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Hydraulic vs Mechanical Disc Brakes, What Should You Be Using?

Robbie Ferri
January 21, 2022

Hydraulic disc brakes are much better. They require less maintenance, are more powerful, and can self-adjust. Compared to mechanical brakes they are more efficient.

As a bike shop worker and semi-professional rider, I feel I have a good understanding when it comes to bikes and components. 

In this article, I’m going to tell you why I feel hydraulic is better than mechanical when it comes to bikes and braking. We are going to talk about how they work, and the advantages and disadvantages of each in different situations.

What Is Best - Hydraulic or Mechanical?

Hydraulic requires less maintenance, is more powerful, expensive, and can be challenging to fix. Mechanical disc brakes are cheap and easy to repair but are not as powerful and often need adjustment.

Mechanical is best for people living in flat places are handy with a spanner. Hydraulic is better for people who want powerful brakes and don’t want to work on their bikes.

In this next section, we’re going to tell you all about how both hydraulic and mechanical disc brakes work and where they are best suited to be used. We will put them up against each other and declare a winner.

How Do Hydraulic and Mechanical Brakes Work?

Mechanical and hydraulic brakes work in entirely different ways, and it's essential to understand this when making your choice. Mechanical is very basic and hydraulic can be pretty complex.

Mechanical

Mechanical disc brakes are common on budget bikes. They work by the tension in a cable. It all starts at the brakes. When the rider pulls the lever, the tension travels into the cable. The cable runs through a plastic casing we call an outer. At the end of the outer, you will have a caliper. When it eventually gets to the brake caliper, the cable will pull a pad onto each side of the disc braking surface, slowing the wheel down. This is a basic system and works well, and they say simplicity is key.

Hydraulic

Hydraulic disc brakes work very differently. It again starts at the lever. When this is pulled, it drives hydraulic brake fluid down a hose, which ends up at the brake caliper. Here at the calipers, the pads are forced together, putting pressure on the disc slowing the wheel down. This is a more complex system but provides so much braking performance and reliability. It is more challenging to set up.

The Winner

The hydraulic system is efficient and provides more power to help you stop. Although it is harder to set up, it is the future of brakes on bicycles.

Gray bike rim photo

Which Is Easier To Use, Hydraulic or Mechanical Brakes?

They both work differently, and because of this, it changes the experience for the user. Mechanical and hydraulic will give a very different feeling.

Mechanical

As I have discussed above, mechanical brakes use cables to work, and this does come with advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that because they are cable, they are less responsive and easier to feather the brakes, meaning you can get the right amount of pressure into the brakes very easily. The disadvantage is that if you are braking for long periods of time, you will find it very hard on the hands. Cable braking systems aren't as powerful, and you have to work harder because of this.

Hydraulic

Hydraulic systems also have disadvantages and advantages. The advantage being they are powerful and have great braking force. If you are descending on rough terrain, it is a lot easier for your hands. The disadvantage is that they are easy to lock up as hydraulic has more braking performance. You will never want to hit that front brake too hard, or it will send you over the handlebars.

The Winner

When it comes to using the bike's brakes, having hydraulic brakes is easier on the hands and requires less grip strength to lock the wheels.

What Gives You The Most Brand Options?

When it comes to brakes, there are loads of brands on the market and you have a lot of options for either a mechanical disc brake or a hydraulic brake system. 

Mechanical 

You have lots of brands to choose from such as Avid, Tektro, Shimano, Clarks, and more. There are lots of cheaper unnamed brands too. There's a huge amount of options and you might find some brakes that are very similar to the big name brands just being sold unbadged.

Hydraulic

You have many options when it comes to hydraulic disc brakes and some of them have some serious braking power. There are brands such as Shimano, Hope, SRAM, Magura, Clarks, and Avid. You will find that your local bike shop will be able to guide you on the best brakes that are currently available on the market. 

The Winner

I have to say this has to be a draw as both have loads of options to choose from. If you are looking for great brakes, Shimano makes excellent hydraulic and mechanical brakes.

