Sunday, October 16, 2011

Tektro Brake Levers: A Love-Hate Relationship, Defined

First, some history: In The Beginning, there was the first-generation Campagnolo Ergopower lever. It was fat. The top was flat. And it was good.

 (I horked this image from here.)

These things were so stinkin' comfortable that I recall twisted tales of retro-grouches who would gut the shifting mechanisms just to be able to pair the ergonomics of the Campy brake lever with whatever antiquated shifting system the grouch in question preferred (usually a whittled stick twined to the top tube used to poke the chain from one cog to the next).

Since retro-grouches didn't (and don't) pay the bills at Campy World Headquarters, nobody said, "Hey, let's pre-gut these things and overcharge for them!" Instead, it took the more downmarket-minded folks at Tektro to see (and grab) an opportunity with their R200 levers:
(Thanks for the pic, Harris Cyclery.)

Not only were the R200s every bit as comfortable as the Campys, they also stole (er, "paid homage to") their Italian counterpart's quick-release button, allowing the rider to open the brake wide to get a fat tire out. And -- very much UNLIKE just about anything Campy -- the Tektros were (and are) cheap, cheap, cheap, like twenty bucks a pair. Of course, if you're the sort of rider who thinks that brand-name canned beans taste better than the ones from the can that just says "beans", you can pay more for the Cane Creek version with some lizards on the hoods and a bit of silk-screened prestige.

Now, Campy folks are not stupid. Eventually, they did come out with their pre-gutted version, but of course, it was made of carbon with the cremated remains of Fausto Coppi in the resin and thus cost two-hundred friggin' U.S. dollars. Yes, seriously. That's a BRAKE lever with NO shifting mechanism. Here, I'll prove it with an Amazon link, since I'm sure you're just itching to buy a pair and keep this blog in the black for a few years:

Okay, so the Tektros. Cheap, comfy, ideal for retro-grouchery, so you're wondering where the "hate" is in the love-hate relationship, right? Well, let's just say that I've had some issues with design and quality control that would lead me to believe there's a catch to the $20 price point.

First, the quality control: These are not the most precise bits of bicycle engineering you'll ever hold in your hand. They'll rattle a bit when installed. And it's kind of luck of the draw whether you'll get a pair with the value-added feature of PPM: Perpetual Pivot Migration. Basically, the pin that the lever turns on will back itself out of the lever just the tiniest bit every time you brake. But if this were the only downside, I'd just keep pushing that pivot back in, delete the "hate" from the relationship and make these bad boys a Hail to the Cheap award winner.

The real crushing flaw of these levers is under the skin. The cable path runs directly in front of the clamp bolt, making it a real bear to tighten these things on the bars with a cable installed. And -- even worse -- it's very easy for a klutzy mechanic (namely, yours truly) to get access to that bolt from a slight angle (working around the cable) and accidentally cross-thread the bolt into the clamp nut. Once you've done that, I hope you like the position of the lever on the bar, because it's now permanent. When you try to loosen the bolt, it will just spin the nut in the clamp. Swear all you want (believe me, I tried), but you're not getting that lever off the bars. The only fix i've found once you've made the fatal error is to a) Dremel (VERY GENTLY!) through the clamp without nicking your handlebars to free the lever from the bars, b) drill out the bolt/nut interface (without gouging yourself on the sharp edges of the Dremel-cut clamp band) to free the clamp from the lever body, and c) replace all that shredded hardware with a bolt/clamp from a donor lever. I'm ashamed to admit that, lacking in parts donors, I now have a couple clampless Tektro levers rattling around my parts box after being surgically removed from bars after a ham-fisted cross-threading.

So, alas, while cheap and almost ridiculously comfy, the Tektro lever is not for the rider who likes Swiss precision or the mechanic who likes to futz. When this blog makes its first bazillion, maybe I'll drop the coin on those Campys (or -- hint, hint -- maybe Campy wants to send me a review pair?) In the meantime, I'll just keep pushing pivots and wrenching with EXTREME caution.


Anonymous said...

Regarding the first part of the "hate it" design bug: putting the cable in front of the attachment bolt/nut is a time honored tradition! My old Weinmanns and Campys (Campies?) are built this way.

Granted, it qualifies as a PITA, but it's the most straightforward way to build a lever. You just have to be willing to position and tighten the lever before installing the cable.

I'm kinda curious about the pivot bolt backing out. Doesn't the hood keep it from moving?? Perhaps a couple of wraps of electrical tape under the hood would take care of it?

Steve in Peoria

Jason T. Nunemaker said...

Steve -- if you look at the photo, the pivot in question is in the black plastic area, right around the "O" in Tektro on the blade. The hood doesn't come down that far. I'll bet that a well-placed square of electrical tape would hold it, but since it's right there where my fingers always wind up, I'd end up peeling off the tape anyway... so I just use those same fingers to shove the pin back in place every once in a while.

Mark @ said...

So I'm not the only one with mixed feelings for Tektro levers.

Aside from all the things you mentioned, what really bugs me is that completely un-ergo shape of the long-pull levers. It's like they went out of their way to make them as uncomfortable as possible.

Steve Fuller said...

I have a pair of two of the Tektros and I love them. I haven't run into the issues that you have Jason, probably because I don't (didn't) work in a shop. I'm also one of those guys that tends to torque wrench every bolt on a new bike, and not put the cables in until the very end too. :)

Anonymous said...

Hey Mr. N.!

I see what you mean, and I don't see an obvious solution. Maybe some judiciously applied JB Weld at each end of the pivot??

If the pivot pin is metal, maybe you can apply the principle of percussive maintenance. I'm thinking that you might be able to take a sharp, hard bit of steel (maybe a punch) and hammer a dimple into each end. That should spread the end a little bit, which might be enough to keep it from sliding out.

Otherwise.. I think I'd try the tape idea, but with some semi-permanent tape. I wonder if an auto parts store would have something suitable??

good luck!

Steve in Peoria