How Do Brakes Work? The Science of Stopping

by 44

If you’ve ever wondered just how mountain bike brakes work but been too afraid to ask, this video might just bring you some answers.

Although it’s from SRAM, it’s not telling you to go and buy their brakes. Instead, it’s telling you that the brake that will be best for you depends on a whole variety of factors. Riding trails? You want trail brakes… right? Nope. Apparently it matters how fast you’re riding, how heavy you are, how often you ride… and a whole lot more.

Should you have mineral oil, or DOT fluid? Well, that depends too. There are no simple answers, but there’s a whole lot of science and information packed into this short video.

Your first task is to watch it.

And of course, your second task is to head to the comments section and regale us with tales of why it’s wrong, you’re right, and your own personal recommendations for which brakes work best for you and so will of course work perfectly well for the rest of us. Got it?

And your third task is to check out the colour of your rotors. Are you in camp brown, or camp rainbow? No idea what we’re talking about? Watch the video and all will become clear!

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Viewing 40 posts - 1 through 40 (of 44 total)
  • How Do Brakes Work? The Science of Stopping
  • footflaps
    Full Member

    Nice video…

    barney
    Full Member

    I *do* like the very subtle “shimano baaaaad, SRAM gooooood’ message 🤣

    Mineral oil (Shimano) is for noobs who don’t ride HARD and who don’t maintain their bikes. Dot (SRAM, in this instance) is for REAL riders, on REAL terrain, riding REAL bikes, like REAL tigers! Grrrr, tiger!

    I should point out that my 3 main current bikes have SRAM (Dot), Shimano (Mineral) and Hope(Dot). I like all of them 🙂

    thepurist
    Full Member

    Although it’s from SRAM, it’s not telling you to go and buy their brakes. Instead, it’s telling you that the brake

    produced by their competitors isn’t quite as good as theirs.

    BillOddie
    Full Member

    The Enduro Mag dyno tests alluded to in the video are here, the summary makes interesting if slightly inconclusive reading.

    The best MTB disc brake you can buy

    “Pick a Brake Fluid and be a dick about it…”

    13thfloormonk
    Full Member

    ^ That Hope dynometer 😍

    They could do a lucrative sideline bedding in people’s disc brakes for them, I’d pay to get a rotor and pads really really really well bedded in…

    argee
    Full Member

    How do brakes work, i believe the coefficient of friction, specifically kinetic friction and braking provide the answers.

    As for that Enduro Mag test, what an absolute waste of time and effort, to basically just give some ratings without much thought, or realism.

    footflaps
    Full Member

    I *do* like the very subtle “shimano baaaaad, SRAM gooooood’ message 🤣

    Also mineral oil is a chemical which means it’s ‘bad’.

    didnthurt
    Full Member

    Doesn’t explain the basics of how breaks work, nor how hydraulics work (bigger master cylinder etc). Just an advert for Sram justifying their design choices. 🤷🏻‍♀️

    didnthurt
    Full Member

    Although this is a car brake, it definitely helps explain (IMO) how a hydraulic disc brake works.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydraulic_brake

    Some beginners don’t realise that friction between the pad and rotor is a good thing, some even apply oil to quiet them down. 😬

    argee
    Full Member

    If memory isn’t failing too badly, all you’re basically doing in braking is turning kinetic energy into heat, via friction, that then provides you with some level of deceleration against a given criteria. The functioning of the brake is basically depressing the lever and that will then push more oil into the hose to function the pistons and provide the pressure to provide the required level of contact and force with the pad.

    The SRAM video is just a bit too complicated and talking about the extremes more than the actual parameters for MTB brakes, so yes, all good knowing mineral oil operates in a temperature range, but not really relevant when mapped against a MTB brake operating temp range, same with rubbers, pretty sure you can use viton with both mineral and synthetics.

    As for that Enduro test, honestly, it’s like those science papers you would read and wonder whether they were bored that week and just came up with a test, logged the numbers and then added stars at the end, they don’t even give a breakdown of the ratings, how do they rate each part, modulation is a rating with no mention, there is no balancing of the brakes with the same pad materials or providing the rig set up and comparison.

    bikesandboots
    Full Member

    Mineral oil (Shimano) is for noobs who don’t ride HARD and who don’t maintain their bikes. Dot (SRAM, in this instance) is for REAL riders, on REAL terrain, riding REAL bikes, like REAL tigers! Grrrr, tiger!

    I expect there’s a whole bunch of people who would conclude they want mineral/Shimano based on that segment. But those people probably won’t be watching this kind of video in the first place.

