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Road bike disc brakes: a guide to choosing the best disc brakes for your road bike

Road bike disc brakes
(Image credit: Courtesy)

The advent of disc brakes has not only improved stopping power and control regardless of weather conditions, but the knock-on effect has also made our bikes more laterally stiff thanks to the introduction of thru-axles, and the modifications to frame designs have allowed for more tyre clearance, too.

Road bike disc brakes have slowly crept into prominence over the last decade, and despite the UCI allowing, banning, and then re-allowing the technology in the WorldTour, disc brakes are now a common sight on the best road bikes found in the pro peloton and at cafe stops around the world. 

Whether you're upgrading your road bike's disc brakes, or building up a frameset, the choices between brakes aren't quite as tricky as it is for our singletrack fairing cousins, because levers and shifters are locked into their matching calipers for the most part — especially when we talk about hydraulic options.

Scroll down for a rundown of our favourite disc brakes for road bikes, or head for the bottom for the ins and outs of what to look for in a road bike disc brake.

Road bike disc brakes

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The best cable actuated brakes for those on a budget

Claimed Weight: 146g (per caliper) | Mount: Flat and post | Actuation: Cable

Power and modulation
Compressionless housing required for a good feel

While most road bikes with disc brakes have hydraulic systems, TRP's Spyre disc brakes are some of the best cable-actuated disc brakes money can buy. Using a cable to pull a carbon arm allows for dual-sided pad actuation, nipping any warping or uneven pad wear in the bud. 

They feature a barrel adjuster for tool-free roadside adjustments, and the calipers are compatible with both TRP and Shimano pads, so you'll be able to find spares at just about any shop. The Spyre are available in both flat and post mount options; they are also universally compatible with drop bar brake levers — just make sure you pick up some compressionless brake housing to improve the lever feel.

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SRAM Force Hydraulic

They may be ugly, but they sure do stop on a dime

Claimed Weight: : 471g (lever included) | Mount: Flat and post | Actuation: Hydro

Mechanically the same as RED
Bleed procedure

SRAM had some growing pains with its hydraulic brakes for drop-bar bikes, but following an initial recall, it has well and truly stepped up to the plate in terms of performance; but I think we can all agree the non-AXS hydro levers have been hit by the ugly stick. 

The skyscraper at the top of the lever houses the fluid reservoir, meaning any air in the line will find its way here, where it won't hinder brake performance, and it also gives you something to hang onto if you're headed past where the pavement ends. All the internals are the same as the Red levers and calipers, however, SRAM swaps out the carbon and titanium for alloy and stainless steel. We are also partial to SRAM's bleed procedure over the Shimano system. 

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The best option if you're looking to upgrade your cable-pull disc brakes, but don't have a bundle to spend

Claimed Weight: 205g | Mount: Flat and post | Actuation: Cable

Feels like the real thing
Automatic pad wear compensation
Hydraulics block easy access to bolts

It's no secret that hydraulic disc brakes offer superior power and modulation to their cable-actuated siblings; however, there is a sizable difference in price. Over the years there have been quite a few brake systems that have sought to combine the two, to offer the best of both worlds. There was a major sticking point, the converter; and these usually came in the form of bar-mounted monstrosities that were a mess of cables and hoses.

So, to solve this problem, TRP just mounted the converter directly onto the brake caliper. Like the Spyre, HY/RD is universally compatible with drop bar levers and readily available Shimano pads. With pre-stretched cables, the HY/RD calipers feel pretty darn close to the real thing in terms of power and braking control, and the major downside is the weight. While we do appreciate the simplicity of making two components one, with the master cylinder and fluid reservoir located on the post mount caliper do make the mounting bolts challenging to access. 

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Shimano BR-785

As good as Ultegra with a slight weight penalty but without the pricetag

Claimed Weight: 271g (pair) | Mount: Flat | Actuation: Hydro

As close to set and forget as you can get

While Shimano's non-series components don't quite have the same exterior finishing as their Ultegra, Dura-Ace or 105 compatriots, they offer equal performance without the price tag. The BR-785 falls in at the Ultegra level spec (6800 series) but offers consistent braking after thousands of miles, and basically no maintenance other than a couple of sets of brake pads. 

Speaking of brake pads, the flat-mount calipers are compatible with Shimano's IceTech finned pads which assist in dissipating heat, for improved power and pad life. They are a bit heavier than their Ultegra R8000 family members, however, in our experience, they offer just about equal performance and reliability, without the price tag.

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Wireless shifting and wireless braking — sort of

Claimed Weight: TBC | Mount: Flat | Actuation: Hydro

Bleed Procedure
Reach and bite point adjustment

SRAM's AXS brake is the latest evolution of the brand's hydraulic anchors, and interestingly, despite the industry's large scale adoption of the flat mound standard, are also available in a post-mount variety.

The caliper itself features contact point adjustment, as well as reach-adjust at the levers, although you'll need an Allen key for both. The Red AXS calipers and levers also feature the Bleeding Edge system, which sees the bleed port moved to the bottom of the caliper, so gravity naturally fills the entire system. The updated fluid circuit also allows all four-piston bores to respond perfectly in time. 

