The Guide series is SRAM’s definitive answer to problems with the Elixir product line that turned many riders toward competing brakes over the past couple of years. SRAM worked hard to overcome that reputation, and engineered the Guide Brakes to have surefooted braking power with deft modulation, increased adjustability, and a quiet rotor that dissipates heat better than ever.
The Guide RSC brakes, a top shelf offering, incorporates Reach Adjustment (R), Swinglink (S), and the Contact Point Adustment (C) for an MSRP of $208, with an RS and R version available for less (and a recently announced Ultimate version with carbon bits that costs more). In addition to those features, SRAM completely redesigned this brake in an attempt to outperform itself, and it’s principal competitor, Shimano. I believe they succeeded.
I was fortunate enough to test these brakes for a few weeks on both my Salsa Beargrease and my Pivot Mach 6, in both Colorado and Utah. Both bikes require precise stopping power and modulation for different reasons. The fatbike, because of it’s voluminous wheels and the inertia it generates when I’m hauling the mail, and the Mach 6 because I ride it as hard as I possibly can every time I throw a leg over it. The Colorado front range and western slope (plus Moab) are great places to test brakes. Terrain is brutal, and often very steep and technical, requiring reliable stopping power all the time in conditions that often change throughout a ride. It is common for me to go through 2-3 sets of brake pads in a season. Also, when it’s dry the fine dirt and sand is exceptionally hard on pads, rotors, pistons, and any exposed parts. These Guide brakes were put through the ringer in every condition, even in the snow and with single digit temperatures–on the same steep and gnarly trails.
- Contact Point Adjustment: This feature allows the rider to choose a longer or shorter throw when the brake is engaged, which not only maximizes comfort, but allows for a feeling of limitless modulation when customizing the setup. All of this is done without re-positioning the pads, and gives riders the ability to make both brakes feel identical even with a less than perfect bleed or more wear with front or rear pads. Setup for the Guide brakes was effortless out of the box, and having the ability to adjust these on the fly and on the trail made it easy to keep them dialed.
- Expandable Bladder: One of the main problems that some riders experienced with certain Elixir brakes (myself included) was air bubbles forming–especially after a less than perfect bleed–that softened the braking power and resulted in a unreliable braking experience. SRAM worked to redesigned the bladder so that it forces air away from the lever body during the initial stroke, producing a consistent and reassuring feel every time the trigger is pulled. I’m not sure how good my bleed was when I set the bike up, but I may never know, because after 3 months of riding these brakes hard, they never softened up, even with the bike upside down for maintenance.
- Lever Pivot Bearings: One of the features that is almost certain to be overlooked by a casual rider are the precision sealed bearings, located at the lever pivot, that were engineered to enhance the modulation and provide supple one finger braking. Despite harsh testing in snow, water, dirt, and mud, the feel of the lever never changed–it always felt “just right”.
- MMX and Matchmaker Compatible: This feature is a really nice touch if like your cockpit to remain uncluttered. I set mine up with my XX1 shifter and kept things tidy, but this system was designed to work across the board with many products from SRAM and Rockshox to keep things in order.
- Piggyback Reservoir: This is a clean, simple solution to manage brake fluid and allows for ambidextrous lever setup.
- Reach Adjust: One of the crown jewels of the “RSC” brake, reach adjust allows riders to personalize throw, keeping the lever exactly where they want it–without even taking out a tool. I played with this a lot when I first installed the brakes, because like many riders, it takes a while to find that sweet spot where you can get the perfect reach with one finger for maximum stopping power.
- Swinglink: In a word, less “deadband”. It’s the same feeling when you go from a cheapo hub to a high end one like Chris King–instant engagement. Though these brakes are not “grabby,” you can start to feel the brakes work as soon as you squeeze the levers. SRAM accomplished this by designing a new cam system to compliment their powerful 4-piston setup, without sacrificing modulation. It was nice to feel the pads starting to engage in a soft but powerful way on steep descents, without a sudden start/stop feeling.
- Timing Port Closure: When you pull the lever, there is a cup seal that moves past the area that connects the master cylinder and brake reservoir, which pressurizes the system and provides the stopping power. SRAM redesigned this from the older “Taperbore” technology and it works so much better.
- Redesigned Rotors: gone is the squeaking warble that resembled a verbose alien or a turkey being pulverized by a tractor. The new rotors were designed to dismiss heat better than their predecessors, but most importantly: they are quiet. Really quiet. The only time I heard anything from these brakes was when they were wet–but I have yet to test any brake from any manufacturer that is quiet (and works) when wet. Kudos to SRAM.
Specifications (from SRAM)
|Caliper Design||4-piston, dual diameter caliper|
|Finish||Polished Silver Ano, Black Ano|
|Pad||Compound to Metallic|
|Adjustment||Tool-free Reach Adjust, Contact Point Adjust, Banjo Adjust|
|Special Features||Tool-free Reach Adjust, Contact Point Adjust, Piggyback Reservoir, MatchMaker X compatible|
|Technology Highlight(s)||SwingLink™, PURE™ Bladder, Timing Port Closure, Lever Pivot Bearings|
|Pad / Holder||Top-loading|
|Rotor Sizes||140 (rear), 160, 170, 180, 200mm|
|Tri-Align Caliper Positioning System||No|
|Tool-Free Pad Replacement||Yes|
I know the question on everyone’s mind is how do these brakes compare to the tried-and-true Shimano XT brakes, which I ran on my previous bike for the past two seasons. The answer: though they seem to have the same amount of end-result stopping power, the XTs are definitely more grabby at first, while the Guide RSCs have noticeably better modulation. Because of this, the Guide RSCs may feel less powerful in the first part of the stroke if you are used to the “on/off” feeling of most other brakes, but you can also overcome this by using the R-S-C settings. I still think that the XTs are great brakes, but as a testament to how impressed I was with the Guide RSCs, I ordered them on my new Mach 6 instead of XTs–and the fact that both of my bikes have great brakes that feel the same all the time is a reassuring feeling no matter what I am riding. I also tested a few bikes at Outerbike and at demos that had a version of the SRAM Guide on them, and all of them felt exactly like my own brakes. Again, a sign that SRAM has made a reliable and consistent product.
I think it’s pretty clear that I was impressed with these brakes. I love the fact that they are reliable and very easy to adjust. Even during steep descents where I could smell the brake fluid heating up, they did not fade or falter. The pads have held up well even after several weeks of heavy use. For the money, these are hard to beat considering how much power, modulation, and adjustability you get.
Thanks to SRAM for sending these over for review.