Rebuilding My Bike's Obsolete 1990s XTR Brakes Was An Immeasurable Joy

Illustration for article titled Rebuilding My Bike's Obsolete 1990s XTR Brakes Was An Immeasurable Joy
Photo: Raphael Orlove

I cannot begin to tell you how excited I was to clear off a table, lay out a pair of cone wrenches, a little jar of mineral spirits, and a few other little rags, tweezers, and tools and start tearing apart a completely obsolete and needlessly complicated set of Shimano XTR v-brakes.

I should begin by saying that these v-brakes have a little story, but I think I need to offer a preamble. For a brief moment in the mid-1990s, these were the most powerful brakes a random schmuck could get for a bike. These were the stoppers. The hardcore stuff. The top tier.

Today they are just ... normal brakes! They are the same basic design as the ones you see on half-stolen bikes still locked to telephone poles missing their wheels because nothing else is worth stealing. Though people seem inclined to spend close to $200 for a set of these XTR brakes on eBay, I can’t find any evidence to suggest they work any better than a $20 set of new Shimanos from your local bike shop. (I lucked out and got these for free, thrown in with some old hubs I bought on Craigslist.)

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There’s one main difference between the expensive, old XTR brakes that Shimano doesn’t make anymore and the cheap ones it still does: XTR brakes have a second little linkage in them. I could tell you how these perfectly optimize some part of the braking process, but I’m not an engineer. I got my major in history, and I can tell you nobody bothers to add a second little pivoting linkage in v-brakes anymore. It complicates a simple part, and it’s not really worth it in the age of vastly superior disc brakes, as the great bicycle sage Sheldon Brown explains:

Older Shimano’s XTR and XT V-Brakes feature a special parallelogram linkage. This serves two purposes:

  • It causes the brake shoes to remain at the same angle to the rim throughout the stroke, and throughout the service life of the pad.
  • It causes the direction of motion of the brake shoes to be close to horizontal, rather than the usual slanted arc centered on the pivot boss. This is a major advantage for those who use very fat tires on narrow rims, because it prevents the shoe from rising up and damaging the sidewall of the tire on release, and also prevents having the brake shoes dive under the rim as they wear down.

Unfortunately, the extra pivots considerably complicate the mechanism, and this has caused maintenance problems and excessive squeal in practice.

So XTR v-brakes are needlessly expensive, needlessly complex, and obsolete. Why was I so excited to take them apart and put them back together again? That has to do with their history.

In the 1990s, mountain biking had taken off, and spandex-clad dorks were careening into trees and tearing up footpaths across the globe. These dorks had money to burn, and they were looking for anything that would help them stop. Mountain bikes were pretty much all using cantilever brakes, which are tricky to set up correctly, easy to set up wrong and not all that strong in the best case, anyway. I should know, I spent a good week or two cursing at mine.

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The solution came from a broke kid sleeping in a junkyard in his Volvo station wagon, but quickly ripped off by everyone else: v-brakes.

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Sure, now v-brakes are the kinds of brakes you find on the most boring bikes, but in the 1990s, they represented cutting-edge technology. Shimano knew it could get away with selling an XTR version at almost three times the price of their more basic brakes, as thankfully cataloged on the ancient BikePro website.

What did all of that money get you? If you didn’t get much more stopping power, you did get some high-quality parts. Rebuildable parts.

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Normal v-brakes don’t have much to them. XTR (and lower-tier XT) v-brakes have two sets of absolutely tiny bearings in them. They’re not pressed in under pieces of brittle plastic; they’re held in place by two little flat nuts. You can take the whole thing apart, clean them, re-pack them with grease, and re-assemble them. There’s even a nice little written tutorial somebody wrote up on a mountain biking forum in 2012 that’s still alive.

There is little that I love more than taking small things apart, cleaning them, and putting them back together. It is a restive process. Was I annoyed when I turned one of the bearings over and all of the absolutely tiny ball bearings came spilling out onto the paper towel I had thankfully put down to stop anything rolling onto the floor? Of course not! Now I could rinse each and every one and individually pack them back into their holder.

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Photo: Raphael Orlove

It’s like working on your car, only on a much smaller scale. At the moment that you are fixing the part, all you are doing is fixing the part. You are undoing each nut (in this case, using two special thin 14mm and 17mm cone wrenches), looking over the mechanism, and preparing in your mind how it can be cleaned then put back together.

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Photo: Raphael Orlove

Bicycles are great because of their immediate and practical nature. They make it so you can go far, on your own, in a short period of time with not a lot of effort. In that frame of mind, this whole process is a waste of time. I could have just bought new, cheap v-brakes and moved on with my life.

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But bikes are also vehicles of mental transformation as well as physical transportation. There’s no point in going anywhere if it doesn’t change your mind in some way. In this case, I had an afternoon of calm, of quiet, and of a small but noticeable improvement. I started out with brakes that were dirty and gritty. I ended with ones that were clean and smooth.

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Photo: Raphael Orlove
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I remembered to value the relationships that I have, to cherish them and work on them, and help make sure they last. I bettered these little brakes, and in turn, they bettered me.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.

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DISCUSSION

hammerheadfistpunch
HammerheadFistpunch

I had a set of the parallel XT brakes like that. I rebuilt them once but they never got better. In the end I bought some AVID’s to replace them and they are still on there to this day. The truth is that the contact angle of the pads was a minor issue not really worth the extra effort and engineering. Most companies just angled their pads slightly. It’s like that apocryphal story of the NASA space pen vs the Soviet pencil.