Mechanical vs. hydraulic disc brakes: Which is better? It is still a hot debate in the bikepacking world.
In recent years, disc bike brakes have replaced rim bike brakes across all racing categories. They even became the standard for mountain biking in the early 21st century.
Disc brakes are more popular since UCI approved them in professional road racing. They come in two varieties: hydraulic and mechanical. So, what is the difference between mechanical and hydraulic disc brakes?
This article will outline the advantages and disadvantages of both. Furthermore, we will compare hydraulic vs. mechanical disc brakes in the following aspects:
- Stopping power
- Brake maintenance
- The precision of braking force
- Parts availability
- Hand comfort
- Serve and repair in the field
So, let’s get into the details!
What Are Mechanical Bike Disc Brakes?
As a matter of fact, mechanical brakes, also known as cable-actuated brakes, have been on the bike market for a long time. These brakes include a cable, brake lever, and mechanical disc.
How Do They Work?
If your bike comes packaged with a mechanical bike disc brake, all you need to do to stop your bike is activate a steel cable by pulling the lever. This creates friction between the rotors and pads, which brings your bike to a stop.
That’s its mode of operation.
We all know how dirty rim brakes can get after a while, and the same goes for mechanical bicycle disc brakes.
The fact of the matter is that mechanical bicycle disc brakes come with an open design. That is why they tend to get debris and dirt over time. Unfortunately, this can make your brakes less smooth.
Many tests show that mechanical disc brakes are easier to adjust and maintain. In fact, they come with an easily adjustable system that a beginner can operate.
However, it is essential to maintain the mechanical disc brakes on a regular basis. Besides, adjusting and cleaning the pads and levers can take a lot of time.
Pros and Cons
What Are Hydraulic Bicycle Disc Brakes?
Many people think that hydraulic brakes are more complicated than mechanical disc brakes, but they are not. They apply the same technology that has been used in motorcycles and cars since the 1920s.
In general, these brakes allow you to have complete control of the bike with less effort. So, although hydraulic brakes are expensive, they are worth the investment.
How Do They Work?
Unlike mechanical bicycle brakes, hydraulic bike disc brakes come with a fluid system. When you press your brake lever, brake fluid will force the pads against the rotor, which will stop your bike.
As we can see, they operate entirely differently than mechanical bicycle brakes. In general, hydraulic bike disc brakes are more efficient than the mechanical models mentioned above. So, why’s that?
The reason is that the master cylinder multiplies the force put into the lever through the line. As a result, the braking force applied to the rotor is much larger than what you apply on the bike lever. This means that it is possible to operate hydraulic brakes with just one finger, resulting in less hand fatigue on long trips.
The most significant advantage of these brakes is the closed design, which prevents the system from being infiltrated by mud and dirt. Hence, these brakes are helpful for riding in wet conditions because they allow you to maintain sufficient braking force to control your bike.
Check out this video for more information about how these brakes work.
Pros and Cons
What’s the Difference Between Hydraulic Disc Brakes vs. Mechanical
In general, both brake types stop a bike safely and quickly if they are installed properly and serviced regularly. However, as mentioned above, each type has its own advantages and drawbacks. In this section, we will take a closer look at the differences between a hydraulic brake vs. mechanical.
When it comes to the difference between hydraulic disc brakes vs. mechanical, we cannot ignore their weight.
It is immediately obvious that hydraulic disc brakes weigh less than mechanical disc brakes because hydraulic models come with fewer moving parts.
2. Stopping Power
Hydraulic disc brakes generate more stopping force, making them more efficient. They produce more braking force than what was applied at the lever. Furthermore, there is very little friction in this system. All of this results in a powerful braking system that requires little effort.
In contrast, mechanical bike disc brakes are less effective as less force is transferred from the lever to the brake pads. This is because some energy is lost in this system.
3. Brake Maintenance
In most cases, hydraulic bike disc brakes require significantly less maintenance than their mechanical counterparts. The reason is that no cable is stretched and needs to be readjusted after a long time of use. The only thing you need to do is replace the brake pads when they wear out.
In addition, hydraulic disc brakes come with a sealed system, which keeps debris out. Hence, they are the perfect pick for mountain biking.
It is essential to bleed your hydraulic bike disc brakes periodically. On average, you have to bleed your brakes about every 2 to 3 years. In fact, some cyclists bleed their brakes every five years, while others do this every year to keep their brakes in top condition.
