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I do not ride competitively, but plan on doing some longer distance rides (30+ miles).

I've read that better components are lighter, run more smoothly, and last longer. Out of those three categories, durability (lasting longer) is the only one that really matters for me, as long as the components don't break all the time and get the job done.

Are the main advantages of high end components the reduced weight and smoother operation, or are they significantly more durable as well?

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    Chris, I've edited your question into a less conversational format that I think will solicit more objective answers. If you feel that I've changed the meaning of your question, please feel free to edit it back. – jimchristie Jun 18 '13 at 18:57
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    Related question: bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/2781/… – amcnabb Jun 18 '13 at 19:18
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    You want stuff that durable and trouble-free. I don't keep up with the various component brands/families, but there's no need to spend more than about $1500 for the complete bicycle. – Daniel R Hicks Jun 18 '13 at 20:31
  • Could you clarify what you mean by "better components"? We might be able to give you slightly more helpful answers if you clarify which group sets you're comparing. For example, a comparison between Sora and Tiagra is very different than a comparison between Ultegra and Dura Ace. – amcnabb Jun 18 '13 at 21:38
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    If you're talking 30+ miles then you might want to move weight a bit higher up the priority list, especially if you live somewhere hilly. A lighter bike will use up less of your energy reserves over the same distance compared to a heavier bike, and heavy bikes can really be unpleasant to pedal up hill. – GordonM Jun 24 '13 at 22:59
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I assume that you're talking about road biking. I can give you my opinion after using these groups for a while: Shimano Sora, Shimano Tiagra, Shimano 105, and now a full Shimano Ultegra.

All work, when properly adjusted and when shifting correctly. You have to do your homework and know how to shift smoothly, and adjust the gears. Whoever tells you that something is "not good" or "does not work" is lying or wants you to expend money. But of course different levels are there for a reason:

Weight: More expensive is lighter. Stiffness: More expensive is stiffer, therefore transmitting your power better without loss of energy. Ergonomics: More expensive groups tend to have a refined shape. Reliability: More expensive groups tend to stay tuned longer than less expensive ones. Shifting under pressure or more than one gear at the time: Expensive groups allow you to do it, cheaper ones don't. Smoothness and speed: Shifting is faster and smoother on expensive groups.

If you notice, I put smoothness and speed last. It is usually one of the reasons that people mention as being key, but in my experience proper adjustment and proper shifting technique are more important than the group. My bike with Sora/Tiagra shifts as smoothly as the Ultegra after adjustment. But the other reasons are important to many people. Even if they don't compete they may want a light, stiff, and reliable group that makes the experience of biking more pleasurable (although the real pleasure is riding, of course), and they are willing to pay for it. They are undoubtedly "nicer".

Regarding durability, I'm skeptical about people's comments. Most of the times people change chains and cassettes because they are worn out, and upgrades/changes the rest of the group's components as new models appear, not necessarily because they don't "last". If you're a recreational rider, whatever you buy will "last" more than you will need. I've seen 20 yr-old bikes that work perfectly, provided that the user changed the chain and cassette regularly. But remember durability and reliability are two different things.

At which point is not worth expending more money? Difficult to tell, but here is my suggestion (take it as a suggestion and nothing more):

Dura Ace or Sram Red if you compete. Ultegra or Sram Force if you are an enthusiast that races or values to have a performance group. 105 or Sram Rival if you want a very nice recreational group. Tiagra or Sram Apex if you want a solid recreational group. Sora and below if you are a recreational rider that does not want to spend too much money.

EDIT: I recently had the luxury of trying a bike with electronic shifting (a Shimano Ultegra Di2) and I would like to add to my answer that in this case, the hype is true. It is a true revolutionary thing. Expensive, very expensive. Worth it? Probably not. But really good, yes.

