Brake cables are used to actuate (ie: pull) mechanical brakes. While mechanical mountain bike brakes don't have as much modulation as hydraulic brakes, they are more affordable and are easier to maintain.
While brake cables used to be more popular when rim brakes where in prominence, the advent of disc brakes, and especially hydraulic disk brakes, have caused them to decline in popularity. Still, mountain bike brake cables are useful for mechanical disc brakes, such as Avid BB5, Avid BB7, and Tektro brakes.
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