Which is Better Disc or Drum Brakes in Bikes: A Guide to Bike Brake Types

With smooth, wide roads, and so many advancements in modern bike power, riding at high speeds has become a new hobby for many people. With this new-found activity growing in popularity, the speeds at which these bikes travel also requires advancements in braking capabilities. Explore which is better disc or drum brakes in bikes for your specific needs, the difference between the two, and the pros and cons below to find what braking system works best for you and your bike.

What is a Drum Brake?

a drum brake on the rear tire of a motorcycle

A traditional drum brake is a system where the brake rotates alongside the wheels. Inside each drum are brake shoes which are fitted with brake linings which is known as the friction material. The pressure mechanism (pistons) press against the drums from inside to generate braking force, making it possible to bring the bike to a stop.

To ensure the brake is not exposed to the elements, the drum brake is attached to the wheel shaft and encased. Whenever the rider applies the brakes, the brake fluid is pressured, and pushes the pistons which results in pressure being applied on the brake pads.

As pressure is applied, the brake pads move and come into contact with the drum brake, and the friction that’s created stops the wheel shaft spinning, slowing down the bike, or bringing it to a complete stop.

What is a Disc Brake?

a disk brake of the motorcycle front tire

A disc brake uses calipers to squeeze a pair of pads against a disc, also known as a rotor, to create friction. The disk is fitted on the outer side of the wheel rim with brake pads on either side of the disc, and the entire system is connected with a thick fluid line, known as the brake oil. 

When the brake lever is pulled, the brake fluid near the lever gets pressurized within the rim brake system. This brake fluid connects with the brake pads in the wheel through the fluid line. Once the brake pads are activated by the pressurized fluid, the pressure is applied to the disc which is connected to the wheel – not the wheel itself.

Here, the caliper applies pressure to the pads, which creates friction with the disc to halt it in motion. This action slows down the rotation of the wheel, either to reduce its rotational speed or hold it stationary – bringing the bike to a slower speed or a complete stop.

Drum Brakes vs Disc Brakes Pros and Cons

Both brake types have advantages and disadvantages, depending on the type of bike you have, the type of rider you are, and the types of riding you’re going to be doing.

The safety parameters to consider when it comes to brake types are:

  • Stopping distance
  • Stopping power
  • Heat dissipation
  • Wheel lock-up
  • Maintenance
  • Skidding
  • Price

What is the Stopping Distance of Disc Brakes vs Drum Brakes?

When choosing a brake type, this is perhaps the key factor to consider safety-wise. When you apply your brakes, you want your bike to stop as quickly as possible whilst moving as little as possible, distance-wise, so you don’t go flying over the handlebars.

Shorter stopping distance equals better brake performance.

Hydraulic disc brakes offer a shorter stopping distance when compared to drum brakes through ABS (anti-lock braking system), as well as the bite of the disc brake.

When you consider stopping distance, disc brakes are a much better alternative compared to drum brakes.

Preferred brake type: disc brake.

Drum Brakes vs Disc Brakes Stopping Power

Stopping power is another key consideration when it comes to brake types – and disc brakes are, again, the safer, more advanced alternative for riders.

Whether you’re riding at high or low speed, and your bike is overloaded or not, disc brakes are able to bring the wheels to a stop far easier than drum brakes, as they have more control over the wheel itself.

Mechanical disc brakes also have the ability to be adjusted to increase their stopping power and by adding larger wheel pads, you can increase the contact area for the brake pads, allowing the vehicle to slow down quicker. This is why many bikes have dual disc brakes or large discs on their front or rear wheels.

Despite the advancements to the disc brake, the same cannot be said for drum brakes – they are a one-size-fits all brake and cannot be modified like the disc brake pads.

Preferred brake type: disc brake.

What is the Difference in Heat Dissipation Between Brake Types?

double rear disc brake on a motorcycle

Heat dissipation plays an important part in determining the life expectancy of your brake pads. When you apply your brakes, regardless of which brake type it is, the brake pads come into contact with the wheel and cause friction between the surfaces.

This causes the friction between the wheel and the brake pads to generate heat in the braking system. When you’re looking at brake types, you want the heat to escape the system as quickly as possible. If the heat gets trapped, the brakes will become damaged over their life cycle, and will result in a shorter lifespan.

With drum brakes, you’re likely to get more heat build-up due to the fact that the brakes are enclosed. Alternatively, with disc brakes, the system is open and air can easily circulate around them, meaning heat dissipates much quicker.

Preferred brake type: disc brake.

What is the Difference in Wheel-lock up Between Brake Types?

Sometimes your bike can suffer from wheel lock up which is when you apply the brake suddenly for safety reasons.

If the wheels do lock-up (which can only happen if your bike doesn’t have an ABS system activated), there can be a risk of accidents occurring as you will not have control over your bike. With a drum brake, there is not a possibility of your wheels locking-up, which makes these more traditional drum brakes a better and safer bet if you do not have ABS on your bike.

