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There is a lot of snow in the winter where I live. Different kinds of snow; soft, sticky, wet, etc. And ice too. It can get pretty cold: -25 °C (-15 °F). We drop salt, sand and gravel on our roads.

I'm about to buy a bike that I'll be using this winter for commuting to work. What kind of brake will work best in all kinds of wet and icy situations?

I'm interested in braking performance as much as long-term durability.

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Just noting that cables matter too. I have disc brakes and they work fine in the cold, but cable freezing drove me around the bend; I stopped cycling about a month sooner than I wanted to because of it. Recommended palliatives... were less stubborn than the cables on my rear brake, sadly. I'll be running new cables soon... –  dsalo 8 hours ago

10 Answers 10

Like the other answers, disc brakes are the only way to go if you plan on your brakes getting wet at all. After riding disc brakes for a while now, I will never go back, even in good conditions. I would also really recommend hydraulic disc brakes over mechanical ones, especially in poor conditions. With hydraulic brakes, you don't have to pull as hard to get the same amount of stopping power.

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Hydraulics should be better at overcoming the brake sticking if a bit of frozen water gets into the brake mechanisms, too.... There's different hydraulic fluid types, you'll want to make sure yours works at below-freezing temps. –  freiheit Sep 1 '10 at 18:17
Thanks freiheit. I din't know about hydraulic brakes, nor that there was many fluid types! But I'm surprised no one has mentionned drum brakes. –  Nicolas Marchildon Sep 1 '10 at 23:47
As well do some research and try to avoid any type of disc brake that is known for having issues w/ piston retraction. Older model Shimano and Hayes models were known to have that issue. The salt, schmutz and sand will only make poor piston retraction worse. –  tplunket Sep 3 '10 at 14:52
I recommend Avids as they are much easier to bleed than Hayes. –  Geoff Sep 3 '10 at 21:54
"Don't have to pull as hard" is a false advantage. In poor conditions the bottleneck is defined by the available traction, not by braking force. I.e. it is not about pulling hard at all. Hydraulic brakes allegedly provide better modulation, although this is arguable. If so, this could be an advantage, not the increase in braking force. We simply don't need any increases in braking force compared to mechanical disc brakes. We have no meaningful use for it. –  AndreyT Nov 15 '12 at 2:03

You'll probably have the best luck with disc brakes, any other type will loose their power in the wet and snow.

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Won't they stick if covered with water before a temperature drop? –  Nicolas Marchildon Sep 1 '10 at 3:08
I suppose it is possible. I mean I've washed a car just before a cold snap (not a bright moment) and froze then engine. Had to get it in a garage and thaw it out. Realistically it's highly unlikely that you'll have that issue. –  curtismchale Sep 1 '10 at 16:42

I have Roller Brake (a type of hub brakes) and have never had problems in the rain, I don’t know how well they will work at -25c as the grease may go hard.

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Yes, seconding roller brakes or hub (drum) brakes. Roller brakes are very progressive, and may seem a little too gentle at first. They will stop you. Sturmey-Archer hub brakes are also great; a bit more positive and sealed against water and muck. –  scruss Nov 17 '12 at 19:30

@curtismchale is right about disc brakes, but if you do stay with standard brakes you might need to change the pads to something softer.

There are good winter tips (including brakes) here

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disc brakes are definitely the way to go ive seen people in portland now running disc brakes on everything and even fixed gears just to combat the wetness.

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Disc brakes are definitely the way to go. The first time you pull the brakes in wet weather (and every subsequent time) be prepared for a high pitched squeal reminiscent of an articulated lorry stopping. You'll definitely be able to get pedestrian's to notice you!

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Mine are beautifully effective (compared with rim brakes), but quiet (a whispering hissing noise) in all weathers. –  ChrisW May 18 '11 at 1:57

Go klunking all winter with coaster brakes, they shouldn't be affected by the weather. You can even use them in tandem with rim brakes. Whether you are going to want to use them in the conditions you ride in, that's a different story.

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I have been running disks on my summer bike and rims on the winter bike for the last two years. Here is why:

Any bike ridden in the winter will be destroyed by salt in 2 seasons. (On my second winter bike right now).

Without question disk brakes will probably work better however I have had good luck with rim brakes, specificity with vbrakes.

In my opinion the best bet is to use rim brakes and (with all the money you will save) get a good set of tires, fenders, clear downhill goggles and something sweet for the summer bike.

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I've ridden on my steel frame cross check for several winters and it's still in good shape. Take care of your stuff and it will last. –  whatsisname Jan 19 '13 at 20:24

All brake types that lock your wheels work. Because traction is required to stop you, spend more on better studded (ice) tires, because once your wheels are locked your tires will help you stop/not. Hydraulic brakes are overhyped. They are more prone to failure when tested in salty conditions due to more small moving parts that can corrode. Mechanical brakes have less moving complex parts so are more reliable, as are rim brakes. Rim brakes require more pad changes than discs and special all weather compound pads such as kool stop salmon allow them to work better than stock pads in wet weather. Deep snow can be a challenge for less than equal v pads. But if it comes to that, should you be walking instead?

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Back when I was healthier I rode my bike year-round here in ("tropical") southern Minnesota, commuting 10 miles to work and back. Because I didn't have studded tires I never rode when the roads were icy, and I drew the line at riding in below 0F temps, but otherwise I rode in rain, falling snow, when the roads were wet, et al.

My bike was a Nishiki tourer at first and then my current Novara Randonee tourer, both with canti brakes. Other than needing to allow a half-second or so to squeegee the the water off when the roads were wet (which is required in any temperature), the brakes were no problem.

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