Every time I walked that block, I stared at it. Sitting, unlocked, on a landing of a row house in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. It got rained on. It got snowed on. Then something happened. It moved.
Not back inside, out of the elements. One night as I walked by, FUJI SUNDANCE written in what I swear is the same font as Stranger Things, it was out by the trash cans on the side of the building. “It’s OK,” I told myself. “Maybe they still want it. Maybe they’ve just moved it out of the way of people going in and out of the house.” Every morning I checked on the bike, making sure it wasn’t scooped up in trash collection. A neighbor asked me what I was doing, and told me who the bike belonged to when I asked. I gave the neighbor my card; they said they’d have the owner call. Hours went by and my girlfriend called me. I’d told her that I’d talked to the neighbor ... had they said anything about putting the bike out on the street?
I dropped what I was doing. I ran to the house. There it was, sitting no longer by the trash but unlocked on the sidewalk. I knocked on the door and a dad answered, his kid sleeping inside. “Take it,” he whispered, urgently. “It’s trash.”
I couldn’t ride it home. Not only were the tires flat, but the pedals wouldn’t turn. The crank arms wouldn’t rotate. The bottom bracket was rusted frozen in place. The more I looked the bike over, the more I found wrong with it. This was a basket case, but I was drawn to it, locked in with it, obsessed. It might look like a plain old junky red klunker, but it has a relic of one of the more inventive times in bike design: roller-cam brakes.
The way roller-cam brakes work themselves is as extraordinary as the inventor himself. I’ll quote from the late, great Sheldon Brown to try and express their motion:
A roller-cam brake works like a centerpull caliper, but its pivots are attached directly to the frame or fork. Instead of having a transverse cable, a roller-cam brake uses a triangular cam. The brake has two see-saw like arms, pivoted in the middle on studs. The cam is pulled by the cable, which is attached to the narrow end of the triangular piece. As the cam is pulled, its sloping sides push outward on rollers which are attached to the upper end of the brake arms. Roller-cam brakes permit the use of variable ratios by making the sides of the cam curve instead of being straight. Typically this is done to make the shoes travel in toward the rim fast, then more slowly as they engage...this gives more mechanical advantage in the actual braking range of travel, while allowing the shoes to back off farther from the rim than if the mechanical advantage were consistent throughout the travel range.
Alright that is not abundantly clear. Basically, there is this strangely-shaped wedge (it is a cam, technically, with a profile just like the camshaft in your car) that pulls up as you pull the brake lever. As it pulls up, it pushes out on the brake arms that glide on rollers (the name makes sense now), which in turn press the brake pads against the rim and bring you (ideally) to a swift halt. Here’s a little gif for you of mine in rather poor action:
When I was getting into bikes, roller cams were to be avoided. You did not want a bike that had them. All I knew about them was that they were weird, and hard to set up, and you couldn’t easily replace them with anything much more modern.
Regular side-pull brakes, caliper brakes, just about any brakes you find on old road bikes, are fairly easily swapped out with a more modern version. The interface with the bike is the same, and updated dual-pivot (as opposed to old single-pivot) brakes need no work to instantly work better than what they’re replacing.
Cantilever brakes, as you’ll find on old touring bikes and mountain bikes, can be changed out for modern versions, and they can also be subbed out for v-brakes, which offer significantly better performance, and mount to the bike in the exact same way. If you have a creaky bike from the ‘70s or ‘80s with cantilevers, all you have to do is change your brake levers and you’ll be able to upgrade to 1990s and 2000s v-brake tech.
Roller cams? You can trade them out for u-brakes from BMX bikes, and that’s it. But even then, the brakes don’t get better they just get easier to find parts for.
This is to say that roller-cams were an evolutionary dead end. They were a path that the bike industry tried out, then doubled back on. Only for a few years did they make it to production bikes before getting quickly forgotten. Do not bother going on YouTube to find a tutorial on how to set them up; no such video exists.
If you do spend a late night’s rabbit hole hunting through YouTube for information on these brakes, the best you’ll get is an informal explanation of why these brakes went away.
Here is an intrepid rider with what was a reasonably high-end mountain bike for the mid 1980s, a 1986 Jamis Dakota, sporting the hot new bike braking tech of the time, the aforementioned roller-cam brakes, sold by Suntour, licensed from a man named Charlie Cunningham. As you can see in the video, they are hopeless:
It is not enough to say that they are bad at braking. They actively stop the bike from working at all. They clog up with so much mud that the poor guy can’t even walk his bike without unclogging the brakes with a stick.
