Monday, January 13, 2014

Off The Back Isn't So Bad

There's been much to-do in the real cycling press lately about SRAM's quasi-aborted attempt at hydraulic brakes (both disc and rim) for road and 'cross bikes. First they were an amazing leap forward that was going to change everything. Then all of a sudden, they were all recalled (the seals apparently couldn't hack it in the cold), and SRAM was rushing to provide cable-actuated replacements, including an all-hands-on-deck effort at the U.S. 'cross nationals to get racers switched over from the now-unsafe-at-any-speed hydraulics.

As a raving Luddite, this is probably where I should bask in the smug glory of schadenfreude, flaunting the impressive service record and low failure rate of 1890s penny-farthing spoon brakes. But I won't. After all, it's not like hydraulic bicycle brakes are anything new. I learned to bleed Magura rim hydraulics in 1999 and they weren't new then. Hydraulic discs are old hat among mountain bikers, about as proven as a technology can be. Sometimes, there's an easy "new stuff bad, old stuff good" angle, but not this time.

The lesson I take from SRAM's road hydraulics (besides another example of The Kryptonite PR Principle) is this: The best place to be on the bike-tech spectrum is just a couple steps back from the bleeding (no hydraulic pun intended) edge. Unless you're a sponsored pro, skip the just-released Skunk Works stuff and stick with Ultegra (not trying to favor Shimano here -- just flinging out an example of a reliable second-tier group). At that level, what you're really buying is the cutting edge from about two years ago, stuff that's still high-performance but has been worked over by ordinary folks who pay their own way, not just racers who have a staff of professional mechanics and a bottomless pile of replacements. The bad ideas have already shaken out, because at the volume those parts sell, a mistake (and recall) would be a disaster.

Based on SRAM's track record, I'm sure they'll wind up with a good product. Shimano will then figure out how to shoehorn a master cylinder into an STI lever and pair it up with their already-tested MTB discs. And finally, Campy will come out with a Super-Duper-Record full-hydraulic setup that uses the sweat of Eddy Merckx as fluid. Road Freds the world over will embrace hydraulics, and this whole kerfuffle will be forgotten.

Me? Call me when the technology trickles down (again, no hydraulic pun intended) to Tiagra. Then I'll trust it.


Scott Loveless said...

From the Wikipedia:

"Fred Duesenberg originated hydraulic brakes on his 1914 racing cars..."

Dude, that's a century right there.

Jason T. Nunemaker said...

I stand corrected, Scott. In fact, I'm going to head on down to the local Duesenberg dealership to check those out.

Oh, wait... they've been out of business since 1937. Must've been the bad seals. ;-)

Props for citing a car company that started in scenic Des Moines, Iowa, though...