From D7 to T10, part 3: Bettering Bino’s brakes

Brakes are a pretty big deal to me. They’re the primary reason why I was able to post respectable lap times in an underpowered grocery getter back when I was still a privateer time attack race driver. Personally, I’m quite finicky with their feel and action, and that carried over to my two bikes.

Hyro has excellent TRP Spyre mechanical disc brakes as stock equipment. Coupled with 160 mm brake rotors, metallic brake pads, compressionless brake cable housing, and Shimano’s 105 (ST-5700) STI levers, there’s very little to complain about their braking power, modulation, and feel.

This was what the Promax front V-brakes looked like when Bino was new. Note how much free space there is on the top where the cable anchor bolt is.

Bino, on the other hand, came with Promax V-brake arms and brake levers. There’s a reason why the very first mechanical work I did on a bicycle was on the brakes: I wasn’t satisfied with them. Out of the box, squeezing the levers resulted in a spongy feeling, with not much tangible braking power in the first 50% of the lever travel. My personal preference is to have the brake pads biting well at that point.

Bino’s Promax front V-brakes tuned to my liking. They’ve been cinched up so much, the rubber cable boot isn’t even doing anything and is torn at the bottom.

This would be tolerable by itself, since V-brakes can be tuned and adjusted to provide the kind of feel and power you prefer – and I did cinch up the V-brake arms to my liking. However, the brake levers themselves are also disappointing. There’s tangible side-to-side slop you can feel when you tip the brake lever up or down with your fingers curled around it. Coming from the satisfaction of a solid-feeling brake pedal in my car and STI levers on my cross bike, that’s not very reassuring.

The rear V-brake arms tuned to my liking. The right arm is the one with the bad return spring. Notice the rubber cable boot torn up at the bottom as well.

I carried on with the stock brake setup for three years, until the return spring on the rear V-brake arms decided it was time to give up. With a bad return spring, the V-brake arms don’t readily return to their starting positions when you let go of the brake lever. This causes the brake pad to drag along the braking track of your wheel, making acceleration and maintaining momentum harder than it should. In some cases it can even interfere with the wheel’s rotation badly enough to prevent you from riding. It got to the point where I had to go against the textbook method of maintaining a rim brake, and skewed the brake pads downward just so I could avoid them terminally dragging on the rim.

At that point, I decided to just upgrade the braking system with Shimano parts. Despite mountain bikes having largely migrated to disc brakes, the Osaka bicycle component juggernaut still makes V-brake hardware.

After some shopping around, I got a good deal on some second-hand Shimano Alivio Trekking BL-T4000 V-brake levers. Nothing fancy or notable about these, except that they have barely noticeable slop at their pivots and have levers with slightly more girth. They’re little things, but they add up.

These levers got paired to Shimano Alivio Trekking BR-T4000 V-brake arms. Without “cheating” or looking at model or part numbers, they don’t give away that they’re actually part of a groupset. I like the simple, workmanlike aesthetic of all the brake hardware.

You can barely see the model number. It’s hiding behind the brake shoe bolt.

I had the brake hardware installed at Tryon. Hooked up, the mechanics did a great job tuning the brakes for solid initial bite; I doubt I’d be fettling with them soon. Riding around Makati, the levers have a great feel and good action with a minimum of unwanted movement, while the brake arms themselves give nice speed retardation. There’s definitely something to be said about V-brake arms that nicely spring back to their initial position once you let go of the lever.

Taking a closer look at the Promax and Shimano V-brake arms, I can see the main difference. As you go up from the V-brake mounting posts of the frame, the Promax arms are simpler and straighter, while the Shimano arms bow outward midway. This shaping effectively lengthens the amount of cable that the system of brake lever and V-brake arms can pull, thus increasing leverage and braking power.

Rear pair of Alivio Trekking V-brake arms. See the curves in them and on the return springs?

Granted, there are still many reasons why V-brakes are inferior to any disc brake. Their rubbery brake pads won’t offer as good a modulation as the solid material of their disc brake counterparts, and the fact that they’re still rim brakes means they’ll wear away at wheelsets and they’re always going to be at some sort of disadvantage in the wet. Next to Hyro’s TRP Spyres, V-brakes are also nowhere near as simple to tune. Even with these quirks, though, a well-tuned V-brake is just about the most powerful rim brake you can get.

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