Supported by Magura
When choosing the best brake for you and your riding, it’s useful to split the decision into three different departments. Calliper design, rotor style and brake pad material.
All three of these aspects work in a system and there is no one-size-fits-all formula. A lot of riders may well be best served by 4-piston callipers, 203mm rotors and organic brake pads but there will also be a significant number of riders out there who’d be better on either 2-pistons, a 160mm rotor or sintered brake pads.
Let’s split the decision into three parts. Calliper, rotors, pads.
The decision here is whether you go for a 2-piston or a 4-piston (sometimes called 2-pot or 4-pot) calliper design.
2-piston callipers are ideally suited to cross-country style terrain. They are also better suited to lighter riders who may otherwise struggle to get 4-piston systems up to a system temperature where they actually work. If your terrain is not so steep of gradient, or you weigh less than 70kg approx, you will actually find 2-piston systems perform more powerfully than 4-piston setups.
Then there’s the practical aspect that smaller 2-piston callipers are easier to align accurately to the rotor compared to longer-body 4-piston callipers.
4-piston callipers are a better bet for riders who typically do more demanding terrain. Trail riders, enduro racers and other gravity fiends will be well served by 4-piston callipers.
Heavier riders (over 90kg approx) should also opt for 4-piston brakes. These riders will have no issue getting the brakes up to a functioning system temperature. In fact, they will have the opposite issue: brake fade due to overheating. 4-piston systems are much better at dissipating heat compared to 2-piston and as such they suffer from overheating/fading much less.
Or there is a third way. 4-piston up front, 2-piston at the rear. This is similar to the common practice of running a large front rotor (203mm) and a smaller rear rotor (180mm).
In very broad terms, you should go for the largest rotor size you can whilst still retaining the ability to get your brakes up to a functioning system temperature.
A 203mm gives around 10% more braking power compared to a 180mm rotor. A more powerful brake system reduces the strain and fatigue on your forearm, as well as reducing the likelihood of brake fade. Again, this is even more relevant to heavier riders who benefit greatly from large rotors (the new breed of 220mm rotors are 10% more powerful than 203mm rotors by the way).
Hold on though, some circumstances are not best served by simply throwing massive rotors into the mix. As mentioned above regarding lighter and/or XC riders, big rotor setups may end up being too cold to work optimally and thus will be actually weaker than more modest size rotor setups.
Big rotors also take significantly longer to bed-in.
With some brake brands, there isn’t a whole load of choice when it comes to rotors, other than their diameter. Some brands however offer quite a number of different rotor designs. If we take Magura for instance, they have around five different rotor styles to choose from, each with a different bias of weight, power and fade resistance.
Ah, the humble brake pad. The smallest and arguably most crucial aspect of them all! Please don’t just assume all pads are the same and bung any old discounted-stock ‘bargain’ into your callipers.
To be frank, it’s arguably brake brands themselves that are partly to blame for the lack of focus on brake pads. Traditionally all the marketing talk is of the more expensive, shinier aspects of braking (callipers and levers). Invest in decent pads please people!
A great brake with a poor pad in it becomes a poor brake. Performance goes out of the window. Your money goes down the drain.
Now then, a lot of mountain bikers do not fully understand what the different brake pad types are. Organic (AKA resin), sintered, semi-metallic… WTF does it all mean?
Organic (or resin)
Pros: Don’t require as much warming up to work well. Offer more of an immediate, sharper bite feel. Often quieter than sintered or semi-metallic pads.
Cons: More prone to fading on very long descents. Can glaze over (which is solvable by sanding/filing away the glazed surface). Not their best in the wet and as such perhaps not ideal in the oft-soaked rear brake during winter.
Sintered (or metallic)
Pros: Last longer than organic. Very good at preventing brake fade during prolonged, heavy braking. Have greater ultimate top-end power once warm. Glaze-resistant.
Cons: Not very powerful until warmed up to a decent temperature. Can be rather noisy.
Pros: The user-friendly, best-of-both-worlds compromise choice. Last longer than organic. Don’t need to warm up as much as sintered.
Cons: Can still glaze over. Typically a bit more expensive.
Our recommendation? Go for an organic pad up front and a semi-metallic at the back. Buy an extra semi-metallic set of pads to take with you on rides as spares.
What about brake levers?
Once you’ve made your selection of calliper, rotor and pad, it’s worth having a look at the brake lever design.
Ultimately it makes sense for brake levers to be sufficiently adjustable. The absolute minimum adjustment a brake lever should have in reach adjust ie. where the lever lies at rest in relation to the handlebar/grip. This adjustment is useful for riders of varying hand size as also is a personal tweak option; some riders like levers to sit far away, some prefer them nearer the handlebar/grip.
Again, most brake brands don’t offer much in the way of options when it comes to design of brake lever blade. You’re stuck with what it comes with. Magura are different. For the majority of their performance disc brakes you can actually swap out the lever blade.
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