Making a case for an ancient side-pull brake

Aging Campagnolo rear brake caliper finds new life on my road bike, solving several problems.


I’ve always been a fan of Campagnolo Nuovo/Super Record brakes because they were built to last and looked nice.

But with age comes weaker hands and I have difficulty squeezing the front brakes hard enough to stop quickly. It’s an issue with those old Campagnolo brakes because they had a 1-1 cable pull ratio.

I can’t begin to explain how brakes work, but suffice it to say they use cables and fulcrums to create mechanical advantage. The bottom line is that the higher the mechanical advantage, the easier it is to exert force. Today’s brakes mostly use a 3:1 mechanical advantage.

But it comes at a cost. As Jobst Brandt so often pointed out in the biketech forum, Campagnolo brakes of yore had the advantage of working even with a wobbly wheel, say after breaking a spoke. As brake pads wore, you didn’t have to adjust your brakes so often. Finally, Campagnolo brakes could accommodate fat tires with ease due to a quick-release that opened the brake calipers plenty wide.

All that said, I decided to try Campagnolo brakes on my modern brake levers. The result was not good. I found the front brake hard to use. I had to pull especially hard to stop. The Campagnolo brake arms work better with their original levers, but they’re still harder to use than Shimano Ultegra or other modern brakes.

After giving it some thought, I tried using the Campagnolo brake caliper in the rear only. That worked well. It’s still not quite as easy to use the rear brake, but 90 percent of your stopping power comes from the front brake. No big deal.

I gained the advantages of using Campagnolo calipers, and that is a big deal on the rear wheel where most flats occur and spokes break much more often. I especially dislike Shimano brakes when it comes to removing a wheel with a 28 mm wide tire. That’s no longer a problem with the Campagnolo rear brake.

Doing the research made me realize that brake ratios are not something taken lightly by the bike industry. Bike companies are constantly fiddling with brakes by changing ratios and designs that try to fix problems. However, like so many well-meaning engineering efforts, the lack of understanding about how things work has delivered us some less-than-satisfactory solutions over the years.

More reading here:
Arts Cyclery; Park Tool; Bike Forums; Cycling UK

3 Responses to “Making a case for an ancient side-pull brake”

  1. Robert Says:

    I my old bikes still have a simple sidepull on the rear, but on the front I’ve switched to medium reach dual pivot sidepulls like the Tekro R539.

  2. Jon Spangler Says:

    I am now using Mafac Racer centerpull brakes again after many years–this time with the black Koolstop pads. No more squealing and terrific stopping power.

    I like them a lot but will like them better when I replace my modern bars–made for ‘brifters–with bars made to fit older-style brake levers and their reach. Lever reach and positioning is yet another variable that we as riders need to concern ourselves with too achieve optimal results.

    Happy braking, Ray!

  3. Tim Says:

    Jobst would chide me, as he often did about the cosine error problem, but I too use Mafac Racers on my bike- with braze-ons instead of the flexy stirrup. They work great with modern Campy non-brifter levers (My only bike with brifters is my nearly 20 year old tandem. I prefer DT shifters)- easy pull and very “modulatable.”

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