Decent disc brakes are essential for boosting control and confidence on the trail
We pick the very best mountain bike disc brakes from three categories: budget, trail and four-piston. Don’t start stopping until you’ve read this.
In an ideal world you wouldn’t need to use the brakes that often because you’d rail every corner, blitz all the descents like a chainless Aaron Gwin and charge down rooty singletrack quicker than a supercharged EWS pro. However, the majority of use don’t have those skills, we drag the brakes when we’re riding downhill, brake all the way round corners and often comfort brake just because things have gotten too scary. For us really powerful and reliable disc brakes are a must have, because often we’re hanging onto them for dear life.
Thankfully every year disc brakes become more efficient and more powerful, so you can get back into your comfort zone a lot sooner. You also get adjustable reach and bite point, so when you absolutely need to stop on a sixpence, your hands will be in the right place. Brake pads are also harder wearing, which is a good thing with all that stopping you’re having to do and foul UK weather you’re riding in.
If and when you do drop the anchors, you don’t want to go flying over the handlebars, which is why most modern brakes have tons of modulation. This allows you to really feel when the wheel starts to lock, so you can back off and regain control.
There are a lot of manufacturers producing disc brakes for mountain bikes and most of them are available in the UK; all but one, are included here. We’ve broken the test down into two categories – budget and trail. The budget brakes are all under a £100 a wheel (that’s the price for one brake) and the trail or none budget brakes are all upwards of £180, which means there’s a spread of price options to suit various budgets.
Mountain bike disc brakes: need to know
Brake pads come in two main compounds – metal sintered or organic. The latter are often fitted to brakes because they’re slightly cheaper but it you want better stopping and longer life, especially in the wet, you’ll want a metal sintered upgrade.
This is the most important adjustment on any brake because it allows you to set the reach (lever spacing) to you hand size. The adjuster will often be an annoyingly hard-to-reach grub screw but some brakes come with small knob that you can adjust by hand.
Bite point adjustment
Technically this adjustment doesn’t move the pads any closer to the rotor but it feels like it. It’s handy adjustment if you want to run you levers inboard. SRAM calls this the Contact Point Adjustment, on Shimano it’s Freestroke.
Available in various sizes, but the most common are 160, 180 and 200mm. There’s more mechanical advantage with a bigger diameter rotor and so greater stopping power.
Standard rotors are cut from stainless steel and heat treated and two-piece designs (including floating rotors) have the steel braking disc surface riveted to an aluminium carrier. This type of rotor is lighter, truer and is far less likely to warp but yep you guessed it – it will cost more.
Depending on the mounts on your frame/fork and rotor size you may need to run an adapter. In the past these were included but most manufacturers now sell them separately because why should you pay for something you might not use or maybe they’re just being cheap.
A MatchMaker style clamp allows the shifter to be bolted directly to the lever. It will be an additional cost but it eliminates the clamp, saves weight and frees up bar space for junk such as lights, computers, phone mounts and the like.
Olive and insert
These are the small components used to fasten the hose into the lever. Spares are included in the box because if you shorten the hose you will need to replace them.
The best mountain bike disc brakes
All of the following brakes are the best mountain bike stems which scored at least 8/10 in our test. Here’s a complete list of all the mountain bike disc brakes we’ve tested.
Overall performance was good, if a notch or two below its competitors. We put this down to a couple of things. Firstly the pads don’t sweep the full braking surface of the rotor; around 3mm is left untouched.
Shimano Deore M6000
Shimano Deore M6000 disc brake keeps bumping up the standard of what a budget stopper can really be, premium performance with a great price.
Sitting towards the more affordable end of the SRAM range, the SRAM Level is another brake you’ll find equipped on many lower priced mountain bikes. With good reason.
At £25 the Clout1 is just jaw-droppingly cheap and although it feels a little wooden and has limited rotor options, it’s the perfect upgrade brake.
Hope Tech 3 X2
The X2 is their cross-country and trail orientated dual piston caliper, and we’ve got it mated to their fully adjustable Tech 3 lever. Reach and bite point is adjusted by two large dials on the front. These are chunky enough to not be fiddly, while also not bulky, and it’s by far the favourite lever on test.
