Friday, September 25, 2009

Setting up Your Cyclocross Brakes

Last year, I set up my new cyclocross race bike from scratch, piece by piece. It was the first time I've done so in about 7 years and for the most part, I was very happy with the bike. This year, aside from testing some new wheels and tires, the only thing I'll be changing is the brakes. I decided to post the details here since it may be instructive to some of you and proper brake set up does effect rim longevity.

Initially, I had the bike set up with TRP Eurox brakes. They are relatively light and inexpensive and the design is straightforward enough. Unfortunately, I just cound not get them set up to work very well. The most obvious problem was the lack of toe adjustment. Most cantilevers use smooth post pads that can be toed simply by bending them in a vice. A bit crude but it works. These however, use posts with a pad holder for standard road cartridge pads. Convenient, but less adjustable (they have since corrected this with an adjustable toe pad holder). In any case, it's not a big problem since any smooth post canti pad will work with them.

The bigger problem for me was that the geometry of the brake had the pad very close to the canti post and there was no vertical adjustment available. The pad had to be angled sharply upwards to meet the rim. Ideally, the pad will hit perfectly perpendicular to the rim with an appropriate amount of toe-in. This was impossible to achieve with these brakes.

This is bad in two ways: 1) Brake performance is subpar and 2) The rim receives added stress due to the smaller contact patch of the pad, leading to premature rim wear.

To be fair, this may not be an issue for all bikes. Canti posts may be set higher on other frames and forks that may make this less of an issue but for my particular set up (Cannondale CAAD 9 with Easton EC90 fork) there was no way to make these brakes perform to my standards.

So what to replace them with?

I decided that my brakes for this year would need two things: toe adjustment and pad height adjustment. The two brakes I was considering with these features were the Avid Shortys or Paul Neo Retro/ Touring Canti.

Initially, I thought I'd go with the Avids. They are a good bit cheaper and work well. Additionally, they use road cartridge pad holders with V-type adjustment features making them very convenient for set up and pad changes. The did have one issue that ended up being a dealbreaker: no straddle cable. Normally, I wouldn't really care but I had been using these super awesome novelty straddle cable holders that I found in a dusty bin somewhere, a relic of early 90's when mountain biking was trendy and V-brakes had not yet gained dominance (I think there were also some purple annodized peace sign straddle cables in the bin with them and I can only assume they will stay there for all of eternity).

But the Paul's had issues as well. I did like the low weight and great retro looks and the ability to use the stonger Neo Retro model on the front and the calf saving Touring Canti in the back. However, the brake pads, standard V-brake rubber, were not as appealing as the Avids. Luckily, Avid sells their Shorty pad holders separately and after a quick addition of the glorious Swissstop Yellow King inserts, I was in business.

I rode the bike with the new brakes for the first time this past weekend at Charm City. These are the best brakes I've ever used, hands down. They were quiet, predictable and smooth, even with brand new carbon rims and much better and quieter than my bike last year with alloy rims.


colin said...

This is relevent. I've been fence-sitting on the shortys vs neo retros debate for a couple days now. thanks for confounding my final decision.

-JK said...

I haven't tried the new iteration of the Shorty's but I'm really impressed with the Paul's.

Brian-J said...

I think you give the Kool-Stop pads short shrift. They manufacture some of the finest brake pads I've used. I run them, in their various compounds and configurations, on all my bikes and have done so for the past 15 years.

They've upgraded the braking performance of every brake I own-- Avid, SunTour, Shimano, Dia-Compe.

-JK said...

I don't have anything against Kool-Stop. They are better and cheaper than most of what's out there. We found that the Swissstop yellow compound was by far the best pad for our carbon rims and since we started including them with the wheels, I haven't used anything else.