25 February 2010

bikefix Initial Review: Formula R1 disc brakes

Having brakes is what allows us to mountain bike. If we didn’t have little mechanical contraptions that helped slow the bike, no one would be able to mountain bike- at least not more than once. The industry has come a long way since cantilevers, and the end of rim brakes used for mountain biking is in sight (certain price points excluded). At this point in the game, all disc brake manufacturers make acceptable brakes that, even at their worst, beat rim brakes for power. I know there are some anti-progress old school folks out there that are consider rim brakes “just fine”, and they would be both right and wrong. This article is not about that debate though, because the reality is that soon, if not already, every real mountain bike will have only disc brakes on it. Since every disc brake company makes a descent disc brake, you may wonder why a buyer should care what brakes come on the bike? Why do a review? The answer is of course: because they are not all equal to each other, and they feel of a disc brake is almost as important to many riders as its power to stop. If I had to guess, the “feel” of the brake is the single most important factor in creating brand loyalty. To that end, the old adage “different strokes for different folks” applies to all the different disc brakes out there. Personally, I like good modulation, and I’m willing to give up a little power to have it, but I don’t like a brake that is too “spongy” or not powerful enough either.

The Formula R1’s are the pinnacle of mountain bike disc brake development at the moment. They are the lightest brakes on the market, yet they are as powerful as almost any brake out there. They also look good and have had no problems that I have encountered so far. Out on the trail they perform at the highest level and the only complaint I can even mention is that I've felt them fading just a bit towards the end of a steep (and I mean steep) 3,000 foot downhill. The Formulas still stopped me- I just had a moment where I wasn’t sure if they were going to make it all they way to the bottom without taking a rest. The R1’s recovered quickly when the grade slackened a bit, and it hasn’t been an issue since.

The R1’s (and other Formula brakes) have excellent lever feel and great modulation. I feel the R1’s have the perfect balance between power and modulation. I can’t remember a time (other than the incident mentioned above) that I wished for more power or more modulation. In fact, the best thing I can say is that I don’t really think about these brakes at all when riding- they just do their job. If the R1 does have a weak point, it’s the braking feel. at the lever Saying the blade shape is a weak point, though, is like saying the all-around Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics is weak on the vault- How bad could they be if they got the gold? Like I’ve said before though, “feel” is a very subjective thing, and although I like the way the R1’s feel a lot, Hope's Mono Mini Pro and Shimano's XTR disc brakes are a bit more comfortable to my fingers.

The lever assembly on the R1 is a flip-flop design so they aren’t left or right specific. I like this feature. In the unlikely event that one lever gives out on the trail, you can at least cannibalize the parts to let you ride home with either a front brake or rear brake. I like even more that they use removable handlebar clamps which means you don’t have to take the grips off to install or remove them. Formula also sell a unique clamp called the “miXmaster” (a special order piece) that will hold both the brakes and SRAM X series shifters, though I have never bothered to use it.

The R1 weighs in at 279 grams for the system (Lever, caliper, front hose, & 160mm rotor) and this is way below most other companies' lightest brakes. I of course, forgot to weigh them before installing them, but I have no reason to doubt them- when the Formula boxes arrived they were so light, we thought they were empty. I am moving the R1’s to a different bike at some point in the next couple of weeks and will weigh them and update the review. You can drop the weight further, to 263 grams, by using Formula's titanium hardware and carbon levers, but I have yet to do this.
All of this near-perfection and light weight comes at a price though. The lever, hose, and caliper are priced at $290. The rotor and hardware are priced separately and will add between $40 and $90 per brake depending on which options you choose. I like this system because it lets you customize your kit for your needs and it doesn’t make you buy rotors if you already have a pair. This is on par with top-of-the-line brakes from all the other manufacturers and less expensive than some (like SRAM XX, which are much heavier). I would feel remiss in my duties to the reader if I didn’t mention that Formula's new “The One” downhill brakes have lost some weight and are now only about 308 grams each (if the R1's organic pads are replaced with The One's sintered pads, the weight difference is only 15g per wheel). The One also retail for $290 per wheel (plus rotors and adapters). I haven’t tried those brakes yet though, and I had mixed feelings about the older “One” version (reviewed here), which didn't offer much over the cheaper Oro series.

A couple of notes from the guys at Formula: After reading Charlie's review, they acknowledged that fade can be an issue for bigger riders when downhilling with the R1's stock organic brake pads. The recommended solution is going to their sintered metallic pads, which do add a few grams (the metallic material won't stick to the organic pads' aluminum backing plates). Also, Charlie's brakes are the 2009 model, which came with magnesium levers. For 2010, those have been replaced with marginally heavier but ultimately stronger forged aluminum levers.


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