However if you do have ABS installed on your bike, a disc brake system will work fine as wheel-lock up cannot occur. Having ABS is preferred for some drivers and not for others. This will just depend on your riding style and whether you prefer to have that manual control over your bike when it comes to braking in an emergency.

Preferred brake type: drum brake if your bike does not have ABS and disc brake if your bike does have ABS.

What Maintenance Does Each Brake Type Require?

Disc brakes are easy to maintain as they are exposed to the elements – the larger rotators are easier to clean, and the disc brake calipers are simple to dismantle so you can clean the brake pads yourself (provided you know how to do so).

With disc brakes you won’t need to visit your dealer or service center to clean your brakes – it’s an easy DIY job.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for drum brakes: there is periodic maintenance required for drum brakes that cannot really be done by those who are unsure how, as the wheel has to be removed for the brake drum to be cleaned.

From here, the drum brake casing has to be dismantled, with the drums, back plate, springs, and brake pads all needing to be cleaned and then put back together again. Even for an experienced mechanic, this is a time consuming process.

As a result, disc brakes require far less hassle when it comes to periodic maintenance.

Preferred brake type: disc brake.

What Brakes Cause More Skidding?

During wet weather or nasty weather conditions, your brakes are super important for your safety and wellbeing. Whilst no brake type can make you skid, there is more chance of your bike skidding in wet weather if you have hydraulic brake discs.

Disc brake bikes make your vehicle more likely to skid when compared to drum brakes, especially if you’re still a beginner rider. Therefore, it’s imperative to ride sensibly and slowly if the weather permits you to do so.

Preferred brake type: drum brake.

What is the Price Difference Between Disc and Drum Brakes?

Based on their performance, disc brakes cost significantly more than drum brakes as they have more features and safety parameters.

Despite this, drum brakes are more economical, and are available at a lower cost when compared to disc brakes, but they do provide some ineffective cons such as the cost it will incur you to get the brakes cleaned and serviced.

Preferred brake type: disc brake.

Which Brakes Last Longer Drum or Disc?

a dirty rear drum brake of a motorcycle

On average, disc brakes can last around 50,000 miles, with drum brakes lasting between 150,000 to 200,000 miles.

Whilst drum brakes tend to last longer, their brake shoes will need replacing around every 30-40,000 miles, with disc brakes needing their pads replaced anywhere between 25-60,000 miles.

The conditions you ride in and how you treat your bike is also a factor on how long your brakes will last. If you avoid heavy braking, and try not to expose your vehicle to any harsh or wet conditions, the brakes are going to hold up a lot better over time thanks to your consistent braking and the well-treatment of your bike.

Are There Disadvantages of Disc Brakes Over Drum Brakes?

Based on the above, it’s five in favor of disc brakes, and only two in favor of drum brakes. However, there are some disadvantages of disc brakes that you should consider when looking at what’s best for you and your bike.

Cost

As mentioned previously, disc brake pads are more expensive when compared to drum brakes. However, as technology advances, disc brakes are becoming a little more reasonably priced, as more people begin to use them.

Heavy weight

Disc brake pads actually weigh a lot heavier than their counterparts, and in motorbikes, heavier parts lead to a decrease in mileage quicker since the bike is going to have to work harder to get to where it’s going.

Maintenance

Not every driver can fix or service their disc brakes. While it’s simple to give them a good clean at home, a special type of mechanic will need to service them for you, as the tools required to adjust them are costly to purchase yourself.

Non-transferable

Disc brakes are non-transferable so when you buy this type of brake, you cannot transfer them to a new bike if you should buy one. This means you cannot use second-hand disc brakes and you must layout the cost for new brakes every time you get a new bike.

Which is the Best Braking System Overall?

The best braking system overall will depend on the needs and budget you have for your braking system. With consideration to these two factors, you should be able to decide which brakes will be best for you and your bike. 

Overall, disc brakes provide users with safer riding conditions, more stopping and distance power, and quicker heat dissipation times.

While the traditional brakes are more cost-efficient and simpler to use, the rise of disc brakes is becoming increasingly popular amongst riders.

Both are effective braking mechanisms and provide different advantages to riders. However, the safer and preferred investment amongst bikers would certainly be in the disc brake mechanism.

While these are a little more costly, these brakes provide riders with peace of mind when it comes to riding, and are an effective brake choice for not just beginners, but riders of all levels.

Conclusion

So, which is better disc or drum brakes in bikes? 

With a range of features to consider, both disc and drum brakes are effective brake mechanisms for your bike. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to your preferred braking system. Based on the provided information, you should be able to choose the right type of brake for you and your bike’s needs.

Based on the above information and all of the pros and cons available, you can use these tips to help you find a great new set of brakes for your bike.

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