Question:
"Why do you use cantilever brakes when everyone else is using V-brakes or disc brakes?"


Note: This article, while still relevant, was written in 2004 and focuses heavily on V-brakes. For a 2012 article written specifically comparing more modern disc brakes to rim brakes go here to Disco-Fever.

As your mom used to say "if everyone else was riding off a cliff would you?" (choose the wrong brake and you might be)

Note: A lot of people assume that we don't build bicycles that use disc brakes, when in fact we do. We have built bicycles and tandems using disc brakes dating back to the 1970's (bet you thought disc brakes were new to the bicycle industry didn't you?).

Why don't we put them on every bike?

The short answer:

V-brakes and disc brakes were designed for mountain bikes, and then adapted for use on road and tandem bikes. We recommend disc brakes for mountain bikes, and we ride disc brakes on our mountain bikes.

Cantilevers have more advantages for road and tandem bikes because they were designed for use on road and tandem bikes. Other manufacturers follow the trend because high-quality cantilever brakes have become hard to find.

Now, for those of you who want to read about the advantages here's the long answer:
(The long answer is based on years of working in busy bike repair shops and designing bikes. It's the same answer, but if you're like me, you'll want more info to convince you that what you read in the catalogs and magazines isn't true.)

Since the (short lived) days of the U-brake I have always said "the problem with cantilevers is that they are lighter, easier to adjust, less expensive, and work better than the other types of brakes."

Most tandem manufacturers use V-brakes or disc brakes , and will tell you that they are better. What they don't know (because they don't have a service shop that deals directly with the public) is that every year, we change out several 'other' brand tandems to cantilevers.

The truth is, it would sure be a lot easier (and less expensive for us) in the retail department to use V-brakes or disc brakes and just avoid this question all together....just pretend that V-brakes or disc brakes are the best. But, because we are a full service shop, our customers will be relying on us to make them work well. We know from experience, that educating you is much less expensive then replacing, at no charge, 48 pairs of brakes for unhappy customers (1997 V-brake fiasco). So, here it goes, the method to our madness:

Cantilever brakes
Cantilever brakes were used on touring bikes and tandems for decades before mountain bikes were even invented. The cantilever evolved into an extremely powerful and reliable braking system. Loaded touring bikes and tandems put more severe weight loads on the brakes than did bikes with just one person on them. Cantilever brakes provided the power and durability that it took to stop a 400 pound tandem team on a 45 pound tandem, barreling down a 7 mile descent at an 8% grade at over 60mph.

Read about our brand new Trillium Big Squeeze cantilever brakes here

There was another advantage to them though. They would accommodate wide tires. When the mountain bike was invented, cantilever brakes were used in order to accommodate the balloon width tires. For years, all went well (except for a short love affair with something called the U-brake in the late 1980's). But then, in the mid-1990's, bike manufactures developed a new brake system for the mountain bike. What they came up with was the V-brake.

V-Brakes:
V-brakes were specifically designed for off-road use on a mountain bike. The needs of loaded touring bikes or tandems were not taken into account by mountain bike designers. Thus, the resulting design wasn't even compatible with a standard road bike brake lever. Adapters, or special levers had to be used by manufacturers who put them onto road bikes or tandems. None the less, the road bike and tandem industries embraced the new standard, using the following logic: 'if the V-brake is powerful enough to stop a mountain bike, of course it will be great on a tandem or a touring bike'.

One question they forgot to ask themselves was "what does a 400 pound tandem team, or 250 pound loaded touring bike, barreling down a pavement highway at speeds of over 60mph have in common with a 179 pound guy going 20mph down a dirt road?" The answer is "very little, if anything." Well, after we had a summer full of really bad experiences with the new V-brakes (including on my own tandem), we went back to the old fashioned cantilever. This wasn't easy, and we ended up having to import them ourselves. This is the reason that most manufacturers don't offer them, it's hard to bring them into the country yourself, but we think it's worth it to have our bikes perform better than other touring bikes and tandems. Now, don't get me wrong, if you want V-brakes, they use the same braze-on as cantilevers and we'll put them on at no extra charge. We've had a few customers choose V-brakes over cantilevers (they loved the brakes on their mountain bike), but they both had us change their bike to cantilevers before a year was up.


Note:Because of the similar look, many people confuse V-brakes for Cantilever brakes. It is a mistake to associate a bad experience with V-brakes with cantilever brakes. They are a completely different design.
The disadvantages when using V-brakes on touring bikes and tandems are many, the first of which is probably the most annoying.

Pad wear:
On a mountain bike, you don't put on lots of miles. I mean, you don't ride 50 miles + in a day very often. On a touring bike or a tandem, these distances are common. In an off-road situation the weight of the rider and his bike might be 175 pounds or so, whereas a loaded touring bike and its rider will be more like 250 pounds (and well over 400 pounds on a loaded tandem). In an off-road situation a high speed might be 25 miles per hour, and the terrain is loose dirt or mud. If you pull the brakes, the tire skids, and your brake pad isn't getting worn much, versus 40 to 60mph on a pavement surface...no skidding and much faster pad wear.

A V-brake pad is very thin. As a matter of fact, they only have 2mm or so of brake pad to wear off before the pad is worn out. Then you're running metal on metal. In contrast, even the thinnest of cantilever brake pads have 5mm of wear (some almost twice that much). I was only getting 250 to 300 miles on my V-brake pads when I had them on my tandem, but I can get thousands of miles on a set of cantilever pads.