    As for that Enduro Mag test,

    The bike-magazin.de ones are better, worth the £2 if you’re going to be spending on brakes. Then stick the PDF through an online translator.

    thols2
    Free Member

    Some beginners don’t realise that friction between the pad and rotor is a good thing, some even apply oil to quiet them down.

    Some Shimano brakes even had a built in system to spray fluid onto the pads.

    chrismac
    Full Member

    Im sure that magazine article was used because for reasons that aren’t clear when you read it the Code RSC came out on top rather then the MT7

    feed
    Full Member

    Some Shimano brakes even had a built in system to spray fluid onto the pads.

    🙂

    oldnick
    Full Member

    No mention of how the boiling point of DOT fluid plummets as it absorbs water, but of course all SRAM brake users have a regular brake fluid flush scheduled because “Grrrr, tiger!”

    thols2
    Free Member

    No mention of how the boiling point of DOT fluid plummets as it absorbs water, but of course all SRAM brake users have a regular brake fluid flush scheduled because “Grrrr, tiger!”

    1. It doesn’t “plummet”. It decreases gradually. It has to absorb a lot of water to be affected to a major degree.

    2. MTB brakes are sealed systems. Unless you do something silly like jetwash your brakes, water can’t get in. If water could get in, fluid could get out. If there is no source of water for DOT fluid to absorb, there is no problem.

    3. DOT fluid absorbs water and it disperses throughout the system. Mineral oil does not absorb it. If water does get into the system, it will pool at the lowest point in a mineral oil system, which is the caliper. The caliper is also the most likely part of the system to be immersed in water if you ride through a water crossing, etc. The caliper is the part of the brake system most exposed to heat under heavy braking so any water in the caliper is going to reduce the boiling point to 100 degrees C. When you have the brakes applied, the system is under high pressure and the boiling point will be increased. When you release the brakes, the system drops back to atmospheric pressure and the boiling point drops back to 100 degrees (or lower if you are at altitude). So, the fluid will boil after you release the brakes and you won’t have any brakes for the next stop.

    Of course, this is highly unlikely to happen in real life. The point is that the “absorbs water” thing is not actually a problem in real life but, if water does get in, it’s actually a bigger problem for mineral oil.

    4. Mineral oil is toxic too. This is not an advantage of mineral oil over DOT fluid.

    BruceWee
    Full Member

    For me the main advantage of DOT fluid is that you can go into any Halfords and pick some up.

    I haven’t tried walking into a bike shop and picking up bottle of mineral oil since the global shortages started. Not sure how easy it is to find at the moment.

    Saying that, you can store mineral oil for much longer than DOT.

    thols2
    Free Member

    Saying that, you can store mineral oil for much longer than DOT.

    You can store DOT fluid indefinitely in a sealed container. Water can’t magically diffuse though the bottle.

    argee
    Full Member

    In a MTB braking system, what oil you use is not going to be the weak point, i’m on shimano’s, so mineral oil, but just as comfortable using DOT fluid with SRAM, i just have to wear gloves when messing about with synthetic oils.

    PJay
    Free Member

    As a bit of a numpty mechanic, when I moved to hydraulic disc brakes I went for mineral oil as I tend to spill stuff and was under the impression that DOT fluid was somewhat corrosive – is this wrong?

    BruceWee
    Full Member

    You can store DOT fluid indefinitely in a sealed container. Water can’t magically diffuse though the bottle.

    Sure, but if you open it it’s no longer a sealed container. It does encourage you to bleed your brakes regularly though.

    The 1 litre bottle of mineral oil I bought years ago is still sitting there half full while I throw away any remaining DOT fluid if it’s been open more than 6 months.

    Olly
    Free Member

    3. DOT fluid absorbs water and it disperses throughout the system. Mineral oil does not absorb it. If water does get into the system, it will pool at the lowest point in a mineral oil system, which is the caliper.

    yeah, this was my understanding too. DOT is used BECAUSE its hydrophilic, not inspite of it. your brakes get progressivly worse and worse, rather than just throw up all of a sudden. Maybe an issue in Cars on the road, but not in reality on push bikes.
    the seal material thing seems like a massive red herring to me. Have you ever heard of anyone cooking thier shimano brakes and causing a leak due to heat? rubbish.

    For me the main advantage of DOT fluid is that you can go into any Halfords and pick some up.

