Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Putting on the Brakes

One of the latest pushes to make bikes more like cars and motorcycles comes in the form of disc and hydraulic brakes. The industry’s marketers and advertisers tout the supposed advantages. Pros (who are paid to ride the stuff) give testimonials to their effectiveness. The bicycle press jumps on with glowing praise for the latest and greatest trend, making claims that simply are not substantiated. With hype piled upon hype year after year for every new “breakthrough” in a constant quest to make the bike we own today obsolete tomorrow, it’s amazing to me that there aren't more Retrogrouches out there.

Take a look at SRAM's new hydraulic rim brakes. Here's what their website says about them: "Road braking has remained in the dark ages. Sure, they're shinier and lighter, but rudimentary. While frame and drive train development has been the stuff of modern space exploration, road braking has languished with the likes of horse shoes and buggy whips." Wow. All I can guess from that assessment is that these guys don't really like bikes that much. Next thing you know, they'll be criticizing bicycles for not having engines. 

And then there's this review of those same new hydraulic brakes from Velo News“I’ve been riding a lot of mountain descents on them the past three weeks and find them to be confidence-inspiring. SRAM claims that Mark Cavendish said they saved him from crashing in the big stage 1 pileup in the Tour de France on Corsica. I had a jogger jump out in front of me on the Boulder Creek Bike Path and I stopped on a dime without skidding.

What I love about that quote is how it manages to combine the marketer’s typical puffery, the pro’s testimonial, and the press reviewer’s dewy but unsupportable accolades all in three little sentences. It’s like a grand slam of spurious praise.

SRAM Red Hydraulic rim brakes:
approx. $480 + 625 for the levers! 
Think about the claims. The beautiful thing about them is that as impressive as they sound, they are essentially impossible to either refute or support. Cavendish claims the hydraulic brakes “saved” him from the big pileup. Prove they didn't. There’s no way to know that he couldn't have avoided that pileup just as well with cable-operated brakes. Then again, other riders avoided the pileup – presumably they didn't all have the latest hydraulic brakes. The reviewer from Velo News, Leonard Zinn, claims he “stopped on a dime without skidding.” I wonder, does Zinn usually plow right into those pesky joggers? I’m guessing not. Considering the fact that the hydraulic-operated brakes still work by squeezing the rim in almost exactly the same way as the cable-operated versions, and using the same brake pads on the same rims, then how can one rely on anecdotal evidence to say that one version stops the bike more effectively than the other?

So, if these hydraulic brakes are simply squeezing the same rims with the same pads, what supposedly makes hydraulic actuated brakes better than cable ones? Is it the hand force/lever effort needed to stop the bike? While the necessary force on the lever may be lightened somewhat with hydraulic brakes, the effort with today’s dual-pivot cable-op brakes is still light enough for even the most delicate of hands. Do hydraulic brakes offer significantly better modulation to stop controllably without locking up the wheel and skidding? Again, proper modulation is certainly not hard to achieve with high-quality cable brakes with good pads. And ham-fisted application of brakes can lock up the wheels whether using cable or hydraulic versions.
Last year's Red brake calipers: $175 at Nashbar.

With cars, and motorcycles to a somewhat lesser extent, switching from cable-operated to hydraulic-operated brakes made a huge difference. But the weight difference, and therefore the force and energy needed for stopping, between bicycles, motorcycles and cars is hundreds and even thousands of pounds. The improvement with cars was obvious, because there was so much room to improve. The difference between these two types of brakes on a bicycle simply cannot be that great.

I’d like to see a scientific study to look at actual braking performance between the two kinds of brakes, but since both types work essentially the same way (at least where the pads meet the rims) I’m guessing that actual braking distances will be similar. As for “feel,” that’s much harder to quantify and can be open to much more opinion, but any differences will be purely subjective.
Or spend about $50 on these Tektros,
upgrade to better pads for $15, and just
enjoy riding with more money in your pocket. 

Then there’s maintenance. If one rides in rain and mud a lot, brake cables may need to be removed and lubed once in a while. It takes seconds and any home mechanic can handle it. Hydraulic brakes need to be “bled” with a special syringe. I've bled brakes on motorcycles and cars – it can be tricky and messy. And, while a basic cable brake lever is a fairly simple piece of equipment, a brake lever with a brake fluid master cylinder is not such a simple thing. I've had them go bad on motorcycles, and replacing them was really the only option, as repairing them wasn't a job for the home mechanic.

And then there's the cost. For a tiny increase in braking "feel" (again, assuming there is any) and what probably amounts to similar stopping power, is it worth hundreds of dollars over a good pair of dual-pivot cable-operated brakes and some good brake pads? Maybe having more money in your pockets adds too much weight?

So to my mind, hydraulic brakes are just the latest case of a minuscule, incremental improvement (if at all) being hyped as a major advancement – with the intent that we’ll all rush out and buy new bikes because the bikes we bought last year are already obsolete – and the result being yet another thing that we won’t be able to fix ourselves should it go wrong.


  1. Hydraulic Rim brakes? This is why I am becoming totally bored with the bikes and products spat out these days. Campy looks like Shimano looks like..... Give me a Raleigh Team Pro with some old (but still perfectly usable) Campy Record or Super Record and I will let you have the new stuff..

  2. Man! I am behind the times on this article!