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Hydraulic vs Mechanical Bicycle Disc Brakes differencesHydraulic vs Mechanical Bicycle Disc Brakes differences

Mechanical vs. Hydraulic Bike Disc Brakes

From drum brakes to rim brakes to disc brakes, there are various ways to stop fast speeding bikes down the highway. That’s not to say that different brake types offer different stopping power per se. The truth is, it’s all about your riding style, terrain, speed, and lots of other factors. And sometimes, it’s also about preference.

Whether you’re an entry-level rider or an aggressive cyclist, you’re bound to have a preference as to what type of brakes you want on your ride. That said, to be able to make an informed decision, it’s only right to understand the differences between each brake type.

So, in this article, we’ll talk about disc brakes- particularly, mechanical vs hydraulic disc brakes.

bike break closeup

At a glance: Mechanical vs Hydraulic Disc Brakes

Mechanical disc brakes are…

  • More high-maintenance, although performing maintenance work by yourself is easy
  • Ideal for touring applications and offer reliable stopping power
  • Highly unlikely to exhibit issues or fail, which is essential in remote locations
  • Bike brakes that offer the feel of on/off brakes
  • Generally a more affordable option than hydraulic disc brakes

Hydraulic disc brakes are…

  • Low-maintenance and self-adjusting in most cases
  • More powerful and provide a more effortless stopping power
  • Likely to become useless due to piston, cylinder, and oil leaks
  • Bike brakes that deliver gradual power
  • Better performing in poor riding conditions due to sealed systems

What are disc brakes?

First of all, what are disc brakes, exactly?

To put it simply, disc brakes are one of the many different types of brakes. A disc brake makes use of calipers that squeeze a pair of brake pads against the rotor or disc in order to create friction, which then slows the shaft or axle’s rotational speed, thereby holding it stationary.

Why are disc brakes popular?

In the early days of cycling, disc brakes were primarily reserved for pro cyclists- although this notion is subject to debate. In any case, as years passed, disc brakes have transitioned from luxury to necessity. Nowadays, bicycle disc brakes have become a staple part of everyday riders’ arsenal when it comes to stopping power.

This is because disc brakes are intrinsically better than rim brakes due to the fact that disc brakes perform better even with minimal friction. Some would argue that drum brakes are still more powerful and better performing, but for the most part, disc brakes are the way to go, hence their popularity across various bicycle styles, such as mountain, road, hybrid, and electric bikes.

How do disc brakes work?

How do bike brakes work, anyway? The thing is, regardless of type or design, bicycle brakes make use of pretty much similar working mechanisms. In other words, the cyclist presses brake levers located on the bike handlebar, and this engages the braking system to apply friction to some form of braking surface. This action creates a resistance that eventually stops the bike.

The same rule also applies across different brake types in the sense that the more pressure you apply on the brake lever, the more friction is received by the braking surface, and the stronger or snappier stopping power you experience.

Of course, there are still distinct features and differences between each brake type. For one thing, the braking surface of rim brakes is the wheel rim, hence the name, whereas for disc brakes, it’s the rotor at the wheel’s center, plus a couple of brake pads or grips.

Comparison of Hydraulic and Mechanical Disc Brakes

Let’s move on to hydraulic vs cable disc brakes. While these two belong in one brake system class (disc brakes), they are different in function and design. To help you better understand, here’s a breakdown of the key defining features of each type:

FeatureHydraulic disc brakesMechanical disc brakes
MediumFluidCables
PerformanceSensitive and efficientRequires more force
WeightLightweightHeavy
AdjustmentComplexEasy
MaintenanceMaintenance-freeFrequent

Mechanical Disc Brakes

Mechanical disc brakes, also referred to as cable disc brakes or cable actuated brakes, are the first type of disc brakes to enter the cycling market. They are also highly similar to rim or spoon brakes in terms of working mechanism, with the key difference being the braking surface or point of contact, since disc brakes apply friction on the rotor rather than the rim.

Setup

In terms of setup, it’s also quite simple, involving only a brake lever, cable, and mechanical disc. There are advantages and disadvantages to this open design. For one, since everything is exposed, it’s much easier to perform repair and maintenance tasks. And speaking of maintenance, all it takes is to tighten brake levers and change cables whenever needed.

However, the constant exposure to the elements is also what necessitates frequent cleaning and maintenance, since the entire braking system is collecting dust, debris, and small objects along the road as you ride. If you allow these things to accumulate and clog the braking system, you’ll suffer from reduced braking smoothness, reduced stopping power, and less control.

How They Work

Basically, you just need to squeeze the brake levers in order to activate the connected steel cable, and this act creates friction that is applied between the rotor on the bike wheel and the brake pad of the disc brake system. The resistance resulting from the applied friction is what eventually stops the bicycle.

This simple mechanism is the reason why mechanical disc brakes are so easy to use. The braking system is also easy to adjust, and even for entry-level riders, there’s essentially no learning curve to get the feel of the brakes. So, after using it for the first time, you can confidently say that you’ve mastered the system.

