Despite seeming de rigeur on just about any Mountain Bike you see these days, there are still plenty of folk out there still using good old V-brakes to tame their excess speed. At some point though, usually after a particularly alarming crash, the enthusiastic Mountain Biker makes a decision to upgrade to disc brakes.
Why? Because disc brakes offer:
- More power
- More control – V-brake pads heat up and ‘snatch’ the rim where disc brakes can be used to gently feather your speed
- Much better reliability – they work in the mud as they’re out of the way of the muck, they don’t wear out your wheel rim, and the pads last for ages if properly bedded in
There’s plenty of choice too, so what do you need to know?
Well, first you need to decide what type of disc brake system to go for. This boils down to a choice between mechanical disc brakes and hydraulic. While mechanical systems have some advantages, generally lower cost as you can re-use your existing brake levers and lower maintenance (no need to bleed cable brakes!), we’ve bad memories of Mark’s misplaced belief in a mechanical Diatech front brake that left him out of action for nearly a year. So, we wholeheartedly recommend hydraulic as the way to go as you get more power and generally better modulation.
Once you’ve decided on the type of system, you need to consider your wheels.
Plenty of bikes out there are sold these days with disc compatible hubs so often that’s not a problem. These hubs are usually International Standard six bolt affairs that let you use disc rotors from the majority of manufacturers, although Shimano (for example) tend to prefer their own splined system. If you need to buy new wheels anyway and want Shimano brakes, this might be worth considering but we’d suggest sticking with the herd and going for the IS hubs as this gives you the greatest flexibility.
So, you’ve worked out the braking system you want (hydraulic) and your wheels are ready to rock. Now what? Well, if you are upgrading for the first time you probably have a relatively budget kind of bike, so we don’t recommend you spend too much money, just enough to get the benefits we’ve mentioned. The relative performance with disc brakes is such that a decent budget set will easily see you fine for some time to come, even as your confidence and skills improve, which means you should be able to buy yourself decent performance for around £70 a wheel if you shop around.
At the moment, here’s three choices which we reckon are worth looking at:
- Magura Julie disc brakes
- Originally these had a rather poor reputation but Mark’s been running these since 2005 and we’ve found them to be grippy and reliable on his Marin hardtail.
Newer versions have been greatly improved and come with a five year guarantee on levers, calipers and hoses, so you shouldn’t have any problems with needing to bleed them, plus they use comfortable aluminium brake levers to enhance that quality feel.
Basically fit and forget brakes that will last years.
- Avid Juicy 3 disc brakes
- Avid are part of the huge SRAM empire and have many fans for their well modulated (i.e. easily controllable) and powerful braking systems. The Juicy 3s are a bit of a wild card in that they are only available as Original Equipment on new bikes, although you can buy them if you search around. Dave has been trying out a set on his On-One 29er singlespeed and has come away impressed with their performance so far, they also have aluminium braking levers and tend to be available for a lower price than the Magura Julies.
- Shimano Deore LX disc brakes
- Shimano LX brakes are listed as being a touch more expensive than the others here but again, a bit of looking around can source them for considerably less. We don’t have direct experience of these brakes, but the XT versions (next model up) have been used by Jem and Dave and both swear by them and there’s plenty of other people who agree too.
They have the advantage of having a lower profile to both the caliper and levers with the levers in particular looking nicely shaped for one or two finger braking. They also have an adjustable lever reach which helps riders with smaller hands or those who like the lever to come close to the bars.
Watch out for a potential disadvantage though – Shimano favour a centrelock system for attaching the rotors to the hubs so you might need to buy different rotors if your bike isn’t compatible.
If you’re upgrading, or thinking of upgrading to disc brakes – and we think it’s the single most effective upgrade you can make – we hope you’ve found this information food for thought. More experienced riders will probably have their own views which they’re welcome to leave in our comments (see the form below).
Remember though that despite the wonders of disc brakes, they don’t change the laws of physics!