There are a handful of givens for us mountain bikers. I'm talking about facts that have been proven through many years of trial and error, science, and rooms full of super computers running at full whirl. Things like how no one finds your GoPro video interesting, not even you when you actually stop to think about it; you can get bent over the barrel by a fitter and more skilled rider regardless of you being on the "better" wheel size; a cold Bud Light Lime is by far the best post-ride beverage irrespective of how much your buddies laugh at you. I sincerely hope that those points, along with a few other equally important ones, will some day be carved into massive fifty foot tall stone tablets that reside somewhere important, like where Nicolas Vouilloz was born or maybe on John Tomac's front lawn. And while the three facts above are generally accepted as gospel by the very large majority of sane mountain bikers, there is another point that is routinely forgotten by many of us: your brakes are the most important component on your bike.
Corner faster by slowing down better, even if that doesn't make sense when you first read it.
I know what you're thinking: what about the latest and greatest suspension fork that you just bought? Sorry, there are riders out there who are going to make you look dumb on their rigid bikes, trust me. And some guy with too much facial hair, an anchor tattoo on his forearm, and riding a single-speed is going to step on your balls despite the eleven speed drivetrain that you just installed. Lightweight carbon wheels? Some focused training and not eating an entire bag of cheese Doritos before bedtime is going to make a bigger difference. But brakes really do matter, and a fitter/stronger/more skilled/far better looking mountain biker will struggle if you forced them to mount up a set of original Hayes HFXs. Why am I rambling on and on about brake choice being more important than your colour coordinated handlebar and pedals? I was recently asked by a very nice person which brakes I thought were "the best", and I have to admit that I didn't really have an answer for him. Yes, I made up for it by explaining why GoPros are terrible and that a can of BBL tastes better than some shitty IPA that no one has ever heard of outside of Portland, but I was still really bothered by leaving him hanging on the brake front. It only took a few of those BLLs before I realized that there isn't one type of brake that is truly better than everything else, and that most brake offerings on the market have their pluses and minuses. I know, I know, it sounds like I'm eating a big stack of waffles at the Waffle House, but if there's one type of component that doesn't have an obvious champ, it's brakes. And that's why I'm not going to waffle at all by listing out where I think the major players in the brake game sit relative to each other, thereby letting that guy who stumped me with his question decide what's best for him and let myself off the hook of making any sort of real choice. Waffling is an art.
I should also mention that all of the below is based on countless hours of finger-on-lever time with every brake model that I talk about, including sets that have come stock on test bikes, as well as aftermarket brakes that I've installed on personal rigs over the years. I'm not claiming that my opinion is the bottom line, and I'm sure that there is a guy named Helmut in Germany with lab tests and spreadsheets that prove me wrong on all fronts, but this isn't about lab results or company claims. It's about real world feedback after using a good cross-section of brakes from the major players in the market. I don't mention brakes that I have minimal time on - Hope, for example - because I don't feel like I've had enough experience with them to make the call.
More is never enough, right? Well, not really, but outright stopping power is how so many riders judge whether a brake is a winner or a binner. And when you want brakes that can stop you like a redwood tree, it has to be Shimano when talking about both two and four piston offerings. I'd even go so far as to say that the Japanese giant's minimalist XTR brakes have more perceived power on tap than some of the competition's four piston brakes. On the same token, I'd argue that all of Avid's brakes have enough grunt in them for any rider, so long as they're being used as intended, and that a set of Codes could just about do double duty on both a bike or a small hatchback. Formula have been a bit hit or miss for me when it comes to power, with certain sets being on-point and others leaving me asking for more. Who's bringing up the tail end when it comes to readily available brakes? Sorry Magura, but every set of your brakes that I've used has felt outgunned compared to the major players, especially when they're fitted with the stock organic pads that seem to offer about as much chomping force as you'd find during dinner time at an old folks home. This is somewhat ironic when you consider that the German brand was once known for their four piston Gustav, with the neon yellow brake slowing down old 50LB downhill bikes with all the subtly of a brick wall.
