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Disc Brakes

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John Allen
by John "Rotor" Allen
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disc brake
Hydraulic disc brake. photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Why Disc Brakes?

Mountain bikes first used cantilever brakes; next, direct-pull brakes, which avoided the risk of snagging a transverse cable on a knobby tire. But mountain-bike rims are often wet, muddy and warped, making for problems with any rim brakes.

Disc brakes have become increasingly popular on mountain bikes and are gaining some popularity for other bicycles..

John Olsen, expert mountain bike rider and engineer (and who supplied the photo at the left here), reports:

"When I got my first mountain bike disc brake that worked, the advantages off road were so overwhelming that I changed every bike I had over to them as rapidly as possible.  Hub and rim and spoke design essentially didn't change, except for disc mount provisions on the hubs."

For bicycles used on-road, the advantages of disc brakes aren't as compelling. To some extent, they are a fashion statement, imitating motor-vehicle practice.

But be aware: disc brakes can't be retrofitted without frame modification. A front disc brake stresses the fork heavily and can tear the front wheel out of the dropouts unless special measures are taken.

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Advantages and Disadvantages of Disc Brakes



All in all, disc brakes are advantageous on bicycles which have front suspension and are ridden in mud and snow. Disc brakes are less suitable for bicycles where light weight is most important and the rim can do double duty as a brake disc. A large rear disk brake can serve well as a downhill drag brake on a tandem or cargo bike.

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Disc brake safety

Disc brakes are traditionally mounted on the left side of the bicycle. Some motorcycles have dual disc brakes, one on each side of the front wheel, but the added weight would be undesirable on a bicycle. The one-sided mounting results in an unbalanced load on the fork, potentially leading to handling and safety issues. The load on the fork is heavy because the torque from braking is taken up at a relatively short distance from the hub.

As already noted, a front disc brake with the caliper in the usual position behind the left fork blade exerts a strong force tending to pull the hub axle out of the dropout. It has been conclusively shown that the alternation of force upward from weight and downward from the brake can loosen the quick-release of a front hub.

A suspension front fork and a disc brake work well together because the fork must have large-diameter sliders (lower part of each fork blade) and the left slider alone can easily bear the load from the disc brake. However, a through-axle front hub is still necessary to avoid the possibility of front-wheel loss. A disc brake caliper placed ahead of the fork blade would tend to pull the hub axle into rather than out of the fork, but is not usual.

A front drum brake or Rollerbrake, by way of comparison, also exerts an unbalanced load on the fork, but does not tend to pull the wheel out of the dropout.

Long descents generate significant heat, so much so that first-generation disc brakes had a problem with failures due to the glue on the pads melting and brake fluid boiling.  Shimano has gone to great lengths to overcome these problems, including heat sinks on the pads and rotors with aluminum cores and cooling fins.  Shimano explains that disks are the future for carbon rims as no one has found a good solution for rim brakes on carbon rims with a carbon braking surface.  Shimano was able to convince the UCI, which had banned disks on road bikes, to change its position after providing evidence of the large number of race crashes caused by the shortcomings of caliper brakes on carbon rims.

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Installation and maintenance

Disc brake rotors are available in several sizes. While it is possible to mix and match brands of rotors and calipers, the size of the rotor and caliper must match. Larger rotors are a bit heavier, but dissipate heat more readily and make for stronger braking. Smaller rotors, generally for "road" disc brakes, are lighter.

Most mechanical disc brakes use the same long-cable-pull brake levers as linear-pull brakes. Other brake levers do not pull enough cable, resulting in weak braking. "Road" disc brakes, on the other hand, work with ordinary brake levers and brake-shift combination levers.

There are several common ways to attach the rotor to the hub. Common ones are the 6-bolt ISO, Shimano Centerlock splined, Hope 3-bolt and Rohloff 4-bolt. Several older patterns are no longer in production, making it hard to find a replacement rotor for an older hub. (Note that the Shimano Inter-M fitting, used on Shimano Nexus and Nexave hubs, is for the Shimano Rollerbrake, and not for disk-brake rotor. Shimano Alfine internal-gear hubs do have a Centerlock disc-brake fitting.)

There are also different ways to attach the caliper. A large variety of adapters is available, making many combinations possible.

Rotor-caliper alignment is critical so the rotor turns freely except when braking. Though some calipers are adjustable, there is little flexibility in adding or removing spacers at the left side of the hub to address wheel dishing, dropout spacing or chainline.

All in all, there is way too much variety among disc brakes to cover here, and it is most prudent to stay with manufacturers' suggested combinations. Chapter 11 of the 7th Edition of Sutherland's Handbook for Bicycle Mechanics has very extensive coverage of disc brakes, and especially of the many types of fittings and adapters. Sutherland's has placed Chapter 11 online as an example of the Handbook. We hope that reading the chapter online will lead you to purchase the Handbook. John Olsen has good technical information in the book High Tech Cycling, and that part of the book is online as a preview. (But, buy the book -- there's more good reading there too!). Park Tool has good information online about installing and adjusting disc brakes. See links below.


Sutherland's home page

Sutherland's Handbook, Chapter 11

Sheldon's 2004 Adventure Cyclist article about disc brakes

Sheldon's 2007 Adventure Cyclist article comparing brake types

Sheldon's article about quick-release and hub design

James Annan on front-wheel loss with disc brakes

Video about disc-brake installation

Park Tool page about disc brake adjustment

Park Tool page about rotor installation and service

John Olsen on disc brakes

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Copyright © 2013 John Allen

Thanks to John Olsen and Justin Haber for help with this article!

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Last Updated: by John Allen