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    +1 for some very good points, though I'm not quite convinced that you can separate durability and reliability. Non-durable parts seem to show it by quickly becoming unreliable. – amcnabb Jun 19 '13 at 23:14
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    It is my experience that all groups last thousands of kilometers before needing to be changed, plenty for a recreational rider. But it is my experience too that groups tend to loose adjustment after only hundreds of kilometers, specially the low-end ones. Hence I separate them, admittedly somewhat arbitrarily. – J. Velazquez-Muriel Jun 20 '13 at 23:53
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    There's a third alternative - Campagnolo. – T0TTE Jun 26 '13 at 20:50
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    I would argue that Ultegra and Force are intended/geared more towards racing cyclists than enthusiast riders who race. – Altom Aug 18 '16 at 14:26
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Here's a little bit of information that's in contradiction to "higher end equals better" Lower end components can sometimes last longer and be less problematic than the higher end components. In order to shave off every single gram they sometimes have to skimp on materials. Also, the tolerances are much tighter, and high end components can often be difficult to tune because fractions of a millimeter matter. An 8 speed derailleur can be quite a bit out of tune before you'd notice. The same can't be said for a 10 speed. With so many gears, there's very little room for error. 10 speed chains are thinner, and therefore stretch and break more.

Don't go for very low end stuff, because it often will be made bad, and will break faster. But different components are built with different goals in mind. Very high end parts are often built for racers, who have professional mechanics who can ensure that everything is tuned properly, and parts are replaced more frequently. If you buy decent components and maintain them well, you'll get plenty of life out of them, and you'll be able to replace them when it's necessary, instead of waiting until it's too late.

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    Great answer. Specifically (for road) I would go with Force or Ultegra (or even Apex or 105) for the shifters and derailleurs. Then finish it with a nice long lasting cassette and chain (the race cassettes and chains are the bits the REALLY don't last long). – Ken Hiatt Jun 18 '13 at 21:28
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    @KenHiatt Not to put words in Kibbee's mouth, but he seemed to be referring to 8-speed components, which would be sub-Tiagra. I guess "lower-end" and "higher-end" aren't very specific terms. :) – amcnabb Jun 18 '13 at 21:36
  • Yeah, I think that road bike have a little problem where even the "lower end" stuff has a 10 speed cassette, where they probably could have delivered a much better component for the same price by going with an 8 speed cassette. Most people buying lower end bikes would probably appreciate the added durability and not needing to have the bike in such good tune at the expense of having a little more spacing between the gears. It's much more common to see 8 speed cassettes on mountain bikes, even though they probably have more gear range within the cassette. – Kibbee Jun 18 '13 at 23:00
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    For someone asking about 'increasing to 30 mile" rides - Ultegra is way OTT. For years 105 (road) and XT (MTB) have been considered the entry level for Competitive riders. Higher is for sponsored riders, lower for weekend warriors - an I know of weekend warriors who happily put in 100miles+ on Tiagra – mattnz Jun 19 '13 at 1:50
  • @mattnz Quite true... I've racked up about 50,000 km on my road bike over 4 years, riding 100-200 km at a time fairly routinely. It has a Tiagra groupset, and I've never wanted to change it. – Will Vousden Dec 15 '16 at 11:23
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This very much depends on how exactly you define the classes of components and what type of riding you plan on doing. The definitions are not standardized, but component ranges from each manufacturer are easily ranked. The following are the MSRP of complete group sets for Shimano (the price ranges are similar for other manufacturers).

  • Dura Ace 9000: $2699.92 (high-end)
  • Ultegra 6800: $1249.92 (mid-high)
  • 105 5700: $1024.85 (mid-range)
  • Tiagra (mid-low)
  • Sora (low-end)
  • non-series (very low-end)

If you truly only care about durability and don't care about either weight or smoothness of operation, then you will probably find that mid-range components are a better value for you than high-end components. Even if high-end components (e.g., Dura Ace) turn out to be more durable than mid-range components (e.g., Ultegra, 105, maybe Tiagra), this would probably not justify the more-than-double cost if the only thing you care about is durability. If you had to replace every part, you would still come out ahead in terms of dollars spent.