Pros:

  • Simple design and setup
  • Easy to use and adjust
  • Relatively easy to maintain and repair
  • Beginner-friendly, ideal for entry-level riders
  • Affordable upfront, cheap repair costs
  • Readily available in most stores

Cons:

  • Heavy and comes with lots of exposed cables that affect aerodynamics
  • Prone to damage and frequent repair jobs
  • Gets dirty quickly, leading to tedious cleaning/ maintenance every so often
  • Stopping power is dependent on physical pressure exerted on the levers
  • Not as sensitive or responsive as hydraulic brakes

Hydraulic Disc Brakes

Meanwhile, hydraulic disc brakes are a “better” option despite the added cost due to the superior braking performance and upgraded mechanisms. In fact, one of the many things that hydraulic bike brakes offer is full control over your speed and the bike itself. That, along with power efficiency and optimal stopping power.

Setup

The setup of hydraulic disc brakes is widely different from that of a mechanical disc brake. This is primarily due to the use of a fluid filled braking system that’s completely sealed from the inside-out. This fluid system acts as a replacement to the standard steel cable that mechanical disc brakes have.

The good thing about this closed design is that the braking system is less prone to accumulation of dirt, debris, and other elements, all of which not only make for a dirty bike, but also negatively impact braking performance. As such, you won’t suffer from reduced braking power, control, and speed even when riding in muddy, wet, or dusty conditions.

How They Work

To use hydraulic bike brakes, you also start by pressing the brake levers. This engages the fluid system, wherein the fluid forces your brake pads to rest against the wheel’s rotor, thereby creating a resistance that stops the wheels from turning. This use of sealed fluid brake systems is why hydraulic disc brakes perform considerably better than their mechanical counterparts.

Since the brake system fluid isn’t compressible, the pressure to the wheel rotor becomes significantly higher than what you physically exert on the brake lever. To put it simply, there’s no need to grip the lever extra hard if you want to get a sensitive response. Rather, even a simple push is more than enough to receive adequate stopping power.

Pros:

  • Highly responsive and smooth
  • Offers more braking power with significantly less force
  • Provides fine-grained control over your bike
  • Requires less maintenance due to closed system

Cons:

  • Difficult to adjust due to complex system
  • Complicated maintenance and repair
  • Expensive upfront, costly repairs
man breaking on bike

Which is better: Hydraulic or Mechanical Disc Brakes?

Here’s the thing: while hydraulic disc brakes may seem like the better option all around, it’s certainly not a perfect option, and it comes with its share of disadvantages. At the end of the day, it really all boils down to the individual preferences and requirements of the rider.

What’s important here is that you can use brakes that offer reliable stopping power to help you control your riding speed and maneuver various terrains. Whether hydraulic brakes or cable disc brakes are the better choice depends on the type of cycling you want to do, your budget, how much time you can dedicate on maintenance, and so on.

Basically,

  • If you want efficient brakes that are geared for performance,
  • If you prefer high-speed, complex, and technical cycling,
  • If you don’t want to spend too much time maintaining your bike, or
  • If you enjoy touring rides,

Go for hydraulic disc brakes. Our best recommendation is the JGbike Compatible Hydraulic Disc Brake Set, a complete front and rear brake set which boasts of quality Shimano parts and is designed for downhill mountain bikes. It’s a little pricey, but well worth it in terms of performance and braking power.

Otherwise,

  • If you’re an entry-level cyclist,
  • If you’re on a tight budget,
  • If you want an easy to use braking system, or
  • If you use a road, commuter, or mountain bike,

Mechanical disc brakes are the way to go. The best mechanical disc brakes that we can suggest are the BlueSunshine Front and Back Disk Brake Kit, another complete set for your front and rear wheels. These ones are insanely affordable, easy to install, offer a great value for money, and even perform better than some hydraulic brake brands on the market.

Bonus: Mechanical / Hydro Combo Brakes

There’s one more option that may appeal to you the most if you want a full hydro braking system that makes for better weather resistance when it comes to the cables, or if you prefer a simplified mechanical braking system.

We are talking about combo brakes that have largely similar cable friction losses when compared to mechanical brakes, albeit a little on the heavier side. Hydro combo brakes are a good idea if you are upgrading your ride.

For instance, if your current setup includes cable disc brakes and integrated drop bar shifters, one way to go about it is to swap some stuff for combo calipers and hydro pistons that are self-adjusting in order to enjoy better braking power.

Disc Brakes Maintenance

It’s important to remember to perform regular maintenance on them so that you can continue to enjoy a good level of braking performance.

That said, hydraulic and mechanical brakes come with vastly different requirements when it comes to maintenance. For mechanical disc brakes, there’s the issue of cable stretch and pad wear, whereas for hydraulic brakes, you need to check the fluid and the brake pads.

You also need to factor in how you’re using the brakes. The more often, the harder, and the more sudden you brake, the more wear you’re introducing on your braking system, which translates to a shorter lifespan.

Moreover, pay attention to what you’re exposing the bike to. Dirty, dusty, muddy, rocky terrains introduce more foreign elements that accumulate not only on the brakes, but also on other bike parts, such as the frame. And, if you have a carbon or titanium bike frame, you’ll want to be more careful and attentive as to the level of care and maintenance it gets.

Overview

Remember, choosing between mechanical vs hydraulic disc brakes should always be based on your riding style, riding conditions, skill, discipline, and budget.