    Im not saying its “the same”, or even advisable, but i started using Citroen LMH 15 years ago, following some advice on here and have had no problems at all. I suspect its more viscous which will have a minor effect on lever feel, but ive got brakes that have had it in for years and never had an issue.

    https://www.halfords.com/motoring/engine-oils-and-fluids/brake-clutch-fluid/comma-l.h.m.-plus-1l-124424.html

    molgrips
    Full Member

    MTB brakes are sealed systems. Unless you do something silly like jetwash your brakes, water can’t get in

    I stripped my Hope Mono Minis down, probably at 12 or so years old, and there was aluminium corrosion on the inside of the seat of the caliper seal. So it looks like water was hanging around there and either creeping through the seal, or causing corrosion and being absorbed into the fluid which then exacerbated the corrosion, I’m not sure. But it’s clearly a possible vector for water to get in as corroded alu won’t form a perfect seal against the rubber. The same brakes did seem to have a problem with contamination too (until I rebuilt them) which could well have fluid weeping out slightly by the same route.

    This wouldn’t be a problem for mineral oil though probably.

    Im not saying its “the same”, or even advisable, but i started using Citroen LMH 15 years ago, following some advice on here and have had no problems at all.

    Shimano swear up and down that the many caliper seal failures are due to people using mineral oils other than their own, due to different additive content.

    BruceWee
    Full Member

    Im not saying its “the same”, or even advisable, but i started using Citroen LMH 15 years ago, following some advice on here and have had no problems at all.

    Good to know, thanks!

    BruceWee
    Full Member

    Shimano swear up and down that the many caliper seal failures are due to people using mineral oils other than their own, due to different additive content.

    I wonder if they’d adjust their message slightly if people started avoiding their brakes due to shortages of special shimano brake fluid.

    Daffy
    Full Member

    The messaging is slightly mixed up…You can leave mineral oil brakes sitting for aaages and they’re fine, but if they’re left in the cold and then heated, they may leak.

    In reality, this might make a lot of sense as to why Shimano callipers fail with what we call microleaks which cannot be traced. The bikes are left, sat in the cold for long periods, then suddenly get used and the seal doesn’t adapt properly, a tiny amount of fluid leaks, contaminates the pads and the brakes are damaged. It might also explain the wandering bite point. if the seal leaks fluid, it can also allow a small amount of air/water into the brake which would alter the bite point. It doesn’t take much.

    mert
    Free Member

    @BruceWee

    The 1 litre bottle of mineral oil I bought years ago is still sitting there half full while I throw away any remaining DOT fluid if it’s been open more than 6 months.

    Unless you’re leaving the bottle open near a direct source of moisture, you’re just throwing away money. The amount of moisture in a closed bottle is miniscule. Even when you open and close it a handful of times a year it’s not likely to add a measureable amount of water to the oil.


    @thols2

    Some Shimano brakes even had a built in system to spray fluid onto the pads.

    And some SRAM brakes have a built in system to allow the lever to go all the way to the bars without actually squeezing the pads against the rotor. That cuts down on noise too. Except for screaming.

    thols2
    Free Member

    In a MTB braking system, what oil you use is not going to be the weak point

    Pretty much. Unless you’re racing DH, it’s not going to make any functional difference. I use both. Fluid type has never been a consideration in buying brakes.

    was under the impression that DOT fluid was somewhat corrosive – is this wrong?

    Kinda. It destroys paintwork and leaves the metal underneath exposed. The metal then corrodes. Brake systems are made of steel, aluminium, brass, etc. DOT fluid does not corrode those.

    if you open it it’s no longer a sealed container.

    And then when you screw the cap back on it reverts to being a sealed container. Honestly, the whole “absorbs water” thing is massively exaggerated. Sure, if you live in Singapore or somewhere where it’s always humid and you leave a container of DOT fluid with the top open, it will absorb moisture. But nobody does that. You put the cap back on. If you’re really worried about it, put it in a ziplock bag.

    BruceWee
    Full Member

    Unless you’re leaving the bottle open near a direct source of moisture, you’re just throwing away money.

    I can pick up a 1/2 litre of brake fluid for £5.

    If I bleed all three sets of Sram brakes I run straight away and then again in 6 months I might use half the bottle. So I’ve thrown away £2.50 (assuming I can’t find anyone else who wants their brakes bled).

    I can’t say I’ve ever had brake fade (I don’t do many alpine descents in the middle of summer) so maybe you’re right that it’s an unnecessary precaution but it’s certainly not the most expensive part of mountain biking for me.

    BruceWee
    Full Member

    And then when you screw the cap back on it reverts to being a sealed container.

    Not really.

    Taking precautions against moisture absorption probably isn’t necessary unless your brakes are running at the design limit so for most of us it’s not an issue most of the time.

    Also, even though your brake system is sealed, it still absorbs moisture. Have you ever found a bike that’s been siting for a while (over a year) and found the brakes are locked up? The fluid has expanded. I don’t know what could have caused it to expand if not moisture.

    Moisture absorption is an easy thing to avoid (it might cost you £5 over the year) so why not avoid it?

    thols2
    Free Member

    Have you ever found a bike that’s been siting for a while (over a year) and found the brakes are locked up?

