Bicycles: Mechanical Brakes Vs. Hydraulic Disc Brakes

A never-ending debate between mechanical and hydraulic brakes took place immediately after the disc brakes shook the bicycle market. Cyclists from all around the world often wonder which one they should opt for and which ones have value for the money.

Hydraulic disc brakes are more efficient than mechanical brakes and give better performance for less effort. They use fluids as their braking medium, while mechanical brakes use cables. Hydraulic brakes are also lighter than mechanical brakes.

Both these disc brakes have their fair share of pros and cons, but this article will weigh them out side by side so you can know which one suits your needs. 

In this article, I’ll further dig into the technical differences between hydraulic and mechanical brakes. Read on to find out!

What are Mechanical Brakes?

The mechanical disc brakes work much like rim brakes because of the steel cable. When you pull the bike’s brake lever, it pulls on the cable that runs to the brake caliper. This cable moves a lever on the brake caliper, which pushes a piston. 

After this, the piston puts pressure on the brake pads against the rotor, which creates enough friction and pulls the bike to a stop. 

What are Hydraulic Disc Brakes?

In hydraulic brakes, the brake line is often sealed and already full with fluid which creates pressure in the brake line. This pressure then efficiently pushes a piston in the brake calipers, pushing the brake pads against the rotors. 

This happens because the fluid doesn’t end up compressing. This kind of technology is normally found in cars or motorcycles with disc brakes. 

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Mechanical Brakes vs. Hydraulic Brakes

Mechanical BrakesHydraulic Brakes
More stopping power Less stopping power 
Doesn’t need frequent maintenance Needs frequent maintenance 
The sealed system prevents contaminationThe components can get contaminated due to dirt or debris
Requires less force to apply the brakesRequires more force to apply the brakes
Maintains speed Doesn’t maintain as much speed
ExpensiveAffordable 
Spare or repair parts are hard to findSpare or repair parts are easily available anywhere 
Hard to repair or serviceEasy to repair and service, even at home 
Technologically advancedLess technologically advanced 

This table shows the difference between mechanical brakes and hydraulic brakes.

Mechanical and hydraulic brakes are two types of disc brakes, and the main feature that differentiates them from each other is their efficiency and how the force is transmitted from the brake lever on the bike’s handlebars to the brake calipers near the bike hubs. 

Mechanical disc brakes utilize a steel cable, while hydraulic disc brakes utilize a fluid-filled brake line. Both these perform way better than the traditional rim brakes. 

Stopping Power

If you compare the stopping power of both the hydraulic disc brakes and the mechanical disc brakes, then hydraulic disc brakes can produce more stopping power than mechanical disc brakes. 

This is because hydraulic brakes are more efficient in their performance. The hydraulic brakes multiply the initial force one puts into the system when they squeeze or push the brake lever on their bike. 

In simpler terms, the hydraulic brakes system typically creates more braking force than the force that the rider applies to the brake lever. 

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The brake fluid in the hydraulic brakes allows them to prevent compressing as well as produce as little friction as possible while moving through the line so that minimum energy is required in the process. 

Mechanical disc brakes, on the other hand, are less efficient than hydraulic brakes because when a rider pulls the lever, some of the effort and energy are lost in the process when the cable stretches or compresses. 

This is partially why the brake pads sometimes can’t push against the rotors with much force that creates friction. 

This is why one can’t create as much stopping power with mechanical disc brakes thus the stopping distance will be a bit longer. 

Brake Maintenance

In terms of maintenance, hydraulic disc brakes win the game since they require much less maintenance than mechanical disc brakes.

In the case of hydraulic brakes, one just needs to set them up, and they are good to go for a much longer time. 

The reason why they need less maintenance is that the hydraulic brakes don’t have a cable that stretches or needs constant adjustments. The only maintenance that these brakes need is to replace the brake pads when they wear out with time. 

