Brake On Through To The Other Side

By way of concluding my tedious post-mortem on my Jones-themed vacation, I feel it is recumbent upon me to address the controversial subject of disc brakes–or, as Craigslist sellers call them, “dick breaks:”

Yeah, yeah, I realize that says “Disk breaks” but the seller obviously made a typo.

While disc brakes have only recently become ubiquitous on performance bicycles, the fact is they’ve been in use since at least 400 BC, as evidenced by this ancient sculpture of a naked man about to install a rotor:

The ancient Greeks always performed bicycle maintenance in the nude as the visible flexing of their muscles and tendons was a reliable indicator of torque, which is why the human body is often referred to as “nature’s torque wrench,” and also why “Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance” is not suitable for children.

We’re living in a digital world, and as we gradually transform ourselves into social media avatars who think only in binary it’s important that we not only take a firm stance on every issue but also dismiss anyone who disagrees with us as an existential threat to humanity. Disc brakes are no exception, and in Internet World there are only two ways to feel about them:

  • They’re stupid and unnecessary
  • They’re the only viable way to stop a bicycle, and anything less might as well be a spoon brake

I should note that the latter view is rapidly subsuming the former.

Being hopelessly old-fashioned, whatever the issue, I try to remind myself not to think in binary and to consider that different stuff works for different people. With regard to disc brakes on bicycles, as far as I’m concerned, that shakes out as follows:

  • High-performance road racing bicycles with wheels made from cutting-edge materials and design–sure, move the braking surface from the rim to a rotor, makes sense
  • Road bikes as ridden by the average schmuck–whatever you prefer, I’m not particularly interested in road bikes with disc brakes myself but can see why other people might be
  • Mountain bikes–certainly an excellent use of disc brakes, though you may also be well-served by rim brakes depending on what you’re doing, even though the retractable seatpost set will insist either you’re a delusional retrogrouch or a wuss who doesn’t ride hard enough
  • Gravel bikes–see the first three bullet points
  • Cyclocross racing bikes–why do these even have brakes at all?
  • Track bikes–these don’t have brakes at all
  • Cargo bikes–excellent use of disc brakes, not only for stopping power, but more importantly because you can run long hydraulic lines every which way without compromising it (see: automobiles)
  • Every other kind of bike–who gives a shit?

There’s even more nuance when it comes to disc brakes, since there are also different kinds of disc brakes. For example, as a non-extreme rider with non-extreme opinions, I’m a big fan of mechanical disc brakes, which offer many advantages of both disc and rim brake systems:

This is the style of brake that came on my Jones:

Now, I’d include the sort of riding I did over the past two weeks as the sort that doesn’t necessarily require disc brakes, muddy patches notwithstanding. No doubt I’d have fared just as well on a Gus Boots Willsen with 2.8 tires and v-brakes:

[Photo: Rivendell]

At the same time, the Jones goes a little further than the Gus in terms of tire clearance, mounting points, etc., and the disc brakes are one aspect of the design that make this possible. I may not push the Jones to its limits in terms of what it can do, but others will, and to that end discs make total sense.

With regard to my tweet above, I dounderstand why one might consider hydraulic brakes superior to mechanical ones, including but not limited to the following reasons:

  • Nicer feel (people usually call this “better modulation,” but more often than not I suspect they just mean they feel nicer)
  • Less lever effort (which one could argue also goes against the “better modulation” thing, since a brake that requires very little effort may be just as undesirable as a brake that requires a lot of effort, depending on what you’re using it for)
  • Self-adjusting*
  • Low maintenance**
  • Much more flexibility in cable routing, as mentioned earlier

As for the *asterisks, those are qualifiers, as follows:

*[Self-adjusting is good, though the periodic pad adjustment mechanicals require can also be good, since it keeps you on top of your pad wear–unlike rim brakes you’re not looking at your disc brake pads while you ride, and being super thin the pad wear isn’t always obvious]

**[They’re low maintenance until they’re not, and for some riders occasional cable replacement may be preferable to occasional bleeding and brake line replacement.]

A perhaps too-simple way of summarizing all this is that mechanical disc brakes are the simple option and hydraulic disc brakes are the performance option. That’s not to say mechanical brakes can’t perform or that hydraulic brakes can’t be simple, but in certain scenarios it’s possible you might find one lacking those attributes more than the other.

As a fan of mechanical disc brakes, and of inexpensive components, I do think mechanical brakes have a bad reputation not because their inherent qualities but rather because they tend to come on cheaper bikes and are therefore not considered worthy of attention. Any online query along the lines of, “Why don’t my mechanical disc brakes work well?” seems to elicit replies of, “Because they’re crap, that’s why! Get rid of them immediately.” And yes, they may indeed be crap–or, they may just need some tweaking. In yesterday’s post, a commenter mentioned he was getting poor performance out of the Tektro mechanicals on his Jones–and I was too, until I realized (after an embarrassingly long amount of time) that the brake cable was merely in the wrong position at the lever:

Basically, the cable’s supposed to be in the “V” position and not the “C” one, but they must have been set up wrong at the point of assembly. (A brake lever that works with cantis and v-brakes as well as mechanical discs is pretty cool, by the way, and another neat thing about cable-actuated systems.) Once I changed that the brakes worked perfectly, and it sounds like the commenter is also enjoying the same results. And while I’m certainly not accusing the commenter of this, I do think there’s a notion out there that Tektro brakes suck, and that this preempts people from taking the time to perform proper set-up. In fact, Tektro make a shitload of brakes (including the high-end TRP stuff, which I suspect plenty of people don’t realize is Tektro), and I’d imagine at this point they know their way around a brake in the same way Shimano knows how to crank out dependable derailleurs.

Brakes aside, a lot of us bike dorks are on a hair trigger just looking for an excuse to upgrade stuff. The bad news is that today’s bike stuff works pretty damn well, though you might need to carve out a little time in order to understand how it works. So if you’re like me and your time is as limited as your brain power, consider joining Team Simple. No fluids, no electronics…just cables and levers. (Okay, maybe some tire sealant, but that’s another conversation.)

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