Disc Brake Lowdown, Part 2

what kinds of disc brakes are best

This is the second article in our series about disc brakes. You can read Part 1 here.

As the weather turns and the conditions in the Pacific Northwest become downright nasty, disc brakes, with their low maintenance avoid-the-muck style, are starting to sound better and better. Last month we covered the power and reliability of disc brakes in all weather conditions.

This month we’re breaking (braking?) down the various kinds of disc brakes.

Mechanical Disc Brakes

This is basically a fancy way of saying that the brake is pulled by a cable – a similar mechanism to traditional brakes. That’s why they are also referred to as “cable actuated” brakes.

Hydraulic Disc Brakes

Hydraulic disc brakes work just like the ones in your car. There is brake fluid in a closed system with a reservoir of fluid at the brake lever. When you pull the lever, the fluid is pushed to the pads forcing them together.

Which is right for you?

In general, the biggest difference is that hydraulic brakes are more powerful, consistent and easy to use. But they cost almost twice as much as the mechanical variety.

Though mechanical brakes aren’t as impressive as hydraulic, they’re still worlds above standard rim brakes.

Benefits of Mechanical Brakes

With mechanical brakes cables stretch and housing flexes, adding potential friction and a mushy feeling when braking. Much like traditional rim brakes they need regular maintenance and adjustments. As the pads wear down and cable stretches mechanical disc brake pads and cables will need to be adjusted to bring the pads closer to the rotor. Depending on how much braking you’re doing and how much weight you’re carrying this could be more often than you’d think. It’s easy to do, but if you’re someone that prefers a maintenance-free ride, you might consider hydraulics instead.

Benefits of Hydraulic Brakes

Hydraulic brake pads are completely self-adjusting as they wear down, and because the brake fluid is sealed, grit and grime don’t effect the moving parts nearly as much – no muss, no fuss. However, occasionally the fluid will need to be changed out or “bled” of air bubbles that can enter the system over time and make the brake feel mushy. This takes a more specialized set of skills and tools to fix that add a dimension of difficulty for the home mechanic, though it’s a repair that any bike shop can easily handle.

The real magic of hydraulic brakes is that they magnify the effort you put into pulling the brake lever. When pulling the lever lightly with just one or two fingers you can ease your brakes slowly or stop on a dime. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to feel real power at your fingertips, hydraulic disc brakes can bring that to life. When my students feel them for the first time after working on any kind of mechanical brake, there’s a look of wonder and surprise in their eyes at just how really, really great it feels. Yes, there is such a thing as brake envy, and hydraulic brakes can inspire it.

A Limited Market

Which style you end up with may not only be dictated by budget, but by what’s available on the market. Because road bikes have only recently been offered with a hydraulic system, most drop-bar bikes with disc brakes will come with cable-actuated brakes, including touring, commuter and cyclocross style bikes. Mountain and upright-bar commuter bikes offer both as options, though most modern, mid to high–end mountain bikes will always come with hydraulic brakes.

If you have a choice between both, hydraulic brakes have unsurpassed performance, but will especially make a difference if you’re a heavier rider, carrying loads, or having periods of extended braking like riding down a mountain. However, if you plan to take the bike adventuring to a remote area with limited service options, you might not be able to find the parts you hydraulic brakes should anything go wrong out there.

Mechanical Brake Pros

Special tools or as much knowledge not needed.
Come stock on classic, drop-bar road bikes (touring, cyclocross, commuting).

Mechainical Brake Cons

Harder to pull and less reactive brake lever.
Feel mushy.
Don’t stop as quickly.
Need frequent adjustments and maintenance.

Hydraulic Brake Pros

Best stopping power.
Best control.
Easy to maintain.
Best for bigger riders/loads/extended descents.

Hydraulic Brake Cons

More technical repairs.

Next Up

Just when you thought we had exhausted the conversation about disc brakes, there’s more to discuss, but we’ll save that for the next article when we discuss which pads are best.


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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