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A bit of back story first: I bought a second-hand bike in 2020. It has SRAM Level TL installed from the start. It caught my attention that brake lever didn't return to the end and had very little travel. I asked a mechanic that I know and he said to not worry, so I didn't.

Fast forward 2 years I noticed that brakes are not returning and are braking/dragging all the time.

I went to a bike shop (not to the mechanic I asked before) asking for a fix (just an oil change I thought) but they told me there has to be something wrong with the caliper and not the oil and they need to open it and clean and put oil in it.

After 2 days the bike shop told me that cleaning didn't fix anything and I should replace the entire brake system and it is going to cost me around 400€ as each brake kit cost 180€ (big markup as the official SRAM page gives pvp 121 and you can find them far cheaper online)

Also I am checking right now SRAM directly say "Do not lubricate the pistons."

Does anyone have experience with SRAM hydraulic brakes? I have no clue and I am afraid that in the bike shop either.

Is it normal to just trash the entire system or they are just trying to scam me ?

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  • Ouch. That sum hurts. Aug 29 at 12:55
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    Both brakes show this behaviour? I'd say that's quite unlikely from normal wear, and potentially something that was wrongly installed (unsuitable DOT oil perhaps?). If the brakes are indeed not working after a proper service, it's likely that replacing is the next most economical step. However cheaper brake systems are available, also see below comments. Aug 29 at 14:57
  • " each brake kit cost 180€ (big markup as the official SRAM page gives pvp 121 and you can find them far cheaper online)" So, please do it yourself, what are you waiting for? Ignoring all considerations about the skills required, the shop is offering you the parts for 180 bananas right now, you can try to order it at SRAM or to buy it online at lower prices and see how long you have to wait, plus how many tools you lack to complete the installations.
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 30 at 6:59

4 Answers 4

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I would be initially skeptical, and I would definitely get a second opinion at a different bike shop. The brakes could indeed be worn in a way that they are beyond repair, but before you plunk down a lot of money, it would be worth it. It cannot hurt to get that second opinion. If you have options on several other shops to check out, you might get some recommendations from local riders as well, if you have that resource. There may be some online reviews as well, but be wary of them, as one always should with online reviews.

If only a particular portion of the brake system is worn out (say the caliper), then you would only need to replace the caliper, not the entire system. There could be a point where enough of the system is failing/worn that a full replacement would be more economical compared to piecemealing in some new parts while keeping a few older ones.

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    @kifli If a bike shop pulls stunts like that, why did you go back to it?
    – wizzwizz4
    Aug 28 at 13:38
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    @wizzwizz4 because it is Spain and that kind of stuff is super normal
    – kifli
    Aug 28 at 16:50
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    @kifli learn to do it yourself then. A dishonest store does not earn your repeated custom. You can buy a pre-bled shimano brake set for relatively cheap and replace the lot.
    – Criggie
    Aug 28 at 19:36
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    Personally I'd do what @Criggie suggests. Shimano pre-bled sets (so that's lever, hose and calliper already connected and filled with mineral oil) are currently available from European e-retailers at €25 per set (you'd need 2 sets to replace both front and rear). These sets are easy to install, even for novice home mechanics. Shimano mineral oil is also easier to maintain at home, if you'd need to rebleed at any time in future. Aug 29 at 15:02
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    @Noise they're pretty good even at that price point, but higher level pre-bled takes are also available. However the hoses are quite a bit too long even on my XL frame. I'll either cut them down myself when the brakes first need bleeding, or put the bike into a shop then (I'd need to buy a bleed kit anyway). On a small frame that's a lot of hose to deal with
    – Chris H
    Aug 31 at 11:58
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SRAM hydraulic braking systems are directly descended from the older Avid hydraulic braking systems.

I have experience with many sets of Juicy brakes where neglect, hard use and/or bad conditions have led to corrosion, damaged seals and various failures that give the symptom of a lazy return with brake drag and/or a slack feel at the lever and/or inability to reset the pistons. The newer SRAM brakes are more reliable but every brake is a little vulnerable to this type of fault.

SRAM and Avid brakes are unusual in the sense that replacement pistons and seals are available. The lever internals are available for some models as well. They are not particularly difficult to rebuild but it's time consuming, you need to have or to improvise a couple of special tools and the bleed/refill procedure is only really easy whenyou have the proper Pro bleed kit. Bleeding can be a painful process with a 3rd party kit.

