There is a lot to take in when it comes to learning about mountain bike brakes. There are different types of brakes, each suited for different purposes. Brakes are absolutely crucial for staying safe as you ride. If you’ve never replaced your brakes before, how do you know which type you need?
There are a lot of components to consider, and it’s important to know how they all relate to each other. In our ultimate guide to finding the best mountain bike brakes, we’ll explore each type in detail, examining their pros and cons, and give you some recommendations for good MTB brakes that will help you make the most of your mountain bike. We’ll also give you a list of terms to look out for, so you’ll know what to keep in mind when you’re shopping.
Firstly, let’s take a look at the difference between hydraulic and mechanical brakes.
Hydraulic or Mechanical Disc Brake?
There are many sub-types of mountain bike brakes, but the first question you want to ask yourself is this: do I need hydraulic or mechanical brakes?
Hydraulic brakes work in a similar way to the brakes in a car. They work very quickly and are reliable. With hydraulic brakes, instead of a cable, you have a line of hydraulic fluid. When you press the brake, the pressure moves the fluid into the caliper, which presses the bike brake pads into the disc.
The downside to hydraulic brakes is that you have to take them to an expert to be installed and occasionally inspected. You also need to bleed and replace old fluid sometimes, which is messy.
Mechanical brakes use a cable to exert pressure on the brake pads. They’re cheaper and simpler to fix or replace than hydraulic brakes. If something were to go wrong while you’re on the trail, you’ll be able to figure out and fix the problem far more easily than you would with hydraulic brakes. The cables need to be replaced occasionally as they will wear down and fray over time.
Trail Riding or Downhill Riding?
Another thing to consider is if you’re going to be trail riding or downhill riding.
Trail riding can be tricky, and it’s important to have the right brakes (look for something that has ‘trail’ or ‘XC’ in the name). You want something lightweight, but strong enough if you need to make a sudden stop.
Downhill riding is a completely different discipline that requires very strong brakes as you’ll be traveling at high speeds. Brakes for downhill bikes (‘DH’ or ‘gravity’ brakes) are heavier, but they’re very reliable (which is, for obvious reasons, very important). Brake fluid can heat up quite quickly when you’re traveling at high speeds, so a good downhill mountain bike brake will be able to compensate for that.
You can, roughly, split brakes into two broad categories. The first is rim brakes.
Rim brakes use the wheel’s rim surface – the brake pads press against it when you press on the brake. They tend to be pretty lightweight.
There are a few subcategories within this, with the two most common being cantilever brakes and caliper brakes.
We’re going to get a bit technical here. A cantilever brake is a rim brake, where the brake arm has both the brake shoe and cable attachment on the same side as the support. They were originally designed to use on road and tandem bikes.
They are usually categorized by the angle between the shoe arm and the anchor arm, known as the cantilever angle. They’re becoming less popular with bike manufacturers, as installing the pads is a bit more difficult than it is with other types of the brake. They’re inexpensive, however, and you don’t need an adapter to adjust them.
Caliper brakes are normally found on road bikes – if you’re into road racing, you might find a caliper brake works well for you, as they’re a bit more lightweight. They’re fast and reliable and have great stopping power.
You can buy a couple of different types of caliper brakes. Most of them attach to your bike via one bolt, either on the suspension fork, or directly in the frame. However, you can buy direct mount caliper brakes, which are attached by two bolts. Having two mounting points makes the brake a little more powerful.
A v-brake, meanwhile, is a little like a cantilever brake, but more powerful. The brake arms are longer and sit at a different angle, and the lever can pull more cable. They are easier to adjust than a cantilever brake, and the brake pads are also easier to replace. You will need an adapter, however, if you want to use them along with a road bike brake lever.
You will find a lot of MTBs have v-brakes, as they’re particularly suited to mountain bike riding.
Roller Cam brakes
A roller cam brake works like a caliper brake, but the pivots are attached to the frame. It uses a triangular cam instead of a transverse cable. There are two arms, which pivot in the middle. This type of brake was very popular in the 1980s, but are not as often used by manufacturers today. Still, if you’ve bought or inherited a retro bike, you might come across a roller cam brake.