The hydraulic brakes also need less maintenance because the hydraulic brake system is completely sealed, so the brake lines don’t have a way to get contaminated with sand, dust, dirt, mud, or other greasy debris. 

These brake lines are pressurized and airtight. Moreover, they don’t have any components that can rust or corrode. This is why many cyclists opt for hydraulic brakes for off-road riding or mountain biking.

Bleeding the Brakes

Hydraulic brakes just have to bleed periodically. 

Note: Bleeding means replacing the brake fluid that is sealed on the hydraulic brake lines. 

But one only has to bleed the brakes once every 2 to 3 years. However, professional racers tend to bleed the brakes annually. 

Mechanical disc brakes require frequent and sometimes regular maintenance since the brake pads wear a lot sooner, the cables end up stretching, and the brakes can also go out of adjustment. 

Moreover, the cable housing isn’t sealed, so it’s open for contamination from built-up debris. 

If the debris isn’t cleaned after every ride, the friction it creates ends up reducing the brake efficiency since the friction can cause the cable to snag and not run smoothly even with fully applied force. 

Therefore, with mechanical brakes, one has to keep a regular check-up to ensure they are in good condition and give them constant maintenance or adjustment every thousand miles so they can run smoothly.

Braking Force 

Hydraulic disc brakes provide much more control to the rider over the braking force because it needs less effort or energy to apply the brakes.

One can easily squeeze gently on the brake lever and apply the exact amount of braking force that one needs for the current situation. 

The hydraulic disc brakes allow the riders to stop faster without locking up the wheels, and when they let go of the brake lever, the braking stops immediately. 

On the other hand, with mechanical disc brakes, it’s harder to control the braking force since one has to put energy and more force to pull the brake lever.

Sometimes you can’t move your hand as efficiently when you are only focused on squeezing the brake lever hard. 

If one is not careful, they can lock up the wheels and shed more speed than they had wanted.

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Weight

When you compare the weight of both these brake systems, the hydraulic brakes weigh less than mechanical disc brakes.

This is because, in hydraulic brakes, the brake calipers are lighter since they have far fewer moving parts than mechanical brakes. 

So if you are one of those riders who prefer lightweight bikes, hydraulic brakes are ideal for you.

Contrarily, if you’re a cyclist who doesn’t care much about weight, you probably won’t even notice the weight difference between both disc brakes.

Operation 

Out of the two-disc brakes, the one which offers a more smooth operation and braking consistency is the hydraulic brakes system. 

When one has to squeeze the brake lever, it feels smooth and doesn’t cause any vibration since there is nothing in the hydraulic braking system that can snag or get hung up. 

The brake fluid moves through the line smoothly, creating less friction or compression. 

Mechanical disc brakes create friction whenever the cables run through the housing which makes them prone to snag and rub.

The brake cables can even get rusty, which creates more friction. Hence the mechanical brakes are less smooth and less consistent. 

Parts Availability

If you are concerned about the parts available for these disc brakes then hydraulic disc brake parts are harder to find than mechanical disc brake parts.

This is because mechanical disc brakes have the same brake parts as rim brakes, such as cables and levers. 

Mechanical brake cables and levers are found in almost every part of the world. 

Parts availability is one of the biggest reasons why many people prefer mechanical disc brakes over hydraulic disc brakes.

Hydraulic disc brake parts are harder to find anywhere, even in developed countries. 

Even finding replacement parts such as levers, calipers, brake fluid, and brake lines is also nearly impossible.

You’re in trouble if you are in a remote area looking for replacement parts for a hydraulic brake because it’s hard to find them, and you may have to find a high-end shop to look for those. 

If you are in a different country, you may need to fly your bike back because some countries don’t even import hydraulic disc brake parts.

Even if they don’t need constant repair or maintenance and last a lot longer, if a mishap happens, it can cost you a lot.

Repair

Many cyclists prefer repairing and tuning their bikes in their garages by themselves. Mechanical disc brakes are ideal for cyclists since they are very easy to repair and service. 

