Mechanical disc brakes on drop bar bikes are a funny thing. As much as the big brands would like you to believe that hydraulic brakes are the only way to roll, there are still plenty of people rolling on cable-actuated stoppers.
It’s easy to forget that before Sram and Shimano released fully integrated hydraulic brake and shifter systems for road and gravel bikes, there was a period where riders were beginning to open their eyes to the advantages of disc brakes on drop bar bikes. Some of the early players like the Avid BB7R and TRP Spyre are still around and plenty of other options have popped up in the last 10 or so years, some with more fanfare than others.
Both hydraulic and cable actuated disc brakes have their advantages and disadvantages. As disc brakes become nearly standard equipment on the modern road or gravel bike, it’s safe to say that mechanical discs are not going away anytime soon.
But let me back up a second. I’ve always had a bike in my lineup with cable discs since some time around 2010. I’ve personally owned several and I’ve worked on or test-ridden just about every type under the sun. A few years ago I settled on the Hayes CX brakes as my personal favorite and that became our default model to recommend for builds where hydraulic brakes didn't make sense. The Hayes brake was basically perfect. A one-piece forged caliper meant less flex in the system and all the power you could want for skinny tires (compared to a mountain bike). With proper setup, lever feel was positive and everything just worked well. Combined with their VERY low cost compared to many alternatives, they were impossible to beat. However, the emphasis is on "THEY WERE".
The bike industry loves to change things up, and settling on “flat mount” rather than “post mount” for how brakes bolt to the bike meant the Hayes brakes had to be used with adapters and were getting scarce. I eventually reached out to Hayes and my fears were confirmed. They were discontinuing their mechanical disc brakes entirely. The Avid BB7R and TRP Spyre soldier on and frankly work fine but are just not quite as nice.
On the other end of the price spectrum, Paul Components had developed and released their Klamper brakes -- but when you strip away their admittedly cool colors and made in America cachet, it always struck me as hard to justify the much higher price.
Enter Growtac and their Equal series brakes. First off, let me say, these are NOT inexpensive. At $350 for the set, they are more than TWICE the price of the Hayes brakes (which also included rotors). While they still seem somehow reasonable compared to the $500 you will have to shell out for some Paul brakes, make no mistake, these are not cheap. If you’re starting from scratch, it’s important to note that a set of Growtacs + mechanical Sram Rival shifters is going to cost about the same as the full hydraulic Sram Rival shifters/brakes. They do include high-quality cables and housing, but you’ll still need to buy rotors.
So that’s the bad. What about the good?
Well, to be blunt, they work great. In fact, I would say these are the most powerful and best feeling brakes of this type. Whatever mechanical wizardry that is going on inside these things delivers the goods. As soon as I had them set up and took a spin around the parking lot, I was sold. Riding home that evening confirmed that these are the real deal. When it comes to pure performance, these are perfect.
Lever feel is great. Honestly, it’s better than the Hayes brakes. Whereas the “bite point” where the pads contact and start to slow the wheel is almost abrupt with the Hayes brakes, the Growtac bite point is more subtle and delivers feedback that feels much more like a hydraulic brake than I could have ever imagined.
Power delivery is ample and predictable. Seriously, the power is impressive. These absolutely outshine any mechanical brake I have tried and feel every bit as powerful as any of the hybrid cable/hydraulic systems out there like Yokozuna or Crust Palm Oil brakes. Suffice to say my Hayes brakes are going to get passed along to another bike.
How well they work might justify the price but on top of what is now best in class, performance is coupled with impressive physical design. These barely take up more space than a true hydraulic caliper and don’t weigh much more either. The ultra low profile design of the flat mount variant means no chance of running into the types of frame incompatibility that can arise mounting mechanical brakes on a flat mount standard frame (this is especially a concern with smaller frames).
On top of that, they just look great.
Epilogue - set up notes and whatnot.
I did NOT end up using the supplied cables and housing. I already had Jagwire compressionless housing on my bike and was not keen to retape my bars at the moment. It’s very important to understand that compressionless housing is critical to get optimal performance out of ANY mechanical disc brake, ESPECIALLY with drop bars. Many stock builds with cable discs come with cheap housing which hampers how well any brake is going to work. The supplied housing, if anything, looks like it will be even better than the Jagwire housing. So there’s that.
I am using 140mm TRP rotors. I cleaned them up before setting up the new brakes. The more common 160mm standard for rotors will mean even more power, but honestly, 140 is plenty here. Impressive.
Another cool detail is that these use the same brake pad standard that Shimano rolled out for their road/gravel flat mount calipers. So getting replacement pads will never be a challenge.
The initial setup with these brakes is a bit more specific than some. The way the brake actuates allows for quite a bit of tuning of leverage/lever feel. This is done essentially by preloading the lever arm with cable tension. I found that hooked up to Sram levers a bit of preload delivered the best feel. There is some variance between brands on how much cable the brake lever moves. Sram and Shimano are similar but not the same. Campagnolo is apparently different enough that Paul Components offers a specific variant of their brakes. As with any new product, it always pays to RTFM!
These brakes are available through the fine folks at Velo Orange or through Outpost for custom builds and upgrades.