Are you sick and tired of people debating the merits of road disc brakes? Me too! So today I’m going to rain all over a different parade: cable-operated disc brakes.
Cable disc brakes are not the best at anything. If you set them up perfectly, they can work pretty well, but proper adjustment is a moving target and in really mucky conditions (like on a peanut-butter-sticky ‘cross course, for example) you may find yourself twiddling a barrel adjuster more often than seems reasonable.
‘Traditional’, single-piston cable disc brakes are an inherently less-than-wonderful design. With a single piston, only one brake pad moves, pushing the disc rotor against a second, fixed pad. This means that every application of the brake involves bending the rotor slightly, and that the pads will never both make perfect, perpendicular contact with the braking surface. Uneven pad wear is all but inevitable, and you need to keep on top of adjustment for your brakes to work properly.
Even so, hydraulic brakes are just flat-out better, principally because of their self-adjusting nature; where a mechanical caliper requires you to make continual cable tension adjustments to account for pad wear, hydros self-adjust and they also self-centre to an extent.
When road hydraulics were in their infancy they were an expensive, niche product that most riders couldn’t justify. Now the tech has trickled down to the level of relatively affordable groupsets like Shimano Tiagra and SRAM Rival. It’s appearing on complete bikes around the £1,000 / US$1,300 / AU$1,700 mark, the kind of money many of us are quite happy to spend on a machine for riding through wet winters or for commuting.
Curiously, Giant’s newest entry-level road bike the Contend has just launched with a stem-mounted mechanical-to-hydro converter. I’m going to withhold judgment on this until I’ve actually tried it, but on the face of things it’s a profoundly odd choice given the alternatives now available.
The obligatory caveat
Everyone loves a caveat, so here’s one: it’s possible that for really remote riding — let’s say touring in
They do have the advantage that you’ll never have to bleed them and of course they’re childishly simple, with no perishable seals or fluid to boil on big descents — but does that really matter? You can carry spares for any brake system, so I’m not convinced on that score.
Cable disc brakes served their purpose, but we’ve got better options now. Rest in peace you unlovely things, I won’t miss you.