For some time now, Shimano has been the default recommendation from us for riders wanting to either add or upgrade disc brakes.
They really are a good choice; a fit and forget option that is reliable and works well for all sorts of riding and available in several different price flavours.
The new SRAM Guide brakes may cause this situation to change.
The emphasis is very much on the word ‘may’. At this point, none of us have ridden the new brakes, much less had to try living with them for any period of time.
It’s well-known that the Guide’s predecessor, the Avid Elixir, had a mixed reputation among riders. Criticisms include the dreaded turkey-gobble sound under braking but reliability was really where they earned a negative name for themselves. Put simply, air in the system was very hard to remove, particularly in earlier incarnations where it would migrate to the lever body and cause a loss of braking power. Quite a problem for a brake.
Personally, I’ve run Elixirs for hundreds of miles. I’ve never experienced a noise problem, but have had problems with air in the system on my Five, as the rear brake needed splitting to route through the swingarm. Despite several bleeds, time and again I’ve had problems with air in the rear brake as a result. This is often apparant if I have to get off the bike and lay it down on it’s side. On picking it up again, I often have to pump the lever for several seconds before the brake starts to work again and it drives me nuts.
The flipside is when the brakes are working well I really like them, they are awesome brakes. Compared to Shimano brakes, the bite is more immediate, which I like, and they are extremely powerful; if the reliability problems could be solved I’d use them on all my bikes. As it is, since September 2013 I’ve been running Shimano SLX brakes on my Kona and while underwhelming in the looks and weight department, they have proved a very secure choice, even if they lack the kind of bite I like.
So, exit Elixirs and with them quite possibly the Avid name. SRAM have pointedly badged these new brakes as SRAM Guide brakes despite carrying over the calliper from the Elixir Trail brakes. This is a four piston affair which by all accounts offers a lot of power with plenty of modulation (my Elixirs were all 2-pot brakes). So that’s a good start.
However, the main Elixir reliability problems have always been related to the Taperbore technology in the levers themselves which allowed air to get trapped and not exit via the bleed port. This has been solved with a larger, separate reservoir and inline piston similar to the method adopted by several other manufacturers, Shimano included. This gives cause for optimism in terms of siphoning off air and keeping it out of the way of the pressurised system.
There’s also a new lever design that allows a more progressive application of brake force (via a cam called SwingLink) while at the same time limiting the distance the lever needs to move before it initially starts to bite. A new disc design completes the refinements with the aim of cutting out the turkey-gobble sound. As I said, perhaps this only really appears on long, dry and dusty descents as I’ve never suffered this in the Surrey Hills.
When the SRAM Guide brakes become available in the UK I intend to fit a set to my Five. The range comes in three flavours covering reach adjustment only, reach adjustment and SwingLink or, at the top end, both those features plus contact point adjustment.
If you’re thinking they sound like they’ve incorporated the best features of Shimano’s designs, you may be right (Shimano have the separate fluid reservoir and a similar lever-based cam called Servo-Wave). I’m hoping they will offer a strong alternative to the Shimano standard though, on the basis that competition improves the breed for all of us.