So if these brakes are so ruinously bad, so avoided by modern enthusiasts, left out to rust and rot, why was I walking a bike home just because it had them? And why have I spent more hours than I care to count and at least a couple hundred bucks fixing up that very bike?
The main appeal of the brakes are that they trace directly back to one of the great figures in bike design history, Charlie Cunningham. To put it simply, among the early pioneers of purpose-built mountain bike, Cunningham was the best. He built the most daring, most technically advanced, most forward-thinking bikes out of anyone involved in that little NorCal scene that took over the whole bike world. “At a time when a high-end mountain bike cost around $1800,” mountain bike resource PinkBike wrote in 2018, honoring Charlie, “a Cunningham was around $4200.” These were (and are) the most sought-after and inventive bikes of an inventive era and they were, as PinkBike put it, “made in a workshop that has been described by visitors as a farm shed.” The aluminum bicycles he was making in the late ‘70s let alone the ‘80s were so ahead of their time that they’d still be contemporary with gravel bikes today.
What’s also charming about Cunningham is that he never left Marin. He still lives there in that little house and attached “farm shed” with his wife, racing legend Jacquie Phelan. (He is sadly recovering from a head injury he sustained some years back.)
While I would never be able to own a Cunningham bike, getting my hands on these roller-cam brakes he designed feels close to it, even on an unloved, forlorn bike like mine.
I say this like I have any real idea what I’m doing. I spent my first day with these brakes just staring at them trying to figure out if I was sure I had put the springs in the right way. The first time I put them on they just ... didn’t. They didn’t work at all, or do anything in the slightest. Eventually I realized that the springs aren’t all that different from what you find on a new Paul Components brake, adjusting the tension by twisting a big nut that has a hole in it that locks the spring in place.
Cunningham himself kept tweaking the design for years, changing the cam for a toggle and other lever actions. Though this is all the work of one guy in a shed in mossy Marin, he eventually developed the design into “essentially the same as most modern road bike rim brakes,” as bike blog The Radavist put it in a profile last year. There is something cool about being able to work on a bike with a (tenuous) connection to that history, that little workshop.
At least there must be. I don’t know how else to explain why I was sweating using a breaker bar to un-seize that busted bottom bracket, cursing filing out some seized crank bolts, and losing hours of my free time trying to get the spring tension just right on these finnicky brakes. A v-brake takes minutes to install and set up. These roller cams have taken me days and I’m still not happy with them. I’ve managed to get the spring tension even on the front brakes so that they work consistently, but I haven’t been able to get them to give good power. The back brakes I’ve been able to get great feel and good tension on the brakes, but I haven’t yet gotten the tension even between the left and right sides, so one arm eagerly presses against the rim while the other side sort of hangs out and watches the other one do all the work.
Two months I’ve worked on this bike so far, stripping it down to the bare frame, cleaning it, waxing it, sealing the frame against any more rust, replacing the worn out tires, changing the narrow riser bars for cruisers, swapping the busted saddle for a nice matching ‘80s Concor I’d reconditioned earlier in the year. I cleaned, greased, and reassembled the derrailleurs, rebuilt the hubs, regreased the headset, as well as replaced the bottom bracket, crankset, and all the cables and housing. I got it new matching grips and pedals, too. As of this week, it has been on the road and I’m happy to say that I’ve ended up with an amazingly comfortable, fun bike. It doesn’t feel like a bike so much as a chair that does 15 or 20 miles an hour. If I sat in it any more upright and I’d be standing up.
No matter how much I love this ‘86 Fuji, with its gunmetal grey single-wall Ukai rims and huge tire clearance (it happily eats up 26x2.35 Maxxis DTHs), the bike is living up to what its last owner told me about it. I had an issue with the new chain skipping when I first started riding it. I took the wheel off and discovered the hub was wobbling and hoped that rebuilding it would fix the issue. A somewhat greasy few hours later and the bike was back together only to have the chain still skip. I’ve at least managed to figure out that it only skips in the three tallest gears, so I can ride around in the three slower ones while I wait for a $13 freewheel to come in the mail. I don’t think the bleeding will ever stop with this thing, or if I’ll ever be able to sell it for what I put into it.
Also the seatpost is seized. That’s going to be fun to deal with.
All I know is that when I eventually do feel comfortable with these brakes, when I’ve logged a good number of miles on them and trust that they work, I’ll record a video about how to set them up. I’m pretty much morally obligated to do so.