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Hydraulic vs. Mechanical Disc Brakes

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Seasoned cyclists are so invested in their rides even their lingo reflects their passion. Rather than “Give me a break!” the pronouncement is more likely to be “Give me a brake!” — at which point the answer requires an additional question: Hydraulic or mechanical? Both have fans.

Which side do you weigh in on?

Hydraulic vs. Mechanical Disc Brakes: Which is better?

While every brake on the market operates by a universal principle, differences arise in terms of how they run: Fluid enables the brake pads to interact with the rotor, bringing the bike to a stop if those brakes are hydraulics. Mechanical disc brakes rely upon the cable to pull the bike’s caliper down. This forces the pads against the rotor to enable the stop.

Because hydraulic brake systems are fully enclosed, they’re not exposed to the elements, which means they may last longer. Hydraulic brakes require less effort to stop; it only takes a finger on the brake lever to complete the process. Hydraulics are self-adjusting, so braking tends to be smoother.

It is both harder and more expensive to fix hydraulic braking systems, and upkeep tends to be messier and more difficult. Compared to more complicated hydraulic systems, maintenance on mechanical brakes tends to be easier and faster. If you break down on the fly, it may only take an Allen key to handle the fix.

Since mechanical brakes are constantly exposed to the elements and subject to more friction, breakdowns tend to happen more often — especially since cable stretching remains one of this brake type’s biggest dilemmas.

Performance differences

Mechanical brakes are heavier and heftier, while hydraulics are lighter and more resilient. The first requires more power and force to bring the ride to a halt, while hydraulics are considered to be more sensitive, thus not as much pressure is needed to engage the brake and stop the bike.

Maintenance differences

When compared, hydraulic brakes will always be less demanding than mechanical ones as long as you bleed your bike annually based on the number of miles you ride each year. But upkeep can lead to frustration. Make a few wrong moves when working on hydraulics you risk ruining your rotors and brake pads.

Mechanical brakes require more frequent servicing even though the job is relatively easy and fast. Professionals recommend using a mechanic’s services to undertake repairs on bikes with hydraulics, but that doesn’t mean that mechanical disc brakes are a breeze to service. Mess up on tweaks and adjustments on your mechanical brakes, and you could impair brake pad performance.

There are no differences when it comes to aligning front and rear hydraulic disc brakes. Mechanical brake jobs require correct positioning and aligning of the rotor if it is to function properly, and since mechanical brakes have fewer pins, expect more frequent realignments than you would on hydraulic components fabricated with more pins.

Price differences

Hydraulic disc brakes with integrated shifters (on drop-bar bikes) are pretty expensive,” one expert insists. Another says that “Cheap hydraulics cost no more than mechanical brakes but add perceived value. A bike with Hydraulics commanding a higher price has little to do with the cost of the brakes.”

Given these unique viewpoints, the question “why are hydraulic brakes so much more expensive?” continues to drive conversations. One reason is that mechanical disc brake parts are easier to come by, and cables remain cheap and plentiful. But the perceived value that comes with owning a bike with hydraulics can’t be dismissed.

A low-end disc brake set-up can cost as little as $35, while you’ll spend around $150 for a mid-range kit. Hydraulic disc brake systems range between $100 and $400 per set, the highest-end cost going to pre-bled and ready to install and use hydraulics. These prices include all components necessary for installation of either type.

Bottom Line

As with most everything associated with bicycle ownership, experts all agree that the choice comes down to where you ride, how much money you can spend, and whether or not you’re picky about the consistency of your ride and your desire for a specific level of braking power.

According to experts at WheretheRoadForks.com, “For those who ride in a region where parts are readily available, hydraulic disc brakes are the better option all around,” while riders on budgets who plan to ride in remote areas are advised to stick to mechanical disc brakes for obvious reasons. Personal preference adds another element to the buying decisions of brake shoppers with specific needs.

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About Alek Asaduryan

Alek Asaduryan is the founder of YesCycling and has been riding bikes and in the cycling industry since 1991. Since then, his mission is to make cycling more accessible to everyone. And each year, he continues to help more people to achieve that. When he's not out riding his beloved fitness bike, Alek reports on news, gear, guides, and all things cycling related.