If you’re looking to improve your confidence on the trails, a new set of disc brakes might be just what you need. Disc brake technology has come a long way over the years, and there is a wide range of options available.
Thinking about upgrading your bike? In this guide, we’ll explain why your disc brakes should be your first choice. Then, we’ll show you what options are available to you.
Why it’s Important to Select the Right mountain bike Disc Brake
Not all brakes are created equally. The differences from one model to the next can be vast. The most notable differences from one model to the next are the braking power and precision of the brakes.
Braking Power refers to how quickly a brake can stop. A disc brake system with tons of braking power can bring you to a dead stop in a very short distance.
Precision refers to how much control you have over the brakes. Highly precise brakes will make it easy for you to control exactly how much pressure you’re applying to the rotor.
In many cases, these two features are opposite of each other. Brakes that can stop on a dime won’t give you a ton of control. Brakes with a lot of control will require you to squeeze them pretty hard to get the same amount of brake pressure.
Which ones should you buy? To find out, let’s take a look at the 6 best mountain bike disc brakes on the market. We’ll explore each package one by one, and go in depth to find out what it offers. After, we’ll help you decide which one best suits your own unique riding style.
The Three Components
There are three different pieces of hardware found in a disk brake system.
|The lever attaches to your handle bars, allowing you to give input to the brake system.
|The Rotor is the actual disc. This physically mounts to your hubs, and provides a braking surface for the caliper to grip.
|The Caliper goes around the rotor. It takes the input from the lever and uses it to apply varying degrees of pressure to the rotor.
Some systems include all of these components. Other times they are sold separately. In our review, we’re going to be recommending disc brakes as an entire package. It’s important that you get components that are designed to be used together. If you start to mix and match without understanding the differences in compatibility, your new brake system could perform worse than your old one. Fortunately, every one of the packages we recommend are designed to work together perfectly, so you don’t have to worry.
Shimano XTR M9020 Trail Brakes
Shimano’s best-selling trail brakes should be one of the first options serious downhill riders should look at. The package is sold as two separate components. The XTR brakes themselves are just the brake lever and caliper. You can then use your existing Shimano rotor, or a 3rd party model with an adapter.
Lever and Caliper
- Insulated pistons and insulated pad coatings create 10% more heat resistance
- Servo-Wave carbon-alloy brake lever increases pad clearance, shortens brake engagement times and increases braking power by 20% over non-Servo-Wave brake levrs
- Aluminum caliper
- Compatible with Ice Technology RT99 rotors
This hydraulic system comes pre-bled, so you don’t have to worry about struggling with a finicky pressure while installing it. You simply clip it on and go, immediately taking advantage of all it’s unique features.
One of the first things you’ll notice about these brakes is the ServoWave lever. This is a power-boosting hydraulic system. This means that the pressure applied to the brakes isn’t linear. When you start to squeeze them, the first half of the levers range is a softer brake, allowing you to precisely control power to the wheels. Once you cross the halfway point, the brakes start to grip with exponentially increasing power.
This design gives you the best of both worlds. Precise control, without the expense of fast braking performance.
The lever is extremely well made, and highly adjustable. Made from treated stainless steel, this is something that can stand up to a lot of use and abuse.
The lever mounts using a post-style mount, making it compatible with most bikes on the market.
But the lever isn’t the only impressive feature of this package. The caliper itself also has some high end features you won’t find elsewhere. Most notable is the cooling fins that attach to the pad. During long, sustained periods of braking, the pads can get quite hot. This can cause your rotors to warp, forcing you to replace them. With the cooling fins, they disperse heat with up to 80% more efficiency than un-cooled models, increasing the longevity of your rotors.
Technically speaking, you could use this disc brake system with rotors of your choosing. However, this setup can apply a lot more force than most rotors are designed for. To take full advantage of this system, we’d highly recommend that you choose whichever of these specially designed rotors fits your bike.
For Centerlock Hubs: Shimano XTR SM-RT99 Disc Brake
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These rotors are available in 160mm, 180mm, and 203mm sizes. This two-piece design involves a stainless steel braking surface attached to an carrier made from high rigidity alloy. The advantage of this system is that the braking surface can be machined with higher accuracy, increasing the longevity of your braking surface.
The alloy center also helps hold the outer disc firmly in place. When you’re braking hard, you’re not going to warp them as easily. This further improves the durability.
