Hydraulic vs Mechanical Disc Brakes: Which Should You Go For?

Cycling is a sport that has become popular over the years, and understandably so because it’s a healthy sport. You also get to have so much fun whether you’re riding a road bike, a cyclocross bike, mountain bikes, or gravel bikes.

However, you’re less likely to ride your bikes with confidence in different weather conditions if your bikes lack great brakes. Today, disc brakes are used more than rim brakes in every cycling category.

These disc brakes, mechanical and hydraulic, have great braking power and would usually be found in a mountain bike in the past, but that has since changed with the times.

One big difference between a disc brake bike and a rim brake to cyclists is the way the friction is created and how it’s done in different places.

For the rim brakes, force is applied directly on the flat sides of the bike rim. For hydraulic and mechanical disc brakes, the force is applied to rotors attached to the hubs.

Moreover, for both hydraulic and mechanical disc brakes, the disc rotor bolts to the bike hubs then they spin with the wheels. As you cycle, the rotor spins more between the pads.

Whether you’ll be road racing or casually riding a bike, you need to consider the types of brakes to go for, like rim brakes, hydraulic disc brakes, or mechanical disc brakes when at the bike shop. One also needs to consider which brands and models last longer, and look at the resin pads, the cassette tool, rotor sizes, and how these rotor sizes will affect the brakes.

You also need to check the cables, the wheel rim of your bike, and a lot more.

More people today get confused when it comes to hydraulic vs mechanical disc brakes. The hydraulic disc brakes and mechanical disc brakes both have their pros and cons when it comes to their braking performance.

The comparison of disc brakes hydraulic in style vs mechanical disc brakes is not an easy one to do. I’ve put together a range of differences between mechanical vs hydraulic disc brakes to help you understand more about them.

Hydraulic vs Mechanical Disc Brakes – 6 Key Differences

1. Force Transmission

One main difference between hydraulic disc brakes and mechanical disc brakes is in how force from the brake levers found on the handlebars is transmitted to the brake calipers found near the hubs. The mechanical brakes, in this case, use a steel cable while the hydraulic disc brakes use a brake line filled with fluid.

When you squeeze the hydraulic disc brake lever, brake fluid is pushed by a plunger from the master cylinder found in the lever body into the brake line, which is then sealed and fully contains fluid.

As a result, the pressure is created and pushes a piston found in the brake calipers which then pushes your bike’s brake pads against rotors. This is made possible because the fluids don’t compress and it uses a similar technology that you’d find on a motorbike or car that comes with disk brakes.

On the other hand, mechanical disc brakes actuate with a steel cable, the same way rim brakes do. However, once you pull the brake lever, it then pulls a cable that goes all the way to the brake caliper.

This cable moves a lever found on the caliper that subsequently pushes a piston. When this piston is pushed, it also pushes the brake pads against the rotor.

When the brake pads are pushed, friction is created to stop the bike.

2. Stopping Power

Hydraulic brakes have better and more stopping power when compared to mechanical disc brakes because they’re more efficient. The hydraulics work more by multiplying the initial force applied the moment you squeeze your brake lever.

The hydraulic brakes, therefore, create more braking force compared to the initial force you applied.

The brake fluid never compresses and it produces lower friction as it moves through the line, meaning very little energy is lost in the system. As a result, you get a powerful brake system that requires little force to operate.

Mechanical disc brakes are actually less efficient since there’s less force that actually makes it to the caliper from the brake levers. This is because some energy is lost in the system.

Once you pull the levers, some of the applied force is then used in overcoming the friction that is created by the cables that run through the housing. Some energy is also lost when these cables stretch or when they compress and because of this, the brake pads are unable to push hard against rotors to create the required friction.

Hence, you can’t get the maximum stopping power and the stopping distance covered will be longer.

3. Brake Maintenance

Disc brakes hydraulic in style require way less maintenance compared to a mechanical disc brake system. The moment you have these hydraulic disc brakes set up, they just easily work.

This is because with a hydraulic disc brake system, no cables stretch and as such, none needs to be adjusted. The only regular maintenance required is the replacement of the brake pads when they’re worn out.

Hydraulic discs also require less maintenance because their system comes completely sealed. This just means that the brake lines aren’t prone to contamination by sand, mud, dust, dirt, or any other debris.

The hydraulic discs’ brake lines are put under pressure and are air and watertight. As such, they won’t get corroded or rusty and are therefore ideal for both mountain biking and off-road biking.

Hydraulic discs also come self-adjusting. The pads accordingly align themselves as per the rotors and adjust as they wear down.

With them, none of the stretching cables need to be re-tensioned or even adjusted. They also don’t come with barrel adjusters that can get spoilt and because of this, there are lower chances of the pads rubbing on the rotor.

You’ll only need to bleed hydraulic brakes periodically, which simply means replacing the brake fluid. On average, a rider will need to bleed these brakes just once every two to three years, and in some cases, just one time in five years.

If you are a racer, you’ll need to bleed this disc brake every year to ensure that the brake performance remains at its peak.

