Disc Brake Lowdown Part 3: Pad Up

This is the second article in our series about disc brakes. Part 1 covered Are Disc Brakes Right for You? Part 2 covered Hydraulic vs. Mechanical

We are on to the final frontier in our coverage of disc brakes. It has taken three meaty articles to get to this point in our disc brake story, as it’s a very complex topic to cover. So now that we’ve helped you discern if disc brakes are right for you and we’ve discussed the difference between hydraulic and mechanical, it’s time to decide “What kind of pads should I get?”

Disc Brake Pads Differ in Many Ways

Pads differ in lots of important ways. The materials they are made of are vastly different, but how they react in different weather or terrain conditions, how much noise they make, and how they potentially react with the hydraulic systems are also important factors to take into consideration.

Bedding in Your Disc Brake Pads

Disc brake pads need to be worn down a bit before they grip properly, which is called “bedding” them in. If you just replaced your pads, you might notice that they don’t stop as well as your old ones. Simply ride somewhere flat while holding the brake so the wheel will still barely turn. After the bed in period is over, the brakes will feel very responsive.

Organic (Resin) Disc Brake Pads

Referred to by both names above, these pads are made simply of organic material held together with resin. They are made of slightly softer materials and are known for their powerful and consistent braking power. They also have a short “bed in” period. With organic pads, you can bed in the pads in the first few blocks of your ride and then have brakes that feel excellent.

Organic Disc Brake Pad Pros

  • Run quieter when braking (or if there is any rotor rub you might not notice).
  • Quick bed in time means maximum performance from the jump.
  • Doesn’t heat up hydraulic fluid (which is only a concern if you’re a heavy rider or carrying weight on extended descents—like down hill riding or bike touring down a mountain road) because they push the heat build up from friction back into the disc rotor.

Organic Disc Brake Pad Cons

  • Softer material wears more quickly so pads don’t last as long.
  • They don’t stop quite as well in wet or muddy conditions.

Sintered (Metallic) Disc Brake Pads

Sintered pads are referred to my many names, most frequently by the process that binds the pad together (sintering) instead of the metal material the pad is made out of.

Sintered pads are created by heating and compressing powdered metal—often copper mixed with other metals. These make for harder pads that last longer and aren’t as affected by rain or mud. However, the harder material also takes much, much longer to bed in, which can be annoying, especially when you want your new pads to feel better than your old ones.

Sintered Brake Pad Pros

  • Harder material lasts longer—especially in adverse conditions.
  • Works well even in wet weather.

Sintered Disc Brake Pad Cons

  • Very noisy (can screech loudly) or sound like it’s scraping the rotor even if there is minimal contact.
  • Can overheat the brake fluid on long descents causing a lack of braking power.
  • Long bed in time means you have to use them for a while before you’re going to feel the best performance.
  • Not as much initial “bite” or reaction time.

Semi-metallic/Semi-Organic/Hybrid Pads

No surprise here, the industry has three names for this same product, which is simply a mix of the organic and metallic materials used in the two pads above. Much like a “partly cloudy” day could also be called “mostly sunny”, it’s best to check with the manufacturer to know what you’re getting.

These pads intend to combine the best features of both while minimizing the cons. They pretty much split the difference between the sintered and organic pads.

Semi-Metallic/Organic Disc Brake Pad Pros

  • Combo of the best of both organic and sintered pads.
  • Good braking power without too much bed-in time.
  • Good durability.

Semi-Metallic/Organic Disc Brake Pad Cons

  • Hard to determine what the ratio of organic to metallic mix is.
  • A bit more expensive than the other pads.

Which Disc Brake Pad is Right For You?

Determining which brake pad is right for you isn’t straightforward. While organic brake pads need to be replaced more often, this still might only be once or twice a year because disc brakes still have a much longer life than rim brakes.

In general:

Run organic pads if:

  • Your riding is not too wet, snowy or muddy (or you don’t mind changing the pads a bit more frequently).
  • Your riding style isn’t too hard on the brakes.
  • You prefer initial grab when you pull the lever (or your hands aren’t as strong).

Run sintered pads if:

  • You’re hard on your brakes and like to use them a lot.
  • You are heavier and are wearing through pads frequently.
  • You do most of your riding in wet, muddy or snowy conditions.

Run hybrid pads if:

  • You want a mix of the two braking performances and don’t mind the slightly higher price tag.

Expert Advice

ROAD/COMMUTING: I prefer the immediate and reliable response of organic pads on all of my bikes. I commute year-round in Portland, so a good portion of that is in wet weather. I don’t notice much difference in the braking power of my organic pads when it’s raining—even when I’m carrying a huge load of groceries.

MTN: As for my mountain bikes, I generally don’t ride trails when they are very wet or muddy due to the damage erosion can do to the trails (#preach!). When I have been caught out in a rainstorm, I have noticed a slight decrease in braking power in the mud, but for the very few times a season this happens, it’s not enough for me to make the switch to sintered pads as their noise drives me a bit crazy and takes away from the enjoyment of my ride.

The good news is pads aren’t expensive, so if you try one type but think you might like another better, it won’t break the bank to make the switch.

Tori Bortman is ORbike’s resident bike mechanic. She is also an educator, consultant and the owner of Gracie’s Wrench. Tori’s new book, The Big Book of Cycling for Beginners, was recently published by Bicycling Magazine.

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