Mid-range components (e.g., 105, Tiagra) are far more durable than low-end components (e.g., Sora, non-series). Any but the most undedicated rider can appreciate the benefits of mid-range over low-end components. I personally bought a used bike with Ultegra that cost about the same as a new bike with Sora, and I feel like I would be wasting my money to get a bike with Sora.

From how you describe your riding, it sounds like you would probably find the best value from mid-low to mid-range components, but this completely depends on the degree to which you are constrained by cost. Because more expensive components can sometimes be less durable than cheaper components, it is too easy to be dismissive and assume that the high-end components are Veblen goods (see The Online Photographer for a discussion related to photography equipment, a similar market).

One person can't say whether a product's price is "worth it" to someone with a completely different income and lifestyle. I once talked to someone who owned "Lance Armstrong's bike" (after I asked, it turns out it was the same model, not a collector's item), which was an example of the 'high status of allegedly "pro" products among amateurs'. But this person was happy with his bike and seemed to be at least somewhat appreciative of its benefits over a low-end bicycle. Few cycling products qualify as Veblen goods:

[With bikes], there's not an inverse relationship between cost and durability, like there is with other items like clothing. A $40 pair of jeans will be vastly more durable than a $2,000 dress, but a $2,000 bike will probably be far tougher than a $100 Wal-Mart special. That's because bikes are built to be ridden. Race bikes are built to withstand the rigors of competitive use. Yes, there are exceptions--plenty of campanies make ultra-lightweight frames, wheels, tires, etc. that are intended for specific events only and will not stand up to everyday use. But generally speaking, this stuff is meant to be used. (Bike Snob)

In the end, each person must decide what they need and are willing to pay and whether a product provides benefits that they will appreciate. Don't jump to the assumption that other non-competitive riders are wasting their money on expensive crap, but also don't feel guilty if you don't notice or appreciate the difference in weight between two bikes. And if you end up doing longer or steeper rides, you can always change your mind later.

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  • To further your use of the Shimano groupsets, I would say you could certainly go further down at least one level (to Tiagra), possibly two levels (to Sora), and possibly further (don't know), before you come to a point where you look at the components and you might say, "that level of quality isn't good enough". – PeteH Jun 18 '13 at 20:30
  • @PeteH, I test-rode a bike with Sora, and the shifters felt really flimsy. I would be inclined to lump it into the low-end/scary category, but I haven't actually owned it. – amcnabb Jun 18 '13 at 20:43
  • @PeteH I looked for MSRP for the full Tiagra group set to add to my list, but the numbers are hard to find. Feel free to edit it the prices in if you can find them. – amcnabb Jun 18 '13 at 20:48
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    I also test rode Sora and would tend to agree. My audax/touring bike however has a Tiagra groupset and this is perfectly useable. Nowhere near as nice a ride as my carbon/ultegra ride but a fraction of the price. Had a quick look on a uk site and tiagra comes in at about 75% of the 105, Sora at about 50% of the 105. – PeteH Jun 18 '13 at 21:16
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    My first bike had a Sora group set which I later upgraded to Ultegra (all except the bottom bracket and crank set). The difference in smoothness was remarkable and well worth the cost. +1 for the mid-range advice. – Carey Gregory Jun 18 '13 at 23:53
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If on a road bike anything that is Sora / 105 level will work wonders. Deore or similar will work fine.

What is more important that the group-set IMO is the general quality of the cranks and chain-rings. The better the forging the longer they last.

TBH I don't think it really matters once you get to decently specced bike these days because modern chains and chain sets are so good that they run years with few problems. I have a Sora kit that has almost zero maintenance for several years and the large chain ring is starting to want replacement just now.

Also It matters how it feels a lot as well. Crappy pedals and cranks will make it feel like you power transfer isn't brilliant; even the pressure in the tyres affects how I feel when I ride.

I think tbh there is a lot of focus put on one part of the bike, yes crappy shifting can ruin riding but also having a crap set of cranks or wheels also hurts just as much.

