’t recall what we did to deal with icy rims. I didn’t have a car so I know I rode my bike 100% of the time and the temps were always a few degrees above and below freezing so it was a problem for sure.

27 01 2011

9 times out of 10, if you simply upgrade your brake pads to something more formulated for nasty, all weather conditions, you will see a huge improvement. It’s kinda hard to understand the difference until you just do it and see for yourself.

Here’s another rim maintenance must-have in your tool box – the Mavic rim cleaning stone. It’s especially handy in the winter months when all of that black, wet sludge from snow and salt builds up on your brake surfaces:

27 01 2011
doug d

While I do wear out rims on commuting bikes every 10 or 15 thousand km, I don’t think I could use that as an argument against rim brakes. With reasonable brake and pad choices, I have been able to lock up the wheels on any of my bikes with any of my brakes under any conditions.

28 01 2011

@Mark – I just wanted to mention I burned through a set of BB7 pads in 3-4 days of muddy road riding as I had to brake a lot to stay in control and the crud from the road got into the caliper/rotor area simply because it was going everywhere. Problem was since the pads were out of sight I didn’t realize how far gone they were until I cleaned the bike. On a trip a bit longer I could have run of brakes in less than 2 weeks.

28 01 2011

I guess I see pad inspection as a two second task while filling up the tires. Call me obsessive, but tire pressure is part of my preflight check on Monday when I commute, and every recreational ride.

V-brakes have that annoying issue of a limited number (only one, I recall) of drop levers working without a Travel Agent. Road pull disc is much easier to find.

29 01 2011

I have destroyed a couple of sets of rims using rim brakes in Connecticut winters on account of the excessive road salt. My most-ridden bike (Yuba Mundo) has a “Mullet” setup– Avid BB7 on an Alfine dyno-hub up front and a Kool-Stop-equipped V-brake out back. It stops very well, even descending a hill while towing a trailer. The original pads are holding up fine after several months of hard usage.
I all but ignore the rear brake in the winter, as I ride slower, don’t tow the trailer in the snow, and like to avoid the nasty sound of grit-enhanced grinding on my newly-built rear wheel. It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

29 01 2011

@Champs – looking at Avid BB7s pads [especially on a muddy caliper] is a hassle… can inspect your rim brake pads while riding. I’ve never used any road bike discs and the Avid BB7s need the same cable pull as v-brakes so they need the same levers.

@Chris – I’ll keeping riding the rim brakes on the Wet Coast and see what happens….I guess I can’t figure how some folks are wearing through rims so fast and others aren’t, but it must be happening…..interesting.

29 01 2011

@Vik: Avid mechanicals come in both “MTB” and “road” pull flavors. The former for is for levers to be used with direct-pull cantis, the latter for traditional cantis, like you’d find on cyclocross bikes and older mountain bikes. Bikes like the Trek Portland also use it to run discs without adapters.

For what it’s worth, I use the (road-only) Shimano BR-505. You can look straight into the caliper to check pad condition and clearance.

30 01 2011

@Champs – I thought the road Avids were a totally different brake from the MTB version. I could be wrong though.

30 01 2011

Drum brakes, FTW.

1 02 2011

Nice post Vik. I’m using a fully loaded Big Dummy on tour and went with some Magura hydraulic rim brakes but now I’m wondering whether a strong set of v-brakes would have done just fine? What do you think?

1 02 2011

@Cycling Gypsies – my feeling having owned/used v-brakes, mechanical discs, hydraulic discs and hydraulic magura rim brakes is that they all stop bikes fine. There will be some differences for sure and in the case of the Dummy that long cable run to the rear brake means a hydraulic unit is probably a better choice, but when I had a cable brake it worked albeit in a spongy way on the back end of my Dummy. The rear brake is not all that important and even a spongy one works fine.

25 01 2012

I tried Avid V brakes/levers on my LHT and it didn’t go well for me (I bought the LHT frameset and set it up with upright bars). They offered fair braking power, but were very grabby/squealy. Over 3 years I went through countless Koolstop pads a pair of CR18 rims. Last year I switched to Tektro Oryx canti’s/levers (the ones that come stock on the LHT), and saw a huge improvement. Now, pads are lasting about 3 months instead of 6 weeks, and my rims are not visibly grooved after a year. I wonder if the brake lugs on the LHT were tweaked for canti’s, because I have heard people say great things about the Avid V brakes.

I ride in Boston year-round and I ride about 12 miles a day, so I use the brakes a lot, and the winter is pretty harsh. That’s probably why I have seen such ware on components.

Lately I have been considering a switch to disc brakes, but I would have to upgrade to the disc trucker frame/fork, build new wheels, buy brakes/rotors, then deal with all the maintenance issues of disc brakes. Obviously the grass is always greener on the other side! Reading posts like this one have helped me put things in perspective, thanks all of you!

I would recommend avoiding V brakes on an LHT. Instead, carefully tune up the stock canti’s. Of coarse, results will vary wildly depending on how you ride, and so on.

25 01 2012

@Matth – my LHT has had v-brakes on it for years now with no issues. Properly setup canti and v-brakes should both work well.

15 08 2015

Just installed Shimano mechanical disks on my commuter, with impecibal adjustment they had maybe half the power of the v-brakes they replaced, but the real shock was the 1st ride after a rain shower, they simply stopped working, full pressure on the lever, pads hard on the disc, and it spins freely, literally like it was oiled, 0 stopping force. Incredibly dangerous and the complete opposite of everything I’d read. So now I’ve spent a few hundred dollars on nice wheels and new brakes, and have a bike that can’t stop itself. I agree, Keep It Simple, you don’t need disks.

15 08 2015

…and now I have to stay the course and upgrade to hydraulic discs to get back the lost stopping power, as I can’t use v-brakes on the nice disc only rims… More cost, more weight, more complexity, all just to get back to the stopping power of simple v brakes…. Like they say, don’t fix it,if its not broken… Maybe you just don’t need discs at all, think before giving in to the hype…

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