Delta brakes were similarly popular in the 1980s and were known for being beautifully designed, and fairly sought after. They are kind of triangular-shaped, due to the interesting center-pull design. You are unlikely to find these now unless you’re willing to pay for them – some delta brakes fetch up to $2000 on eBay.
Advantages of Rim Brakes
- Rim brakes are lighter than disc brake models
- They are more aerodynamic than mountain bike disc brake models
- They are affordable
- They’re fairly easy to repair
- Some people prefer the look of rim brakes
Disadvantages of Rim Brakes
- They can be less powerful than disc brakes
- They don’t offer as much control as disc brakes
- Eventually, they will wear down your wheel rim, which will then need to be replaced
- Their performance declines in wet or muddy conditions
Rim Brake Safety
The fact that rim brakes don’t perform as well in wet or muddy weather is a serious disadvantage, and it’s one to bear in mind for your own safety. If you live in an area that has a lot of rain, or you’re going to be traversing particularly muddy terrain, you might be better off with disc brakes. Having your brakes suddenly fail on you is a scary prospect, so you need to be prepared if this happens.
Rim brakes will work less effectively as the brake pads wear down. This is also something to keep in mind – it’s important to replace disc pads regularly.
Rim Brake Maintenance
There are a few jobs you’ll need to do to maintain rim brakes:
- Regularly replace brake pads
- Replace wheel rims when necessary (most new wheels come with an indicator which will let you know when they need replacing)
- If your rim brake system is hydraulic, it will need to be bled regularly.
- Clear the brake pads of gunk or mud
- Make sure the rim brakes are evenly balanced – one pad shouldn’t be further away from the rim than the other
FAQs About Rim Brakes
Do you still have questions? Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about rim brakes:
Why do rim brakes squeak?
Usually with rim brakes, if there’s a squeak, it’s because the pads aren’t coming into contact with the rim at the best angle. It may need a slight adjustment to stop the squeaking.
How long do rim brakes last?
Rim brakes can wear down the rims, meaning they’ll need to be replaced at some point. Many rims have a wear indicator to help you to figure out when they need to be replaced. Their lifespan can range from 1500 miles to 12000 miles – so it’s difficult to tell.
How long should brake pads last?
On average, brake pads last around 40,000 miles.
Are rim brakes obsolete?
No – plenty of people still enjoy using rim brakes, preferring them to disc brakes – manufacturers are still producing plenty of them.
Disc brakes work differently than rim brakes. They use a metal rotor on the wheel hub, and a fixed caliper, which compresses the brake rotor. You can get either mechanical or hydraulic disc brakes. They are very powerful, with great stopping power, and they’re brilliant for working in all weather conditions. They also offer a little more precision than rim brakes.
Some people consider disc brakes to be one of the best technological advances in bicycle technology – so there are a lot of disc brakes being manufactured today.
Here’s a bit more information about the parts of a disc brake:
A rotor is another word for the disc in a disc brake. Rotors come in different sizes, the most common being 140, 160, 170, 180 and 200mm. That’s a lot of choicess. Larger rotors displace heat more effectively and provide better modulation, but they also weigh more. Bigger wheel sizes may require a bigger rotor.
There are other factors to consider, too – including weight (lighter riders can use lighter parts). What type of bike you ride can be a factor, too:
- 160mm rotors are better suited for cross-country bikes
- 180mm rotors are good for full suspension bikes
- 200mm rotors are good for gravity or downhill riding
If you ride in mountainous terrain, you’ll be better off with a larger rotor.
Calipers typically have two pads inside them, which press into the rotor. The brake pad and disc kind of ‘stick’ together, causing friction, which slows and eventually stops the bike.
Bolts attach the rotor to the bike. You can buy them in different materials – they’re usually made of steel, titanium, or aluminum.
We’ll talk in more detail about brake pads later in this article, but they are an essential part of your brake system. They also vary depending on your needs.
