By Tom Demerly.
Brake levers are like parachutes, you don’t think about them until you really need them, and when you need them, you need them badly and nothing else will do.
Your brake levers, the human interface with the bicycle braking system, are the most important safety equipment on your bike. They are also the most overlooked. It’s easy to find debates about pedals, aerobars, saddles and cranks. Few people delve into the variety of brake levers peculiar to the triathlon cockpit. It is an interesting topic because the spectrum of quality and performance runs the gamut from genuine race equipment to darn near dangerous.
The first brake lever commonly spec’ed on triathlon bikes was the venerable Dia-Compe 188 discovered by Dan Empfield, tri bike inventor and founder of Quintana Roo. Empfield sourced the Dia-Compe 188 lever from China where it was intended for use on inexpensive commuter bikes with upright handlebars. All of us appreciated the Dia-Compe 188 for what it was: crude, effective, inexpensive, lightweight and readily available: The AK-47 of brake levers. We adored it (or tolerated it…) for years, and it was an oddly serviceable component- but time marches on. As tri bikes evolved there became a need for something a little better, something of commensurate sophistication with the new bikes in the mid 1990’s.
The Dia-Compe 188, good as it was, was lacking in a few areas. It had no return spring to pop the lever back to the fully open position. Your cables had to be cleanly and smoothly routed or your brakes, especially your rear, did not feel responsive. The internal expanding clamp on the 188 lacked good grip on the inside of your handlebars. Even the tightest of levers could be manually rotated with a firm shove. The lever also lacked sex appeal. Hanging 188’s on a shiny new aero tri bike from the late 1990’s was a little like mud flaps on a Ferrari.
Some early entries into the high(er) end tri specific brake lever category were the Syntace Space Levers. When released, they were a huge leap ahead of the Dia-Compe 188- at least they looked like they were. The truth is there wasn’t much tangible improvement beyond a greatly expanded grip area and much nicer styling. There was still no return spring and the clamp still didn’t grip the interior of the bull horn base bar very well. It did look nicer but it was a good margin heavier than the 188, the Space Lever a portly 90 grams while the Dia-Compe 188 wasn’t far off at 93 grams per lever and it was more expensive. At least triathletes had their own brake lever.
Some of the first tangible performance oriented brake levers were the FSA/Visiontech “crab claw” brake lever. I love this lever even today but some riders grumbled about its sharp-ish grip and ergonomics that eventually lead FSA to blunt the underside and even release some little rubber boots or covers for the blade shaped section. Still, no return spring but lighter weight and a much cleaner, racier appearance. The lever was light but fussy about the bars you could install it on because of the unusual exterior clamping design that is only compatible with VisionTech alloy base bars. If you didn’t have VisionTech base bars- you can’t use the lever. Additionally, the user named “cydswipe” on the Slowtwitch forum reminded us that the FSA/VisionTech brake lever actually requires a specific, small diameter cable that looks like a smaller derailleur cable. This cable had a smaller, round-topped, red-stamped head on it. Many users substituted a derailleur cable for the proprietary FSA cable although the manufacturer recommended against it.
The most recent assortment of aerodynamic brake levers generally include return springs that assist the lever in springing back to its original, fully deployed, open position. This makes the levers and the entire brake system feel “snappier”. When you let off the brakes the lever snaps back with authority. In the new age of internally routed aerodynamic frames this return spring is even more important since some frame designs use cable housing their entire length to the rear brake, increasing friction in the braking system. The return spring in the brake lever helps defeat that friction.
I’ve selected a cross section of brake levers for a retrospective here, but it is not all-inclusive. I will say I’ve represented the heavy-hitters, the brake controls we see most often, for comparison sake. These levers fall into four categories:
• The “legacy levers” in the form of the Dia-Compe 188 and the Syntace Space Lever, shown here for perspective since both are obsolete by current standards.
• The Shimano aero brake levers. You would expect these would be nice and they are. The best value, nicest lever in the entire category comes from these two levers in my opinion: The alloy Shimano aero brake lever, the BL-TT78.
