I can say with some certainty that my favorite product introduced at this year’s Interbike show that I actually got to ride, as opposed to just staring at, was the new Shimano road hydraulic disc brakes. It’s become popular for people attending the show to say, “You know, I didn’t see anything that wowed me.” That’s been the cool kid thing to say ever since Americans decided that Eurobike was the cool show. I think it’s damned cynical.
This brake system wowed me. I don’t see any point in lying. Two years ago I was arguing against disc brakes on road bikes as causing more problems than they solve. The thing is, I’m not an engineer, especially not a motivated one, but I understand the thrill of problem solving, and that’s mostly what engineering is.
For those of you who have been pulling on jerseys since they were wool, you’ll recall that Colnago was once the place to look for all the most forward-thinking ideas, even if some of them were crazier than Hunter Thompson at Burning Man. It was nice to see the storied Italian brand embrace disc brake tabs and internal routing for the hydraulic brake lines, though I could hear people crying foul to see Shimano parts on the Italian legend. That didn’t bother me, but what did make me chuckle was seeing such forward-looking technology on a bike that was glued together.
The brake set is non-series, which is to say that they are neither Dura-Ace nor Ultegra. That gives product managers the opportunity to use this brake with either group without it looking wholly out of place.
The brakes can be used with either a 140mm or 160mm rotor. The Colnago I rode was equipped with 140mm rotors. There’s been a concern within the industry about using 140mm rotors and heat buildup. You’ll notice that the rotors above feature two different colors. The outer ring of material, the portion of the rotor the pads actually grab is, of course, steel, but that inner ring is aluminum which, by virtue of the fact that aluminum isn’t very dense, allows for speedy heat dissipation.
The brakes themselves also feature fins to help them function as heat sinks. Shimano went to a number of far-flung locations for product testing, including the Stelvio Pass (at this point it seems like you can’t claim to have tested a brake system until you’ve been to the Stelvio), so when they say that heat buildup won’t be a problem with a 140mm rotor, we’ve got some reason to take them at their word.
This detail of the rotor shows the pairing of steel and aluminum to increase heat dissipation.
The lever has a couple of advantages over SRAM’s lever. First, of course, are the improved ergonomics. Shimano went with the Di2 electronic shifting so they could gain valuable space in the lever for the hydraulic master cylinder, which is why the lever looks big but not tumescent. The lever also allows for reach adjustment as well as throw or free-stroke, which is how far the lever travels before the pads engage. These are two important adjustments that help keep the system feeling as much like a traditional rim brake system as possible. Because Shimano has made hydraulic systems for a variety of applications, from cross country to downhill, they were able to select components to increase modulation without compromising power.
My experience in limited riding on the system was impressive. With a 140mm rotor, power was on a par with rim brake systems. Modulation was terrific and felt more easily controlled than with some brakes I’ve used.
I’ve been vocal in my opposition to disc brakes. I haven’t seen the need. The maintenance is more complicated, the system is heavier, the aerodynamics compromised and the increased demand in frame strength changes the flex in the frame. I still think all those issues are, well, still issues. However, one criticism that can’t be leveled at the brakes is that they don’t work. They absolutely do and it may be that with some experience riders using them will find greater control thanks to them.
Over the course of the SRAM 22 launch, we went for three rides. Because the product intro was being held in Westlake Village, just north of the eastern-most portion of the Santa Monica Mountains, I’d either know the roads we were riding intimately, or at least be familiar with them. While I was pleased not to be terribly far from my family, I was trying to figure out if the marketing team were geniuses or gamblers for picking this location. That I had that reaction surprised me; I’ve written on several occasions that if you really want to prove that a road product works, you ought to spend some time testing it in the Santa Monicas. I have been serious about that. However, there’s a big difference between doing testing and having the worldwide launch for your product over those roads.
