Of the many experiences it is possible to have on a bike, the one that seems most universally disliked is a loss of control. It—that loss of control—comes in as many flavors as jelly beans do. There’s the loss of traction that can come in the wet. There’s the inability to control the direction the bike is going that can happen after hitting a big bump. There’s the inability to carve a precise turn at speed if the frame isn’t stiff enough. A similar loss of input can happen when tires are severely under inflated. While I doubt many people have experienced this, riding a bike only to find have the bar move because the stem hasn’t been torqued sufficiently will definitely give you a jolt of adrenalin. Whether the bar is turned 45 degrees to the front wheel or is turned up like a 1970s 10-speed, the effect is not what I’d call recreational.
However, there’s a different subset of these that I want to address—poor braking. Pull the levers only to experience the bike slowing less than anticipated is a first-order horror, but not one John Carpenter will ever make into a movie.
I’ve been on descents with both rim calipers and disc brakes and decided it was time to prepare for a switchback by braking and discovered that pulling the levers did less than I needed. I’m fortunate that in every case the cause has been worn pads, never a broken cable or air in the hydraulic line. Those experiences have been instructive.
As the debate over disc brakes has raged among enthusiasts, pro riders and anyone else handy with an opinion, I’ve often considered how when I have little braking power, the only recourse I have is to start braking earlier and earlier, perhaps even just dragging my brakes because I don’t trust the bike to arrest my momentum once at full speed. On the other hand, as I ride review bikes with disc brakes as well as the latest calipers, I’ve yet to have the opposite experience—Oh my gosh, this bike stops too damn well!
Last year I spent an afternoon interviewing mountain bike pioneer Gary Fisher. It was a terrific reminder into the incredible insight he has had into what makes a mountain bike ride better. Bigger headsets, 29-inch wheels and longer front centers are but a few of his ideas. On the subject of disc brakes he took me back to Shimano’s early V-brakes. The engineers in Osaka decided they were too powerful. That’s not a thing, just as it’s not possible for a beer to taste too good. But they wouldn’t be dissuaded and in the next model revision, they included a cam they called Servo Wave, and they even included a little window in the lever so you could see it, proving that they were trying to make a bug into a feature. Servo Wave decreased braking power as you pulled harder. The logic (absence thereof, really) was that it would prevent a rider from locking up a wheel. What it really did was decrease control.
Shimano ditched Servo Wave after Fisher and others convinced them that better brakes was always the better way to go.
I’ve been on a half dozen different road bikes in the last month, plus several gravel bikes and a couple of mountain bikes. As I switch between them, the sensation I’ve been most interested to compare between those bikes has been how well they stop and what that means for my confidence and control. It’s no real surprise that the bikes that stopped the best are the ones I feel most confident on. However, I’m encouraged to report that thanks to running larger tires (28mm rather than 23mm) at lower pressures (75 psi instead of 100 psi) and the way Shimano redesigned the calipers on its top-of-the-line Dura-Ace group, rim calipers have never provided more braking power.
Here’s the strange part of the lesson: Without having ridden disc brakes extensively, I’m not sure I’d ever have attempted to pull on the levers for the Dura-Ace brakes as hard as I have on some of my local descents. Because I’ve ridden discs on all the big descents near my home, I’m aware that I can wait until right before a turn to begin braking and hit the brakes hard and not break the tires free.
For me the epiphany carries with it an inherent irony. I can accept that disc brakes present such a radical change to what road bikes are that some people just don’t want to make that big a change. And often, this resistance is posed as not wanting to buy a new bike. The crazy part is that combining the new Dura-Ace calipers with bigger tires run at lower pressure represents a huge gain in braking power, but to achieve these gains, a rider still needs to buy some new equipment. Buying new stuff is exactly the opposite of what some people want, but I can say that as more and more riders switch to disc brakes on their road bikes, for those who are doing group rides with people on discs, I’d want to make sure I was on a bike that had a shorter stopping distance than I could achieve on my old 10-speed Dura-Ace, or Campagnolo Record.
For anyone who has to use brakes to manage their relationship to gravity, I truly believe stronger brakes are a net gain.
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