What Is Easier To Maintain, Hydraulic Disc Brakes or Mechanical Disc Brakes?

Hydraulic disc brakes are harder to set up, and most people think they need more maintenance compared to Mechanical, but you would be surprised.

Mechanical

You might think that mechanical disc brakes would be easier to maintain than hydraulic disc brakes, but it is the opposite. They need quite a lot of attention, compared to other types of brakes. Firstly, as the cables run through the outer, they stretch over time and then, after a lot of use, will split and need replacing. Stretched cables will mean that the calipers will need adjusting often to compensate for the length. Cables also are exposed, unlike hydraulic fluid, and they pick up dirt and become much less efficient over time, and you will regularly need to change the cables and the outer casing.

Hydraulic

Hydraulic brakes are easy to handle when it comes to maintenance. Firstly you won't need to worry about any adjustments as hydraulic cables will self adjust themselves. As your pads get more worn, your calipers will automatically pull the pistons closer. You will find that hydraulic fluid is not exposed, so it does not get dirty inside and doesn't need replacing often. It also doesn't stretch as a cable would, and the outer hoses are not prone to splitting.

Winner

The hydraulic cables require less maintenance than the mechanical brakes and will last longer without any work. The winner has to be hydraulic disc brakes.

Close view of yellow bike

What Is Easier To Repair?

Accidents happen, and you might drop your bike, or something might fall on it in the shed, and you might need to repair your brakes. Which is going to be easier to fix?

Mechanical

When it comes to repairing, mechanical disc brakes are easy to work on. The most common repair you need to do will be to change the outer cable housings and the cables. This is simple and can take as little as an hour and can be done by watching a Youtube video. The next repair you might do is to change the brake pads, and again it's a straightforward job that can be done in minutes. Adjusting the calipers is also really easy to do alongside adjusting the levers. When working on mechanical brakes, you can use a basic Allen key set for all the jobs.

Hydraulic 

Hydraulic disc brakes are more complex when it comes to repairing. Let's say you snag a hose. You will need to replace the whole hose and bleed the hose system before using it again. To do this job, you require a particular bleeding kit to suit your brakes, and you will have to allow an hour or so to get it done. When it comes to adjustments of pads, this is more complex. You have to go through a process called resetting the pistons. This is where you take the wheel out, push the pistons back into the calipers, return the wheel and then align the brakes and then pull the lever and make sure the pads don't rub on the rotor. When it comes to working on hydraulic brakes, you will need many more tools.

The Winner

When it comes to repairs and adjustments, mechanical wins hands down. They are effortless to work on compared to hydraulic disc brakes.

Which Are Cheaper Mechanical or Hydraulic Brakes?

If you are building a bike and you have budgets to think about, it's important to know what is be suitable for a tight budget. When it comes to brakes, it's not just the braking system you need. The levers also differ in cost depending on which you choose.

Mechanical

Mechanical disc brake sets are cheap to buy. You can pick up a set for less than $50, and on the higher end of the market, you can be looking at about $300. You will also find mechanical brake levers cheaper and they will range from $50 all the way to $250. Overall, you can find a setup for less than $100. Parts also are very cheap when it comes to any repairs, or if you need to replace the brake pad set, you're looking at $10 for some brands.

Hydraulic

Hydraulic brakes are more expensive. You will find the brakes to be a minimum of $100 and on the higher end $500. This doesn't seem too bad, but when it comes to the brake lever, you're looking at a minimum of $250, and on the high end, such as the Shimano Dura-Ace brake lever pair, you're looking at $500. Parts for hydraulic brakes also don't tend to come cheap for example, the brake pad set for some systems can be a minimum of $30.

The Winner

When it comes to cost, we have to hand it to mechanical disc brakes as it's much cheaper than hydraulic disc brakes. As much as we all want the best stuff, sometimes it's just not in our budget. Try not to forget that a brake lever is expensive, so pick brakes carefully.

What Looks Better Mechanical or Hydraulic brakes?

I know it's not everything, but we all love a good looking bike. Brakes look very different among brands, and between mechanical and hydraulic, they differ significantly.

