“Brakes are important on a modern road bike if you want to go fast”. This sounds counterintuitive but the point is, if you can brake later and with more control you effectively reduce the amount of cumulative time throughout the ride where you’re slowing down.
Of course the whole brake system is vitally important in this, but most people commonly overlook the humble brake pad when upgrading their machine. It can be a highly effective and relatively cheap upgrade for the best road bikes and the best gravel bikes, regardless of which braking system is specced.
We've pulled together the top brake pads we've tested just below. Keep on scrolling for our detailed explainer on all you need to know about brake pads at the bottom of the page.
Best brake pads for road and gravel bikes
Swissstop Disc RS
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
The thing that I noticed straight away is how quiet the pads are – even when brand new, in the dry, the pads seem lass raspy than many of the competitors, whilst delivering a similar amount of bite. They felt like they were already bedded in.
Other brakes almost feel slightly gritty to begin with or worse still, slightly glazed over, until you bed them in. Modulation to begin with is very good, but there is a very slight drop in performance when you really overwork the brake – I’m being critical here, because in all but very hot alpine conditions you probably won’t notice this.
I tested all the pads on the same Shimano Ultegra Callipers – having used the Disc RS pads before I knew they’d offer me something more than the standard Shimano L03A (now replaced by the L05A-RF), but I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had even more power than I remembered.
The pads do wear ever so slightly quicker in the wet but they remain quiet. Pad life in general isn’t really a big problem as the reduced 1.6mm backing plate makes space for more pad material and this improves the service life of the pad – at the very least it gives you an extra margin for issues should the weather turn bad during a long ride when you’re away from home.
I’d favour the Disc RS in most instances in comparison to the brands Exotherm 2 pads – the exception to this is when heat control is a factor.
SRAM Powerful (Sintered/Steel)
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
Whilst not an upgrade for any other systems, I’ve included the SRAM sintered pads because they’re actually very good and they do offer an upgrade on the standard “Quiet” Organic pads when you use them in the correct conditions. Obviously they only produce pads for their own brake systems but SRAM’s sister company, Avid, have helped make some really good quality pads.
The Powerful option lasts longer than the standard OE pads and offers more power and bite in wet conditions – this was the only pad on the test which wasn’t tested on my Shimano Ultegra Callipers for obvious reasons, so therefore you could argue that any comparison in performance cannot be verified, but it’s still a relevant real world test as conditions will have a similar effect on the pads regardless of the brake itself. The SRAM pads definitely didn’t mind a bit of rain, in fact I’d argue that they seemed to get stronger in wet conditions.
I was surprised to find that the Powerful option can suffer a little with glazing over if the brake system gets too hot and this was a bit of an issue in the dry. This left the brake with less modulation and less initial bite – not to a dangerous level but it was definitely noticeable.
I removed the pads and used some sandpaper on the top surface of the braking material and they behaved as new again, which was a simple fix but one that most people may be loath to do. That was the only flaw however and in general I’d say that they are nearly as good as the Exotherm 2 pads.
SRAM’s organic/”quiet“ pad doesn’t seem to suffer from glazing and in most cases is a great pad and a brilliant option for most riders. It does however wear quickly and can suffer from brake fade with heavier riders on long descents.
BBB Discstop Organic
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
The Organic pads that BBB produce are great aftermarket alternatives, especially when supply issues restrict the use of the standard OE options. Similar to Aztec, BBB makes a simple range of alternative pads for many of the well known brands. The compound too is similar to what OE brands offer.
I found the initial bite is good, if slightly raspy, and the modulation is almost on par with Shimano and SRAM’s standard options. One nice feature is that the BBB pads come “pre-sanded”, which actually does affect the initial break-in period in a positive way as the pads feel powerful and are quiet straight away.
Most pads are released from a mold and the process, which commonly involves heat leaves a slightly glazed top layer on the pads. Taking this layer off is effectively what we're talking about when we mention "breaking-in" periods on new brake pads - BBB have sped up the process by making the pad slightly thicker and then skimming off the surface to produce a perfectly flat pad that doesn't require bedding in!
They also produce a sintered pad. A great option for wet weather training, but probably not to be considered an upgrade.
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
As mentioned above I tested all the pads on the same Shimano Ultegra Callipers which are supplied with the standard Shimano L03A (now replaced by the L05A-RF) pads. To double check my comparisons I tested both the L03A and the newer L05A-RF pads. Could I tell the difference? No, the pad is more of an evolution than an upgraded product, but that’s not necessarily a problem as it was already a very good fit and forget option.
I have found that these pads suffer more than others with contamination. I’m not sure if I’ve just been unlucky but I‘ve binned a few sets over the years which just refused to stop making that terrible squeal! The pad material itself seems very soft which is one of the reasons that they wear quite quickly but also one of the reasons why the initial bite and the modulation are so good.