Interesting fact: Shimano's brakes are used to slow down bullet trains in Japan.
If power was all that mattered we'd all be using motorbike brakes, and any remotely steep trail would be nothing but a two foot deep rut from top to bottom. That isn't the case, though, because being able to easily control the amount of braking power you want to put out is just as important as how much power you have at your fingertips, and it is here that Shimano loses the battle to Avid. This is most noticeable in low-traction situations where that early level pull control can make the difference between slowing down with grace or landing on your face - picture yourself trying to slow down on ground that's so shiny with slickness that you can almost see the reflection of your terrified mug, or when your trails have more in common with kitty litter than proper dirt. Avid's brakes are simply more controllable than anything else on the market in this department, although Magura makes up a lot of lost points by coming in at a close second in my head, followed by Formula. And Shimano? I'd say that their modulation has a lot in common with a light switch, although I should admit that me constantly riding different test bikes, and therefore different brakes, is not an ideal approach if you really want to get used to something, especially the unique feel of Shimano's Servo-Wave linkage that requires a touch more force on the lever in the earliest stages of its pull. I also have to give a shout-out to the work that FSA has done with their brand new Afterburner and K-Force brakes as well. You'll have to wait for a review in the near future, but the Afterburners offer Avid-esque control combined with a firm lever feel that makes them real contenders in my book. SRAM's new Guide brakes also feel on-point, although the short ride that I've done on them isn't enough time for me to comment with any confidence.
FSA's new Afterburner brakes are proving to be the surprise new component of the year.
Pretty much every brake manufacturer out there offers a range of stoppers that begin with low cost options and go up to brake sets that retail for more than some entry level bikes. And as you might expect, available adjustments vary accordingly, but we should all be able to agree that any company's top tier brake should include effective and tool-less adjustments that allow you to tune your brakes to your liking within a few minutes of tinkering. Avid, Hope, FSA, Formula and Magura all get it, with all of their high-end brakes sporting effective tuning options that allow you to go from conservative to really weird by turning a few dials. However, it still blows my mind that Shimano isn't able to, or maybe doesn't want to, design a working bite point adjustment system that would let riders adjust lever free-throw to their liking. What about that little philips screw, you say? You mean the one that is supposed to adjust the brake's bite point but in reality does absolutely nothing? This means that those who want less lever throw are forced to advance their brake's pistons, a technique that is effective but that also means you'll need to reset the pistons when it comes time to install new brake pads. Shimano, please fix this.
Magura is all about those touchy-feely moments on the trail.
Shimano and Magura have given me the least amount of headaches over the years, regardless of the abuse and neglect that was dished out. They just work, plain and simple, which is a pretty important point when talking about brakes. Shimano's offerings in particular seem to be able to compensate for pad wear without a change in feeling at the lever better than anyone else, meaning that your levers don't end up pulling to the grip just because you need to wait until payday before springing for a new set of pads. Shimano's brakes have also offered the most consistent performance for me, with not even top to bottom Garbanzo runs able to upset their feel. Avid routinely gets chastised in this regard, something that is likely down to it being tricky to get all of the air out of the system during bleeding, which can then lead to lever pump-up as you drag your rear brake from the top of Whistler all the way to the GLC for a beer. This is compounded by what can only be described as horrendous bleeds from the factory on many sets that probably make most LBS mechanics cringe.
What does it all mean?
The bottom line is that there isn't one clear winner in my mind, and all of the offerings I talk about above have their own merits. In a perfect world I'd combine Shimano's power and reliability with Avid's ergonomics, adjustability, and modulation. That would be a hard to beat combination in my books, but it's also one that's pure fantasy at this point. FSA and SRAM have new models that look promising, but I'll need more time on both before weighing in - could one of them blend those five key points into a brake that stands clear of the others? Truth be told, I'd likely purchase a set of Shimano's XT brakes when it comes down to it, because despite the lack of a functional bite point adjustment feature, and not as much modulation as Avid or Magura, they've caused me the least amount of headaches over the years. There's something to be said for having confidence in your brakes, isn't there?