SRAM Guide RE
SRAM didn’t develop the RE for regular trail bikes, but since it costs the same as the cheapest Guide brake, only adds 35g, and packs Code levels of power, we’re totally sold on it for regular trail use, especially if you’re a heavy or more aggressive rider.
Shimano XT M8020
Not to be confused with the XT M8000 disc brake (the 2 pot version). The lever is the same as the M8000 though, it’s the caliper end that gets the changes with four ceramic pistons that give out loads of well modulated power with bags of top end.
SRAM Code RSC
For a DH/gravity brake, the Code has a light, sensitive action. There’s quite a bit of lever travel before it bites but the power delivery is ultra-smooth and it builds evens as it travel through the stroke.
TRP Quadiem G-Spec
The caliper comes with lightweight titanium hardware and semi-metallic pads. Stainless steel rotors are included in the box but TRP offers a two-piece design with an aluminium spider and stainless-steel braking surface as an upgrade.
Hayes Dominion A4
Hayes’ big comeback offering, the Dominion is an excellent brake with some unique and useful features. The Crosshair caliper centring is extremely well designed and prevents drag as well as helping improve braking power and feel.
Hope Tech 3 E4
Everything you need to know is in the name – the Tech 3 E4 uses the third generation Tech brake lever combined with a four-piston caliper. The lever has both reach and bite point adjustment, adjusted by two machined dials on the front of the blade.
Best mountain bike disc brakes: the winners
Best budget brakes: Clarks Clout1.
Best trail brakes: Shimano Deore M6000.
Best 4-pot brakes: SRAM Guide RE.
Including three budget brakes in this test wasn’t just a token gesture on our part, there’s not a lot of choice. Thankfully all three component manufacturers have various options at the lower price points, in fact Clark’s is exclusively in the budget end with all its brakes are under a £50 a wheel.
SRAM and Shimano duked it out for the win but the Deore took the crown simply because it has a better lever, is lighter weight and more affordable. The SRAM Level is good but the clamp is crude, it’s heavier and more expensive.
Now we’ve got the budget stuff out of the way let’s talk about all the flash carbon levered, titanium pimped up super brakes. Well we’re going to disappoint you because the best brake in the trail category doesn’t have any fancy carbon or titanium hardware. It’s a very basic disc brake but it works, it slows you down. In fact, we didn’t really have any issues with any of the brakes in that regard, they all did the basic job of controlling speed very well, which meant this was a really hard test to call.
When compiling our final score we could have just totted up the features and suchlike but it seems there’s a law of diminishing returns with disc brakes, more so than any other product we test. For example, look at the weight – the difference between the lightest and heaviest brakes is barely 60g, but the difference in price is about £170, per wheel!
You’re also paying for greater adjustability – like tool free reach adjustment. It’s nice to have because you don’t have to use a tool but you are only ever going to adjust this once and leave it. The same is true of bite point adjustment and even Hayes’ Crosshair caliper alignment.
Don’t get use wrong adjustments are nice to have but wouldn’t a better idea be to get a functional brake and then just spend as much as you can on the suspension, wheels and tyres; things that make a real difference to performance. The irony is you’re being to spend a load of cash of something you’re trying not to use that often.
However, we do have to justify our choices and the cheapest brake in the trail category was the most disappointing. We like the idea of Magura two caliper system, and it is killer value for money, but it just lacked stopping power. Hope makes some amazing brakes in a ton of different anodised colours but again the Tech 3 E4 just didn’t seem to stop as well as the top-end brakes. The same is true of the TRP Quadiem, loads of modulation and feel but we just felt we had to pull a bit harder and sometimes use two fingers to get stopped.
Three brakes took the runner up spot and they have a surfeit of power. The Shimano XT M8020 is the best value but there is still a question mark hanging over the inconsistent lever feel. The Haye’s Dominion and SRAM Code are very similar and both have unique features. They’re also quite close in price and hard to separate, so we’re not going to.
That leaves our winner – the SRAM Guide RE. We think it’s SRAM most versatile because it works on an e-bike or a normal bike. It’s great value and it totally does the business, which is why you see it everywhere.