Choosing the best disc brake for you

Supported by Magura

When choosing the best brake for you and your ride, it helps to break the decision down into three different departments. Caliper design, rotor style and brake pad material.

These three aspects work in a system and there is no single formula. Many riders may well be better served by 4-piston calipers, 203mm rotors and organic brake pads, but there will also be a significant number of riders who would be better off on 2-piston calipers, a 203mm rotor. 160 mm or a sintered brake. pads.

Let’s break the decision down into three parts. Caliper, discs, pads.

1. Vernier caliper

The decision here is whether you go for a 2 piston or 4 piston (sometimes called 2 or 4 piston) caliper design.

The 2-piston calipers are perfectly suited for cross-country style terrain. They are also better suited for lighter riders who might otherwise struggle to get 4-piston systems up to a system temperature where they actually work. If your terrain isn’t that steep or you weigh less than around 70kg, you’ll actually find that 2-piston systems perform more powerfully than 4-piston setups.

Then there’s the practicality that smaller 2-piston calipers are easier to accurately align to the rotor compared to longer-bodied 4-piston calipers.

4-piston calipers are a better bet for riders who typically ride more demanding terrain. Trail racers, enduro racers and other gravity fiends will be well served by 4-piston calipers.

Heavier riders (more than around 90 kg) should also opt for 4-piston brakes. These riders will have no problem getting the brakes up to system operating temperature. In fact, they will have the opposite problem: brake fade due to overheating. 4-piston systems are much more efficient at dissipating heat than 2-piston systems and as such suffer much less overheating/discoloration.

Or there is a third way. 4 pistons at the front, 2 pistons at the rear. This is similar to the common practice of using a large front rotor (203mm) and a smaller rear rotor (180mm).

2. Rotor

In very general terms, you should go for the largest rotor size possible while still having the ability to bring your brakes up to system operating temperature.

A 203mm rotor provides approximately 10% more braking power compared to a 180mm rotor. A more powerful braking system reduces strain and fatigue on your forearm, as well as the likelihood of brake fade. Again, this is even more relevant for heavier riders who benefit greatly from large rotors (the new generation of 220mm rotors are 10% more powerful than 203mm rotors by the way).

Wait though, some circumstances aren’t best served by simply throwing massive rotors into the mix. As mentioned above regarding lighter and/or XC riders, large rotor setups may end up being too cool to perform optimally and therefore will actually be weaker than more modestly sized rotor setups.

Large rotors also take much longer to break in.

With some brands of brakes, there isn’t much choice when it comes to rotors other than diameter. Some brands, however, offer a number of different rotor designs. If we take Magura for example, they have about five different rotor styles to choose from, each with a different bias in weight, power, and fade resistance.

3. Buffer

Ah, the humble brake pad. The smallest and arguably the most crucial aspect of all! Please don’t assume all pads are the same and squeeze any discounted “bargain” into your calipers.

To be frank, it is probably the brake brands themselves that are partly responsible for the lack of attention paid to the brake pads. Traditionally, all marketing talk is about the more expensive and shiny aspects of braking (calipers and levers). Invest in some decent pads, please!

A good brake with a bad pad becomes a bad brake. Performance is going out the window. Your money goes in the trash.

Now, many mountain bikers do not fully understand what the different types of brake pads are. Organic (AKA resin), sintered, semi-metallic… WTF, does that mean all that?

Hayes Dominion A4 disc brakes

Organic (or resin)

Advantages: Doesn’t require as much warm-up to work well. Deliver a more immediate and crisper biting sensation. Often quieter than sintered or semi-metallic pads.

The inconvenients: More prone to fading on very long descents. Can be glazed (which can be solved by sanding/filing the glazed surface). Not their best in the wet and as such perhaps not ideal in the often-soaked rear brake in the winter.

Sintered (or metallic)

Advantages: Last longer than organic. Very good for preventing brake fade during prolonged and intense braking. Have greater ultimate power when hot. Glaze resistant.

The inconvenients: Not very potent until warmed to a decent temperature. Can be quite noisy.


Advantages: The user-friendly compromise choice and the best of both worlds. Last longer than organic. Doesn’t need to heat up as much as sintered.

The inconvenients: Can still freeze. Typically a bit more expensive.

Our recommendation? Go for an organic pad on the front and a semi-metallic on the back. Buy an extra set of semi-metallic pads to take with you on your rides as spares.

And the brake levers?

Once you’ve made your caliper, rotor and pad selection, it’s worth taking a look at the brake lever design.

Ultimately, it makes sense that the brake levers are adjustable enough. The absolute minimum adjustment a brake lever should have within reach, that is. where the lever rests at rest relative to the handlebar/grip. This fit is useful for riders of varying hand sizes, as is a personal tuning option; some riders like the levers to sit far away, others prefer them closer to the handlebars/grip.

Again, most brake brands don’t offer many options when it comes to brake lever blade design. You are stuck with what it contains. The Magura are different. For the majority of their performance disc brakes, you can actually swap out the lever blade.

HC Aluminum and Carbon: classic single-finger blade

HC Wide Reach: a wider finger for larger hands (Loic Bruni’s blade of choice)

HC3: Single finger blade with adjustable modulation (Danny MacAskill’s lever)

2-FINGER: yes, two fingers (or one finger if you prefer) with a longer grip area and greater modulation (softer initial bite followed by increased leverage power)

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Wiley C. Thompson