Disc-brake technology for mountain-bikes has progressed at lightning speed in the last few years. Based on long-standing concepts originating from motorbike technology, disc-brakes have traditionally suffered from complex set-up and maintenance procedures, and reliability issues. It’s just not as simple as a piece of wire attached to a caliper. It’s messy and expensive. People get scared of touching them — it’s new and unfamiliar territory.
Looking past all this neurosis, you do get an incomparable level of braking power from a properly-installed set of disc brakes. The difference cannot be understated. On my way down a mountain road, I can go from top speed to a standstill in a couple of seconds. With a single finger on each brake lever. On a fully-loaded touring bike with a trailer in tow. This would have been practically impossible before the advent of disc-brakes.
This is the power that is afforded by Magura’s Louise disc-brakes. The control you have over your speed is nothing short of extraordinary. So why have hydraulic disc brakes not yet made their way into the mainstream of cycle-touring?
The big issue that makes standard cable-actuated V-brakes the norm in the long-distance biking world is reliability. Hydraulic disc brakes have been seen by tourers as just another potential disaster waiting to happen. You get a leak, or a hydraulic line fails, and you’re left with zero braking power, and, if you’re outside the developed world, no chance of a repair for a few thousand miles.
There is something to be said for taking precautions to avoid your bike breaking down. That’s why you invest in a good set of wheels to avoid your spokes snapping under load. It’s why you choose a steel frame, so you can get it welded in a pinch if it breaks. It’s why you wipe and lubricate your chain at the end of every day’s ride to stop it wearing your drivetrain out.
But the reliability issue isn’t what it used to be. The glamourous world of mountain-biking has ensured this. The competition amongst manufacturers is fierce; a growing market exists for high-value luxury bike parts, but there’s not enough money to go round everyone who wants a piece of it. This works in favour of the opportunist expedition cycler, who can dip in to this pool of frantic engineering R&D and pluck out the occasional product that fits the bill for a massive adventure on a bike.
On this theme, we originally asked Magura if they’d give us some of their Odur forks to try out. They said yes, and then gave us each a set of their latest Louise disc brakes as well.
At first, I was skeptical, citing reliability and the potential for terminal failure. But Magura have been keen to sponsor numerous long-distance expeditions over the years, so they are obviously confident that their kit is up to the task. In fact, in the 3 years and 40,000 kilometres that Andy and I have covered at the time of writing, the brakes have literally been the least of our worries.
We’ve broken hand-built wheels. We’ve misused and destroyed trailers. We’ve snapped the spindle of a bottom bracket. We’ve seized up a freehub, botched a bar-bag, even eviscerated an entire pannier. Amongst all of this hapless abuse, the brakes have never, at any time, suffered the slightest of problems. We’ve thrown our bikes on lorries, trains, into schoolbuses, onto pickup trucks. In 40,000 km, we’ve changed the brake pads TWICE. That is, quite literally, the extent of our maintenance so far.
By any measure, the reliability of the Magura Louise disc brakes on this tour has been remarkable. I have little doubt that V-brakes would need regular adjustment, more frequent pad and cable replacement, and provide inadequate braking in adverse conditions — especially in the wet or in extreme cold, when the advantage of disc brakes becomes most clear. I have met numerous tourers using other hydraulic brakes from Magura’s range, often the HS-33 rim brake, and none have regretted the choice.
No offence to V-brakes, of course — it’s a good idea, as we have done, to make sure you choose a frame and forks with the necessary bosses. That way, if something does go irreparably wrong in the middle of who-knows-where, you can install a new set of V-brakes at the next town or city. But V-brakes are quite simply inferior brakes for halting the average tourer and their hefty luggage complement.
This brings me to the subject of emergency repairs. Contrary to common belief, disc brakes are not necessarily any more difficult to repair or maintain. Like V-brakes, it’s easy if you’ve got the parts. Also like V-brakes, it’s possible to botch a repair on the road. Let’s say your hose gets ripped out and your expensive Magura mineral oil goes everywhere. Well, a spare hydraulic cable weighs next to nothing — much lighter than the V-brake equivalent. But you have nothing to refill the system with — and you don’t want to lug around a bottle of Magura mineral oil “just in case”!
No problem — as long as there’s no risk of freezing, water (believe it or not) will work as a temporary hydraulic fluid. Better still is sewing-machine oil, available worldwide; baby oil, again ubiquitous; or light suspension oil for motorbikes, cars, snowmobiles, etc. You can even use cooking oil if you change it regularly, as long as it’s light enough — in fact, pretty much any light oil will do, regardless of the stern warnings in the manual!
And instead of taking a full bleed kit, you’ll probably find that every developing country will sprout the kind of ingenious minds that spend their lives fixing everything that moves, and will find a way to draw your new hydraulic fluid through the system. Come on, it’s just a tube with a small reservoir and a plug at each end, after all. Get down on your knees and suck it through!!! (Or just bring the weightless plastic syringe with you.) Job done, panic over, on with the tour.
It’s time the touring world stopped being so obstinate about disc brakes. The benefits in terms of control, durability and reliability are here to stay. There will always be hairy fundamentalist touring types who flinch at the slightest mention of the words, but for tourers the bicycle disc brake has come of age, and they don’t come much better than this.
If things go wrong, I’ll tell you here what happened, and how I fixed it. Until then, check out the following links for more information: