Which brakes for bikes are best?
People ride bicycles for many different reasons: a daily commute, a challenging off-road trail in the mountains or a leisurely excursion on a Sunday afternoon in the countryside. But, no matter what the reason, all bicycle riders will agree: effective brakes are an essential element for maintaining control and arriving at the destination safely.
Today, several different brake designs are available, but the current trend is the use of disc brakes for every type of bicycle and riding style. If you are looking for a high-quality brake for your bike, the SHIMANO Deore BR-M6120 Disc Brake is the top choice.
What to know before you buy brakes for a bike
Brakes for bicycles can be divided into three general categories: rim, drum and disc brakes.
In a rim brake, friction pads apply a force to the rim of the rotating wheel, slowing the bicycle or bringing it to a stop. The brake pads are mounted in metal shoes and are typically made of rubber.
Main types of rim brakes
Rim brakes are available in several designs including the caliper brake, cantilever brake and V-brake.
- Caliper brake: Three main types of caliper brakes are available today: the single-pivot side pull, dual-pivot side pull and the center-pull design. The most common is the dual-pivot side pull system, an asymmetrical design that provides excellent centering characteristics and powerful braking.
- Cantilever brake: Each brake arm on this rim brake has the cable attachment and brake shoe located on the same side of the support or pivot but at different points. The design permits a wide distance between the mount and the pads, making it a preferred rim brake system on mountain bikes with wide tires.
- V-brake: V-brakes sometimes known as linear-pull or direct-pull brakes evolved from cantilever brakes providing more power through increased leverage with longer arms. They are still cable-actuated like traditional cantilever brakes, but cable adjustment and pad replacement are much easier.
Two brake shoes positioned opposite one another inside a drum are activated when a mechanism pushes them apart at one or both ends. The drum is usually part of the wheel’s hub shell. Each shoe presses outward against the inside of the drum, which produces friction and slows the wheel.
Commonly used on mountain, touring and hybrid bikes, the disc-brake system offers several features superior to other braking systems. It has exceptional power, functions perfectly in most weather conditions, produces no rim wear and is highly reliable.
Disc brakes come in two main configurations: mechanical and hydraulic. Both use the same pad materials and rotors to create friction.
- Mechanical disc brake: When pressure is applied to the handlebar brake lever, a cable activates the mechanical disc brake by pulling a small lever on the brake caliper, which pushes the pad against the rotor and stops the bike.
- Hydraulic disc brake: The system uses a fluid that flows through a sealed line instead of cables, offering more control and better braking power to the rider than the mechanical system.
What to look for in quality brakes for a bike
In recent years, disc brakes have gained popularity with cycling professionals and much of the cycling industry. Once used only on mountain bikes, disc-brake systems are now found on road bikes, touring bikes, cyclocross bikes, hybrids, time trial bikes and many others.
However, despite the rapid growth of disc brakes, there is still a significant number of cyclists who prefer rim brakes, claiming high-quality rim brakes can stop almost as well as the best disc brakes, and they offer a superior feel.
Look for a rim brake fitted with pads designed for the type of rims on your bike. For example, the Swisstop FlashPro Brake Pad offers superior braking on aluminum rims, while the SwissStop FlashPro Prince Brake Pad is better suited for carbon rims.
Rim brakes often need adjustment for several conditions including squeaking, pulling, rubbing, too tight or too loose and when new pads are installed.
Look for a brake that offers easy access to the components for adjusting. V-brakes are a good choice because they are much easier to adjust than traditional cantilever brakes.
If you have a bike with wide tires, consider a cantilever brake system. It features a wide distance between the mount and the pads with plenty of room to fit over the tires.
Mechanical or hydraulic disc brakes?
Hydraulic systems are more efficient than mechanical disc systems, because less pressure is required at the lever for an equal level of braking power, but they’re more expensive.
A disc brake pad is composed of a block of brake material attached to a metal backing plate. The metal plate supports the braking surface, holding it in position within the caliper.
Pads are made of organic, sintered or semi-metallic material.
- Organic (resin) disc brake pads: Typically made of rubber, Kevlar and silica, bound together with resin, these pads are quiet and provide sharper initial braking, but they wear out faster than other materials.
- Sintered, or metallic, brake pads; Made by pressing a mixture of metallic particles together, they are more durable and last longer than organic pads.
- Semi-metallic pads: Made with an organic compound and metal particles, they are durable and offer the advantages of both organic and sintered brake pads.
Resin disc brake pads typically last 500-700 miles, while sintered brake pads have a lifespan of 1,000-1,250 miles.
Frame and wheel hub
Installing disc brakes on any bike requires a frame with mountings for disc calipers and wheel hubs suitable for installing a disc rotor. If you are upgrading your bike that currently has a different brake system, make sure it is disc-brake compatible.
How much you can expect to spend on the best brakes for bikes
The best-quality hydraulic disc brakes consisting of a brake lever and two-piston caliper will cost about $150, while a complete kit including a rotor will cost about $250.
Brakes for bikes FAQ
Why do disc brake rotors have holes?
A. The holes help dissipate heat and prevent water from getting trapped between the pad and the rotor during braking.
How is pressure created in a hydraulic disc-brake system?
A. Squeezing a hydraulic disc-brake lever actuates a piston inside the master cylinder, which forces fluid through the sealed line toward the brake caliper building pressure in the system that activates the brake pads.
What’s the best bicycle brake system to buy?
Top bicycle brakes
What you need to know: This hydraulic disc brake uses a four-piston system providing exceptional stopping power and excellent modulation with quick withdrawal after releasing the levers, making it ideal for trail, cross country and even city biking.
What you’ll love: The brake system features smaller pistons to engage the incoming rotor, followed by larger pistons to handle the larger stopping forces. The result is reduced rotor wobbling under load and less noise and chatter. The Deore M6120 is easy to install, and the gravity bleed system is simple to bleed.
What you should consider: The brakes improve from average stopping power to outstanding when the stock resin pads included with the brakes are swapped out for sintered pads.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Top bicycle brakes for the money
What you need to know: The sleek and modern-looking disc-brake set provides consistent and reliable braking, powerful enough for XC riding at an affordable price.
What you’ll love: The two-piston hydraulic brake set is compatible with Shimano Pattern pads, making replacements easy to find. The 180-millimeter front rotor along with upgraded pads give the brakes power comparable to the best cross country (XC) mountain bikes.
What you should consider: Although the brakes still work well in wet conditions, they produce a loud squeal.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Worth checking out
What you need to know: The Magura MT Trail Sports brake is designed to give the rider complete control over braking by distributing the force unequally between exceptional power in the front and more modulation in the back to avoid skidding.
What you’ll love: The brake system features a front-mounted MT5 four-piston caliper and a smaller, MT4 two-piston caliper on the back. The ergonomic one-finger HC brake lever made of aluminum is comfortable to use and the MagnetiXchange brake piston makes changing pads simple.
What you should consider: Typical of many high-quality disc brakes, they are noisy when wet.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Sign up here to receive the BestReviews weekly newsletter for useful advice on new products and noteworthy deals.
Jeff Harper writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.
Copyright 2021 BestReviews, a Nexstar company. All rights reserved.