These brakes feature Shimano’s “Ice-Tech” technology. This is the special design of grooves and cutouts in the rotor that improve cooling, without sacrificing traction. These are ideal for mountain biking as they can withstand long periods of moderate force, as well as short periods of extreme force. These rotors are the first choice among riders who are racing, or travelling at high speed.
For Six Bolt Hubs: Shimano XT SM-RT86 Rotor
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In order to make the centerlock XTR design function with a six bolt mount, Shimano had to make some changes to the platform. The XTs share a lot in common with the XTRs, however the rotor has been thickened and the cooling fins modified. While the XTRs are popular for racers, the XTs are favored by riders who like to do cross country mountain biking, tackling hard terrain at slower speeds.
Hope Tech 3 V4
If you’re a downhill enthusiast, you need something that can stop on a dime. Hope Tech’s 3-series disc brake system has some of the highest stopping power of any disc brake system on the market. It can decelerate you from 30 miles per hour to a dead stop in only six seconds, making it one of the tightest feeling and powerful brakes on the market.
Front Lever and Caliper
- Lever: alloy
- Lever Adjustability: tool-free lever reach, tool-free bite point contact
- Actuation: hydraulic
- Caliper: 4-piston, CNC-machined 2014 T6 aluminum alloy
- Mount Type: post
Rear Lever and Caliper
- Lever: alloy
- Lever Adjustability: tool-free lever reach, tool-free bite point contact
- Actuation: hydraulic
- Caliper: 4-piston, CNC-machined 2014 T6 aluminum alloy
- Mount Type: post
These levers are specially designed for downhill riding, but are also popular among enduro and all-mountain riders. People buy these for their bite. A gentle squeeze on the lever will cause the calipers to grab hard. Most of the time, a brake system like this will only appeal to a very small percentage of downhill riders. But thanks to the easy to adjust levers, the Hope Tech 3 is very versatile.
The two thumb screws located on the front of the lever allow you to completely change their functionality with one quick motion. The adjustment closest to the inside of the lever changes reach. More reach means that the lever can travel a larger distance. Less reach means that one gentle squeeze quickly moves the calipers from fully open to fully shut.
The outer adjustment is for bite. Bite refers to the ‘grabbing point’ where the calipers start to move. All levers have a bit of a dead zone. You start to squeeze, but the caliper doesn’t move until you hit a certain point. With this adjustment, you can set this point where you want.
The calipers feature four hydraulic pistons, which work together with the adjustment knobs to give you more control over the range and pressure applied. They’re tied in with stainless steel brake lines, ensuring that they won’t snap or leak when snagged.
One of the unique aspects of these calipers is that they come fitted with organic pads. Instead of a custom synthetic material, they’re made from naturally occurring metals. These metals are able to provide significantly more gripping force. In this case, the force has increased from 92 Newton Meters to 101 Newton Meters when you compare the sintered pads against the organic ones found in these calipers.
This system is compatible with almost any rotor, provided it’s at least 183mm in diameter. As long as your current rotor is large enough, you’ll definitely be able to use it with the Hope Tech 3 System. However, what settings you choose depend on the tolerances of your rotor. If you’ve got a one-piece rotor without adequate cooling, you’re not going to want to set these brakes up to brake quickly and firmly.
Hope Floating Rotor 200mm Disc Brake
If you want to get the most out of these brakes, then Hope’s specially designed rotor is probably your best bet. The high heat steel that the braking surface is made from is naturally able to handle a lot more pressure than your average rotor, but that’s only one small part of the cooling system.
Its performance is heavily boosted by the holes that have been drilled in it. These holes reduce the weight, and improve airflow through the rotor. This helps to remove heat quickly, and ensures that high tension conditions don’t result in warping.
With an anodized center hub, these rotors are definitely more stylish than most options on the market, making this a visual upgrade just as it’s a performance upgrade.
Avid X0 Trail Disc Brakes
In 2012, Avid released the Trail brakes as a ground-up redesign of their older (and now outdated) Taperbore hydraulic system. Although they’ve expanded their line to include some newer models, the X0 trail brakes still have a passionate following.
These brakes are easy to install, easy to use, and versatile in performance. For riders who like to tackle a variety of terrain, this fantastic option can be considered a bit of a jack of all trades.