Advantages of Disc Brakes
- Very powerful
- Will not wear out the rims
- Can be used in all weather conditions – they won’t get clogged in mud or snow
- In some models, the brakes still work well even when the pads wear down
- Good modulation (the amount of precision in applying brake pressure)
- Good at dissipating heat, staying cooler for longer
- They don’t have extra lubrication requirements
- You can switch out wheels with different sized rims without worrying about changing your brakes
Disadvantages of Disc Brakes
- They are heavier than rim brakes, resulting in a heavier bike
- Hydraulic disc brakes are complicated, so if you want to fix your brakes on your own, they won’t be the best choice
- They can get in the way of baggage racks
- The disc can get bent or damaged easily
- When they are wet, they can make a ‘howling’ noise
- The disc can get hot if traveling at high speed – this can be dangerous if it comes into contact with you
Disc Brake Safety
Disc brake rotors can warp or wear down over time. It’s important to keep an eye on your rotor and make sure it’s still in good working condition. If it wears down to less than 1.5mm thick, or it has obvious dents or warps, it’s time to replace it.
Keep an eye on your disc pads, too. Although some disc brakes compensate for pad wearing, they will still need to be replaced eventually.
Some people suggest that disc brakes are slightly less safe than rim brakes. Rotors can heat up to very high temperatures, and they can burn if they come into contact with skin. Back in 2016, disc brakes were banned after Francisco Ventoso suffered a deep cut to his leg from a disc rotor. However, these incidents are rare.
Disc Brake Maintenance
Here are a few things you need to do to maintain your disc brakes:
- Take care of your rotor – try to avoid getting any kind of oil on your disc, and make sure you clean it regularly
- Try not to bend your rotor – this sounds obvious but is easily done, especially if you transport your bike around a lot
- Regularly replace your brake pads
- Bleed your brakes – this only applies to hydraulic disc brakes
FAQs About Disc Brakes
Yes – they need to be ‘bedded in’ slightly before they reach their optimal performance. You can do this simply by doing a series of starts and stops.
Yes, some are designed to self-adjust. This means that they automatically compensate for the pads wearing down.
They do get very hot, especially if you’re traveling at high speeds.
In a hydraulic brake, air can sometimes get into the system, causing issues with braking. The force you put into pulling the lever is wasted as the air inside is compressed. You can usually tell when it needs bleeding because you will have to pull the lever much harder to get a response from your brakes.
A Note on Converting a Rim Brake Bike to a Disc Brake Bike
You may be wondering if you can convert a rim brake bike to a disc brake bike, or vice versa. The short answer is yes: but you won’t just have to change the brakes. You’ll also have to change the forks, rear brake frame, and wheel hubs.
It will also depend on the material your bike frame is made from. This is a more advanced job, so you’re better off sticking to the type of brake you already have in most cases.
Brake pads are an essential component of your brake system. You need to check if the brake pads you’re looking at will be compatible with your brakes. They come in three main categories:
Metallic pads aren’t as effective at lower speeds. However, at high speeds, and therefore higher temperatures, they work really well. They’re a good choice for downhill riders for that reason.
Semi-metallic pads are very common, and they work very well, giving a good amount of power for most riders.
These are made up of a mixture of natural materials. They’re mixed with heat-resistant resin, which means they don’t get as hot as metal pads. They’re pretty versatile, but they don’t work that well for downhill riders as they are less effective in wet conditions.
If you’re looking for good-quality brake pads, the J04C SHIMANO breaks are great – they’re recommended for use with mountain bikes.
Brake levers are, obviously, an essential part of your brake system. When you pull a brake lever, it either pulls the cable or puts pressure on the hydraulic fluid to bring your bike to a halt.
You need to make sure your brake levers are compatible with the brakes you’re looking at. The levers you own don’t necessarily have to be from the same brand as the brakes themselves. With cable brakes, there are two types of levers: standard pull or long pull.
Standard pull levers are designed to work with caliper brakes or traditional cantilever brakes.
Long pull levers are designed to work with v-brakes and MTB cable disc brakes.
It’s important to get this right, as long pull levers have more mechanical advantage (the leverage and travel needed to stop the bike). Long pull levers will pull the cable half as hard, but twice as far. This sounds complicated, but essentially, the wrong mechanical advantage can mean your brakes are too soft/slow, or too sharp/sudden.
You can adjust cable tension with a mechanical bike brake, usually by screwing a barrel in or out to make it tighter or looser.
What to Look for When You’re Buying MTB Brakes
Here are a few things you need to bear in mind when you’re buying (or using) MTB brakes:
Rider weight is something you need to take into consideration. If you are a heavier rider, you’ll want a more powerful brake. Lighter riders can get away with lighter brakes.