Bleeding brakes also require some special tools, including syringes, adapters, Allen wrenches, pliers, a screwdriver, gloves, paper towels, so on. Therefore, if you are inexperienced, it is best to get the help of a professional bicycle mechanic.
You need to maintain the mechanical bike disc brakes more often. When the cables are stretched and the pads are worn, you will have to make adjustments.
As mentioned above, mechanical disc brakes come with an open design, making the cable susceptible to contamination from dust, sand, dirt, mud, and other debris. The debris will increase friction on the cable, resulting in reduced braking efficiency. Besides, the cable can rust quickly when the housing gets wet.
The good news is that mechanical disc brakes maintenance is pretty straightforward. It is possible to replace and adjust cables using basic tools. Moreover, replacement parts are easy to find.
4. The Precision of Braking Force
Hydraulic brakes allow riders to have greater control over braking force as they require less force to operate. That means it is not necessary to push the lever hard for a more sensitive response.
Instead, a simple two-finger push is enough to give you the necessary braking force. As a result, you can ride faster because you can stop faster.
In contrast, mechanical bike disc brakes require more force to be applied to the lever. So, it is harder to modulate braking force. In addition, the additional force required can result in hand fatigue.
5. Parts Availability
There is no denying that mechanical disc brake parts are very popular. It is immediately obvious that mechanical disc brakes use levers and cables available at most bike shops worldwide, including developing countries and remote regions.
The availability of mechanical disc brake parts is why many cyclists like mechanical disc brakes. The proof is that a lot of high-end bikes still come with mechanical bike disc brakes.
You will have more trouble finding the hydraulic bike brake parts. In fact, it is hard to find replacement levers, brake fluid, brake lines, calipers, or tools needed for maintenance in developing countries or remote areas.
Some countries do not import hydraulic brake parts. So, you may have to go a long way to buy the things you need. Therefore, if you plan to cycle in developed countries, you should prepare the necessary spare parts.
6. Hand Comfort
Hydraulic disc brakes are easier on the hands because they require less force to operate. You can even use one finger to create the necessary braking force. That means you can complete long distances without your hand getting tired.
Mechanical disc brakes require more force applied to the lever because the system doesn’t offer much mechanical advantage. So, it is essential to tighten the levers with all your fingers to generate the required braking force. Unfortunately, this can cause your hand to go numb.
7. Serve and Repair in the Field
It is possible to maintain and repair mechanical bike brakes in the field using basic tools. Specifically, if your brake cables are damaged, you can replace them using a few Allen wrenches and new cables. Check out this video to know more about how to service mechanical disc brakes.
Repairing and replacing hydraulic disc brakes requires some specialized knowledge and specialty tools. Thus, it is difficult to service them in the field with a basic set of tools. So, many bikepackers and bicycle tourists don’t use hydraulic disc brakes for their long journeys.
With hydraulic disc brakes, you can ride faster because you can stop faster. Hence, they allow you to wait longer to start braking before turning.
Mechanical disc brakes cannot stop your bike quite as fast. As a result, your average speed is slightly reduced.
Mechanical disc brakes are cheaper. For instance, a low-end mechanical disc brake set costs about $30. What’s more, the maintenance of mechanical disc brakes is also inexpensive. You can do all the necessary maintenance without the help of a professional cyclist.
Hydraulic disc brakes are significantly more expensive than mechanical models.
A low-end set starts at around $100; this includes front and rear calipers, hoses, and levers. Unfortunately, the maintenance of these brakes is also more expensive.
You’ll have to spend somewhere between $40 and $50 to bleed your brakes yourself. On the other hand, if you take the help of a professional, it’ll cost you somewhere between $60 and $100.
So, Hydraulic vs. Mechanical Disc Brakes: Which One Should You Choose?
In general, both types of brakes give you the necessary stopping power to maneuver different terrains at different speeds. But, of course, they have their own pros and cons. So, it is best to make a choice based on your preferences and budget.
If you are an entry-level rider who uses the road or MTB bike for daily commutes, you should choose mechanical disc brakes. In addition, the brakes are also suitable for cyclists on a tight budget.
On the other hand, if you prefer complex, technical, and high-speed cycling, hydraulic disc brakes are your perfect pick.
Hopefully, by the end of our article, you already know the difference between mechanical disc brakes vs. hydraulic. In general, the choice comes down to your budget and preferences. So, choose the right version to use with your bike!
Thank you for reading! If our article is helpful to you, please share it with other riders.