When we talk about hydraulic or cable clutches, we’re just referring to how the clutch is actuated. With a cable clutch, lever force is transferred via a Bowden cable, which has steel wire running within a flexible sheath. With a hydraulic clutch, fluid is used to convey force just like in hydraulic brakes, except instead of a caliper at the other end of the hose, there’s a slave cylinder that acts on the clutch’s pressure plate in the same manner that a cable does.
If a cable clutch and hydraulic clutch do the same thing, why would a manufacturer or a rider choose one over the other? Each system has its pros and cons, and we’ll start with the cable clutch since it’s the most common setup.
Cables are common for one simple reason: They’re cheap to make and easy to fit. That’s a big plus, whether you’re manufacturing motorcycles or just maintaining your own bike. On the topic of maintenance, cables need a fair amount of it. For starters, you have to adjust the slack frequently to account for clutch wear—let the cable get too loose and you won’t get complete disengagement when you pull the lever. Too little slack and you’re going to get clutch slip and cook your clutch plates. Also, cables need to be lubricated periodically and they’re susceptible to corrosion and breakage, and binding if they’re bent too sharply.