- Organic top loading pad
- 4 piston caliper
- Tool free reach and contact adjustment
- Carbon fiber lever, aluminum body and caliper
- TaperBore technology, MatchMaker X compatible
Constructed from carbon and steel, these levers can withstand a lot of abuse. They are extremely easy to install. Just hook the U-joint around the handle bars, and install a single pin through the body.
We usually shy away from recommending brakes that require air to be bled from the hydraulic lines, but we’ll make an exception for these. The levers have an air trap built in, and a single high point bleed. Just loosen the bleeder screw, give the brakes a squeeze, and tighten it once a small amount of fluid starts to leak out. Once bled, you can use a standard bike tool to adjust the reach to your liking, completing the installation.
Sure, there are a few extra steps when compared to high end models. But this installation is still much simpler than with other models. And the end results are well worth it. The levers have a completely linear response. This means that braking is smooth, easy to control, and extremely responsive. The blades are easy to move, and provide a lot of tactile feedback. This means that there is virtually no learning curve, and you can start hitting the hills right away.
The best disc brakes on the market all use quad-piston calipers. Every model we’ve recommend so far has them. This means that each pad has two points of pressure, ensuring that it grips the rotor evenly. But if we hadn’t read the spec sheet before testing these brakes out, we’d never have guessed they were a quad piston design. They just seem too small.
The reality is that this compact design is simply a result of creative engineering. And this shows in many other areas. The calipers mount directly to your bike, with no washers necessary. The hydraulic hose is attached on a 360 degree swivel, so you can feed it in any direction while keeping your line straight and free of kinks.
The calipers use organic pads, backed with an alloy. This alloy helps to reduce heat, without reducing force. These pads are the most durable, and are certainly the most versatile. But for those of you who prefer something specific, you can also get steel-backed organic pads, or synthetic metallic pads. Both options drop straight into the calipers, only requiring a few minutes to install.
The package has three rotor sizes available: 160, 180, and 200 mm. They’ve got a single piece construction, but these are still a cut above your standard rotors. For starters, these rotors are actually three sheets of metal sandwiched together. The outer layers are stainless steel, but the center is made from an aluminum core. Aluminum doesn’t bend as much when heated, and this prevents them from warping.
They’ve also been drilled, improving cooling performance over other rotors.
SRAM Guide Ultimate Disc Brake
Of all the different brakes we’ve looked at, these are the set that you’re most likely to find mounted on a professionals mountain bike. Speaking strictly from a technical standpoint, these are the best disc brakes that you can buy. But in reality, this isn’t going to be true for everyone.
When they’re properly tuned, their performance on the trail is simply sublime. The bite point is precise, but the action is smooth. You’re able to perfectly balance force against motion, ensuring that you’re always in control of your speed without ever sending your tires into a skid. After getting used to these brakes, everything else will feel soft and awkward. But you do need to have some experience behind the handlebars before you can get the most from these brakes.
- New Bleeding Edge technology for quick, hassle-free bleeds (requires bleed adapter)
- All new S4 four piston caliper with superior heat management
- Proven Guide technologies
- Country Of Origin : Taiwan
Internally, the Guide Ultimate’s lever has the same frame as the rest of the guide series. This means that they look similar, but the second you hold them in your hand you’ll know instantly that this is a whole different beast.
Every piece of hardware is machined from titanium, while the blade is made from carbon. These changes result in improved durability, a smoother response, and a weight reduction of 80 grams.
Instead of the typical hydraulic system found in most levers, this model uses a cam-activated cup and seal system. This involves a piston attached to the blade. When the blade moves, the piston pushes fluid from the reservoir into the rest of the system. This design offers a great deal more precision and control compared to other models.
Combining this advanced hydraulic system with the smooth curves and wide range of the blade provide a drastic improvement to ergonomics, but the real magic is found in the caliper.
Each of the four pistons in the caliper have had several upgrades. Their center has been bored out so an insulator could be installed, reducing variances caused by high heat. On the outside, engraved grooves help direct the pistons motion, reducing ‘rollback’ that can cause linearity issues. The end result is a precise, easy to control brake that offers unparalleled performance in even the most challenging conditions.
To reduce pad wear, two horseshoe-shaped heat syncs are installed directly against the back of the brake pad. This is the most effective way to remove heat, reducing wear on both the pads themselves as well as the rotor.
