Normally we start these articles asking why you need a certain part for your bike but with brakes it seems a bit obvious. Bad brakes plus sketchy downhill sections is an express ticket to a hospital stay. Brakes are used for everything from stopping in emergencies to nose wheelieing round sharp switchbacks to unsettling the back wheel to improve cornering, they're an absolute essential.
Mountain bike brakes have been on a huge journey since the early days of the sport. Back when it started in the hills of Marin County, riders would use coaster brakes on Klunkers but these soon evolved to cantilever to v brakes to hydraulic disc brakes... and they've stayed that way for about 25 years.
If your bike has the correct mounts (and pretty much all mountain bikes will) then we'd suggest fitting hydraulic calipers to your ride. Yes, mechanical ones are available and they are cheaper but they don't offer anywhere near as much stopping power or control as the hydraulic alternative. Plus, the technology is so universal that hydraulic brakes aren't even that much more expensive nowadays.
What to look for in a hydraulic mountain bike disc brake
Hydraulic disc brakes are judged on two main criteria - power and modulation. Power is the brake's ability to stop you. Most disc brakes seem overly powerful when you're rolling your bike round a car park but when you're fighting gravity, speed and weight on a steep trail, they can quickly feel like two blocks of cheese grating themselves against your rotor. Generally, the more power the better.
All that power is no good without modulation though. If all you're doing is locking up your wheels everywhere, you'll be picking yourself out of the bushes on every corner. Modulation is how well you can control the power of the brake. From a gentle feather to check your speed to fully hauling on the anchors when you've overcooked it and everything in between, your brake should be able to do it all without any drama.
Some other things you may want to look out for:
Weight - Most brakes are pretty light but if you're a racer or a weight weenie, lighter brakes could be more up your street.
Cooling - Not often a problem in the UK, but on long, steep descents, brakes can cook and lose their power. Manufacturers have started adding cooling fins and other technologies to their brakes to help keep them cool on longer runs.
Lever shape - Most levers are ergonmically designed to fit with your finger, you want one that feels comfortable to use and easy to grip.
Adjustments - Most disc brakes over lever reach adjustment and bite point adjustment, which allows you to tailor them to your preferences.
Four pistons - To really up the power of their brakes, some brands are adding a second pair of pistons inside the caliper.
The best mountain bike disc brakes
TRP Quadiem G-Spec
This brand may be a new to you but it certainly is one to check out when you’re upgrading. This is TRP’s gravity brake and the ‘G’ in the spec refers to the one and only Aaron Gwin.
Yes, Gwin rides with these TRP stoppers on his YT Tues race bike and has had input into the finer design details. These four piston brakes are for hauling up a DH bike, so they are not the lightest, with our samples weighing in at 317g (F) and 337g (R) without rotors.
The levers are a touch wider than many equivalent brakes, with a moto influence to them and, as with the caliper, a polished finish. The lever blades are longer than on many brakes too, and have a drilled and dimpled finish to potentially add control and grip. The four pistons are a steel/ceramic hybrid material and the brakes run on mineral oil as per all Shimano systems. Cooling fins on the calliper body are there to help with cooling.
PRICE: £200.00 each end (brake only)
The Magura Gustav was a very well regarded heavy duty brake back in the day and a popular sight but SRAM and Shimano have mostly dominated the brake current market, with Hope, Formula and now TRP making occasional appearances. Magura have really burst back on the scene in the past 12 months though with some fantastic gravity brakes.
Built in their German factory, both the MT5 and MT7 models have a very well engineered look and feel, with plenty of the brand’s motorcycle and motorsport braking tech and thinking in their design.
The MT7 HC really is the one to go for if funds allow but we really do love everything about both these brakes. Primarily it’s the sensory stuff that this Magura brake is simply so good at. There’s a super sensitive connectivity between lever and disc, which we love.
In terms of details, this ‘heir to the Gustav’, which was one of the brand’s most iconic stoppers, is said to deliver ‘optimum heat transfer, a clearly defined pressure point, with maximum power’ and it really does live up to Magura’s promise. The revised MT7 HC has an adjustable, tool free bite point adjust, 4 piston design, and is now a lower weight at 255g .
Price: £190 (each)
Shimano SLX M7000
There is some very expensive hardware on the market and it’s refreshing to see some brands offering great performance, reliability and ease of use at a truly affordable price. Shimano’s SLX disc brakes are a perfect example of a component that is fuss free and dishes out the performance that it promises, with no drama.
Recently upgraded, with an integrated master cylinder and 22mm diameter pistons, these disc brakes are a great upgrade or replacement when the time comes.
For some riders moving from the longer lever blade of a SRAM brake to the single finger lever on the SLX (and most of Shimano’s other disc brakes) can take a little getting used to.
Well finished, with a solid feel and excellent performance, these brakes are a great example of how mid range kit has evolved. You really don’t need to spend any more on a two piston brake.
Price: £94.99 (each brake)
SRAM really went to town when they designed the Guide brake; addressing all the quirks of the older Avid brakes with great success and resulting in some superbly performing stoppers. They were up against Shimano’s latest range of powerful and trustworthy stoppers, as well as smaller established brands such as Hope and Formula. The rise of new competition from brands such as TRP with the Gwin approved Quadiem brake have also given more choice at the specialist end of the market.
The range topping Guide Ultimate brakes are really a treat to use and show SRAM’s latest know how in a superlight yet powerful brake with all the adjustment you could need. There’s a big difference in feel between the base model Guide R and the Ultimate spec brake.
This new Guide Ultimate is our pick for a custom build trail bike - a lightweight brake with superior stopping power, better than ever lever feel, and faultless reliability. If you’re a heavier rider, or ride an e-bike, then the Guide RE, a pick in the 2017 Dirt 100 is the way to go. Of course, the recently overhauled range of four piston SRAM Code brakes is also worth a look if more power is needed.
There is some very expensive hardware on the market and it’s refreshing to see some brands offering great performance, reliability and ease of use as a truly affordable price. Shimano’s Deore disc brakes are a perfect example of this.
We’ve encountered them on numerous test bikes of the last year. They’ve always impressed us – they just get on with the job in and have never let us down.
With many brakes nudging the £400 mark (or above) for a full set up, it sometimes seems that to get high performance braking you really need to have deep pockets. Sure, when you’re writing the wish list for a custom build few riders would be adding the Deore name to the spec. This mid-tier Shimano groupset often brings to mind mid range hardtails or entry-level full suspension bikes maybe. But if you’re clever, and look at spending your money wisely, these brakes sit alongside components such as the Manitou Mattoc and SRAM NX as kit which really performs well above their price tags. If you’re looking to upgrade or replace worn out disc brakes, just like the recently revised Deore transmission, these affordable brakes are well worth a look.
PRICE: £74.99 each (M6000 - No rotors or brackets)
Sram Code RSC
Whether on a trail bike or gravity orientated DH machine, SRAM’s stoppers have given a blend of power and modulation. With the brake lever clamps nicely integrating with gear shifter units and Reverb lever there is plenty of attention to detail too. The days of unreliability and inconsistent feel of the early Avid brakes are long behind us now – these brakes are packed with SRAM’s latest technology and refinements. And now, with the new ‘Bleeding edge’ bleed system, maintenance is cleaner and more straightforward.
The old Avid Code was a brake with plenty of grunt but SRAM claim that this new version increases power by 15%. SRAM’s SwingLink tech and lever pivot bearings ensure a smooth and progressive feel, while the additional 30% positive fluid volume gives a more consistent performance and firmer feel at the lever.
PRICE: £230 each (inc rotor)