“My brakes are too effective”
— said Nobody, ever
I am a firm believer in Big Brakes. I learned when building a hot rod track car that everybody pours money into motor and suspension, but brake upgrades often come as an afterthought (usually accompanied by soiled underpants).
As a daily bike commuter, I also want trouble-free operation. And since what I usually ride is a big, fast, heavy ebike, I appreciate big brakes a whole lot more since I am riding a rolling worst-case scenario.
Now, the Mongoose Envoy donor bike is the subject of this series, and it is not a fast bike. It hauls lots of stuff though and thats probably worse than merely shucking speed. So far, I have loaded it with about 140 lbs of groceries in addition to my own 250 lb self. Add to that the bike’s roughly 50 lb weight. With all that, the brakes that come with this bike from the factory really have their work cut out for them.
I suppose those factory brakes are OK… If I set aside how spoiled I am with my usual upgrades. I can see they are about average for a low-cost bicycle. While I wanted to keep this bike’s cost down, a couple things pushed me to upgrade.
First, out of the box the front brake essentially did not work at all. It seems it was so poorly adjusted that all it did was caress the front rotor and do nothing to help stop the bike. This was after I adjusted the inner and outer pad positions (the stock brakes have a dial for each side) as well as the caliper on its mount.
The rear brake … well, it did apply what I would consider to be moderate pressure. A bit light but in the ballpark of what you’d expect from a cabled system. But there is a long cable run to the back of that long frame. A fair bit of my brake lever travel was eaten up by flex in the brake line, between lever and caliper. An inspection of the brake housings showed they were not lined/compressionless – not a shock given the bike’s price point, but bad news for braking.
My initial solution was a game I have played before, and I should have known better… but I wanted this bike to be low-cost, so I tried a half measure: I upgraded the calipers to Avid BB7’s (I had a spare set in my garage), which have a very good reputation. But no matter what they are still cabled brakes. I ended up wasting half a day trying to get them just right and never did.
The front brake came together quickly. It didn’t want to stay in adjustment but thats what you get with cables. Its stopping power was just fine. It was the rear brake that was a waste of time. I tried every trick in the book to get it to be effective – perfect was never an available option. Most of the blame goes to the aforementioned flexy cable housings.
And mounting them? Avid calipers use a semi-hemispherical washer set above and below the caliper to allow it to be angled if need be, and that makes its positioning options quite fluid. The height was never correct and there was always some kind of rubbing somewhere. Regardless of how I shimmed or re-jiggered it, something was not right somewhere. I like to think of myself as something of a brake whisperer – if a brake set can be finessed, I can get the wheel spinning perfectly without so much as a touch from a misaligned pad or rotor. Not this time.
So I said to hell with it and went back to my old standby. Magura MT5 hydraulic brakes. This makes my 5th set across my 2-wheeled fleet so I am pretty familiar with them. Why these brakes?
- They are powerful. 4-pistons in the caliper means four clamping points onto the rotor. Its like the difference between grabbing something with one hand versus using both.
- They are smooth to activate. Unlike cabled brakes, you can use one or two fingers to gently tug on hydraulic brake levers. For the Maguras, they have lots of travel so it is easy to modulate the force applied. Despite their power they are very gentle unless asked to be otherwise.
- They are dirt-simple to install. Use a Magura adapter to match your rotor size and bolt the caliper directly to it. Done. The use of Magura adapters coupled to their caliper results in a perfect height every time. No shimming. No dinking around with axes and semi-hemispherical washers… just bolt it on, eyeball it to center and tighten down.
- They self-adjust. Yup thats right. You centered the caliper at installation. The pads align themselves. Really. You won’t mess with them again until you wear the pads out.
Ordinarily you pair these brakes with a Magura Storm HC rotor. These rotors are 2.0mm thick, which is thicker than the typical 1.80mm thickness most rotors(including the stockers on the Mongoose) come in at. In addition to having more meat on them to do their job (a rotor is a heat sink and more metal = more heat sink) thicker rotors are less inclined to warp. In fact I’ve never seen one do that across any of my bikes and thousands of miles.
With all of that said, I have found a better rotor than the Storm HC – the Tektro Type 17. Its designed for downhill bikes, who need to stop under the most extreme of circumstances. These rotors are 2.3mm thick and as such are even more substantial – and even less likely to warp. They fit perfectly on a Magura braking system, with the tops of the rotor ‘waves’ matching the top of the pads, and only a hair of lower rotor surface being untouched… not because the calipers are misaligned… there’s just more rotor face than you can use.
Here is one of these monsters, installed. Note the marks left by the pads on the surface, and its noticeable thickness.
Its worth noting both the Magura and Tektro rotors discussed here are generally too thick to use with normal brake calipers. Not so with the MT5’s. And if you are guessing the extra-thick, never-warping rotors are going to last longer, you’d be guessing right. the rotor above on the orange bike… so far I can’t seem to wear it out. That bike is my daily driver and I can’t measure any wear after about a year installed. I have worn out a set of the Maguras, but it took thousands of commuting miles.
Thats nice. How Much?
So all this is wonderful. What did I spend?
I’ll give you a couple different answers on that. On every bike of mine but the Mongoose, I used the Magura MT5e brakes, which include a safety cutoff that wires into the BBSHD via the brake lever.
Here’s what an MT5 versus an MT5e lever looks like:
Note: the comparison above is deceptive as the MT5e lever appears the same size as the MT5 on the left. It ain’t. The ‘e’ lever is actually a fair bit larger.