The one disadvantage to this system is that even tiny air bubbles can drastically reduce the responsiveness of the calipers. To correct this, an air trap and bleed port have been installed at the top of the calipers. This allows you to bleed the brakes perfectly and easily every time, leaving no room for error.
In our eyes, there is only one rotor that should be used with the Guide Ultimate system. SRAM has specially designed these rotors to provide peak performance in any condition, and many of it’s features are specifically designed for use with the Guide Series. These rotors are available for both hub types, which we will compare below.
SRAM CenterLine X Rotor – 6 Bolt
SRAM CenterLine X Rotor – Centerlock
These rotors provide extreme durability in a surprisingly lightweight package. Available in 140mm, 160mm, and 180mm packages, they weight in at only 86g, 102g, and 125g respectively.
The first thing that you’ll notice about them is the unique cut out pattern. These aren’t your average drilled out holes. The odd looking shape and placement of the cut outs is designed to accomplish two tasks.
First, the greater air to metal ratio means improved cooling. A cooler rotor will last longer, and is less likely to warp.
Secondly, noise is reduced. These brakes are as close to silent as you can get, and don’t suffer from that warbly noise made by cheap brakes.
Which Mountain Bike Disc Brakes are Right for Me?
Having a hard time deciding? Depending on the type of terrain you like to ride, your experience, and your style, some of these options may perform better than the others.
If you’re a beginner, you want a brake system that is easy to learn, forgiving, and versatile. In this area, there is no better option than the Shimano XTR M9020. Shimano is one of the most well known brands in this industry, and their track record for quality and performance applies to their high end XTR disc brakes.
For riders with a lot of experience, the SRAM Guide Ultimate is an fantastic choice. This brake system requires that you have some knowledge of your riding style, as you’ll have to set the range, the bite point, and bleed the lines manually. But when properly configured, the responsiveness and precision of these brakes is rivalled by none.
For those of you with an intermediate skill level, there are other options. You don’t need the forgiving nature of beginner brakes, nor the precise customizability of expert brakes. Instead, you should purchase based on the type of terrain you’re riding on. For high speed downhill riders, the Hope Tech 3 V4 is a fantastic system. It stops on a dime, and exerts the highest braking pressure of any other brake. When you’re up against all that momentum, this brake system will be a godsend.
For cross country riders that travel at a slower pace, the Avid XO Trail Brakes would be our first choice. They have a completely linear response, allowing you to use the brakes more as form of control rather than a switch that puts a swift end to your travel.
All of these are out of my price bracket! Is there a cheaper option?
In this guide, we covered the best disc brakes that money can buy. If you’ve already got a high end mountain bike, these upgrades are likely to provide you with a pretty significant improvement in your braking performance. But if you’re on a budget, they aren’t always the best option. If you’re looking to upgrade a basic mountain bike that doesn’t currently have disc brakes, this could be a good choice.
Afterpartz NV-5 G3
- Germany TüV certificate high quality, bike mechanical disc brake kit.
- 12Cr13 martensitic stainless steel, 160mm 6 bolt Standard 44MM & 22MM pitch-row disc, perfect flatness and incredibly smooth.
- Cold forged double bent lever blade, 85mm front and 145mm rear brake stainless steel PTFE coated cable.
- Fits good and very easy to adjust and instal, no need with professional skills. Also, we provide straightforward user manual, help you install the kits like a breeze.
Despite the low price, this kit does include everything that you need to get started with a disc brake system. It includes 160mm rotors, adjustable ceramic pads, and a linear range of motion. It will connect to your existing levers, breathing some new life into your old bike. This option should be considered entry level, and won’t compete with the high end models on our list. But if you’re just getting started, this is a perfectly suitable option for beginners.
Are mountain bike disc brakes really worth the money? I should I upgrade another part of my bike first?
Julie Furtado, a famous professional American Mountain Biker, once said “The slower you go, the more likely you are to crash.”
Any experienced rider knows this to be true. Higher speeds mean greater momentum, and a good rider can leverage this momentum to overcome all kinds of challenges. In the pursuit of velocity, the first upgrades we do on our bike tend to be things that help us go faster, or help us maintain control at high speeds. The advantages of a new drivetrain, set of tires, or even a seat. But our disc brakes are commonly neglected.
Sure, brakes are associated with stopping. But that’s a gross over simplification of what they do. Changing your disc brakes means that you’re changing the way you modulate power to your wheels. They give you more control over your speed, traction, and even your steering.