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Cycling as an enjoyment can be fulfilled on any bicycle as long as you enjoy cycling.

In my younger years I achieved a resting heart of 33 BPM riding an aluminum series 7005 generic racer at a cost of £300.00.

I still have this bicycle, most of the running gear has been replaced recently for Shimano Ultegra and Campagnolo Zonda wheels.

I'm in my early fifties, my right femur is 4cm short due to a motorcycle accident nearly thirty years ago. I now run a 28 tooth front ring due to knee issues.

Lets be honest, aluminum, steel,titanium or carbon does it really matter. I do realize reasonable specked components do make a noticeable difference to riding quality.

It's a person desire for cycling that inspires their performance.

For those at the higher pinnacle of cycling who race professionally where crucial seconds matter only the best components will do.

I may not be riding the latest carbon frame but I do enjoy riding the bike I have.

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The question was asked some time ago. More recently, Adam Kerin of Zero Friction Cycling collaborated with Cyclingtips for an article on chain durability. Thus, it's possible to give an objective answer for one component: the chain.

Shimano's top 3 road groups in ascending order of price are 105, Ultegra, and Dura Ace. Shimano applies low-friction coatings to these groups, and the number of coated parts and possibly the quality of the coatings increases as you go up. I haven't investigated, but I suspect that chains for Tiagra and Sora may not have low-friction coatings at all.

Differences in chain lifespan

Back to the chain, go to the figure for 11-speed chain durability in the Cyclingtips article. Focus on the red bars, which are service life as measured by kilometers traveled on a test rig before the chain hit 0.5% wear as measured by the distance between two rollers (disregard the other set of bars for now; the reason is complicated, so read the article in detail; also note that the test protocol deliberately accelerated chain wear so that Kerin could get results within a reasonable time). For the Shimano chains, Kerin's sample of Dura Ace chains had the shortest service life (NB: the article states that the sample of DA chains was small relative to the others, and it could have been a bad batch). 105 had the second-shortest service life. Ultegra had the longest. For Campagnolo, 11s Chorus and Record had similar service lives. These were the third and second from the top groups, but note that Chorus should be roughly equivalent to Ultegra and Record to Dura Ace. Super Record doesn't have its own chain (and can be thought of as Dura Ace with many fancy carbon, ceramic, and titanium bits added, adding considerable cost and lower weight but no change in function). I'm less familiar with SRAM's 11s groups, but their 11s Red chain appeared to have a similar life to the lower chains.

The Cyclingtips article also argued that for Shimano chains at least, as the number of speeds increased and as the chain thickness decreased, durability actually increased. The article attributed this to improved manufacturing processes. The article didn't discuss Tiagra (currently 10s, versus Shimano's 11s top three groups) and lower groups, and I'm not sure if Shimano trickles down any manufacturing improvements to the lower groups. If they make Tiagra chains on the same processes they used for the higher groups when they were 10s, then I'd expect Tiagra chains to have shorter lives than the higher groups.

If the Dura Ace chains really have the shortest average service life of Shimano's top 3 road groups, why would anyone use them? Josh Poertner of Silca argues that the Dura Ace chain has the lowest drivetrain friction that he has seen in testing. He attributes this to the chain's surface finish and the shaping of the chain parts.

Other Components

Moving off chains, Ultegra cassettes appear to gain nickel or similar coating over 105 cassettes, which may help with durability. Dura Ace keeps that coating on the steel cogs, but it gains titanium cogs for weight reduction (and I'm not sure if these are coated, but they most definitely will wear faster; it's a matter of physics). 105 uses slick stainless shift and brake cables, whereas Ultegra and Dura Ace gain teflon-coated cables (NB: Shimano appears to claim these don't last as long as the slick stainless cables). This BikeRadar review of the current generation of Shimano 105 noted that 105's shifting didn't feel as crisp as Ultegra to the reviewer. That is likely attributable to the cables.

