In the battle of the brakes, you want to know which wins the battle in mechanical vs. hydraulic disc brakes. Depending on your riding style, whether you’re racing competitively or are a leisure rider, and depending on how much you’ve set aside for your new bike purchase, every biker will go a different route. But, what are the primary differences and what are the similarities? Should you invest more in hydraulic systems? Here we’ll cover mechanical vs. hydraulic disc brakes to help you decide what the best fit is for your biking needs.
Let’s begin with defining what disc brakes are. This braking system is one that utilizes calipers, that squeeze the pads up against the rotor of the bike. This pressure causes friction between the bike’s wheels and the brakes, in turn, causing the bike to slow down and eventually stop. By slowing down the rotation of the shaft on your bike, the speed of the wheels slows down, turning energy into waste heat. Then comes the breakdown of mechanical and hydraulic disc brakes.
Mechanical disc brakes are what we’ve seen on most bikes for years. Mechanical disc brakes are often referred to as cable-actuated brakes. This braking system uses a braided-steel cable activating the piston to compress the brake pads on your bike. When you pull the brake lever on the handle of your bike, the brake pads press-up against the rotor, eventually bringing your bike to a halt. Your mechanical brakes:
- Use cables are the braking medium
- They are typically heavier than hydraulic braking systems
- The bikes require frequent maintenance (cleaning the pads, adjusting the pads, adjusting brake levers, etc.)
The hydraulic braking system utilizes fluid to bring your bike to a stop when transferring force from the lever on your bike to the caliper. Hydraulic brakes are more efficient than mechanical brakes. Upon pulling the lever on your bike that will bring your hydraulic brakes to a halt your bike will:
- Push the fluid in the master cylinder of the bike to force the pads to stop
- Relies on the brakes to do the work (you don’t have to squeeze the braking lever as hard as you do with the mechanical brakes); the fluid does the work to stop your bike
- Hydraulic brakes are sealed (meaning you’ll have to do little if any, maintenance on them)
Most bikers can easily bring their bike to a complete stop with one or two fingers on a hydraulic bike, as opposed to having to grip with their entire fist and clamp their hand shut over the lever with mechanical brake systems.
Mechanical vs. Hydraulic Disc Brakes
What are the key selling points for each of these two braking systems? For the mechanical disc brake, you have a much cheaper (affordable) brake system than hydraulic bikes are going to cost. They are easy to adjust, although you’re going to be adjusting the brake pads frequently. Additionally, there’s no learning curve when it comes to riding these bikes. They’re what you’ve ridden your entire life and most people are familiar with mechanical disc-brake bikes. The main problems we see when it comes to mechanical bikes are the fact that they get damaged easily, require frequent adjustment and repairs (although repairs are easy), and the brakes aren’t as sensitive as hydraulic brakes. You have to apply more pressure to bring your bike to a complete stop when riding.
On the flip side, we have the advanced, hydraulic disc brake system. They utilize fluid to bring your bike to a halt, so there are no cables. The brake system is light, the brakes are maintenance-free, and braking on your bike is more efficient. You barely have to put any force/effort to bring your bike to a stop. The main drawback is the price tag. Hydraulic brakes are much more expensive to purchase, than a bike with mechanical brakes. The fluid in the hydraulic brake system acts as the piston, the cables, and eliminates the need for extensive maintenance on your bike, in comparison to mechanical brakes. Fewer moving parts , and less force required to bring the bike to a halt, makes biking more efficient, and gives bikers more control, regardless of the terrains they’re tackling.
Which Braking System & For What Rider?
So, you’ve decided to make the transition from rim brakes to disc brakes. This, in and of itself, is going to make for a smoother ride (whether you settle on mechanical or hydraulic disc brakes). But, which of the two systems is right for you?
Let’s start with the average biker. Say you are someone who bikes to and from school, or you use your bike to commute to work. You are riding on steady, even roads, and smooth terrain. There are few, if any, inclines or dips in the road, and you maintain average speeds throughout your ride. If you’re in this camp, you might consider mechanical brakes. Yes, you need to put a little more force to bring your bike to a stop; however, the easy road conditions and a minimal number of deviations on the road, don’t necessitate the power of hydraulic brakes.
If you’re a competitive biker, are training, if you like racing, doing off-road riding or if you ride in difficult conditions/roadways, hydraulic brakes are the option you’ll want to go with. You’ll pay a little more upfront, however, you’ll instantly feel and see the difference in performance. And, if you do race, you’ll find that today more and more competitive circuits are allowing hydraulic braking systems into the peloton. So, you don’t have to worry about not being able to compete with your professional-grade bike, with a hydraulic disc brake system.
No matter what your riding style is, hydraulic disc brakes are more efficient and easier to operate. However, they’re not essential for all bikers. If you can’t afford the steeper price tag, mechanical disc brakes are a major improvement over rim brakes. And, they won’t set you back nearly as much as hydraulic bike brakes will. So, make the transition from rim to disc, and the more advanced you become, you might then decide to take the leap and go with a hydraulic disc brake system.