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Mechanical vs Hydraulic Disc Brakes

Mechanical vs Hydraulic Disc Brakes

Brakes are one of the most important parts of all moving machines but unfortunately, they don’t get the attention they deserve. Even a simple bicycle is undrivable without functioning brakes and when it comes to bikes, two kinds are being used nowadays. One is the good old-fashioned mechanical brakes and the other is the hydraulic brake that is increasingly taking the place of mechanical ones in newer bikes. An in-depth understanding of both the brake types is vital in proper maintenance & in formulating a good buying decision, which is why we are going to discuss them in detail here.

Overview of Mechanical vs Hydraulic Disc Brakes:

  • Mechanical bike brake utilizes a stainless-steel cable in between the lever and the brake caliper. The cable applies pressure on the caliper as soon as you press the brake lever which then forces the front and rear wheels to stop.

  • Hydraulic brakes, as the name suggests, are based on a hydraulic fluid just like a motorcycle or a car's brakes. The fluid is contained in a reservoir and a brake line in between the brake lever and the caliper. Upon pressing the brakes, the pressurized fluid pushes the brake pads which then ultimately stops the bike.

What are the Pros & Cons Between Each?

Every system has its advantages & disadvantages and mechanical & hydraulic brakes are no different in this regard. It is primarily your needs that will determine which braking system is the best for you. I have provided the pros and cons of both the braking systems so you can decide whether you want a hydraulic bike or a mechanical bike:

mechanical vs hydraulic brakes

Pros of Mechanical Disc Brakes:

  • Mechanical disc brakes are easier to work on and even a new rider with a little bit of understanding can work on them quite confidently.

  • Being based on stainless steel cable, mechanical brakes are cheaper to maintain, and spare cables can easily be purchased even from a roadside bike shop.

  • Mechanical brakes are quite affordable and can be fitted & adjusted quite easily.

  • Less prone to failures, therefore, great for using on off-road & harsh terrains.

Cons of Mechanical Disc Brakes:

  • Over time, mechanical disc brakes require frequent adjustments which can be a hassle for many bikers.

  • Require more intense input from the rider to work more effectively.

  • The cable in a mechanical disc brake system wears over time and thus may require replacement earlier than you expect.

  • Overall, the mechanical disc brake setup is heavier which then contributes to the overall weight of the bike.

Pros of Hydraulic Disc Brakes:

  • Hydraulic disc brakes are a newer braking mechanism in bikes that require considerably less maintenance than a mechanical system.

  • Since there is no cable, therefore, the hydraulic braking system is likely to last much longer.

  • The pressurized braking fluid acts as an amplifier thereby alleviating the burden on the rider.

  • Better braking power than mechanical brakes.

Cons of Hydraulic Disc Brakes:

  • Hydraulic bicycle brakes are relatively complex and therefore are difficult for an average biker to work on.

  • They are quite expensive to replace even though they last much longer than the traditional braking system.

  • Not suitable for harsh terrains, mainly because the hydraulic lines can rupture in case a sharp object hits them.

Does Hydraulic/Mechanical Brake Combo Exist?

Hydraulic/Mechanical brake combo does exist, but it isn’t as popular as the rest of the two and there are good reasons for that. First of all, the combination does not provide any significant advantage since it has the same frictional losses as mechanical brakes. Moreover, the combo brakes are heavier than both the other systems which is a grave disadvantage since weight minimization is one of the top priorities when manufacturing a bike.

However, combo brakes provide better braking ability than simple mechanical brakes which is why they are a good choice if you are looking to upgrade your mechanical brakes.

Number of Pistons:

The number of pistons plays a crucial role in the stopping power of any braking system and it’s the same case in bikes & ebikes. The pistons are placed inside each side of a caliper and they are pushed towards the brake pads by either the hydraulic fluid or a steel cable line. The higher the number of pistons the greater the braking power but usually a total of two pistons is used in a single rotor of a bicycle’s brake caliper.

Rotor Sizes:

A bigger rotor/disc increases the braking performance just like a greater number of pistons that add to the overall braking capability. Generally, there are four rotor sizes 140mm,160 mm, 180 mm, and 203 mm that are commonly used in bicycles. For hardcore cycling, it is recommended to use a 160 mm or a bigger rotor as it will better dissipate heat and help in stopping the bike at a smaller distance.

Mounting Type:

The mounting holds the brake in place and there are two most common bicycle braking mounts being used presently. The "post mount" is used in almost all mainstream bikes and for good reason. It can easily accommodate bigger brake rotors which is the main reason behind its widespread usage. On the other hand, "flat mount" is a sleek & compact type of mount that is currently gaining traction but isn't being used as widely as a post mount. On the flip side, the flat-mount is unable to accommodate bigger rotors which is why it isn't being accepted widely.

How to Maintain Hydraulic Brakes?

Hydraulic brakes don’t require frequent maintenance, but their fluid should be changed once a year or after a few thousand kilometers, especially if you live in an area with a humid climate. It is also a good idea to let a mechanic bleed and fill the new fluid as there are chances of fluid getting contaminated with water vapors if the job isn’t done the right way.

Secondly, checking the thickness of brake pads once in a while ensures that they work well and don't damage the rotor. When changing the brake pads, make sure that you clean the pistons as they have to be pushed back to accommodate new thicker brake pads.

Most Common Recommended Hydraulic Disc Brake Models:

Mentioned below are some well-known hydraulic disc brake models that are used as OEM brake systems in many bikes. These systems are also a great choice for upgrading your bike’s brake system.

Shimano Xt:

Shimano Xt brake system is a great choice if you want to freely traverse through the wilderness without any thoughts regarding your brakes failing you in the middle of nowhere. The dependable brakes not only last for quite a while but are made to be easily set up as an aftermarket upgrade on any bike. Shimano Xt is the industry leader and is, therefore, the choice for bikers who want the best of the best.

Magura Mt7 Pro:

The award-winning Magura Mt7 Pro brakes are provided with 4-pistons and a lightweight aluminum caliper. Overall, these brakes are pricey, but they make up for it by providing outstanding performance under every condition. The brake lever has an ergonomic design and the whole system is easy to install and lightweight which makes it a great choice for all classes of bikers out there.

Most Common Recommended Mechanical Disc Brake Models:

Mechanical disc brakes may be somewhat outdated, but they are still widely used & loved by many bikers. The two models mentioned below are our top picks in this regard:

Trp Spyke:

The Trp Spyke should be your #1 choice if you want hydraulic brake performance from your mechanical disc brakes. If you still want to take the performance one notch up, then try using bigger brake rotors, they will amplify the braking power on all terrains. The spares for Trp brakes are readily available which is another plus point that makes these brakes a great choice.

Avid BB7 Mountain:

The Avid BB7 brake is a great all-round brake that is not heavy on the pocket and also gets the job done. The braking power may not be at par with some of the greatest brakes out there, but the adjustments and the usability are great. Being around for several years, their spare parts and they themselves are easily available.

Final Thought: Mechanical vs Hydraulic Brakes

Both the mechanical and hydraulic bike brakes perform well at what they are made to do, ultimately it is your preference that will lead to a final decision. If you want the best in class and something new that does not require frequent maintenance, then go with the hydraulic ones. If you like doing stuff by your own hands and want a cheaper option, then mechanical bike brakes are a good choice. Both of them struggle a bit in a humid environment but mechanical brakes would be better since they can easily be lubricated again while hydraulic brakes require fluid change which is kind of an expert job.

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