Thats the only difference between the two brake sets, but its kind of a big one. First of all, the MT5 lever on the left is often cited as feeling cheap or unsubstantial. I do not find it so, but I understand where the sentiment comes from. Most riders who use these do so on singletrack MTB’s where there is a lot of banging around, over and up against things. On a street bike this need for durability – and bend-ability – is not so much a factor.
The lever on the right has the obvious connection that leads to your motor, so that when you depress the lever, your motor power cuts off for safety. This lever is also constructed completely differently. Its larger, made of alloy and its shape is much more… substantial. Also note the metal pin in the middle of the lever itself. This is a hinge. It allows you to gently touch the lever and activate the cutoff while not activating the brakes. This can be handy if you are using the brakes as a sort of clutch to cut the motor out during shifting (the reasons for doing this are discussed here). This second hinge also gives you a surgeon’s precision when modulating brake pressure.
Currently as I write this in October of 2019, the cheapest source for MT5 and MT5e brakesets is here. This is where I bought the MT5 brakes I have on the Mongoose. I have also bought MT5e sets here in the past. Note that while this is a web site in Germany, and you will have to pay shipping charges, they are reasonable and the prices are so low you still save money. Especially if you get a few sets of extra brake pads, which are roughly 1/3 of what you will pay for the same name brand pads in the USA.
If you are using the MT5e levers with the cutoffs, then you also need an adapter to mate their red HIGO/Julet plug to the yellow one on the Bafang motor used in this project. Those are found here.
Brakes (two options)
- If you are just going the lowest cost, max-functionality route like I did, you’ll pay about $150 for a complete set of brakes (MT5 only).
- If you instead go with MT5e’s (you must select the version that is “Normally Open” a.k.a. “Closer”) you are looking at around $100 per axle at the above German web site. $125 if you buy from a USA dealer (I like Planet Cyclery on EBay – they are a Magura dealer and performed a free warranty replacement for me a year after a sale). Add to that about another $30 for the cutoff adapters. So about $280 total.
Brake Caliper Adapters
Adapters for the rotors are going to run you $7 to $10 each. I used 203mm rotors front and rear so a Magura QM9 / ISH-203 in the rear and a QM5 / ISF-203 in the front. Buy these with your brakes and pads and save the shipping cost.
Rotors (two options)
I am only listing two options here in case you cannot get hold of the Tektro Type 17 rotors. Make sure they are specifically the Type 17 as Tektro makes other rotors that look almost exactly alike and are very common on the marketplace, while the 17’s are relatively rare.
- Magura Storm HC rotors are meant to work with these calipers and do so just fine. They are available for about $21 at the same source as above, and at many other retailers for only a little more. The only reason I don’t use them anymore is I found something better…
- Tektro Type 17 rotors are only regularly available from two sellers I am aware of, although I am certain there are more out there. The first is from seller hi-powercycles and is where I buy all of mine. The second source is at Empowered Cycles. Empowered also sells the Type 17 in a 180mm size, so if for some reason you decide you need a smaller size in the rear, they can sell you one.
You have two choices, but if you are smart, there’s only one you should pick
- MT5 pads (Magura Type 9) – These 2-piece pads provide a single surface for the two caliper pistons to press into. They do provide excellent response, but the type 8’s are … more better. Plus in order to remove Type 9 pads, they have to come out the bottom of the caliper. You have to remove the caliper from the mount to make that happen. More work for you. Unless for some reason you decide you want to use the Type 9.C Comfort pads (hint: you don’t) there is no reason to use Type 9 pads past using up the set that comes with the new calipers.
- MT7 Pads (Magura type 8) – These 4-piece pads are better in every way than the Type 9. Most obviously, they can be removed from the brake caliper from the top, so you just undo the screw-in retaining bolt, pull the pad out with your fingertips and slide in a new pad (they set nice and easy thanks to ingenious magnets inside the caliper). Not so obvious: the independent Type 8.P pads have been measured to add a significant increase in clamping torque to the rotor. They also come in a Type 8.R pad, which has a sintered pad compound.
Whats the Down Side?
Just one: You will have to learn how to cut and bleed brake lines. Honestly… its easy to do. But you will have to do it. Check out the videos at the bottom of this post. They are what I used to figure it out. You will need a bleed kit to get the job done.
You can cheat. Each brake set comes with 2200mm of cable, pre-bled and fully operational. Just use it. Run the cable, then loop the excess and stuff it into a handlebar bag. There’s a little for the rear and a lot for the front. I added a front rack and the little bag I have on top is where my extra cable went. Its kind of disgusting how well it works and how its so low key I could get away with just leaving it like this forever. But it is definitely a lazy kludge. I’ll do the job right some weekend or evening this winter.
ummmm. Awesome! Duh…
- They are not grabby.
- You never have to squeeze hard.
- They don’t fade.
- There is always more brake available than you need.
- They are silent (the sound of Magura pads on a rotor is sometimes referred to as “blowing bubbles” and this is actually accurate. I’ll leave it to you to experience what that actually means for yourself.
- The pads never need adjustment.
- If you use the MT7 pads, you replace the pads without removing the caliper from the bike (and you also get a lot more clamping force as a bonus). But since the MT5 pads come with the calipers for free, use them up.
- The lines do not leak. I have heard of hydraulic brake systems that leak fluid and Maguras … don’t.
- These brakes use mineral oil rather than DOT hydraulic fluid… thats a big deal because DOT fluid is nasty stuff… corrosive to paint just for starters. Mineral oil, on the other hand, is harmless.