Mechanical 

Mechanical disc brakes tend to be an older technology than hydraulic disc brakes. They use two systems to mount disc brakes, post mount, and flat mount. The majority of mechanical brakes are post mount, and they stick out much further than flat mounts. Typically, mechanical brakes are post mount and look much more prominent on the bike than flat mount. Generally, mechanical brakes are bigger and require more oversized disc brake rotor due to having less power, so they stand out more.

Hydraulic

The majority of hydraulic brakes, especially modern brakes, are all primarily flat mount. They are made like this, so they sit nice and flush to the frame. You will also find that hydraulic disc brakes use smaller discs, especially on gravel bikes, as they are better at braking than mechanical brakes. Hydraulic brakes are more petite and sit flush on the frame.

The Winner

I feel that hydraulic looks much better. They are smaller and flush to the frame and give the bike a gorgeous, stealthy look.

What Are Lighter Hydraulic or Mechanical Disc Brakes?

We all want our bikes to be as light as possible, and lighter is typically faster, especially uphill. What brakes are more lightweight?

Mechanical

Typically, mechanical disc brakes have more parts to them. You have more significant components such as the calipers, and you also find the disc that they clamp on to tend to be bigger than hydraulic disc brakes. This is because, without the power of the hydraulics, they need bulkier components. With more significant parts does come more weight.

Hydraulic

Hydraulic components tend to be smaller because they are more powerful. Calipers and discs are smaller, and even the system such as cables and fluid is slightly lighter. 

The Winner

Hydraulic disc brakes are the winner, but it is so minimal. The weight you will save will literally make next to no difference at all. It is only a matter of grams that separate them.

Black Rear Derailleur

What Is Better When Mountian Biking Hydraulic or Mechanical Brakes?

There are mechanical brakes on low end mountain bikes, and on high-end mountain bikes, you will typically see hydraulic. They will both work, but which one is better?

Mechanical

Cable brakes are good and will stop the bike, but they require more force from the hands, and you have to be applying heavy pressures, especially on loose terrain and downhill sections. This won't be too bad to start with, but longer rides can cramp your hands up and make you uncomfortable. You will also find that mechanical brakes will be affected by the mud after a few rides, and the brakes won't work as well as they were when they were new.

Hydraulic

Hydraulic brakes are easier to manage off road. They are very responsive, and it will be easier to work on the hands on those off road trails. They are much better when they get really muddy and can keep the dirt out better than cable brakes. They are incredibly responsive though, and you have to be very careful not to pull them too hard.

The Winner

Hands down, hydraulic. The work is so much easier than Mechanical brakes, and it just feels so much more responsive and safe.

Which Is Better When Cycle Touring, Mechanical Disc Brakes or Hydraulic Disc Brakes?

Cycle touring is popular, and you see some fantastic bikes designed for it. Touring bikes generally use both mechanical and hydraulic brakes and they both come in at a similar price. So which is best?

Mechanical 

Mechanical brakes are easy to work on and reliable. If they break down, they can be fixed with either a cable or some new pads, which is excellent for touring. Touring can be as short as a few days all the way up to months. Being on the road that long, no matter what equipment you use, might need work at times and mechanical brakes being so easy to work on are great for this. They may not have the braking power of hydraulic, but on an extended tour, do you need to be braking to an extreme? No. 

Hydraulic

Hydraulic brakes require special tools to work on, and if you snag a cable housing, it can be messy and challenging to fix while touring. This does make things more difficult on longer tours, but as mentioned before, they do require less maintenance. They are more powerful, and this helps when descending with a lot of gear, but mechanical could do the same job just with a bit more effort in the hands.

The Winner

For me personally, I would choose mechanical brakes for a very long tour. They are so easy to fix, and the parts are so cheap. Touring is not an extreme sport, so why do we need extreme brakes?

What Disc Brakes Are Best When Road Racing and Time Trailing, Mechanical or Hydraulic?

