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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

If you are curious, SunTour’s actual installation instructions can be found right here and a good forum talking about setup can be found here.

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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.

The bike, forlorn, waiting by the trash. Even at this moment, I knew that maybe someone wanted to hold on to it.
The bike, forlorn, waiting by the trash. Even at this moment, I knew that maybe someone wanted to hold on to it.
Photo: Raphael Orlove
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And here is the bike as I started working on it. Note the double crankset, swapped in god knows when.
And here is the bike as I started working on it. Note the double crankset, swapped in god knows when.
Photo: Raphael Orlove
Image for article titled I Am Dumping Money Into A Trash Bike Because It Has The Weirdest, Coolest Brakes I've Ever Seen
Photo: Raphael Orlove
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Image for article titled I Am Dumping Money Into A Trash Bike Because It Has The Weirdest, Coolest Brakes I've Ever Seen
Photo: Raphael Orlove
Image for article titled I Am Dumping Money Into A Trash Bike Because It Has The Weirdest, Coolest Brakes I've Ever Seen
Photo: Raphael Orlove
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Image for article titled I Am Dumping Money Into A Trash Bike Because It Has The Weirdest, Coolest Brakes I've Ever Seen
Photo: Raphael Orlove
Image for article titled I Am Dumping Money Into A Trash Bike Because It Has The Weirdest, Coolest Brakes I've Ever Seen
Photo: Raphael Orlove
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Image for article titled I Am Dumping Money Into A Trash Bike Because It Has The Weirdest, Coolest Brakes I've Ever Seen
Photo: Raphael Orlove
Image for article titled I Am Dumping Money Into A Trash Bike Because It Has The Weirdest, Coolest Brakes I've Ever Seen
Photo: Raphael Orlove
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Image for article titled I Am Dumping Money Into A Trash Bike Because It Has The Weirdest, Coolest Brakes I've Ever Seen
Photo: Raphael Orlove

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.

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Photo: Raphael Orlove
Image for article titled I Am Dumping Money Into A Trash Bike Because It Has The Weirdest, Coolest Brakes I've Ever Seen
Photo: Raphael Orlove
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Image for article titled I Am Dumping Money Into A Trash Bike Because It Has The Weirdest, Coolest Brakes I've Ever Seen
Photo: Raphael Orlove
Image for article titled I Am Dumping Money Into A Trash Bike Because It Has The Weirdest, Coolest Brakes I've Ever Seen
Photo: Raphael Orlove
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Image for article titled I Am Dumping Money Into A Trash Bike Because It Has The Weirdest, Coolest Brakes I've Ever Seen
Photo: Raphael Orlove

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.

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Photo: Raphael Orlove
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Image for article titled I Am Dumping Money Into A Trash Bike Because It Has The Weirdest, Coolest Brakes I've Ever Seen
Photo: Raphael Orlove
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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.