That review also noted that some parts had more slop than their Ultegra equivalents. This brings up a point that was also raised in the Cyclingtips article: tolerances. Every component on your bike, including the little bits and pieces you never thought to name, has a set of dimensions associated with it, e.g. the chain pins have a width and a diameter, and probably some other parameters I haven't even thought of. For each parameter, there's an allowed tolerance, or variance. If you ask an engineer, I believe they will confirm that the overall tolerance of a complex piece is the sum of the tolerances of the individual bits (for statisticians, the variance of a sum of random variables is the sum of each variable's variance).

Logically, as price increases, I would expect the tolerances to decline. However, this decline may not be linear, and it may have a floor, e.g. you may not be able to get the ball bearings any rounder past a certain ABEC grade, and past a certain grade it may not even matter for bicycle bearings. The slightly sloppier feel of the 105 components may speak to slightly larger tolerances.

Will tighter tolerances always translate to better durability? Having no background in manufacturing, I'd speculate that they may, in some situations, and probably only up to a point. In any case, current conventional wisdom appears to be that if you're looking at Shimano's top three groups, average riders won't see any substantive gains in durability with pricier groups. In some situations, e.g. the chains and cassettes, the top tier option may be less durable, at least for parts made from exotic but not durable materials. With Campagnolo, the argument applies to at least the top 4 groups, but note that currently, Potenza is 11s and Chorus and higher have 12s. The same can likely be said of SRAM's Red and Force AXS groups, noting that there don't appear to be 12s mechanics Red and Force groups, Rival hasn't transitioned to 12s, and Rival is also unlikely to get electronic shifting.

Conclusion

For groups lower than 105, Rival, and Potenza, I would expect somewhat lower durability, all else equal, based on the reasoning above. Defining "somewhat" is hard, but I'd expect the difference to be small. For example, the average lifespan of the tested 105 chains was about 2,200km, versus about 2,400km for the Ultegra chains. That's not a large absolute difference. Keeping in mind that the test protocol deliberately caused higher chain wear to reduce testing time, remember that if you clean and otherwise take care of your equipment, it will last longer. As a subjective bonus it will also look nicer.

Among the top groups, if we discount the exotic materials, differences in durability may be harder to sort out. Based on the economic principle of diminishing marginal returns, I'd expect the differences between the top groups to be small, and to diminish as you move up. For the consumable parts that are clearly made of exotic materials, it's perfectly acceptable to down-spec, e.g. run a Super Record group with a Chorus cassette; when everything was 10s, I ran Chorus with a Veloce chain and cassette.

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There's a lot of personal preference here, but here is mine. I ride 250 mi/week. I like Ultegra a lot except for the chain & derailleurs. The difference between Ultegra and Dura Ace (I own both) is minor for durability. My Ultegra bike still has the original components after 15,000 miles (5000 30 mile rides), with the exception of Dura Ace chain, and derailleurs. The DA chain seems good for about 2500-3000 miles, and the Ultegra rear derailleur main spring got weak after about 6000 miles. I smashed the front derailleur with my shoe at about 5000 miles. The Latest Dura Ace chain is awesome shifting and cheaper than the old one. It will improve Ultegra shifting. With the DA derailleurs, your shifting and stiffness will match a full DA bike. Ultegra cranks(stiffer), brakes, and cassettes are more durable than DA, but heavier. Lots of sites have this weight data, but most recreational riders could care less. The latest Shimano 105 is impressive too, but the extra cost for Ultegra is very small, so why not? Also, right now the DA 9000 derailleurs are pretty cheap as the new 9100 is coming out. My big chainring is also about to need replacement.

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  • 5000 30-mile rides is 150000 miles, not 15000. – David Richerby Oct 15 '16 at 19:10
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Are the main advantages of high end components the reduced weight and smoother operation, or are they significantly more durable as well?

Sometimes, yes, but the durability improvements have a tendency to trickle down to lower end components as well.