Modulation is the way stopping power is impacted by the brake lever. High modulation means you can gently bring your bike to a stop, whereas low modulation means when you pull the brake, you might stop very suddenly. More modulation means more control. Disc brakes offer less modulation than rim brakes as a general rule, but you can still get disc brakes with pretty good modulation.
Where Will You Be Riding?
Different kind of brakes suits different purposes. Are you a mountain biker? Or do you do a lot of downhill riding? Do you ride your bike to work? These situations will require different levels of stopping power.
For example, if you do a lot of downhill riding, you’ll be reaching high speeds. You’ll need a powerful brake that dissipates heat – you’ll want a larger rotor and metallic brake pads (you can look out for brakes with the word DH or Gravity in the name).
On the flip side, if you’re into trail riding, you still want a good amount of stopping power, but you also want to keep the weight as light as possible. (You can find brakes for trail riding with the words XC or Trail in the name).
Front Brake vs Back Brake
The front brake on an MTB tends to be more powerful. This is because the front of your bike will dip down when you apply the brakes, putting a lot of pressure on the front of the bike. Most mountain and downhill bikes have bigger rotors on the front for this reason. You may find sometimes that if you pull the front brake hard, you’ll experience a ‘juddering’ sensation. This could be down to stiffness of the front brake.
Sometimes if you brake hard, you’ll experience a screeching sound, known as ‘brake squeal’. This is the case with disc brakes and rim brakes. Usually, it’s down to contamination of the pads or the rotors – you need to clean them regularly with disc brake degreaser to stop this from happening. This will make for a much happier riding experience for you (and any wildlife that may be startled by the noise!).
The Best MTB Brakes
So how do you find the best brakes? Take a look at our suggestions to see some of the best brakes on the market today:
Best Cantilever Brake – Avid Shorty Ultimate
The Shorty Ultimate range are known for being powerful but still light. The Avid: Shorty Ultimate only weighs 115g each (when using the stock pads). This is great if you’re trying to keep things on the lighter side.
They’re also easy to replace and adjust, which is a little unusual for a cantilever brake, and it has an in-line barrel adjustment so you can easily adjust cable tension.
They come in two color combinations: black/grey or black/red. They’re on the pricey side, but they’re worth it in terms of performance.
- Easy to adjust
- If buying online, may not come with instructions
Best Caliper Brake – Shimano 105
These are excellent value for money and give a great performance. They’re a little heavier than some of the more expensive caliper brakes, and their pads are a little less grippy than others. Still, they’re responsive brakes with great control – and it’s simple to adjust the brakes and change the pads, even when you’re on the move.
- Works really well for the price
- Easy to adjust
- A little heavier than others on the market
The new brakes are redesigned and borrow the same new pivoting mechanism for a linear feel that provides an incredibly consistent power distribution from the lever to the rim's braking surface.
Best V-Brake – Shimano Mountain Bicycle V-Brake
These have very good reviews, and it’s easy to see why. The braking is very controlled and powerful, and the components are very high-quality (including the screws and brakes). The pad adjustment is easy to do, and the whole thing is very simple to install. Shimano is known for making great bike parts, so you know you’ll be getting a good quality brake. If you love trail riding, these would be a good choice.
- Gives a lot of control
- High-quality components
- On the pricey side
The clue here is in the name – these are the ultimate disc brakes. They are known for offering excellent modulation, allowing for the slightest adjustments as you ride. They feel smooth to use, and although they’re not the most powerful, the modulation more than makes up for it.
They’re designed to prevent heat build-up with an open caliper design. They’re fairly lightweight, thanks to the carbon material, and they have high-quality titanium bolts. They’re also very easy to bleed, with technology designed to reduce dripping when bleeding the fluid.
- High-quality parts
- Feels smooth to use
- Great modulation
- Heat prevention is good
- Pricier than other brakes on the market
We hope that this article has helped you to understand where to start when it comes to buying a new brake for your MTB. Buying and installing a brake system can feel like a daunting and complicated process, especially if you’ve never done it before.
Understanding the different types of brake, and what each component does, is a great way of ensuring that you can maintain your brakes properly. If you know your brakes are good, and you’ve got a decent helmet, you can feel reassured of your safety – and concentrate on enjoying the ride.
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