Hydraulic brakes on electric bicycles

When helping customers choose their electric bike, we often talk about brakes. They are after all, the most important component on a city-going bicycle! And if the best bike for you is one that comes with mechanical disc brakes, then this almost always becomes a discussion about upgrading the brakes to hydraulic at the point of purchase.

Electric bike owners use their bikes more. Naturally there are plenty of exceptions, but overall this statement is undeniable. Therefore, the goal of the brakes is to be able to ride regularly in a range of road and weather conditions, often on heavier and faster bikes, often carrying more than just the rider and minimise the frequency of having to maintain your brakes and still always having safe, functional brakes. 

So what are hydraulic and mechanical brakes? 

'Hydraulic' is referring to the fact that when you pull the brake lever, you are compressing fluid which runs all the way down to the actual brake caliper, which then compresses the brake pads into the braking surface (the disc rotor or the wheel's rim). There is no brake cable involved. 

'Mechanical' means that when you pull the brake lever, you're pulling on a brake cable which in turn pulls on the brake caliper, pulling the brake pads into the rim or disc rotor. There are no fluids involved. 

So which option is better? The hydraulic is better in almost every way, especially for electric and cargo bikes.

They win on:

- Braking power. The bike stops better with hydraulic brakes which means the bicycle is safer to ride. One reason for this is that the brake pads are evenly pushed into the rim or rotor, whereas mechanical disc brakes are usually asymmetrical. 

- Maintenance, which means safety. To begin with, both systems work very well, but between services, the difference cannot be understated. Mechanical systems stop very well, but soon enough, they don't stop at all without maintenance because the cables stretch and the pads start to wear (200-2000km). Hydraulic systems continue working well until their brake pads are completely worn out (2000-10,000km) because there is no cable to corrode or stretch and the hydraulic system achieves self-adjustment and self-alignment of pads as they wear. Moreover, hydraulic systems are more often compatible with metallic brake pads, which are longer wearing.

Our customers with mechanical systems routinely come into the shop for a service with less than 20% braking power. Clearly, those riders with hydraulic brakes fitted to their e-bikes have a safer ride.

- Usability. Hydraulic systems don't need you to pull hard on the lever. This is nicer on the hands for everyone and a game-changer for anyone with medical conditions in their fingers, hands and wrists, such as arthritis, RSI, carpal tunnel, overworked wrists for new mothers, previous breaks/sprains etc

Mechanical brakes have some advantages, both of which are unconvincing on electric bikes:

- Cost. The initial cost of the parts is lower

- Fewer tools required. You're more likely to be able to do your own maintenance on them. This is why hydraulic brakes have been resisted on touring bicycles for many years - the importance of being able to keep your bicycle going when you're a long way from bike shops. First of all, this need not be a priority for the majority of electric bicycle users. Second, even touring bicycles are starting to use hydraulic disc brakes. Think of it this way - is it really accurate to say it's an advantage to use mechanical disc brakes because you are able to do maintenance tasks that are only required because the brakes are mechanical?

The obvious question arises - If hydraulic brakes are such a clear winner, then why are they not fitted as standard on every electric bicycle we sell?

It's a good question and the best answer we can give is that not everyone needs the same thing. Everyone needs to be able to stop reliably of course, but we sell e-bikes all over Australia. Some of the places they are sold to are much flatter than Sydney and the infrastructure is usually better, which means fewer sudden stops due to traffic issues and pot holes and less stopping over all. You can ride across Canberra on a cycle path and only stop a few times and each time with plenty of time. Some riders seek out rail trails to enjoy with their e-bikes, where the gradient is consistent and sudden braking is rare. Some of our models, such as the folding electric bicycles, weigh less and are designed for shorter trips so the maintenance intervals are more tolerable.

So if you're a frequent rider on Sydney's roads, you won't look back once you have hydraulic brakes. If you ride in nicer places where braking isn't as constant, you will be better off with hydraulic brakes but it isn't as important.