One can easily maintain and repair them with some basic tools and spare parts. 

If you own a bike with mechanical disc brakes and the brake cables just happen to get damaged or start to fray, you can simply replace it and continue riding around. 

With hydraulic disc brakes, you will need some special tools in hand and in-depth knowledge to repair or maintain them.

This makes it a hassle to service or repair them in the field if some issue arises. 

If a sudden accident occurs and damages the brake line or blows the seal that causes the liquid fluid to spill, the brakes become pretty much useless. In these cases, one can’t even repair them with a travel-sized tool kit.

If something like this happens when you are riding a bike with hydraulic disc brakes, it’s better just to leave it to professionals and go home by hailing a cab. This is a big reason why many tourists don’t prefer cycles with hydraulic disc brakes.

Brake Fade

A brake fade is the reduction strength of the stopping power, and every disc brake experiences a brake fade if too much heat builds up. 

The friction between the rotor and the brake pads causes heat to build up and overheat the brake pads, making them lose their braking power.

Brake fade is common in both mechanical disc brakes as well as hydraulic disc brakes. If you feel like your brake is fading, it’s best to take a stop and wait for it to cool down. 

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In hydraulic brakes, excessive heat or overheating can cause the brakes to fail and completely stop working since the fluid in the brake lines gets too hot and begins to boil. 

In this situation, if you are in the middle of riding, it can be really dangerous, so it’s best to keep a check if you’re actively braking and think that heat is building up.

To avoid frequent brake fades and heat building up, you can replace a small rotor with a big one that can shed heat more quickly. 

Speed

In terms of speed, hydraulic disc brakes offer more speed and allow the riders to ride fast.

This is because they allow the riders to stop faster, which gives them more time to wait to begin braking before a turn or obstacle, which allows them to maintain more speed.

Mechanical brakes, on the other hand, don’t provide as much speed as the rider has to start braking much sooner since the brakes take a while to work. This causes less speed. 

Hand Comfort

Since hydraulic disc brakes don’t require much force or effort to apply the brakes, they are much more comfortable and easy on the hands. Riders can even squeeze them with one finger. 

Hand comfort is essential if someone wants to cover long distances without getting tired and getting their hand cramped. 

Mechanical disc brakes typically require a lot of force for the brakes to apply, which makes them hard on the hands. This can get tiring on long-distance rides and cause your hand to go numb.

Price

Mechanical disc brakes are cheaper and more affordable than expensive hydraulic disc brakes.

Some high-end mechanical disc brakes cost around $150. This is about half of what hydraulic brakes cost.

Mechanical brake maintenance is also pretty affordable, and the spare parts are available at lower prices. 

Whereas hydraulic brakes are expensive, the low-end ones only cost around $100, and the high-end ones can cost up to $300 to $400. Moreover, the maintenance of hydraulic brakes is also very expensive. 

Technology 

Hydraulic disc brakes are more technologically advanced than mechanical disc brakes, which are almost like traditional rim brakes. 

Hydraulic disc brakes are used by many professionals. Several bike manufacturers have started to manufacture their bikes with hydraulic brake systems; they are used in mountain bikes as well as in race bikes.

Due to their increasing popularity, more and more research is being conducted to make them safe and even more advanced. So if you are interested in the newest technology bikes, these are ideal for you. 

Mechanical disc brakes are now mostly used on low-end bikes, and they are mostly used to replace rim brakes.

However, some high-end mechanical brakes can offer the same result as hydraulic ones if they are set up correctly. 

Conclusion

After a thorough comparison, it’s safe to say hydraulic brakes outdo mechanical brakes in some factors just as mechanical brakes outdo hydraulic brakes in some factors. So whichever one you get, consider the one that suits your needs.

If you’re looking for something with more stopping power, more speed, and less maintenance, then go for the hydraulic brakes.

But if you prefer something that’s more affordable and has a simple easy-to-repair system, mechanical brakes are made for you. 

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