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I am on the hunt for new rotors for my mechanical disc brakes, as the old are too twisted now and the brakes can't be adjusted without the disc rubbing the pads.

What is the difference between the cheapest possible rotors and several times more expensive "series and branded" ones?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 14 down vote accepted

One of the most advanced disk rotors are "floating rotors", made of 2 different materials and connected together. Look like this: Hope floating rotor

These are exceptional brakes rotors. They are very rigid, won't bend sideways easily. Overheating problem is much less of a problem for these boys. But if they are going overheated, they don't bend that much because of the material expansion. Usually the spider in the middle is made of aluminium alloy, but you can get rotors with carbon core. Carbon ones weight less, but cost a lot more than with alloy spider.

Also you can get a full carbon rotor: full carbon disk brake rotor

These are very expensive. Marketing materials for these say they are perfect, but you can easily spend a lot of money only on one rotor. I have never tried a carbon rotor and not even seen one in flesh, only on pictures. You can also get a combination of carbon with ceramic spider and other space-tech materials. kettlecycles.com provide with examples of these. (Thanks @J-unior for the link)

One of the extremes I've seen is combination of carbon and ceramic in a disk brake rotor. Don't really think these are available in shops, but interesting to know.

If you go for single piece cheaper rotor, then you don't have such a big variation in material: variation on stainless steel. And here the shape is making a big difference.

If you get one of these:

Hope Trials Disk Brake Rotor

You'd be able to stop on a dime, but you don't get a lot of modulation. These things will be like on/off switch if combined with good pads. These are Hope trials rotors and I would not recommend using them for anything other than trials. (If you are doing trails, you should already know this)

Then you have middle ground rotors with a lot of variations on patters:

Hayes Disk Brake Rotor

These are the most common and most affordable with prices from £12 to £25. I do believe that in this category there is really not much difference in quality. But make sure that the pattern has overlapping holes: when the disk is dragged through the pads, there should not be a continuous line of solid material. Pads should have a way to clean themselves and if in a section of a rotor there is no gaps, pads will not self-clean, decreasing the overall performance. In this category choose the ones you like most.

And the last in the category are cheap and nasty rotors you get on bikes from WallMart or Asda. They are usually heavy, easy to bend, with poor pattern. Look like this:

Cheap disk brake rotor

Apart from the material and type of construction don't forget that you have different diameters of the rotors: 145mm, 160mm, 180mm, 203mm and 205mm. The bigger the rotor, the more braking power you get and better heat distribution, but also the greater the weight. Usually downhillers go for 205mm rotors on the front and 180 on the rear. For more calm disciplines like XC 160mm rotors are more common.

The size of the rotor must match your current one, but you can buy an adapter to place you disk brake caliper in the right position for the size of the rotor.

And you can get different types of mounts to the hub. The most popular is 6 hole international standard - on all of the rotors above. But you also get Shimano Centre Lock:

Shimano Centre Lock mount

For this type of mount you need to have a hub with the same mount or use adapters from 6-bolt to Centre lock. About 8-10 years ago there used to be rotors with 5 and 4 holes for mounting, but you won't get them now.

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Great answer, but you missed a major point. Hes asked about rotors for Mechanical Disc brakes..... At that level "No practical difference" is still the correct answer –  mattnz Jul 17 '13 at 22:57
    
mechanical or hydraulic, you can still put carbon rotor there. There are high-end mechanical disk brakes out there and it would not make sense to put very crappy disks there. Also it is always good to know the options. –  trailmax Jul 17 '13 at 23:10
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Astounishing answer. Before I accept it, I want to share my experience with the "nasty" rotor you show and I bought before seeing this answer. Is is cheep, very rigid (good thing), heavy, and wore out my Avid BB-5 pads in a week. Terrible choice on my part. –  Vorac Jul 23 '13 at 17:23

There are differences in disc rotors: These are typically:

  • Material - Stainless steel is the most commonly used rotor, but you can get carbon and other exotic materials, and probably (although I have not seen it myself) at the other extreme, mild steel.

  • Material Quality - There is stainless and then there's stainless. As with carbon. This can affect the rust resistance and strength of the disc

  • Amount of material - thickness of disc as well as the amount in the center section (spokes)

  • Design. A disc needs to be round and flat, but within these bounds, most have holes (how much, how many and what shape varies) that allow better cooling and water sheading. There are also variations of the outer rim that are supposed to clear mud from the caliper better. The other aspect is the discs response to vibrations and harmonics, a good design is more resistant to squealing.

So how does this all add up: saying a disc is "just" as stamped piece of stainless and they are all the same is like saying a bicycle has 2 wheels and pedals, its correct and misleading at the same time.

There is no doubt that there is difference between the discs on a K-mart kids bike compared to a $10K Downhill racer. The question then is "how much difference". Weight is important one for many of us - but at some point the $/gram savings are not worth it. Noise is a problem that is impossible for an individual to test for and impossible to live with squealing brakes. I don't know if price/quality makes any difference, but I do know changing to different discs can. Ability to clear mud is important to me, but not so much, if at all for others. That said, I can't be sure the shaped profiles make a difference. The cooling issue is probably moot, as I am not aware of problems with brakes overheating (except maybe in extreme competitive environs)

Unfortunately I have no idea how to tell if higher price is a "Brand tax" or a better rotor.

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Disc overheating can cause pad surface cristallization, wich in turn causes braking performance degradation. Some designs may also let the hydraulic fluid boil, which causes sudden but temporary loss of braking power. (I have suffered from crystallization, my father's bike had Hayes brakes that could easily let fluid boil) –  Jahaziel Jun 21 '13 at 5:57
    
What I am not sure of is how much difference the holes (size and shape) make to cooling. If one disc overheats, will a better disc (of the same size) stay cool enough to make a difference? Pad and fluid quality are probably more significant to the effect of the on the brake system. –  mattnz Jun 22 '13 at 23:22
    
From my experience, good braking technique and propper disk type/size application is far more decisive. My preferred technique is a pulsated usage, braking rather hard for short periods, for example, just before entering curves and releasing for the rest of the curve. This requires good performing calipers, good pads and clean pads/rotors. Bad quality pads or oily parts foce you to actuate the brake for longer pulses, which in turn accentuates heating. –  Jahaziel Jun 26 '13 at 22:36
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Disks that are almost solid, with only tiny round holes tend to heat more and to transmit that heat to the rest of components. Discs with larger holes and serrated patterns heat the rotor but do not transmit that heat to the calipers. If the holes are too big, the rotor offers too little contact surface, so they are lightweight, but overheat easily if used for high demand applications like Downhill. Rotor size should also correspond to riding type and rider weight. A really heavy XC rider may need 203mm rotors if he/she frequently overheats smaller rotors. –  Jahaziel Jun 26 '13 at 22:54
    
-1 for missing the main point of disk ventilation and overheating. –  trailmax Jul 17 '13 at 20:53

Well, I've been using 180 Magura Storm with Shimanno 775 hydraulic brake with sintered pad. All I can say is, the brake is a monster, it modulates well and can easily lock the front wheel with 2 fingers.

About quality, before these Maguras, I had the "cheap" nasty rotor, it used to overheat after 10 seconds holding hard on descends. I knew it because I could feel a lever loss of pressure and after about 15 seconds without braking, the brake came back to normal. After replacing to 180 Magura, I can brake descends nice. I weight 210 lbs, and do touring with my bike, so, final weight is about 250 lbs. The secret basically is not the "disc", it's the disc + pads + caliper. A cheap caliper with expensive discs brakes ok, so expensive calipers with cheap disc.

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