Why direct-mount brakes are awesome

If this is rim brakes’ swansong, I’m listening

For a technology declared obsolete a hundred times over, rim brakes have displayed remarkable staying power. Thanks to the latest direct-mount designs, they’re better than ever and still offer a viable alternative to discs.

This isn’t about discs

Disc brakes are great, I’m not going to argue about that. But as with my affection for alloy bikes, I appreciate variety in life and, taken on their own merits, I still have a lot of time for really good rim brakes.

I’ve written about this before, as has my colleague Jack, but my thinking on the latest developments really crystallised when I was out in Spain riding the latest version of B’Twin’s stellar Ultra AF earlier this year.

Technical descending is a joy with good brakes
Technical descending is a joy with good brakes

Riding hard and fast down a twisting descent, I was struck by how just how good the brakes felt. The combination of Shimano’s latest Ultegra direct-mount front caliper and the machined alloy braking surface of Mavic’s Cosmic Elite clinchers was just flat out excellent.

The power was there, and with it came a 'feelsomeness' that equalled that of the best brakes out there. The best brakes of any kind.  

What are direct-mount brakes anyway?

SRAM was last to the direct-mount party with the non-series S-900 brake
SRAM was last to the direct-mount party with the non-series S-900 brake

Where traditional rim brakes mount to your frame and fork using one bolt per brake, direct-mount brakes separate the caliper into two linked halves, which mount on bosses either side of the wheel.

The mounts look similar to those of traditional cantilever or v-brakes, but they’re positioned higher up on the frame or fork and the calipers are not interchangeable with older designs.

Direct-mount brakes mount to bosses like these. Note the cut-outs in the fork legs for pad clearance
Direct-mount brakes mount to bosses like these. Note the cut-outs in the fork legs for pad clearance

Shimano was the first of the big groupset makers to the direct-mount party, followed a couple of years later by Campagnolo. SRAM was incredibly late to the party, but jumped onboard this year with the S-900.

Why are they good?

Campagnolo's textured carbon braking surface is among the best in my experience
Campagnolo's textured carbon braking surface is among the best in my experience

With conventional alloy rims or even the better carbon options out there (e.g. Campagnolo’s clever textured AC3 surface), direct-mount calipers offer superbly modulated and powerful braking, at least in the dry. As with any rim brake, performance suffers more in the wet than it does with discs. 

Direct-mount calipers are better than standard single-bolt brakes because they’re so stiff. Braced between two mounting points instead of one, they’re inherently less prone to flex, so less of your effort at the lever is wasted.

Because of their wide stance, they offer decent tyre clearance too. The current crop of direct-mount brakes will typically accommodate tyres up to 30mm wide, sometimes more.

Direct-mount brakes offer more tyre clearance than traditional calipers
Direct-mount brakes offer more tyre clearance than traditional calipers

Given that I think a tyre around 28mm is just about perfect for most road riding, that suits me just fine.

Embracing difference

Again, I’m not saying rim brakes are the best braking technology out there but, in the right set of circumstance, I like them.

Always choose the equipment that works best for your riding, not someone else's
Always choose the equipment that works best for your riding, not someone else's

If I were building a fairweather bike with an emphasis on weight and budget, I’d still go direct-mount rim over disc, because the performance meets my needs and they’re lighter for the money.

While it’s certainly not a cost-cutting endeavour, I intentionally chose the rim brake version of the new Trek Émonda for my latest long-termer because I love the way it looks and I think there’s something quite pure about a metal bike with wireless shifting and traditional-looking brakes.

With low-key rim brakes and SRAM eTap, this will be a clean build
With low-key rim brakes and SRAM eTap, this will be a clean build

Would I choose them for all my riding? Certainly not. For mucky off-tarmac adventures or rainy commutes, they’re just not the smart choice in this day and age.

Would I choose rim brakes if I weighed twice what I do now? Again, probably not.

Disc brakes are coming on in leaps and bounds and the best ones are pretty phenomenal. But as ever, I’m all about choosing the equipment that fits your riding best and gives you the experience and, dare I say it, the feelings that you’re after.

Direct-mount rim brakes are my kink. I am at peace with this.

Matthew Allen

Senior Technical Writer, UK
Former bike mechanic, builder of wheels, hub fetishist and lover of shiny things. Likes climbing a lot, but not as good at it as he looks.
  • Discipline: Road, with occasional MTB dalliances
  • Preferred Terrain: Long mountain climbs followed by high-speed descents (that he doesn't get to do nearly often enough), plus scaring himself off-road when he outruns his skill set.
  • Current Bikes: Scott Addict R3 2014, Focus Cayo Disc 2015, Niner RLT 9
  • Dream Bike: Something hideously expensive and custom with external cables and a threaded bottom bracket because screw you bike industry.
  • Beer of Choice: Cider, please. Thistly Cross from Scotland
  • Location: Bristol, UK

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