Editor’s Note: This article is courtesy of the team at Art’s Cyclery. The original post can be found here.
What is the most critical piece of gear on your bike? And by that we mean, which component, if it sucks, will have the biggest negative impact on your ride? Drivetrain? Perhaps, although even today’s low-end chainrings, chains, and cassettes are strong and shift well as long as your timing is good. Suspension? You’re getting warmer. A wobbly, chunky fork or shock will definitely make your bike harder to control, and your descent down the rock garden a lot less fun.
But yeah, it’s brakes. A poor-performing set of brakes not only makes every descent a white-knuckler, but will actually slow you down. If your brakes aren’t responsive and strong, with good modulation, you’ll end up dragging them constantly, since you won’t be able to slow down from higher speeds. Good brakes let you carry speed longer and brake later, resulting in more fun and speed. So which are the best for your bike? Read on.
With a well-earned reputation for value, Shimano’s XT M8000 brakes (and all iterations of XT) are almost impossible to argue against. They’re versatile enough for everything from trail to enduro riding. Adjustments include lever positioning and free stroke, which determines when in the lever throw the brake pads contact the rotor. For those who like to dial in their set-up just so, free stroke is an invaluable feature. Shimano’s servo-wave action increases power as the lever gets deeper into its travel, and imparts a distinct, light feel to the brake actuation.
If you ride downhill or aggressive enduro-style trails, then flat out, brute stopping force is key. Throw in excellent heat control and you’ve got the legendary Shimano Saint M820 brakes. Four ceramic pistons in each caliper provide massive power, while the integrated pad cooling fins manage heat well during long downhills. Don’t worry about brake fade with the Saints. They are built for reliable response even on long, steep descents, especially when things get dicey.
Just as Shimano brakes have their own feel, so do SRAM brakes. The main difference being that Shimano brakes ramp up significantly at the end of the lever travel, while SRAM brakes have a more consistent feel throughout. Upholding the reputation of modulation is the SRAM Guide RSC Brake. The S stands for Swing Link, which is SRAM’s lever configuration allowing for fingertip control all the way from full lever extension to bottom out. Also adjustable without tools are lever position and pad contact point. S4 calipers are much easier to bleed than their predecessors, and have several features for superior heat management.