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Gimme a brake: Brake options for ‘cross

By Matt Pacocha

Avid's perfect for dry and fast courses. Not great in the mud, though.

Avid’s perfect for dry and fast courses. Not great in the mud, though.


Center-pull cantilever brakes, once common on mountain bikes, are now completely gone from the racing circuit. However, as summer winds down, the leaves turn and cyclo-cross bikes come out of hiding, the center-pull cantilever can once again enjoy the spotlight.

To understand what makes a good cyclo-cross brake, you first have to understand some of the intricacies of cantilever geometry, lever ratios and the whole idea of mechanical advantage.

At the most basic level, a brake and its lever must be matched in terms of mechanical advantage. A prime example is a linear-pull brake (the “V-brake” to most of us). It has a very high mechanical advantage (MA), meaning the end of the brake arm moves a long way in relation to the brake pad. In turn, the pad contacts the rim with a lot of force. A linear-pull brake lever, on the other hand, has a low mechanical advantage. It needs to be able to pull a lot of cable, yet doesn’t have to pull with a lot of force. Matching a linear-pull brake to a lever with a high MA will give you no end of trouble. Most times you won’t even be able to get it to work on the repair stand.

For cyclo-cross, it is a given that an STI or Ergo Power lever is the best choice. These levers have a rather high MA. They don’t pull a lot of cable, but they do pull the cable with greater force. This means picking the right brake is critical. Ideally one would pair a high-MA lever with a medium- or low-MA brake to achieve the optimal performance. This is not always as easy as it sounds.

There are three common options to choose from when equipping a `cross bike: linear brakes with adaptors, low profile cantilever brakes and wide profile cantilevers.

Cane Creek's short canti'

Cane Creek’s short canti’


Linear-pull brakes require a bridge to compensate for a road lever’s high mechanical advantage. In the form of a cam, Problem Solvers Travel Agents increase the amount of cable pulled by a road lever, thus allowing linear brake’s compatibility with high-MA road levers. Linear brakes are not common in the pro ranks because of the need to use an additional cam and poor rim/mud clearance when compared to other traditional cantilever options.

Advantage – You may have some kicking around in the garage and they are easy to use, but don’t forget the adaptors. If a component company could refine a road brake lever shifter to pull the right amount of cable, this style could become a favorite.

The next option and most common found on production cyclo-cross bikes is the refined low profile cantilever. The most popular example is Avid’s Shorty series, but Shimano, Cane Creek, Tektro also serve up their own versions. These brakes offer good stopping power and simple setup, but their rim clearance is low and that can lead to problems if the course includes mud.

“In mostly dry conditions, the Avid is a perfectly good brake,” said Stu Thorne, owner of Cyclocrossworld.com. “If you were in Europe, there is no way you could use the Avid brake …ever. It’s just impossible. I shouldn’t say impossible; people do it, but I have worked in a lot of world championship pits and it’s pretty amazing when the brakes get loaded up and you go to bring the bike over to the pressure washer and the wheels are barely rolling.”

Advantage – These are some of the most economically priced brakes on the market. They are also quite easy to use and provide good stopping power. Just watch out when the weather turns foul.

Empella: Lots of clearance

Empella: Lots of clearance


Especially in European cyclo-cross and at the professional level on the domestic scene, the wide profile cantilever is the tool of choice. Common models are Paul’s, SRP, Spooky and Empella.

“The biggest difference between an Avid and Empella or Spooky is that the Avid brake just doesn’t fall away from the rim as nicely,” said Thorne.This wide profile style of brake splits the difference between power and brake pad travel, giving them a number of advantages over a low profile cantilever brake. First and foremost, they offer two to three times the pad travel of a linear-pull or low profile cantilever. This is the biggest reason for the style’s popularity among professionals. When the rims and wheels pack up with mud, the brake doesn’t get in the way. In addition, when properly set up, their mechanical advantage actually increases as they travel through their arc. They are also the lightest option available for cyclo-cross brakes.

There are some trade offs with this style; the two most common complaints pertain to setup and lack of power.

“There is no question an Empella or a Spooky brake – if you are looking at sheer stopping power – are not as powerful as an Avid or Shimano brake,” said Thorne. “It’s a catch 22 and depends on exactly what you might be looking for. In most cases, stopping power is also an issue of brake pad material and proper setup. If they are dialed in they [wide profile brakes] do work. It is a personal preference for some riders.”

