Magura Louise Hydraulic Disc Brake Review

Disc-brake technology for mountain-bikes has progressed at lightning speed in the last few years. Based on long-standing concepts originating from motorbike technology, disc-brakes have traditionally suffered from complex set-up and maintenance procedures, and reliability issues. It’s just not as simple as a piece of wire attached to a caliper. It’s messy and expensive. People get scared of touching them – it’s new and unfamiliar territory.

Looking past all this neurosis, you do get an incomparable level of braking power from a properly-installed set of disc brakes. The difference cannot be understated. On my way down a mountain road, I can go from top speed to a standstill in a couple of seconds. With a single finger on each brake lever. On a fully-loaded touring bike with a trailer in tow. This would have been practically impossible before the advent of disc-brakes.

Riding cross-country

This is the power that is afforded by Magura’s Louise disc-brakes. The control you have over your speed is nothing short of extraordinary. So why have hydraulic disc brakes not yet made their way into the mainstream of cycle-touring?

The big issue that makes standard cable-actuated V-brakes the norm in the long-distance biking world is reliability. Hydraulic disc brakes have been seen by tourers as just another potential disaster waiting to happen. You get a leak, or a hydraulic line fails, and you’re left with zero braking power, and, if you’re outside the developed world, no chance of a repair for a few thousand miles.

There is something to be said for taking precautions to avoid your bike breaking down. That’s why you invest in a good set of wheels to avoid your spokes snapping under load. It’s why you choose a steel frame, so you can get it welded in a pinch if it breaks. It’s why you wipe and lubricate your chain at the end of every day’s ride to stop it wearing your drivetrain out.

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But the reliability issue isn’t what it used to be. The glamourous world of mountain-biking has ensured this. The competition amongst manufacturers is fierce; a growing market exists for high-value luxury bike parts, but there’s not enough money to go round everyone who wants a piece of it. This works in favour of the opportunist expedition cycler, who can dip in to this pool of frantic engineering R&D and pluck out the occasional product that fits the bill for a massive adventure on a bike.

On this theme, we originally asked Magura if they’d give us some of their Odur forks to try out. They said yes, and then gave us each a set of their latest Louise disc brakes as well.

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At first, I was skeptical, citing reliability and the potential for terminal failure. But Magura have been keen to sponsor numerous long-distance expeditions over the years, so they are obviously confident that their kit is up to the task. In fact, in the 3 years and 40,000 kilometres that Andy and I have covered at the time of writing, the brakes have literally been the least of our worries.

We’ve broken hand-built wheels. We’ve misused and destroyed trailers. We’ve snapped the spindle of a bottom bracket. We’ve seized up a freehub, botched a bar-bag, even eviscerated an entire pannier. Amongst all of this hapless abuse, the brakes have never, at any time, suffered the slightest of problems. We’ve thrown our bikes on lorries, trains, into schoolbuses, onto pickup trucks. In 40,000 km, we’ve changed the brake pads TWICE. That is, quite literally, the extent of our maintenance so far.

By any measure, the reliability of the Magura Louise disc brakes on this tour has been remarkable. I have little doubt that V-brakes would need regular adjustment, more frequent pad and cable replacement, and provide inadequate braking in adverse conditions – especially in the wet or in extreme cold, when the advantage of disc brakes becomes most clear. I have met numerous tourers using other hydraulic brakes from Magura’s range, often the HS-33 rim brake, and none have regretted the choice.

No offence to V-brakes, of course – it’s a good idea, as we have done, to make sure you choose a frame and forks with the necessary bosses. That way, if something does go irreparably wrong in the middle of who-knows-where, you can install a new set of V-brakes at the next town or city. But V-brakes are quite simply inferior brakes for halting the average tourer and their hefty luggage complement.

This brings me to the subject of emergency repairs. Contrary to common belief, disc brakes are not necessarily any more difficult to repair or maintain. Like V-brakes, it’s easy if you’ve got the parts. Also like V-brakes, it’s possible to botch a repair on the road. Let’s say your hose gets ripped out and your expensive Magura mineral oil goes everywhere. Well, a spare hydraulic cable weighs next to nothing – much lighter than the V-brake equivalent. But you have nothing to refill the system with – and you don’t want to lug around a bottle of Magura mineral oil “just in case”!

No problem – as long as there’s no risk of freezing, water (believe it or not) will work as a temporary hydraulic fluid. Better still is sewing-machine oil, available worldwide; baby oil, again ubiquitous; or light suspension oil for motorbikes, cars, snowmobiles, etc. You can even use cooking oil if you change it regularly, as long as it’s light enough – in fact, pretty much any light oil will do, regardless of the stern warnings in the manual!

And instead of taking a full bleed kit, you’ll probably find that every developing country will sprout the kind of ingenious minds that spend their lives fixing everything that moves, and will find a way to draw your new hydraulic fluid through the system. Come on, it’s just a tube with a small reservoir and a plug at each end, after all. Get down on your knees and suck it through!!! (Or just bring the weightless plastic syringe with you.) Job done, panic over, on with the tour.

It’s time the touring world stopped being so obstinate about disc brakes. The benefits in terms of control, durability and reliability are here to stay. There will always be hairy fundamentalist touring types who flinch at the slightest mention of the words, but for tourers the bicycle disc brake has come of age, and they don’t come much better than this.

If things go wrong, I’ll tell you here what happened, and how I fixed it. Until then, check out the following links for more information:

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4 Responses to “Magura Louise Hydraulic Disc Brake Review”

  1. New Santos Travelmaster Touring Bikes! | TravellingTwo: Bicycle Touring Around The World

    […] the maintenance isn’t that hard. We’ve read some good reviews of Magura brakes (see Tom’s thoughts on their disc brakes) and we feel these have been tested enough by other tourers that we can take a risk. Yes, the […]

    Reply
  2. Andy

    Hi!
    I just bumped over your great blog while searching for an emergency-repair solution for my HS33 rim brake. Me and my girlfriend been touring now since 22 Months, currently in India, on the long way back home to Austria (overland). Unfortunately, the hydraulic hose of my front brake went untight due to rubbing with another cable. Shame on me that I did not check that there is this spot where the hose got thinner and thinner and finally develloped this 3mm fine crack. More shame on me that I do NOT carry a spare tube and NO repair kit! Anyway, I have to find a solution now to get that hose tight again. Re-filling and bleeding seem to be less problematic than tightening that tube. Do you have any suggestion how to fix/patch this? A piece of strong rubber tube / tire with super-glue came in my mind but still not convinced …
    Thanks so much for replying and sorry for bothering you!
    Andy (Austria)

    Reply
    • Tom

      Hi Andy,

      I’d try and find a piece of plastic tubing that’s designed to be heat-shrunk onto a broken hose. Such things do exist – I met an engineer in Bulgaria who gave me a length. I’ve never used it, but the idea was that you cut off a section, slid it over the crack, then used a lighter or other controlled flame to shrink and bind it. A few layers of some such thing might be a temporary fix for your brake hose.

      Hope that helps!

      Tom

      Reply
  3. igor

    It seems to me that I keep running into the same problem of all the parts you use and review are so good that you dont need to replace them and they eventually go out of production. I see many types of Magura Brakes online, the MT8’s being over 400$ and MT2’s considerably less then that. I guess buy the best parts you can afford, but in the world of brakes I rather save up some more and get the next step up.

    Reply

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