Should We Be Mourning the Death of Rim Brakes?
Look at any brand’s 2021 lineup of road bikes, and you’ll notice one common trend: They all have disc brakes. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, rim brake–equipped road bikes have been fading from existence since 2011, when disc brakes first appeared on road bikes. In 2018, eight of the 12 Trek Émonda models had rim brakes; of the 10 models in the 2021 lineup, zero do
That’s because, in the same way more riders acknowledged decades ago that integrated shift/brake levers were better than down-tube shifters because they were ergonomically better and made shifting faster and easier, they also recognise that disc brakes are superior to rim brakes—and they’re saying so with their wallets. I spoke to reps at more than a dozen bike companies, and each said something similar: Not only is the public not buying rim-brake bikes, but the suddenness with which it happened even caught brands off-guard.
“Riders stopped buying rim-brake road bikes before we stopped offering them,” said Jordan Roessingh, Trek’s road director. “Even when we offered rim-brake models, the demand for them rapidly decreased over the past two years, and, inversely, demand for the disc-brake road bike increased at an almost astonishing pace.”
Fisher Curran, BMC’s marketing coordinator, told me: “We’re releasing our new 2021 lineup with drastically reduced rim-brake platforms. I think we only have one bike offering with both rim and disc.” Even some smaller brands don’t see enough demand to continue with rim brakes—representatives from Argonaut and Allied told me they discontinued their rim-brake models due to lack of interest.
I even heard a bit of gallows humour around existing rim-brake models: “Let us know if you find any rim-brake holdouts,” said Specialized’s road and gravel category leader, Stewart Thompson. “We’ve got a few frames to sell ’em!”
But even while so many riders have embraced disc brakes on road bikes, some are still struggling—or even unwilling—to accept them. The switch to disc brakes evokes similar reactions to the time when integrated shift/brake levers replaced down-tube shifters. Now, like then, some riders are upset about the change because they feel it was forced upon them. Even some of the pushback rings familiar: They’re heavier, they’re more complicated, they’re ugly, they change the way the bike feels.
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The end of the rim brake means the profile of the road bike many of us learned to ride on is gone forever. The elegant quick-release is dead, too, because the thru-axle is a much safer way to mount a disc wheel. Sleek and light 23mm—even 25mm—tires are also dead because the disc opens up the frame to faster and smoother-rolling 28mm (and wider) tires. Development on new rim-brake wheels is practically nonexistent. And the new Dura-Ace road group and Specialized Tarmac road bike currently in the works? I’ll be surprised if either includes a rim-brake option.
When we move forward, we leave things behind. I appreciate the new disc brake–equipped bikes for their superior performance, but I’ve also found that the better bike isn’t always the more enjoyable one to ride. I’m not alone. To paraphrase what many brand representatives told me: Rim brakes are dead. But personally, I still love to ride my rim-brake bike. And there are enough of us who are passionate enough—check out #savetherimbrake on Instagram—to keep rim-brake bikes alive.
One of the most endearing things about a road bike is its clean lines and airy profile. Disc brakes make road bikes look clunky and inelegant. They also seemingly foul a road bike’s simplicity with the addition of hydraulics, pads that are easy to contaminate, wheels that are harder to install, and rotors that bend easily. They’re noisier than rim brakes, and can rub when climbing or sprinting. Lever feel isn’t as light or smooth as it is with a well-tuned cable-actuated rim brake, either.
Rim-brake bikes—especially those made of metal—have a feel that I have yet to experience in a disc-brake bike. The way they glide and swing side to side, the way they carve through corners—they just feel more balanced to me. And I have yet to ride a set of disc-brake wheels that feel as delightful as a set of lightweight rim-brake wheels.
Disc-brake bikes are already great and will only continue to get better while the rim-brake bike, right now, is as good as it will ever be. I recently bought a custom steel road bike with rim brakes. I’ll have it a long time, I’ll ride it a lot, and I’ll enjoy every mile on it. Even so, it will likely be the last new bike I buy that has rim brakes. Disc-brake bikes deserve to be the future because, well, they’re better bikes.