The wide profile cantilevers haven’t really changed all that much since the Mafac of the early `80s, so set up is less than intuitive and some adjustments, like toe-in, require a bit of mechanical finesse [i.e. bending with a big wrench].

“The Avid brakes are straight forward. You bolt them on and set the pad up to hit the rim correctly, they come with their own dynamic link wire… it’s pretty straight forward,” said Thorne. “The Empella’s require a lot more fine tuning, the Spooky’s are the same… they’re a little harder to set up but once they’re set up correctly, they work really well.”

Shimano's low-profile is the right tool for some conditions

Shimano’s low-profile is the right tool for some conditions


Advantage – These brakes have the best mud clearance because they allow the brake pads to fall so far from the rim. They also are some of the lightest options and we will give them a nod for their Euro’ pro’ style.

Just my opinion Like they say, there is a proper tool for every job. The task of braking on cyclo-cross bikes is a hairy subject. As with any type of racing, powerful brakes help you go faster; you can carry more speed and brake later when entering a corner. As it stands, to get good braking in `cross you have to sacrifice pad to rim clearance, which is a real bummer.

Here are the options as I see them: If you live in a dry climate (think California or Colorado), go with the linear or low-profile cantilever brakes. If you have a spare bike, consider a wide-profile brake for that rare muddy day. If you’re in the Northwest or the East, I have to say that you should stick with the wide-profile brake. Their power isn’t as good but you need the clearance for the mud. Heck, now that the ban is lifted on disc brakes, the sweet setup could be discs on carbon rims. (Unfortunately, that ban has not yet been lifted. UCI rules still state that disc brakes are not allowed in UCI-sanctioned cyclo-cross races [Article 1.3.025 of Part 1 General Organization of Cycling] – Editor) Another option could be to write to SRAM telling them to design that new DoubleTap lever with the proper cable pull ratio for a linear brake – creating the first made-for-`cross group.

Since this is a complicated problem that hasn’t been answered by the industry’s manufacturers, the next best source for answers are the athletes and professionals who are paid to race on what’s available.

What some of the pro’s think:Mark Gullickson – Former National Champ

I started with a low profile brake, some old Shimano XTRs. After going over to Europe and racing in the mud a lot, I noticed when I would stand up and sprint I could hear my rim rubbing… it certainly sounded bad and made me feel like there was a problem. I switched because everyone in Europe was running those brakes [wide profile]. Cyclocrossworld.com sponsored me [at the time] and they were bringing Empella brakes in, so I tried them. Everything is good about the Empella brakes if you stay on top of them, but they never felt quite as smooth as the XTR ones I used to use. It was harder to pull them; the braking power wasn’t quite as good either. If you’re riding in the dry most of the time and you’re a fair weather crosser, the low profile brakes are fine and actually have better feel and are more powerful. But if you have any aspirations of racing in the mud, the other ones [wide profile] are better.

Travis Brown – Trek Brands Product Tester/ Racer

Basically you give up power to gain pad clearance. I kind of think that braking (in general) is so poor on `cross bikes that power is more important. Since you can have a spare bike and wash, I lean towards better braking performance [as apposed to clearance]. I think a linear-pull brake paired with a lever that pulls enough cable – is the best solution. Last year, I rode linear brakes with travel agent cams and I liked them better because the [linear] brake arm is stiffer. When you are trying to get things to work with carbon rims, particularly in the front, they work better. Just because everyone else is using something doesn’t mean there’s not something better out there.

Adam Craig – Giant Bicycles Mtb Racer

The answer is – disc brakes, hydraulic if possible. But it’s an answer that nobody wants to give. Some people are content to have horrifically crappy working 1980’s technology on their `cross bike, which is quite frustrating. We [Team Giant] just have Shimano’s standard touring cantilever, with some random top mount in line levers, which are sweet. They work fine; I mean they work as well as a cantilever can work. They don’t have quite as much mud clearance as some of the other designs, but the designs with a ton of mud don’t even work- they have even less mechanical advantage. Cross races are won and lost in corners. Carl [Decker] won Star Crossed because he was cornering faster than everyone else. If you have a brake that allows you to effectively modulate and steer your bike all the way through a turn, from braking hard and late to little adjustments through the turn, you will go faster. It seems like everyone in cross is driven by tradition and they are like “oh, cantilever brakes have worked for the last 40 years, why should we mess with them now?”

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