The frequency required for bleeding the brakes depends on the brake fluid you normally use and just how much you ride. You’ll also have to bleed the brakes in case they leaked or it was opened up since this can allow air bubbles into the system and reduce the braking force.

The bleeding of the disc brake needs a special set of tools. For example, you’ll need to have a bleed kit that contains a number of syringes, a bleed cock that will hold the pistons in place, adapters, and other tools such as pliers and Allen wrenches.

You’ll also need a screwdriver, some gloves, and paper towels to ensure everything remains tidy. You’ll have to allocate sufficient time to learn how to do it properly or better yet pay for the hydraulic disc brakes to be bled by a professional at your shop.

In contrast, mechanical disc brakes will need more maintenance than hydraulic disc brakes. This is because the pads get worn out and their cables also stretch, which forces the brakes to go out of adjustment.

To ensure that the mechanical brakes are in good working condition, you will need to make a few adjustments for every few thousand miles. Adjusting these mechanical brakes can sometimes get very tedious.

The mechanical disc brakes’ cables housing can also get some kind of contamination from the debris. It’s really easy for sand, dirt, and dust to also get into the cable housing especially while you do mountain biking or go off-road.

This debris results in increased friction on the cable and reduces efficiency. You’ll also be unable to pull the lever hard because some of the force you use will be directed towards overcoming friction.

The debris can also lead to snagging of the cable which will make it unable to run smoothly. Once you release the brake lever, your brakes may not actually disengage immediately if there’s debris stuck to the cable.

If the housing becomes wet, it could lead to rusting, adding more friction that prevents the smooth running of the cable. If your cables get rusty, you’ll want to replace them immediately.

On the upside, the maintenance you need to keep these mechanical disc brakes running smoothly is simpler compared to disc brakes. With just a few basic tools, the job will get done effectively.

4. Modulation and Precision of Braking Force

A hydraulic disc brake will give you more control over the braking force compared to a mechanical disc brake. The biggest reason for this is that the features of these brakes require minimal effort to apply.

All you would need to do is gently squeeze the brakes’ levers and then apply the exact amount of force that you would require for the situation. Since the hydraulic disc brake is sensitive, you can control it with your little finger so that you’re able to stop faster without having to lock the wheels.

The moment you let go of the levers, the brakes instantly stop.

Since mechanical disc brake features will require you to apply a lot more force in order to pull the brake lever, it makes it harder to control your braking force. You won’t be able to move your hand accurately if you squeeze hard.

Also, if you’re not that careful with the mechanical disc systems, you’ll end up locking the wheels. With the mechanical disc brake, you can also end up shedding more speed than you desired, which becomes more inefficient.

5. Weight

A hydraulic disc brake will generally weigh much less than a mechanical disc brake. They have lighter calipers and also fewer moving parts.

If you’re a rider who makes sure every component is weighed before installation, then you’ll most likely prefer the hydraulic disc brakes. That said, the difference in weight is actually very minimal since they weigh almost the same.

6. Operation Smoothness and Braking Consistency

Hydraulic disc brake systems provide a smoother operation that’s also more consistent. Once you squeeze the brake lever, you get a smoother feeling since nothing in the system is snagged up or even hang up.

The brake fluid which moves through the line will create less friction and since the system is sealed, you won’t have it contaminated with any debris. Thanks to this, the braking force remains predictable and also highly consistent.

This is to say that every single time you pull your brake lever, you’ll have the same result.

On the other hand, mechanical disc brake systems for your bike will create friction the moment your cables start running through the housing. The mechanical disc brakes require you to watch out for snagging and rubbing.

This is especially so if your cable starts rusting and the housing starts to get contaminated with either dirt or debris. It creates some resistance that will have your brakes feeling a bit rougher than usual.

You might need to apply more force than you expected in order to get over the resistance which in turn makes the bike brakes less consistent.

That said, when the bike mechanical disc brake is clean and well adjusted, they operate both consistently and smoothly. It will just take more effort to make sure they perform at their best.

Conclusion

When one is out choosing mountain or road bikes, comparing hydraulic disc brakes vs mechanical disc brakes requires you to get the most guidance.

Get a professional’s point of view by having a discussion on most of the brake components, elements such as the brake cable, braking power of the disc brakes, cable system, and other specific things related to the cables like the cable disc.

One should also get professional advice on the rotor style and how the rotor generally works with your brakes.

You’ll need someone or a website to guide you on hydraulic disc brakes vs mechanical disc brake options and help you understand why they are better than a rim brake. An article on bikes could also have an answer or two regarding this.

An article will, however, just give an overview of things like brake pads, how the brake pads work, and the braking surfaces. If you require a deeper answer for this, turn to reviews, get a professional, or walk into a bike store instead of relying on these article types.

Hydraulic systems or a hydraulic brake are readily available in most bike shops and the same goes for a bike with a mechanical system, so if you prefer them for your road bikes, you won’t struggle to find them.

We hope this review gives an answer and that our discussion on their pros and cons will help you choose the right brake pad or pads regardless of the braking surface.