They do seem to suffer slightly with heat control which is odd given the huge radiators. The new design doesn’t seem to have changed much in real life and as a plain replacement they’re good, but all the other options here provide significant gains in performance or savings on the price, in the case of the Uberbike options both!
Uberbike Race Matrix
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
Less well known than many others here but Uberbike is a brand that I first knew about from mountain bike racing – I wasn’t sure what the quality would be like but after a few years of use on various bikes I’ve been really impressed.
They offer five compounds including one that’s e-bike specific. The sintered and organic offerings are similar to what other brands produce. The Race Matrix version that I tested here uses a medium density pad material to give the best mix of power, bite and service life.
Sounds too good to be true? I was surprised too, but Uberbike really nailed it here. Initially when I set the pads up it was cold and wet, which aren’t ideal conditions to bed the pads in so I did get a little bit of noise initially on that first ride. But very quickly the noise disappeared.
Once they were bedded in the initial bite is fantastic and it just gets better and better. The modulation is very good and only really suffers when you get some serious heat into the brake – probably more to do with the brake rather than the pads.
With this specific compound I’ve experienced a lot less wear than I’ve had with the organic compound that I tested before and also less than the other organic options on this test. I’d say in general that these pads are on par with the Swissstop Disc RS pads which is pretty impressive given the price.
Like the Disc RS these pads feature a slimmed down backing plate which makes space for more pad material and therefore a longer service life. The pads are also safe to use on all rotors unlike some fully sintered pads.
I also tested the all new Kevlar option from Uberbike. I’ve only used these for a month but I’ve been really impressed. They are basically similar to the Organic compound in terms of bite and feel, but they last far longer like the Race Matrix. Interestingly I’ve never had any issues with noise from the Kevlar pads – they work really well in the cold and the wet! This is definitely an upgrade brand to consider.
Swissstop Exotherm 2
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
The new “Exotherm 2” pads are designed to deal with heat better than the RS pads due to the fins which radiate more heat away from the brake. This isn’t a problem for most short, UK based rides, but for those that travel with their bikes to more mountainous places it would definitely be a concern and it’s worth remembering that Shimano’s standard pad is finned for the same reason.
Therefore, for heavier riders or long descents (especially both) where heat control is an issue it makes good sense to consider the Exotherm 2 pad.
In terms of feel, the power and the general modulation is very similar to the RS version. After the initial bedding-in period this got even better. In part this is down to a slightly different pad material - Swissstop are being slightly cagey about precisely what it is, but it’s similar to what many brands would refer to as Sintered (I’ve also heard it called a “hybrid” material).
Interestingly they developed their original pads with the help of the Swiss Railways Engineering department, so I would hazard a guess that the material has been developed with materials from outside the bike industry.
Initial bite improves over time, but the power and the modulation are where you really notice the difference – there’s very little “brake fade”, where the brake’s performance decreases as things heat up. You’ll notice this most towards the end of long descents or if you’re a particularly heavy or aggressive rider.
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
Whilst not known as a premium brand the Aztec pads punch well above their weight in my opinion. If you’re a rider on a budget or you just want a simple set of pads for Winter riding the Aztec Organic option is easily on par with many of the factory (OE specification) brake pads.
These pads are quiet from day one and take very little time to bed in – they are very slightly raspy compared to the Shimano pads. The backing material deals with the heat of braking well and the black coating applied to the steel seems to function in some way as a system for radiating the heat.
This won’t be as effective as fins but it still works well. These pads lack the ultimate power and modulation of the Swissstop options but considering the price, they’re a brilliant no-fuss option for your Winter bike or your 2nd bike.
They also offer sintered options for most major brands, but be aware that these cannot be used with all rotors – some of the Shimano rotors for example specify “Resin Pads Only” so do check with the manufacturer before fitting any sintered pad. Aztec make sintered compatible rotors if you need them.
Everything you need to know about disc brake pads
Brake pads commonly come in various compounds which have both pros and cons based on the weather conditions, bite, overall power and modulation. Even with the standard options available from the groupset manufacturer there is very often an upgrade path available whilst staying on brand.
Most brands produce both “sintered” and “organic” pads. Sintered (sometimes referred to as steel or metal) pads contain small amounts of metal in the pad material itself which are designed to maximise longevity in bad conditions – for this reason the rest of the pad material can be made to create more friction and therefore more stopping power. Organic pads are much quieter and often offer more modulation – they’re excellent for use on the Summer bike.
Pads also are commonly offered in three different backing materials. Steel is the cheapest but it can be heavy – it deals with heat very well. Aluminium is much lighter but it is possible to warp the backing material on very long alpine descents which often causes unwanted noise longterm.
