Hydraulic disc brakes on road bikes: testing, pros and cons

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The new disc brake-equipped road bikes trend makes its steady way through the ranks of all major manufacturers, especially if we take a look at the 2014 ranges. However it’s obvious that these new components raise some questions in terms of real utility, mostly put in balance with their weight and pricing. Therefore, we wrote down the pros and cons of them, but only after we rode a road bike specified with such components.

About the SRAM Red hydraulic disc brakes

We can very well start by mentioning the perks of these brakes. No question about it, the braking power is superior, and also the modulation is better, though not in the same measure. It’s unlikely that other pluses of them can be identified, but these two alone have a significant influence in terms of safety. While they do not guarantee that you won’t hit the ground at all, the instant stopping at least seeds more trust regarding this matter amongst road enthusiats.

As a test subject we got our hands on a Pinarello fitted with a pair of SRAM Red hydraulic disc brakes. Not a surprise, their efficiency is undeniable, somewhat predictable given we’re dealing with a high-end product. Basically, you obtain maximum braking power about halfway of the lever’s travel, yet you must consider that stopping occurs more brutally than in the case of mechanical brakes. Another point relates to the feeling during slowing down, which is different than in the case of mountain bike disc brakes since the SRAM Red’s caliper stands just besides the wheel’s axle.

In terms of quality, the brakes are as good as they could get, with perfect finishes, excelent crafting, and probably a longer rotor service time. Also to take into account are the spider rotors, a bit heavier than one-piece rotors, but which help disperse heat faster thanks to the central aluminum body especially when going down on long descents. Yup, fading becomes a thing of the past thanks to them. Still, for short braking rounds, the spider’s perks don’t have the chance to kick in their magic.

Ergonomy hasn’t suffered at all following the new shape of the levers, and neither did the functioning of the shifter levers.

The downside is represented by the extra weight, the SRAM Red groupset adding a further 463 grams to your bike. So, there’s an easy half a kilogram weight addition (you must add the hoses and fluid), not to count the more complex maintenance ritual, and arguably the extra cables involved, that range from inaestethical to a bit bothering.

Well, disc brakes on my road bike or not?

However, these assertions are hardly enough in order to settle the disc brakes on road bikes issue. It’s rather a question of points of view that comes into play which, from where we stand, can be summed up into to large categories: the professional riders’ one and the recreational riders’ one.

In the first case, beyond any doubt, the disc brakes to the tubular tires justice. Because they are glued to the rim, long braking rounds lead to the overheating of the rims and the liquefaction of that glue. The end result is the tubular tire coming of the wheel, and the pro rider coming off the bike (in most instances in a brutal manner).

Furthermore, most manufacturers fitted their endurance road bikes with such brakes, these types of bicycles being used typically in spring classics, renowned for their harshness. Races like Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders feature tough conditions, like rain, mud, snow, and in the best scenario only tons of dust, not to mention paved roads, all summing-up in a real challenge for both rider an bicycle. Actually, many riders use aluminum bikes, and heavier, but stronger components in order to make sure they get to the finish line, so weight doesn’t count as much. Subsequently, the extra grams of the disc brakes do not have such a big impact, but their reliability can prove to be vital. Not to mention that the cyclocross scene can be the perfect application of the brakes.

Disc brakes might set back pro riders in other ways too, but before we get to that, let’s deal with the weight problem firstly. We all know that the UCI, cycling’s governing body, imposed a 6.8 kilogram limit for the professional riders’ bikes. The fact is that manufacturers are now constantly building bikes way under this limit and have to fit them with lead weights in order to reach that limit. And now, the question kicks in, namely whether by removing the lead enough weight interval is created in order to mount the disc brakes and not pass (by much) the 6.8 kilogram limit, keeping the bikes’ weight competitive.

Derived from servicing the brakes, there is also the issue of replacement time of the wheels. In professional racing, every second counts, and, as replacing a rotor-fitted wheel might take a few second more than replacing a regular one, riders might not rejoice at the thought of this time loss. Let’s face it, when you compete in the Tour de France every second is vital. And not least, although unlikely, overheating may also occur in the case of disc brakes, leading to some unhappy consequence. And let’s be serious: when was the last time you heard a pro rider crashing due to the failure of the mechanical rim brakes?

The UCI also brings into discussion an economical fact in the process of legalising these brakes. Cycling is already a more-costly-than-the-average sport, and equipping the bikes with disc brakes may further increase the prices making the bikes less affordable for persons, especially youngsters, from the lower social categories.

Passing onto the recreational riders’ point of view, the advantage of the superior braking power may very well be convincing. Already, in this case, we aren’t dealing with such a big need of weight reduction as in the case of the pro riders, but you’re more likely to go for the overall experience of riding your road bike. Even so, except difficult weather conditions, the disc brakes seem to be more than you actually need. If however you’re seeking the best braking power possible, this is the right choice.

Noteworthy is again the fact that most 2014 road bikes specified with disc brakes are endurance road bikes. For that reason, the belief that these components, fitted mostly on slack-angled, overall more comfortable frames, look to make the road segment more appealing to the masses. It’s well known that recreational riders put more value on safety, and comfort, a very logical and common-sense option given that they aren’t planning on fighting for the world champion title. Down below we also noted a short list of pros and cons in order to sum up the conclusions:

Pros

  • High braking power
  • Excellent modulation
  • Maximum performance output regardless of weather conditions
  • Low risk of breakdown

Cons

  • Extra weight
  • More difficult maintenance
  • The risk of overheating
  • Higher pricing

2 COMMENTS

  1. not an essential part of everyday biking life. disc and mechanical brakes can also stop your bikes at low cost, low maintenance and lighter parts.

    • Hi, marlo! Well, yes, it finally comes down to how skilled you are and what you like. Rim brakes were just fine for tens of years, I do not see a reason for them becoming obsolete, but if some prefer more safety, now is their chance.

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