Mechanical vs Hydraulic Disc Brakes: Which Is Best?
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A decade ago, if you had anything other than a mountain bike, it was typically equipped with rim brakes. In modern times though, the majority of bikes are equipped with disc brakes. There are many reasons for this, such as better performance and reliability.
A question we often get asked by our amazing readers when it comes to disc brakes is, what is the difference between mechanical and hydraulic disc brakes? In this article, were going to be telling you everything you need to know by discussing:
- What Are Disc Brakes?
- What Are Mechanical Disc Brakes?
- What Are Hydraulic Disc Brakes?
- What Are The Key Differences Between Them?
- Which Is Better Mechanical Or Hydraulic Disc Brakes?
What Are Disc Brakes?
Disc brakes originally started on mountain bikes. Instead of a classic style brake where the brake pads grip the wheel rim, they grip a disc instead. This makes the brakes more efficient in wet and poor conditions and has a huge amount of power alongside many other benefits we will discuss next.
Benefits Of Disc Brakes
Disc brakes come with huge benefits compared to rim brakes and other systems. Here’s what you can expect:
Disc brakes are the most powerful type of brakes you will find on a bicycle. Compared to rim brakes, they have incredible stopping power, and on very steep descents or in heavy traffic, the quicker you can stop, the better.
Better In Poor Conditions
Disc brakes are much better in poor conditions compared to rim brakes. They have the ability to stop you quickly, even when totally soaked or covered in mud.
Don’t Wear Out Rims
Rim brakes eventually, over time, wear out the braking surface of the wheels. On disc brakes, this doesn’t happen. Instead, you wear out the disc. This means you don’t have to replace your wheels later down the line. Just service them.
If you have disc brakes, it is much easier on your hands, and you get much better modulation. It’s much easier to feather the brake lever so the wheels don’t lock up, but you also get the most power possible for the least grip.
Finally, we have heat dissipation. When brakes are heavily used, they get very warm, and discs are excellent at dissipating this heat. On old wheels, in extreme cases, wheels have blown or warped because they have gotten too hot. A disc brake will not suffer in the same way.
What Are Mechanical Disc Brakes?
Mechanical disc brakes are generally seen on more budget bikes compared to high-end bikes. They can be controlled by mechanical levers, and installing them is very simple.
They work with a cable like a standard rim brake. So you have one end on the lever and the other on the brake caliper. When the lever is pulled, the tension in the cable increases and the pads in the calipers get brought onto the disc creating friction to slow you down.
They are a basic concept requiring the rider to adjust them as the pads slowly wear out. They do offer a solid amount of power when slowing down and are incredibly easy to adjust and maintain.
What Are Hydraulic Disc Brakes?
Hydraulic brake systems are generally seen on low-range, mid-range, and high-end bikes. They are used on hydraulic levers. Installing them is slightly more challenging than mechanical brakes, requiring special tools for hydraulic systems.
Instead of using a cable, they actually have fluid inside. When the lever is pulled, it drives the fluid to a set of pistons which in turn push the pads in the caliper and grip the disc. Hydraulic disc brakes produce a lot of braking force and can stop you very quickly.
What else makes a hydraulic brake system very impressive is that they are self-adjusting. So the more the pads wear down, the closer the pistons come together to compensate for brake wear. This means no adjustment and very little servicing is required by the rider.
Mechanical vs Hydraulic Disc Brakes: What Are The Key Differences?
Now that you know a little about mechanical and hydraulic disc brakes, let’s start comparing them against each other. Here’s where they differ:
The first thing to mention is cost. If you are planning to build a bike or upgrade your braking system, this will be important to ensure you don’t spend too much. Overall the cheaper system to buy is mechanical disc brakes.
Not only are they cheaper to buy, but the levers to match are generally a much lower cost, and assembly is also less. Hydraulic brakes cost more to buy and assemble. Also, the levers to match are much more expensive. In my opinion, you get what you pay for. Hydraulics are more, but they are so much better.