The piston seals are lubricated on insertion with DOT grease. SRAM would tell you not to lubricate them as the end user lest you try with some chain oil, which is a mineral oil and could affect the piston seals.

The reason shops don't often rebuild your brakes is because it's time consuming and fiddly and for the same profit they could fit a new braking system in a quarter of the time. I rebuild these "at my leisure" in the winter, so they are ready for a customer in the springtime or where they are "irreplaceable" (for instance where the caliper is colourmatched to the logos on the bike such as on my own bike).

You should note that Shimano views calipers and levers as single units that are not repairable and are supposed to be replaced as a whole unit. Seals and pistons are only available as 3rd party aftermarket parts for certain brakes. It's a wasteful way to repair but saves the shop time and probably increases profit margins for everyone involved.

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    All this makes me want to keep my V brakes. Aug 29 at 12:56
  • +1 for traditional cable actuated braking systems. For 99% of bike uses, hydraulic braking is an over-specification.
    – SamA
    Aug 29 at 14:13
  • @Peter-ReinstateMonica For the vast majority, hydraulic brakes are more powerful, relaible and require less adjustment than any type of cable operated brakes. Of course, you hear all the horror stories here. They are not difficult or complicated to work on either, when occasion demands (not often!) so don't give up on the idea just yet
    – Noise
    Aug 30 at 10:07
  • I run both cable and hydraulic discs, as well as rim brakes. While the issues I've had with cable discs have had more serious consequences, that's largely luck. All but the worst hydraulics perform well, but failures are harder to address in the field than with cables. Even the bad ones can stop well new, but need more and trickier bleeding and are more prone to leaking.
    – Chris H
    Aug 31 at 12:02
  • @ChrisH I understand your concerns Chris, but things have moved on from the early days. Magura even give a 5-year leakprook warranty on all their brakes now. If hydraulic couldn't be safe and in many ways superior, it wouldn't be the 1st choice in braking conrol of the majority of motive transport. Feild serviceability is also an arguable point. The most common cable brake failures are no easier to repair than the most common failures on hydro systems, and occur more frequently (workshop data).
    – Noise
    Aug 31 at 12:14
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Yes, the whole situation is pretty normal for SRAM brakes. If the price you were quoted is for something of a approximately equal performance/quality, that's normal too.

The shop has already wasted a bunch of time they're presumably not billing you for by trying a simple bleed. Most of the time, bleeding the brakes doesn't do anything to fix sticky piston situations on SRAM/Avid brakes, but it often feels like the right thing to try first anyway.

A shop has to make the determination in these situations whether they want to recommend the possibility of replacing just the caliper, since the piston seals are usually the most overt source of problems. This has to be weighed against the possibility that there's something wrong with the lever too, for example degradation from age, wear, or incorrect fluid. It can go either way and it's their call to make.

SRAM does offer full rebuild kits for their systems that can eliminate these problems. These are more useful for an individual doing their own work. The time it takes at a shop rate to do it and then reinstall and bleed the brakes will tend to not be a good value compared to replacing the entire system. If there's any wear or damage to the other parts, repairing versus replacing is an even worse value proposition. Note that if they're already at the recommendation of replacing the whole system, that would mean going the rebuild route would mean doing both the levers and calipers, and then if there's any question of an inappropriate fluid being part of the problem at any point it also means replacing the hose.

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I bought a new road bike with Sram Rival AXS this year with hydrulic disc brakes and from the get-go my front brake lever was slow to return but it was rideable so I didn't worry. After a bit of tinkering, cleaning pistons etc it got worse and the lever didn't return almost at all and I had to manually return it.

So I went to a bike shop and after like 5 minutes the mechanic told me it's faulty piston inside the lever and they will have to change it. I was lucky it was inside warranty so I didn't have to pay anything, but they changed only the lever and didn't touch the caliper. Since they changed it it works great so I would suggest its also one of the pistons, probably the one inside the lever.

The problem is disassembling the lever is probably a bike shop job (I'm not a mechanic) and also I don't think SRAM sells these pistons, only the ones inside the caliper. Note that I'm talking from a roadie perspective and the situation for mountain bikes might be different since when I researched this problem I saw many videos on youtube about replacing/cleaning the inner pistons.

I would suggest asking the mechanic specifically about the inner pistons and if it is possible to pull them out and clean them or just order new and replace them.

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