How Important are your brakes?
Rolling down a steep hill, accelerating every second, with brakes smoking and hands aching more and more as the hill grew ever longer and the tension increasing, I didn’t know if the brakes could hold out until the end or if they were going to wash out and leave me in freefall at the mercy of the street. The frightening vision of a 275 lb “projectile” racing toward the bottom of a hill on a vintage road bike was enough to make me question my own good sense. How did I get there and, more to the point, how would this “play out”?
On the road, brakes are a mixed bag of tricks. They need to be many things in different situations. Sometimes, they will need to be subtle and do little more than giving the rider the feel of control going into a corner. Other times, they need to be as strong as a bench vise. They need to be durable, predictable, simple, adjustable, light, strong, mud resistant and clean. They need to be fully functional and ready to go to work at the touch of a finger, with no warm up period. When you think of it, that really is a pretty tall task.
That is just the business end of the system, the handles, likewise, have several important functions. The handles provide a very real additional handhold on a road bike. In fact, the brake handles really are a major portion of the ergonomic interface with the rest of the bike, for it is with the hands, that all the steering, braking, shifting, and body language is controlled. The saddle provides a locating reference and a place to sit; the pedals and crank really only do variations on one task. All the other functions on the bike are controlled by the hands and are primarily done on and with the bars and control levers.
So the point is that while brakes are perhaps mundane and
“They only slow me down“, they are really a key element on a bike.
There was a time while riding that I chose to add a climb to a workout ride. It was a tough enough climb, and I am glad to have included it. It did have an implication for which I was not prepared. Coming down from the hill was quite dramatic, and potentially catastrophic. This is how I recollect the event. The conditions were perfect, light traffic, warm temp, no wind, and clear two-lane asphalt. The top of the descent began gently enough to simply coast with light control on the front brake. As the hill unrolled in front of me, I realized that it was about a mile and a half long and the grade was increasing toward the bottom. I could not see very far down the hill, even though it was essentially straight. The pavement just kept “falling away” out of sight.
About a third of the way down, I was going about 35 miles per hour, according to the Cateye Mity 3 mounted on my bars. That is a comfortable speed when taken all by itself. When coupled with an increasing descent for a distance beyond my line of sight, it was more than a little unnerving. Since this hill was one which I had driven a number of times, I was well aware of the bottom of the hill and the “run out situation”. The road goes straight down the fall line of the hill and at the bottom makes a slight dogleg to the left. From where I was at the moment, it seemed to just go on and on. The real issue was that the brakes pads were beginning to smoke. There was a fair cloud of dust around the front brakes, from the pads friction on the rim. Mixed in with the dust, was smoke, I am sure of it.
The reason for my concern was that there was a long distance to go and I was unsure of two things:
- Could I maintain the pressure on the front brake lever?
- Would the pads hold together for the length of the descent?
My left hand was hurting from the pressure I was putting on the front brakes. I am a full sized rider, at 6’4″ and 275 lbs, so the brakes (Modolo Professional’s) have a real job to do. They have always been up to the task. I knew that I could hold on to the brakes, though the pain in my left hand was increasing. I had shifted my weight as far aft as I could, but the grade was so steep, that the rear wheel would easily lock up, with too much brake input. So there I was rolling down the hill at an increasingly uncomfortable speed, with my front brake giving it’s “all”. I was concerned that the pads and rim would overheat, and the pads melt and then wash out, leaving me accelerating and with no braking. The sides of the road were lined with a small drainage ditch, which was spanned by driveways to the individual houses. There was no escaping the street, onto a cross street, or any good exit route.
I found myself considering the following choice: do I stay on the street and let it roll out, hoping that my brakes survive, or do I take an early exit to a very likely crash into someone’s front yard? Selecting the early out would be less dangerous, but a crash for sure. Letting the bike roll and managing the momentum with brakes, would work out better if they were up to the task. Not one to choose an involuntary crash, I elected to let it roll. The rest of the descent was simply a matter of focus and control. The brakes did just fine, they hung in there for me and my concern seemed to be unfounded.
So this is the bottom line. While the brakes are only there to “slow you down”, they can also save your life, so get good brakes. Get brakes that can handle the typical usage as if it were nothing, and can handle the extraordinary with confidence.
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