Next to tires, brakes have perhaps the greatest effect on a ‘cross bike’s handling. Manufacturers have to balance power, modulation, and clearance, all while trying to eliminate the dreaded shudder and keep weight as low as possible. This balancing act proves problematic, so models tend to favor a few attributes over all others, doing a some things well and failing elsewhere.
Coming from a mountain bike background, the notion that a brake can be “too powerful” just feels a bit absurd. But absurdity seems to be the overarching theory behind cyclocross anyway, right? So perhaps it’s fitting.
It is important to differentiate between powerful and grabby – the former being a positive in every vehicle-related sport, including ‘cross, and the latter being a handling killer under any circumstance. Too often, ‘crossers complain about a brake being too powerful when in fact they may mean too grabby, or lacking in modulation. A good brake should provide an excellent range of stopping power, from light feathering to fully locked up and everything in between.
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Mini-V brakes, like TRP’s CX9, offer more power, but add a bit of weight and decrease mud clearance. Discs have been legal for only a handful of months and are far from being perfected for ‘cross – but they remain a powerful and controlled, albeit heavy, option, if your frame is compatible. Cantilevers suffer from shudder and less overall power, but often provide excellent modulation and are the lightest of the bunch. None are perfect.
But Avid is getting pretty close.
Cantilevers have a long and storied history of being a royal pain in the arse to set up, though in recent years manufacturers seem to have realized that not everyone has a pro mechanic at their beck and call, and have engineered accordingly. The Shorty Ultimates continue that trend. They are surprisingly easy to set up, and offer impressive levels of adjustability.
The arms themselves can be adjusted to a wide or narrow stance. The brake-block mount is sandwiched between two parallel arms – simply remove two small hex screws, twist the pad mount to the next position, and put the screws back in to change stances. SRAM says the narrow stance provides about 20% more power, a difference that is certainly noticeable on the bike. The narrow stance does decrease mud clearance a bit, but there is still plenty of room for all but the nastiest days.
Spring tension for each arm is incredibly easy to adjust. Loosen the mounting bolt, stick a wrench on an arm’s top cap, twist clockwise for more tension, re-tighten the mounting bolt.
The Ultimates take standard road cartridge pads, making replacement relatively painless. The brake blocks themselves can tilt and swivel in every direction, making fine-tuned toe-in and height adjustments a breeze. Exactly how those adjustments are made is up to the mechanic.
The left-arm quick release slots in and out easily, even with pads set up close to the rim. It also has an in-line barrel adjuster for easy cable tension adjustments. The straddle is self-centering, and clamps securely with two small hex screws.
Weight per wheel is 115 grams with stock pads, making the Ultimates slightly heavier than some super light setups.
The balance of power and modulation seems to be a constant struggle with cantilevers. Too many, in my opinion, err on the side of modulation at the expense of outright power. Some may like that feeling – I don’t. I want stop to mean stop.
The Shorty Ultimates, set up in the more powerful narrow stance, were just powerful enough for my liking, making them one of a select few cantilevers to hit that mark. But they weren’t grabby either, and I never had issues with accidental skidding or similar, even on one very lose, gravelly course. I never got the all-on or all-off feeling common with other powerful brakes, allowing better control in nasty corners and heading into dismounts.
I tested the Ultimates with a set of aluminum wheels and stock pads, as well as two different carbon rims and Swissstop Yellow King pads. Braking was better on the aluminum rims, as expected, and only adequate on the carbon hoops – again, as expected. Neither produced a grabby feeling or any brake shudder, though that may be thanks to the crown-mounted hanger on my Specialized Crux rather than the brakes themselves.
I also tried the front and rear in both wide and narrow stances, and preferred the narrow in every situation. From the looks of the World Cup opener in Aigle, Switzerland, I’m not the only one. Both Compton and Stybar look like they were running the Short Ultimates in narrow stance – as well as the entire Cannondale/Cyclocrossworld team. The difference between the two setups was significant, enough so that those looking for far less power should be content with the wider setup.
The Shorty Ultimates seem to have brought some much needed balance to the world of cross brakes. They are powerful enough for this reformed mountain biker, with good modulation, low weight, loads of clearance in both narrow and wide configurations, and lots of adjustability.
Editor’s note: Caley Fretz joined VeloNews as an editorial intern in May 2010 and has stuck around ever since. Beyond his journalistic pursuits, Caley is a Cat. 1 road and ‘cross racer, pro mountain biker, Cat. 2 track racer, and former president of the Colorado State University cycling team.