Therefore many brands offer a third option which is an aluminium backer with a built in heatsink – these look a bit like a radiator sitting at the top of the pad and works in the same fashion, radiating heat away from the brake. Don’t confuse backing material with whether a pad is sintered or not as it’s not always obvious.
How do I know when to swap my pads?
Despite what you might have heard, the best way to check the pads is with a visual inspection. You should get used to doing this at least every few rides depending on the conditions. It's very much worth removing the wheels to familiarise yourself with what the different parts of the pad actually look like. With the wheels out, you can look into the caliper itself and you'll be able to see the round pistons which push the backing material of the pad. Closest to where the rotor will be you'll see the brake pad material itself. Commonly there will also be a helper spring which mounts above the pad and helps keep the brake pad against the piston and away from the rotor.
Even if you're going to get a mechanics help with changing the pads you should know what you're looking at so you can make an informed decision about when your pads are worn out (or getting worn out). Don't wear the pad material down all the way - if this happens it can cause damage to the rotor and in extreme cases can damage the pistons! Like rim brake pads you should replace your pads when they're around 85-90% worn and if you've got a long distance ride coming up it may be worth replacing them anyway.
The only other time you may need to replace pads is if you contaminate them - if you've unwittingly contaminated the pads you will often have to replace the pads early as cleaning them is very difficult. There are some hacks to avoid this but with such a crucial part of the bike in terms of safety I'd be very careful about what you see on the internet - it's always safest to fit a new set if in doubt, just remember to clean the rotor with disc brake cleaner at the same time.
What Tools do I need to swap my pads?
Most systems don't require specialist tools to do the job and commonly you'll be fine with a set of allen keys, a pad spreader and a bit of knowledge. It's always worth checking the official process recommended by the manufacturer of your brakes first. Most major brands publish this info on their website, via a technical website or via their own YouTube channels.
Broadly most systems work in a similar fashion and essentially you'll need to reset the pistons which I normally do when the old pads are in place. I use a pad spreader (most tool companies make a relatively cheap spreader) to push the pads apart and reset the pistons. Then I remove the pads and clean everything, first with a wash and then with a specific disc brake cleaner. I also clean the rotors with the disk brake cleaner and a new clean rag. Then the new pads go in complete with the helper spring, pad bolt and any spring clips. Refit the wheel, visually check that the rotor is central in the caliper and then operate the brake. It can take a few squeezes before the brake works properly as the new pads need to match up to the rotor after you reset the pistons.
As with any maintenance (but especially with brakes), make sure you fully understand what you're doing and why - use the correct tools for your system and follow the manufacturers guidelines. If in doubt take it to a mechanic!
Are all pad options suitable for all rotors?
No. This is a commonly overlooked problem and one that will very quickly destroy a set of rotors.
Commonly Sintered Pads should only be used with heavy duty rotors, whilst organic compounds tend to work with far more rotor options. Always check what the manufacturer says - some actually print it on the rotor. Mismatched pads and rotors can cause problems for the rest of the braking system as the pistons are designed to work within a fairly tight tolerance. A worn out rotor will overwork a brake quickly and can obviously be dangerous. If in doubt double check the info on the manufacturers site.
How Should I care for my Brakes/Pads?
Many brands like Swissstop, Morgan Blue, etc also produce a disc cleaner to get rid of any contaminants which should be used primarily on the rotors, but it can be used on the pads too – ideally spray the cleaner onto a lint-free rag and use this to wipe the pads clean rather than spraying the cleaner directly on to the pads which will only drive contaminants further into the pad material.
In general always use a bike specific wash rather than a Washing-Up liquid. Bike specific washes contain less contaminants and any potential noise-causing-nasties are designed to evaporate after use. Washing-Up liquids on the other hand will make your bike look pretty because they contain particles designed to stay on the surface of what you’re washing and then reflect light which makes everything nice and shiny – unfortunately they’ll also leave you with squeaky brakes that do very little to help slow you down! Always keep a nice clean sponge separate for washing the brakes (I have three sponges and three small buckets in total – one set for drivetrain, one for the frame and clean components and then one for the brakes).
#aeightracer – Glen’s an ex-racer who still finds time to ride mountain bikes, road bikes, TT and ‘cross bikes for Southborough & District Wheelers (opens in new tab). He started building custom steel frames in 2013, has worked in bike shops since 2002 and started racing in 1998. He helps out with London and SE Cross League (opens in new tab) and receives personal support from Helly Hansen (opens in new tab). As well as providing backup for various individual riders he also supports Junior and U23 riders via the.æight.bicycle.cøllective (opens in new tab)
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