• The Profile Design Brake levers. I’ve included only two, there are more, and there are some recent designs from Profile that are good and mimic the appearance of the FSA VisionTech but without the external clamping hassle.
• The SRAM brake levers, carbon and alloy, both credible offerings with maybe one minor nick compared to Shimano’s levers.
The old “legacy” levers speak for themselves- the Dia-Compe 188 and the Syntace Space Lever: They are heavy and they don’t work that well compared to the newer levers. They’re obsolete. Let’s move on. If you are still using one of the older brake levers this is a good reason to upgrade in the name of safety and performance. When they were introduced they were adequate- the best we had, but now we have better.
The Shimano brake levers, the carbon fiber Dura-Ace Triathlon Brake Lever BL-TT79, and the alloy version of the same design called the BL-TT78, are both truly excellent. I’ll suggest the $219.95, 45 gram carbon fiber version is nice but spendy. A mutant of this lever is sold with the Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 control ensemble with integrated electronic shifters for use with the Dura-Ace Di2 drivetrain.
The all alloy version of this brake lever is the brake lever category killer. It is only 5 grams heavier at 50 grams per lever and well under half the price at $49.95 on sale. If you own a legacy tri bike with Dia-Compe 188’s or any older, less sophisticated brake lever this Shimano BL-TT78 is an excellent upgrade at a very fair price. Your brakes will feel more responsive due to the strong return spring in the Shimano levers. If there is a pick-of-the-litter in all of these brake levers it is the light, responsive all alloy Shimano BL-TT78 at $49.95 for one of the lightest, most dependable levers in this survey- and one that has reach adjustment for smaller hands. Additionally, the internal clamp on these lever grips securely due to heavy knurling and is relatively short so it will work in almost any base bar bend. Another excellent feature is the adjustable reach- a bolt under the lever that can set your preferred distance from the base bar. This is ideal for anyone with smaller hands and makes these levers exceptionally tunable. Advantage: Shimano Alloy BL-TT78.
“If there is a pick-of-the-litter in all of these brake levers it is the light, responsive all alloy Shimano BL-TT78 at $49.95 for one of the lightest, most dependable levers in this survey- and one that has reach adjustment for smaller hands.”
Profile has introduced a new brake lever called the ABS Carbon Aerobrake which is advertised at 78 grams per pair (39 grams per lever approx) and mimics the appearance of the FSA/VisionTech “crab claw” but with an internal clamp and carbon fiber construction. These are promising and retail for $179.95. They use a short internal clamp which will likely work well with most bend base bars. The two more common Profile design levers are the alloy Quick Stop 2 at 89 grams per lever and $59.95 and the carbon fiber version called the Quick Stop Carbon at 57 grams and $89.95. The 57 gram Profile Carbon lever is the best value in a carbon brake lever but, oddly, is still 7 grams heavier than the Shimano BL-TT78 alloy lever at only 50 grams which is $40 less and has adjustable reach and a longer lever. Advantage: Shimano Alloy BL-TT78. The Profile levers do all have short internal clamps which fit most bend base bars.
SRAM Has introduced two brake levers, one alloy, one carbon, both with internal return springs and both with a pleasing shape. The carbon lever is 47 grams fro $113.95 while the red alloy lever is 54 grams per lever and $62.95. Again, weight savings here comes at a cost: you save 7 grams per lever for $51.00. The SRAM levers are nice, but the internal clamp is long-ish compared to both Profile and Shimano. The Shimano lever is the only one that features knurling to keep the lever secure in the bar and, you guessed it- the alloy Shimano BL-TT78 is still less expensive and only 3 grams away from the SRAM carbon lever at $113.95- but the Shimano BL-TT78 lever is less than half the price at $49.95.
In the final analysis the selection of brake levers has come a long, long way since the adaptation of the Dia-Comp 188 lever we used to love like an old Volkswagen. As I surveyed brake levers in the current marketplace the clear winner in the amalgam of categories, weight, function, price and adjustment along with handlebar compatibility is the alloy Shimano BL-TT78.
This is an inexpensive but significant upgrade on any bike, especially older bikes, that not only makes a nice difference in feel but could be a tangible safety upgrade.