If we take a popularity vote, then yes, hydraulic brakes do seem better than the mechanical ones. But is it really?
Till this day, the debate between which braking mechanism, mechanical or hydraulic, is better is hotly contested among all lovers of disc brakes.
As disc brakes keep on rising in popularity, you can be sure that this debate will keep on persisting as the line between them continues to blur.
Even though the mechanical brake came first, hydraulic brakes continue to dominate most of the competitive cycling categories, but under certain conditions.
So what if we level the playing field?
Fundamentally, mechanical brakes are simple, not only in the way it looks but also in how it operates. Meaning, it is easy to understand mechanical brakes and live with them: costs, maintenance and all.
Hydraulic brakes, on the other hand, are a tad bit sophisticated. The brakes are technologically refined to focus on one thing, and one thing only: performance. This brings with it a certain layer of complexity and, of course, price.
In this article, we will be breaking down the features, both good and bad, of each and try to determine the scenarios in which these brakes thrive, and in the end, perhaps be able to determine which one of these braking mechanisms stands out on top.
Mechanical Brakes VS Hydraulic Brakes
+ Easy to set up and maintain, thanks to its simple design
+ Cheaper than most types of brakes
+ Easy to replace if necessary, parts are readily available
+ Has consistent and enough braking power to be used on most biking disciplines
– Requires frequent adjustments and maintenance
– Cables can stretch and need to be replaced often
– Needs more power to modulate braking force
– Dirt or mud can contaminate brake lines or cable
How Does It Work?
Mechanical brakes use cable, usually of stainless steel, that runs between the lever and the caliper. Pulling on the brake lever transmits forces through this cable and to the calipers near the hub, pushing the brake pads together and completing the braking mechanism. This makes for a very simple brake system and is still competitive in the market today.
The simplicity is also translated into the maintenance of the components. Lubricating the inner and the outer cables are easy enough and can be done by anyone.
Cables can stretch out over time. Many mechanical brakes have a knob that you can turn to retain the tautness of the cable. But there will come a time where the cables will lose its strength and you have to replace them.
On a positive note, these cables are readily available and quite cheap. And it is also easy enough so that you can do the replacement work on your own.
On the other hand, since the cables are exposed, dirt and dust might enter the cable housing. This is a common scenario if you take your bike out off-road. The contaminated cable housing directly affects your braking. It can make it less responsive and might even make the mechanism get stuck midway.
In such cases, you may need to replace the cables completely.
Braking Power and Modulation
A lot of the forces that are exerted on the lever fails to reach the calipers. Some energy is lost within the physical system as it is used to overcome the friction between the cable and the housing.
While it might not seem like much, it adds up on difficult and technical tracks where a lot of braking is involved, like enduro or downhill.
This also means that to get the correct amount of braking power that you want and also to control it the way you want, you need to pull harder.
This can restrict your hand movement, making you lose a lot of control over your bike.
On not so technical tracks like cyclocross or touring, the mechanical brakes truly shine. The tracks are easier and longer, making it the perfect environment for these brakes.
The budget is also friendly with mechanical brakes. These are cheaper than their hydraulic counterparts.
Lower end models start around $35, with mid-tier models being just below $100 and higher end models having an average price point of $150.
It is also worth mentioning that maintenance of these brakes are also cheap, making the overall investment very budget friendly.
Note: Thanks to the entry of disc brakes in the competitive scene, we now have premium models of mechanical disc brakes that can go well beyond $200.
+ No need for frequent maintenance sessions
+ Self-adjusting braking system
+ Power efficient with greater stopping power
+ Smoother operation, more responsive to brake pulls
+ Sealed system, keeps contaminants out
– Expensive, in both unit cost and maintenance
– Maintenance is complex
– Parts are harder to find
How Does It Work?
The hydraulic brakes have a closed system. Instead of a cable, a fluid inside the brake line is what runs the braking mechanism. When the brake lever is pulled, the fluid is pressured and rushes down to the calipers to close the braking pads.
But it doesn’t end there.
As the brake pads wear down over time, the pistons begin to move inward to compensate. This keeps the clearance of the pad-to-rotor ratio constant. Meaning, the hydraulic braking system is self-adjusting.
Thanks to the self-adjusting mechanism of the hydraulic brakes, you do not have to constantly maintain the strength of the brakes, unlike the cables in a mechanical brake.
The only replacement that you may have to do is for the brake pads.
It also helps that the entire system is completely sealed. Meaning that there is no opportunity for contaminants to enter and compromise the braking system.
No dirt, no rust, no problem!
When you actually do have to perform some maintenance, it will get a bit complicated. I am of course talking about bleeding the brakes.
This simple means to replace the brake fluid inside the brake lines. On an average, you may only need to bleed your brakes once every year at most, unless you ride frequently in competitive scenes.
Bleeding you brakes does take a certain amount of skill, patience and specific tools to do properly. If not, the brake likes will produce air bubbles that will compromise your braking performance and make your brake pulls feel ‘spongy’.
But have no fear! You can simply take your bike to the nearest bike shop to get the bleeding done for you. Of course, it will cost you.
In worst case scenarios, your brake lines may spring a leak. Unfortunately this will compromise the entire braking system and you have to replace the whole thing. But such cases are very rare.
Braking Power and Modulation
The hydraulic brake is designed to maximize braking and thus boasts more stopping power than its mechanical counterpart, if not more than all types of brakes out there.
The system is efficient, the hydraulics help to multiply the force exerted on the brake lever. The brake fluid is incompressible and produces virtually no friction when moving through the line. This results in a powerful braking system with very little effort put into it.
Simple physics, if I might add.
This is completely different from mechanical brakes as you are multiplying the power exerted instead of having the energy getting lost into the system.
With such low effort required, you can naturally focus on controlling both on your braking and handling of your bike. The response is instant, the brakes pads engage the moment you squeeze the lever and the braking stops instantaneously as soon as you let go.
This makes the modulation of braking very easy allowing you to attack more technical tracks like you’d see in mountain biking.
With all of these perks, it is natural to expect some high price points for these brakes.
Lower end models of hydraulic brakes start at around $100. Mid-range units can easily cost over $150, if not beyond $200. High-ends are truly high-end with prices of over $300 per unit.
All that not taking into account the maintenance and bleeding costs that you have to go per year.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1) How do rotor sizes affect braking?
Ans.: Disc brake rotors usually come in five different sizes: 140mm, 160mm, 170mm, 180mm and 203mm. Here are a few ways the sizes can affect your braking performance:
- Larger rotors have better heat management
- Smaller rotors gives better brake modulation (better control)
- Larger rotors add a lot of weight to the overall system
- Larger rotors offer better braking power (under certain conditions)
Q2) When do I change my braking pads?
Ans.: Disc brake pads usually start off with 3-4mm of the braking compound wear off over time. You need to replace them:
- When there is about 1mm of compound left
- Brakes stop responding properly
- The brake pad compounds are unevenly eroded
It really comes down to two very important factors: Where you ride and your budget.
If you are going on shorter trips or cycling where a short burst of consistent performance is required (perhaps downhill or enduro), then hydraulic brakes are the way to go. The same goes for riding in areas where parts are readily available.
Even though hydraulic brakes cost more, the increased returns in the form of braking performance and feel is well worth the investment.
On the flipside, if you plan on riding in remote areas for a longer period of time, like touring the countryside, and are also on a limited budget, the mechanical brake provides a good answer.
While the hydraulic brake does barely take the cake, newer improvements and innovations to bicycle braking systems (thanks to the rising popularity of disc brakes in the competitive scene) will see the line between hydraulic and disc brakes blur even further.