    Nope.

    The fluid has expanded. I don’t know what could have caused it to expand if not moisture.

    For this to be a real thing, the system would have to be overfilled to the point where there is no space in the reservoir for the fluid to expand into. Brakes do not absorb fluid in the way you imagine, certainly not enough to pressurize the system and cause the wheels to lock. What is more likely is that the rotors corroded and stuck to the pads.

    BruceWee
    Full Member

    For this to be a real thing, the system would have to be overfilled to the point where there is no space in the reservoir for the fluid to expand into. Brakes do not absorb fluid in the way you imagine, certainly not enough to pressurize the system and cause the wheels to lock.

    I found a bike on someone’s garage (ok fine, it was my parent’s garage where I left a Juicy 3 equipped Inbred for a few years) where the pads were in contact with the disc and the reservoir cap was corroded due to brake fluid weeping out.

    What is more likely is that the rotors corroded and stuck to the pads.

    If the pads weren’t in contact with the rotor then how would they have corroded in place without the pads closing on the disc?

    The pads or the discs would have had to have grown a layer of corrosion that bridged the gap and caused the two surfaces to become connected. That seems less likely than fluid expansion.

    thols2
    Free Member

    If the garage is poorly ventilated and poorly insulated, the rubber components on a bike will degrade if you leave it there for years. If the brake system is overfilled, it might pressurize in hot weather due to thermal expansion. Brake fluid in a sealed system is not going to absorb moisture from the air sufficient to cause the brakes to lock on. The problem here is due to the bike being stored in a poor environment, not the type of brake fluid.

    BruceWee
    Full Member

    If the garage is poorly ventilated and poorly insulated, the rubber components on a bike will degrade if you leave it there for years.

    After a bleed everything was fine so the rubber components seemed to be OK.

    If the brake system is overfilled, it might pressurize in hot weather due to thermal expansion.

    I think thermal expansion is even less likely than corrosion, tbh. Afterall, brakes are exposed to an awful lot of thermal conditions by their nature.

    Brake fluid in a sealed system is not going to absorb moisture from the air sufficient to cause the brakes to lock on.

    I think you’re wrong. All DOT fluid brake systems absorb moisture at a certain rate. The numbers I’ve seen are 3% after 18 months. I don’t know what the rate of absorption is over longer periods but 5% doesn’t seem unreasonable.

    If the volume of fluid in the system is increased by 5% I don’t think it’s crazy to think that could bring the pads into contact with the discs.

    I probably used the wrong phrasing earlier when I said locked up. What I meant was that the pads were dragging significantly on the disc rather than rigidly clamped.

    The problem here is due to the bike being stored in a poor environment, not the type of brake fluid.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if the system absorbed more moisture if it was being kept in a garage compared to indoors, yes.

    molgrips
    Full Member

    The pads or the discs would have had to have grown a layer of corrosion that bridged the gap and caused the two surfaces to become connected.

    It’s possible. Sintered pads are porous and hold water, and metal oxides take up more volume which is why seatposts get stuck.

    I am obsessive about brakes running freely and I make sure mine are adjusted so there’s daylight between pad and rotor, but if I park my bike up wet there’s usually an imprint of the pad in rust on the rotor.

    thols2
    Free Member

    It wouldn’t surprise me if the system absorbed more moisture if it was being kept in a garage compared to indoors, yes.

    They don’t absorb water the way you think they do.

    I think you’re wrong. All DOT fluid brake systems absorb moisture at a certain rate. The numbers I’ve seen are 3% after 18 months.

    That’s for an open container of fluid. It’s not for a sealed system like on a mountain bike.

    BruceWee
    Full Member

    That’s for an open container of fluid. It’s not for a sealed system like on a mountain bike.

    No, that’s for cars.

    Anywhere there is a joint or connection there is a point that moisture can be absorbed.

    molgrips
    Full Member

    Do cars have a diaphragm on brake fluid caps like bikes do? I don’t recall seeing one.

    Rockhopper
    Free Member

    My very first Hope brake had an adjuster on the top of the reservoir. Even when they were brand new they would lock on if left in the sun and you had to back off the adjuster to be able to ride the bike again.

    thols2
    Free Member

    No, that’s for cars.

    Many cars don’t have a sealed system like MTBs. Because they are never turned upside down, they just have a vent in the cap. That’s the same as leaving fluid in an open container.

    Brake systems are highly pressurized when you clamp on the brakes. The fluid on the inside is at much greater pressure than the air on the outside. If moisture could pass through the joints and seals to get into the system when there is no pressure differential, fluid would squirt out when you applied the brakes. This doesn’t happen because the system is sealed.

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