Sunday, October 17, 2021

The best Shimano cantilever brake that Shimano never made.

I know that declaring the "best cantilever brake" in 2021 is not unlike announcing the best dirigible (insert "oh, the humanity!" joke here, unless 84 years later is still "too soon" for that), but I'm going to yet again make a bold-yet-outdated pronouncement and call this the BEST CANTILEVER BRAKE EVER:

What you're seeing is a Shimano BR-M550 (a.k.a. Deore LX) brake (or more accurately, half of it) from the early 1990s, brought out of the Age of Grunge with some modern brake pads (the modern-ish straddle hanger is just there because I was too lazy to put something else in its place). So what makes this thing so great, you ask? (Humor me and ask, or I'll just pretend you did.)

  1. Medium-profile geometry. If you want to go deep down the cantilever brake theory rabbit hole (hey, I don't judge), there still isn't anyone who's done it better than the late, great Sheldon Brown. But for those who just want to finish reading this list and get back to their corn flakes, a medium-profile brake is easy to set up while offering scads of power and modulation from both flat-bar and drop-bar brake levers.
  2. That little pad upgrade. Shimano was SO close to perfection with these back in the early 90s, except that they hadn't figured out the now-ubiquitous threaded-post brake shoe hardware (that would come with V-brakes around 1995). Instead, the brakes came with these comically fat pads (seriously, they're like a caricature of a brake pad) with awkward and insufficient toe-in adjustment (as an annoying bonus, the choice of pad and hardware also made these brakes somewhat intolerant of little details like varying rim width or cantilever post spacing, likely because this was when Shimano thought it could bend the entire industry to its will and mandate such dimensions). Dump those, throw in some modern pad holders (I'm using Tektro holders and Kool Stop inserts), and you've made a brake that was already easy to set up laughably easy.
  3. Shimano's good stuff. These babies were made in Japan when the Japanese bike parts makers were absolutely at the top of their game, and it shows. I do have a soft spot for modern Tektro cantilevers, but you can install one brand-new from the box that has more play in it than this 30-year-old LX. Is it a little heavier than it absolutely needs to be? Maybe. But when you pair the brick-shitehouse construction with the precise tolerances, all your squeeze goes into stopping rather than flexing or squealing. That's worth a few grams in my book.
  4. No respect. I don’t remember anyone being enamored with these back in the day (likely due to the foibles mentioned above), and they haven’t seen a huge growth in popularity since (though I’m sure this post will cause a run on them). The vanishingly small subset of people who convert vintage touring bikes from 27” wheels to 700c report that they work great with the narrow post spacing on some of those bikes, but otherwise, these are seen as parts box detritus - which means you can snap them up on the cheap.
  5. Not-stupid design. Why for the love of all that is good and decent do so many modern cantilever and V-brakes not open up all the way when you undo the straddle? Is it that hard to design a brake that lets the pad clear the fork blades and seatstays? What's the point of a brake that clears a super-fat tire if you can't get that super-fat tire past the brake pads without deflating it when you try to take the wheel off the bike? Do I have any more rhetorical questions? Could I possibly just illustrate this point with a photo instead?

Shimano has tried to recapture and improve upon the 550 magic a few times in the three decades hence, most recently with a couple (now discontinued) CX-series models, although those used yet another oddball style of pad mounting hardware. So if you want the good stuff, head (safely, please) down to the local bike co-op and dig through the boxes for some crusty cantilevers of yesteryear.

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