When it comes to installing disc brakes, there’s a big difference between mechanical and hydraulic. Mechanical brakes are like standard cable brakes, and all you have to do is run inners and outers from the levers.
Hydraulics are much more challenging. Instead, you run hydraulic hoses and have to create a solid connection, then fill it with fluid and bleed the system. Again although it’s harder work, you do get a lot more back after you’re done.
Maintenance is something you need to keep on top of, especially when it comes to brakes. With mechanical brakes, you will often have to adjust them for optimal braking power, and cable inners and outers can wear out very quickly.
Also Read: How To Adjust Bike Brakes
Hydraulic disc brakes can self-adjust themselves for the optimal position making no adjustments needed while the pads slowly wear. You will also find that hydraulic hoses and fluid last much longer than cable inners and outers. Hydraulic brakes are much easier to look after when installed.
When it comes to how powerful the brakes are, it comes down to a few things, such as the number of pistons and disc and pad size. There’s a very clear difference between mechanical brakes and hydraulic disc brakes. Overall hydraulic brakes are much more powerful than mechanical brakes.
They are so much more responsive, and it requires much less pressure on the hands to get them to stop you quickly. You also don’t get any cable stretch, so there’s no lag. The brakes grip quickly and easily to hold on to the disc no matter how steep the descent. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for cables.
Then we have feel. When we speak about feel, it’s about how the brakes feel when you use them because disc brakes are not as simple as on or off. Brakes need to be feathered, and you must modulate the load on the discs to ensure you slow down but don’t lock up.
Mechanical brakes can feel difficult to use, require more power in the hands, and are more challenging to feather correctly. Then you have hydraulic brakes, which are very easy to use on the hands and are much easier to feather, with some brakes having technology designed to make them much easier to control.
Finally, we have longevity, and this is how brakes last while still working effectively. Mechanical brakes surprisingly have some more parts to them that can, in the long run, slowly wear down and make them more difficult. A good example is a part like a spring.
The hydraulic brakes are simpler. All you have is fluid and a piston under it all, and because everything is protected and hidden internally, they last a lot longer, providing they are well looked after.
Which Is Better Mechanical Or Hydraulic Disc Brakes?
Disc brakes on your bike will make riding safer and more enjoyable. The braking power is much better, making riding in all weather conditions easier, and you just stop so much faster.
There are a huge amount of other benefits, such as you don’t wear through your rims, and some even self-adjust. I am a huge believer in bikes that are very personal to each rider and hydraulic or mechanical brakes. It’s your bike to do with it whatever you wish.
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Mechanical brakes are very easy to install and work with shifters that use cables. They have good stopping power, and although they require a decent amount of maintenance, they are incredibly easy to work on and great if you love bike maintenance.
Hydraulic brakes are incredibly powerful and need next to no maintenance. They can be more challenging to work on and harder to install, but the feeling they give and their reliability is incredible. Hydraulics are more of a fit and forget braking system.
Although hydraulic brakes are more expensive, harder to install and work on, they are much better. They have a lot more power, feel much better to use, and require next to no maintenance. Providing they are well looked after, you can expect them to last a very long time.
Though they are not for everyone, we appreciate those who prefer mechanical disc brakes too.
Do you need to change brake fluid often on a hydraulic disc brake system?
It’s a good habit to make as the fluid can become contaminated and it’s good to bleed them to ensure there’s no air bubbles in the system. I personally do my brakes every year but it depends on how much you ride your bike more than anything.
Is a rim brake bike better than a mechanical disc brake bike for stopping?
Traditional rim brakes such as brake calipers are still a good way to slow a bike down. As far as braking performance goes we think that mechanical discs brake systems are better.
How often should you change disc brake pads?
When they are either worn out and have no grit left on them or when they get contaminated and poorly perform and take too long to slow you down.