Friday, March 14, 2014

Great Moments in Obscure, Cheap Parts: Shimano Exage Brake Levers

Sometimes, the folks who make bike bits get something so right, but the world doesn't notice. Exhibit A? The aero brake lever from Shimano's cheap/entry-level road group of the late 80s/early 90s, Exage:

(Image horked from Pedal Pedlar, a UK site where -- apparently --
you can still buy these things. Who knew?)

Part of the reason this lever didn't get much play is because it came out in the height of the mountain bike boomlet, and there was also an Exage mountain bike group known mainly for truly awful hubs that vomited impossible-to-clean grease gunk in the short time before their cones became too pitted to turn. Even yours truly, master of really obscure 90s bike minutiae that makes others yawn, doesn't remember much else from the Exage road group. But those levers, oh, those levers. What made them so great?

  • They shared the almost ridiculously ergonomic shape of Shimano's more expensive brake levers, a shape that lives on in today's Tiagra and Dura Ace levers (levers that are, as far as I can tell, identical save for some cosmetic bits). Hands love 'em.
  • They had all of Shimano's SLR (Shimano Linear Response) braking features -- smooth action, just the right amount of return spring... heavenly.
  • They were all metal, and thus tough as nails. Even the current Dura Ace lever is a plasticky modern mess compared to old Exage. They even lacked the weird plastic internal bit shared by both modern Tiagra and Dura Ace (the only non-STI road brake levers left in the Shimano line) whose only purpose (it seems) is to rattle, at least until you pry it out with a screwdriver.
  • The levers had a little texture/racing stripe pattern cast into them, for a bit of extra grip and style. Heck, the hoods even had little golf-ball dimples for extra grip and style.

If those four bullet points were all the Exage lever had going for it, well, OK. A good part. But what truly escalated them to greatness was that little protruding triangle on the inside. That's a quick release. See, the matching Exage brake caliper was a truly low-rent single-pivot sidepull with zero capability to open up and allow the tire to clear the brake pads when dropping out a wheel. Shimano got around that by making a sprung "stop" in the lever, that triangular button. Push that in, and the lever could open past its normal position, opening the caliper to clear the tire.

Big deal, right? Campy does that, and Tektro's copied it from Campy. But Shimano outdid Campy in this humble little Exage lever. Being sprung, the Exage release button popped back into place as soon as you squeezed the lever, returning the brake to normal operation with nary a second thought. Elegant. Pair that with a non-cheap brake caliper with its own quick release and you could open up to clear a MASSIVE tire.

Alas, brake levers without integrated shifters are a niche thing now, and Shimano decided long ago that there wasn't enough space in the niche for the Exage design, so it is no more. But for a brief, shining moment, it was pretty darn great.


Anonymous said...

I've got a pair of these in my parts box: they came to me attached to a pair of bars.

Being a Campag fanboy I've not used them, but I was immediately struck by how "right" the felt in my hands.

After reading your piece I think I need to make more of an effort: a completely non-Campag build perhaps?

Hmmm ...

JC said...

Wow, the quick release button functionality had eluded me all of these retro riding years!! Thank you for enlightening me!!!

Unknown said...

Thanks so much. I wanted to make my 1988 steel road bike more of a commuter with bigger tires but I didn't know how to open the exage brakes wider. Now I know!