On our first ride, I rode a Specialized S-Words Roubaix SL4 equipped with Red 22 and mechanical brakes. What I’ve noticed about 11-speed groups is that you lose track of just how many cogs you have; you lose track of your place in the cassette. Why 11 cogs is harder to keep track of than 10, I can’t say, but I’ve noticed for myself that there’s rarely an occasion when I don’t have at least one more cog in either direction. There is nothing else to report about this group. Doing the ride was, for me, simply an opportunity to have an immediate reminder of what braking is like with the mechanical Red brakes. The reminder was mostly superfluous for me; I’d ridden the group (with 10 speeds, mind you) just the day before.
On our second ride I had the opportunity to ride the Cannondale SuperSix EVO with the Hydro R—hydraulic rim brakes. I expect you’ll see steel builders making bikes to accommodate this before the week is out. The brake has gobs of clearance (that’s a technical term meaning so much more than your typical dual-pivot caliper that it’s visually noticeable); think ‘cross tire clearance. It’s worth mentioning that the bike was equipped with Zipp 202 Firecrest Carbon Clinchers. Anyone who has ever held the sweeping belief that you can’t achieve enough braking force with carbon wheels will be amazed by what’s possible with these brakes and carbon wheels. Rolling around the parking lot to make sure my saddle height and reach were more or less correct, I hit the brakes a few times just to get a feel for how quickly the power ramped up and how the bike would react to a panic-y grab. With my hands only on the hoods, I felt more power than on any other road bike I’d ever ridden.
I actually said, “Wow.”
As company for our rides SRAM brought in Tim Johnson and Allison Tetrick as ride leaders. Tim was terrific at keeping the group orderly—unsurprising given his work in advocacy, while Allison proved to be even funnier in person than she was on the Road I.D. commercials with cycling’s favorite buffoon, Bob Roll. Having them along for our rides was a nice touch.
Out on the road, in braking for stop signs and lights, I noticed nothing unusual. The experience of the new brake wasn’t so startling that I needed to recalibrate my grip. Honestly, that was my biggest concern, that all braking on this bike would be like trying to slice an apple with a meat cleaver. That delicate ability to scrub speed to maintain a two- or three-foot distance from the rider in front of me remained intact.
There’s a descent into Westlake Village that is among the diciest in the Santa Monicas. It’s called Westlake Road and to my knowledge it has the single steepest pitch in all of the Santa Monicas. The road pitches downward at an incredible 20 percent. But because the road in that spot twists like some ridiculous gag in a Road Runner cartoon, riders don’t have a chance to build up lethal speed like you can on, say, Tuna Canyon. Our return for the second and third rides was down that road.
Here’s where I need to admit that my descending skills are still in reboot. I’m pretty much back to normal on the easy stuff, stuff in Palos Verdes I know well. But I still wear a skirt to all the descents in the Santa Monicas. I’d been down Westlake a couple of times in the past. Due to its location and the fact that I generally ride from the South Bay, descending that road puts the Santa Monicas between me and 50-some miles to home. All this is to say that I knew the road just well enough to know it required caution. Hell, the first time I ever descended it I managed to brake just hard enough to cause my rear wheel slide a bit. And so when I dropped into that descent, I did so with nearly all the trepidation of someone with a shellfish allergy about to chow down on a bucket of shrimp. That I was on a bike with even more powerful brakes than the one I was on during my first trip down that road was like adding interest to my tax bill.
Insert giant, sarcastic, “Hooray!”
Nothing against the folks at SRAM, mind you. I felt I had an obligation to show up with my faculties new-pencil sharp, and I was embarrassed not to be there yet. There was an upshot, though; my reticence to dive into each turn meant that I was braking with the deliberate “Whoa!” of a camper emerging from a tent who sees a bear. And that is kinda what this product was all about—the whoa.
There’s no denying that the Hydro rim brake had more power than any brake on a road bike I’d ever encountered. While I was diving into turns with thrill-inducing speed, I still tried to wait as late as possible to do my braking and then brake with a brief, firm arrest. Never once did I break a tire free.