Road bike disc brakes: Shimano Ultegra

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Shimano Ultegra

The most reliable hydro discs you can buy

Claimed Weight: 554g (pair) | Mount: Flat | Actuation: Hydro

Mineral Oil
Long term reliability with minimal maintenance

While Shimano's Ultegra components may lack some of the cool factor of the brand's flagship Dura-Ace parts, they do offer almost the exact same performance with a considerably smaller price tag — and most of the same internals. The Shimano R8000 caliper is also the first time we saw Ultegra stamped on the side of a disc brake caliper.

The hydraulic calipers are flat mount, utilise the brand's one way bleeding and come stock with Shimano's IceTech finned brake pads. 

Road bike disc brakes: Campagnolo H11

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Campagnolo H11

Late to the party, but well worth the wait

Claimed Weight: 420g (pair) | Mount: Flat | Actuation: Hydro

Ergonomics of the levers universal
Each bike requires different mounting bolts which can be tricky

Campagnolo was VERY late to the road disc brake game. It turned out to be a savvy move from the Italian outfit because it allowed the company to watch the growing pains experienced by the other two manufacturers and avoid them altogether. 

The H11 brakes come in three variations with each using the same brake caliper. The levers come in a Potenza version and two non-series Ergopower varieties that correspond with the brand's higher-end Chorus, Record, Record EPS, Super Record and Super Record EPS groupsets. As a system, the Campagnolo H11 hydraulic brakes perform just as well as those from Shimano and SRAM, however they are noticeably quieter, and the hoods are basically identical regardless of whether you're running mechanical rim brakes or hydro discs — a big win in terms of ergonomics and looks.

Road bike disc brakes: Paul Component Engineer Klamper Disc brake

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Paul Component Engineering Klamper

More than just a conversation piece

Claimed Weight: 216g (each) | Mount: Flat and post | Actuation: Cable

Available in anodized colours 
Flat or post mount 
Smooth lever feel and power

As a whole, disc brake calipers all look pretty similar but the Paul Components Klamper is more than just a distinct looking conversation piece. The Klamper is made from CNC machined aluminium, and heat-treated steel and the caliper was in the works to create a brake that offered heaps of power, and field serviceability without the need for hydraulic fluid.

The brand says it took 20 prototypes to land on the oversized ball bearings and steel pistons which are the secret sauce behind the Klamper. Paul also opted for a single-piston for his design and uses a needle bearing on the pad actuator for silky smooth lever action. With this particular design, it is imperative that the inboard stationary pad is situated close to the rotor to limit flex, which is why the Klamper features its distinct oversized notched dial.

How to choose disc brakes for your road bike

1. Flat mount vs post mount

When disc brakes first made the cross over from mountain bikes, the post mount designs used on forks and rear triangles were more or less copy and pasted across. Flat mount is a more recent standard that is lighter, stiffer and more compact than post mount. When adapting discs across to road bikes, designers had to get pretty creative because space was at a premium in the rear triangle, especially when it came time to get in there with an Allen key and make adjustments. With flat-mount, on the other hand, the caliper sits flush on the rear chainstay, taking up minimal space. 

For the most part, drop bar bikes have adopted flat-mount brake calipers, however, there are still plenty of post mount roadies getting around. Adaptors are available to make post mount calipers usable on flat-mount frames, however flat mount to post mount adaptors can be tricky to find.

2. Hydraulic vs cable-actuated

Hydraulic brakes are the end-all-be-all when it comes to stopping. A properly bled brake will offer oodles of power and modulation and will perform as such for an extended period with little to no maintenance. There is minimal friction and additional leverage can be engineered into the system to make a light lever action translate into major stopping power.

Cable actuated systems still offer superior braking to rim brakes. Still, some of the power from the lever is lost in the cable and housing and the pads will need to be adjusted as they wear down to keep braking performance consistent. 

Brake levers are also not interchangeable between cable and hydro systems as the internals are entirely different. 

There are a few hybrid cable to hydraulic systems out on the market. Some involve converters, while others place the master cylinders directly on the caliper. It's not quite the best of both worlds, but they do work pretty well.

3. Mineral oil vs DOT fluid

Your brakes will specify either a specific type of mineral oil or DOT fluid. While these both perform the same task, they are not cross-compatible, and using the wrong fluid can cause damage to seals and even brake failure. 

SRAM uses DOT fluid while Shimano and Campagnolo both use mineral oil, and the main difference between the two is how they manage water, which inevitably finds its way into your brake lines over time. DOT fluid absorbs water, while mineral oil does not. As DOT fluid takes on moisture over time, it lowers the boiling point which can cause your brakes to feel spongy. 

Mineral oil does not absorb water, which over time can create pockets of water which can have an effect on overall viscosity inside the brake line. Mineral oil is also safe on your skin, won't destroy paint jobs and is environmentally friendly. 

While it may seem tempting to buy a non-specified brake fluid when carrying out your own repairs, it's genuinely not worth the risk. 

4. Pads

Brake pads are something to keep in mind as they can have a major effect on braking performance, especially when the weather gets nasty.

Organic or resin pads are typically quieter and offer improved modulation and fine braking control. Some brands also claim they are better at managing heat too.

Metallic or sintered pads are made of harder materials and see a higher concentration of metal in the pad itself. They offer considerably more power and last longer than resin pads, but are also much louder and harder on disc rotors too. Metallic pads also offer more consistent braking power in wet weather.