Convenience:
The mountain bike V-brake requires an adapter to make it compatible with a road bike brake lever. In our service shop we see hundreds of bikes per year with centering problems when people have to use these adapters. On my own tandem, I had to center the brakes a couple times a day when I was using them a lot.

The V-brake has long arms that extend higher than the rack bosses on most bikes. This makes it very difficult to install a rear rack (something that every touring bike should have).

The Road V-brake:
Some manufacturers have come up with what they call the 'road' V-brake. This is a V-brake with shorter arms, and addresses the 'adapter' and the 'rack mounting' problem. Unfortunately, it creates another problem. The arms are so short, that you can't put fenders on most of the bikes that use them. The pads still wear out just as fast, and the other problems of V-brakes still exist (read on).

Annoyance:
Nothing is more annoying than brakes that squeal louder than a jet engine. Since V-brakes weren't designed to be used at the speeds and weight loads of tandems and loaded touring bikes, they tend to squeal (really loud) when being used in this fashion. They don't always have this problem, but more so than cantilevers. When a bike has this problem, it is very hard to correct.

Positives:
Most road and tandem bikes with V-brakes can be easily re-fitted with cantilevers. As a matter of fact, we do several a year right here in the repair shop for customers who have reached the end of the rope with their state-of-the-art V-brakes.

Disc brakes:
Note: This article, while still relevant, was written in 2004 and focuses heavily on V-brakes. For a 2012 article written specifically comparing more modern disc brakes to rim brakes go here to Disco-Fever.

Disc brakes have come a long way in the last 10 years. They have really evolved into a brake that will stop a tandem almost as well as a cantilever. The cost of them has dropped substantially as well, and I far prefer them to a V-brake now. A few years ago, I would've rather had a V-brake, but now I think the disc is less troublesome.

Most tandem companies now use disc as they are superior to the V-brake, and because the conventional wisdom says "why fight what everyone is asking for?"

If we simply manufactured our bikes and sent them to dealers, then the dealer would have to deal with any problems. In our company though, we are the only dealer, so we are the ones who will be taking care of your new bike.

I want to make it clear that if you want disc brakes on your road or tandem bike, we're happy to do that for you and we build several road bikes a year equipped that way. But realize that just because you like them on your mountain bike, that doesn't necessarily mean that you'll like them on your road or tandem bike.

You've all heard the ravings of how great they are, but I wanted to let you know that there are a few disadvantages that you should consider. These are the things that most companies won't be bragging about.


Increased weight:
Frame/fork weight:
A disc brake stops the wheel at the hub. This causes a lot more stress on the spokes, rim and frame at the points where the wheel attaches. When a frame/fork is built for disc brakes, it's built with heavier fork blades, rear dropouts, chain stays and seat stays. Sometimes an extra brace is installed between the chain and seat stays. We've found that the bikes that don't have this extra weight have a tendency to fail at the brake braze-ons. This all adds up to a frame that's a bit heavier than a frame built with rim brakes in mind.

Wheel weight:
For a bike using disc brakes, we build the wheel with a little heavier rim and more spokes. At Rodriguez, we offer a 3 year warranty against broken spokes and rims, so we build wheels to hold up. We've found that if we build the wheel at the same weight as we build for cantilever bikes, the spokes break at a much faster rate, or the rim sill start to crack around the nipple area.

Component weight:
The disc and the caliper together weigh more than a set of cantilevers. Increased weight is not usually something that we look for, unless there is a dramatic performance improvement.

A good rule of thumb is about 1.5 ~ 2 pounds of increased bike weight to build the same bike for disc brakes that you could get with cantilevers.


Noise:
As I said earlier in this article, a tandem or loaded touring bike puts a lot more stress on the brakes than a mountain bike. Most of our road/tandem disc brake customers find that the discs heat up and then warp (even just slightly). Then the brakes make a rhythmic scraping noise as the wheels roll (not just while braking).

When I'm bouncing down a hill, off road, I don't even hear that noise. On the road though, it drones on relentlessly....scrape...scrape...scrape...scrape... until finally I have to slow down just to have the noise in rhythm with the song that's in my head.

Some people don't mind noise, but again, unless there are dramatic performance enhancements, I see no reason to put up with noise.


Travel Customers Read This
Difficulty of portability:
Most tandems and touring bikes that we sell these days are designed for easy packing for travel with use of the S&S coupling system. Disc brakes hinder easy packing as the rotors get in the way (and I don't mean sort of), and often have be removed or else they will get bent. This adds time and frustration that's not necessary.

Difficulty of mounting racks:
The calipers are constantly in the way for mounting racks. Touring bike customers almost always want racks on their bikes. This is more of a nuisance than a problem I guess, but it still is trouble that's completely avoidable.


The Good News
Aside from the above (portability issue), none of these disadvantages effect the mountain biker, and I highly recommend disc brakes on mountain bikes.

Read my 2012 article, Disco-Fever Here

Wrap up
Cantilevers work better tandems and touring bikes because they were designed for use on road and tandem bikes.

V-brakes and disc brakes were designed for mountain bikes, and then adapted for use on road and tandem bikes.

Not convinced? Don't worry about it, we'll put on anything you want, as long as you understand 'there is a method to our madness.'

Read about our brand new Trillium Big Squeeze cantilever brakes here


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