For our final ride I moved to the new Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL4 with the Hyrdo disc brakes. This was the bike of which I was most skeptical, because it was the bike that had required more re-engineering than just a new routing of a rear brake line. The Roubaix featured an all-new fork and rear triangle in order to accommodate the disc clearance and the change in the distribution of braking forces. Rolling those discs was a pair of the new Zipp 303 Firecrest Carbon Clinchers and they were shod with some 25mm-wide Continentals. On the already wide rims of the 303s, the tires looked like they were 28mm wide.
My first concern when I climbed on was pad retraction. There was no rubbing of pads. My next concern as I rolled around the parking lot was whether I would be able to brake lightly enough to scrub speed the way I sometimes need to in the pack without applying too much power. With a feathery touch of the levers, I was able to take the sharp edge off any velocity. And the rest of those concerns?
“Oh, the hell with them,” I thought. “Let’s just go ride the damn thing.”
I did my best to forget about the bike and just ride it. Admittedly, that wasn’t exactly easy to do. The control lever has an oddly square shape to the bottom of the body; it’s not as comfortable to hold as the lever hoods on the mechanical Red and, worse in my mind, there’s no adjustment for lever throw, so I had to adjust to reaching a bit further to the brake levers. Not my fave. These are two features that need improving in the future, but are by no means deal-breakers.
Our first real descent was down Potrero Canyon. I braked a bit at the top to let the group go. That gave me a chance to read the road better and not feel like my uncertainty with the bike was going to mess with anyone else’s ride. The more I concentrated on the terrain and my line, the better able I was to forget about the brakes, but there were any number of turns (I’m guessing we’re talking at least a dozen) where the brake power was just too conspicuous to Ninja past. These are the most powerful brakes I’ve ever encountered on a road bike. No contest. Period. Full stop. End of discussion.
By the time I’d reached the bottom of the descent, the question on my mind wasn’t whether or not this stuff worked, it was how much re-learning was going to be required to make optimal use of the brakes. My concern for more braking power than is necessary was dismissed with the flip of a hand you reserve for a bad waiter. The guys at SRAM tried to sell me on the idea that my hands wouldn’t fatigue as much on descents. That didn’t sell me. The only times my hands have gotten tired from braking I was on a mountain bike. That said, I can recall occasions on certain descents in the Santa Monicas where I had had concerns for being able to sufficiently slow the bike from 40+ miles per hour to make it through the next turn. But that memory and how these brakes would affect that situation didn’t come to me until after I’d finished the ride on the Roubaix and made it down the intestinal Westlake where I would brake once with the determined grip required to squeeze a lime over an al pastor taco. Mmm. Where were we?
It was after I was down Westlake and back to the hotel that I began to appreciate just what’s possible with those brakes. I never once broke a tire loose and believe me, I was often braking harder than was necessary. The lesson here for me is that there is a wide delta between how much braking power our bikes have and what is truly required to break a tire loose—provided your bike is under proper control. There’s a fair learning curve between my brief experience with these brakes and really making optimal use of them. And anyone who purchases a bike with these brakes will need two skill sets, the first being how to make full use of their remarkable abilities and the second being understanding how to apply them as if they were using mechanical brakes so that when they are riding in a group they don’t wear another rider like a cape because they over-braked in a turn. A half-dozen of these in a group of 30 riders could spell mayhem.
I don’t see the need for these brakes for anyone who lives someplace flat and never takes in dirt roads. There’s just no need. But for anyone in the mountains, I have to admit these brakes will increase a rider’s control. I’m not yet sure how hard it will be to transition from a bike with mechanical brakes to hydraulic discs and back again, but I suspect it won’t be as simple as moving from SRAM shifting to Dura-Ace and back again, but that’s a skill set anyone with multiple bikes would need to work on.
I didn’t expect to say this, but I want more time on a Roubaix with Hydro D. A lot more time.