Some examples:

Long in the past Shimano solved the axle bending / breaking problem of rear hubs. The fix was by replacing the freewheel mechanism by the freehub mechanism. The newer freehubs have the right-side bearing closer to the end of the axle. Initially, this was only for the most expensive components. Later, all Shimano hubs have been of the improved design. However, today generally non-Shimano hubs do not have the same feature of the right-side bearing being close to the end of the axle, so with non-Shimano hubs axle breakages are common.

Also, it has been known for long that bottom brackets have a lot to improve. The square taper spindles broke often. Shimano experimented with Octalink with its increased spindle diameter in the higher-end groups but found that in Octalink bottom brackets the bearings break due to their reduced size, and the left-side crank bolt loosens automatically. Later, Shimano found the definitive solution by Hollowtech II bearings that are outboard so you can have at the same time an increased spindle diameter and large enough bearings. You may still see square taper in bottom end of the bike market, so the Hollowtech II improvements have not fully trickled down.

Shimano and other manufacturers have been reducing chain width to allow more sprockets. You might think this would decrease chain life, but actually Shimano has been doing it because the manufacturing techniques and materials have improved so you can have reduced width AND increased lifetime at the same time. These chain life improvements trickle down to lower end groups slowly: the lower end groups start to gradually use the thinner chains with their improved lifetime and increased sprocket count.

Long time ago, headsets were prone to develop "indexed steering" due to false brinelling. Then it was discovered that a 45-degree conical interface between a cartridge bearing and the headset cup eliminated this problem. Initially the solution was sold only with more expensive headsets, but today you probably won't find many headsets that don't have the 45-degree conical interface.

The stem used to be attached inside the steerer tube with a wedge. The mechanism was prone to rusting and required relubricating often. The stem could jam inside the steerer tube if not serviced often. Then better quality bicycles switched to threadless aheadset and its improved clamp-style stem clamping around the steerer tube. The new headset and stem design have been trickling down, and today nearly all quality bicycles come with the new stem and headset design. However, you can still see department store bikes using the old inferior design.


However, there are examples in the opposite direction as well. More expensive bicycles today unfortunately tend to use carbon fiber parts, which means you cannot be certain about the durability of the parts after suffering a crash. The use of carbon fiber tends to trickle down to less expensive bicycles, so someday we may not see any metal bicycles at all, which means if you crash, the carbon fiber components can suffer invisible damage and we'll see more damage and perhaps deaths due to carbon fiber parts failing "just riding along".

Also, there has been a trend to reduce the count of spokes in bicycle wheels from the long-discovered optimal value of 36 to as ridiculous values as 16, 20, 24 or 28 (this was called by Sheldon Brown "the great spoke scam" and I agree it's a good name -- it is a scam after all, as unsuspecting buyers buy wheels not suitable for their uses). Needless to say, with reduced spoke count comes reduced durability, so bicycling in today's low spoke count environments may not be feasible for those who are above average weight. If you try to find ready-built 36 spoke wheels today, you will find no such wheels are available, and you need to mail-order 36 spoke hubs and rims, and build the wheel yourself. Also, 36-spoke hubs are getting hard to find (good luck finding a 36-spoke fatbike hub!) and good quality 36-spoke rims seem to be mysteriously vanishing from many mailorder stores.

Long ago, handlebars were made exclusively from steel. Then someone thought of making an aluminum handlebar. Handlebars started to fail en masse. Later someone thought of making a carbon fiber handlebar. While the fatigue failures caused by the use of aluminum have been reduced due to carbon fiber, invisible impact failures from crashing and subsequent catastrophical handlebar breakages after the crash "just riding along" have increased. Today, you cannot find a steel drop handlebar. Quite unfortunate!

Additionally, disc brakes have seen wide adoption even in road bicycles, whereas disc brakes used to belong to mountain bicycles only previously. However, disc brake pads have reduced wear life in good conditions than rim brake pads. Thus, if you select disc brakes, and ride mostly in good weather, you will see reduced brake pad durability compared to best rim brake pads.

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