Robot’s Useless Reviews – Cantilever Brakes

The first clue is in the name. Cant. Can’t. Cannot. And levers are involved. The whole contraption is a lever that cannot do what it was designed to do. Brake, in this scenario, is a homonym of ‘break,’ which is the likely outcome of needing to brake in any sort of emergency. Your face. You will break your face. It’s all right there in the name of the thing.

That’s forensic etymology. That’s reverse marketing.

The original cantilever brake was designed by René Herse. There’s another clue. Herse. Hearse. While originally designed to clear wider tires for randonneuring (fancy French term for riding around for a real long time), it’s clear that use of said “brakes” would lead to death eventually. Have you ever noticed how much a broom wagon resembles a hearse? That’s no accident.

1938 Hudson Hearse, from the same year Herse brought us cantis

Archimedes said: “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Cantilever brakes feature the lever and the fulcrum, but if I’m reading Archimedes right, the whole contraption is meant to make things move, not to make things stop. Well, mission accomplished.

I once traveled 54mph down a dirt road descent in Southern Vermont on a bike equipped with cantilever brakes. It is entirely possible that, had I been running an effective brake, I never would have seen a number on my computer that frankly scared the chamois clean off my undercarriage. As I remember it (only very vaguely and only in a way that makes me the hero of the apocryphal tale), I tested my brakes near the top, understood they didn’t work, really at all, and resolved to ride the lightning.

(Not only did I survive that descent, but the whole story appears in the next issue of Mountain Flyer).

Other than randonneurs, who are like some schismatic death cult within the larger religion of cycling, cyclocross racers have made the best and most frequent use of cantilever brakes. “Can’t stop, won’t stop!” they gleefully cry as they careen through the course tape into a copse of rain-booted hecklers. This takes riding the lightning to its logical conclusion, I think. Get on a bike that won’t really stop. Coat it with mud. Pedal as fast as you can. See what happens.

The problem, as I diagnose it, is that the lever isn’t really big enough, and the brake pads aren’t quite angled enough. I discussed it with Archimedes, and he concurs. But these engineering issues are rather beside the point, because cantilever brakes, more than any other braking technology, get at the core issue of being a cyclist. We don’t really want to stop.

If you could fly, if you found one day that you could flap your arms and spring blithely into the air, how worried would you be about landing? Oh, sure. It would be there, in your mind, but it would be a very secondary concern. The thrill of rising and soaring, of getting free from the bonds of gravity, would more or less override whatever caution had encroached on the transcendence of the moment. Cantilever brakes are the perfect brakes, in that sense, in that they pay full and fulsome respect to the joy of the movement.

I don’t recommend them for anyone.

Join the conversation
  1. ian_christianson says

    All true comments and yet nothing I want to hear as I prepare for D2R2 on a canti-equipped bike… At least it will fit 35s!

    1. Emlyn Lewis says

      @Ian – I rode D2R2 on a canti-equipped bike running 32s. You’re gonna be great!

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