Before we answer this question we have to explain what a rim brake is. A rim brake is traditionally how bikes stop. This is where you have brake pads that clamp onto either side of the wheel. This provides a low level of stopping power compared to disc brakes and also over time would not only wear down your brake pads but also your bike wheels rim. Disc brakes will wear pads and the rotor but not the wheel.

When disc brakes first hit road bikes, the cycling world went crazy. They said rim brakes were fine, and they shouldn't be changed. They were banned from races as they used to say the discs were too sharp, and still, to this day, some people won't use them. They eventually made it to the Peloton and now are the choice of many riders.

Mechanical

Mechanical disc brakes are not often seen on road racing or Time Trail bikes. If road bikes have discs, they will generally be hydraulic. This is just how the industry has done it. Companies such as Shimano tend not to produce mechanical brakes anymore for road bikes as the industry does not require them. If people aren't using hydraulic, they will more than likely be on rim brakes instead.

Hydraulic

Hydraulic Disc brakes are often seen on road bikes and in road racing. They are slowly becoming the standard. They stop bikes quickly, and work superbly in wet conditions. They are an excellent tool, and when it comes to descending, work fantastically. You can see a clear advantage in disc brakes compared to rim brakes when watching races such as the Tour De France. 

The Winner

It has to be hydraulic. They are more powerful and for serious descents, just perfect. You will see many other bikes in the Peloton riding very close together, and they need similar braking power to make sure fewer accidents occur.

What Is Best For Gravel Bikes, Mechanical or Hydraulic Disc Brakes? 

Gravel bikes are the new thing in cycling, and almost every gravel bike on the market has disc brakes. Some have mechanical Disc Brakes, and some have hydraulic disk brakes. Which should you be using?

Mechanical

Mechanical disc brakes are cheaper, and you will see commonly used on Gravel bikes on the lower end of the market. If you are using your Gravel bike for Bikepacking or long distance touring, mechanical brakes are perfect for this. If you are on a tight budget bike build, then mechanical brakes are ideal. They won't be super powerful or easy to use but will do the job. Gravel bikes do a messy job, though, and mechanical cables are prone to getting dirt ingress.

Hydraulic 

Hydraulic brakes are super efficient and can stop the bike on a pin. They are excellent if you are planning on Gravel bike racing or need a super responsive brakeset to slow you down. They also have the fantastic ability to fight dirt as the system is fully sealed. These are more expensive, and you will find them harder to work on.

The Winner

If you have the budget then hydraulic is much better. It's more powerful and stops dirt ingress much better.

What Brakes Are Best For Bad Weather Conditions, Mechanical or Hydraulic?

One of the best things about disc brakes is that they are better in wet conditions than drum or rim brakes. They can help the bike stop sharply and keep the user safe.

Mechanical

Although mechanical doesn't have the sheer force and performance of hydraulic disc brakes, it does have the advantage of feathering the brakes better. In poor weather conditions, this is important as you don't always need to brake sharply. Sometimes, it comes down to braking lightly to stop the wheels from locking up.

Hydraulic

Hydraulic brakes just have sheer power and force, and when it comes to bad weather conditions, it does help them stop super fast. This is all well and good, but you have to be highly cautious as with their extra power, you may find yourself locking the wheels up too easily.

The Winner

In poor conditions, I believe both brakes are equally good. They both have advantages and disadvantages, and either will work great as long as they are in good working order.

Green cycle wheel

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Which Is The Best Overall Mechanical vs Hydraulic Disc?

Although they are more expensive, hydraulic disc brakes just offer so much more value, and I would recommend them over mechanical disc brakes. Mechanical does have a place on Touring bikes and tight budgets, but for performance, hydraulic systems are better than a mechanical disc brake.

Robbie Ferri
About the Author
I’m Robbie Ferri I’m a Cyclist from Norfolk UK. I have been cycling for many years and found myself in Time Trials, Ultra Cycling World Records, and Bikepacking Races. I have worked in a Bike shop and with some of the industry’s leading brands. I’m also an experienced Spinning Instructor and avid Indoor Cyclist. If I’m not cycling, I’m writing about it.
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