Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

20 October 2014

"The First Brakes That Worked"

If you have a Peugeot--or almost any other French bike (Motobecane being one of the notable exceptions) made before the late 1970's, you are riding them.

No, I'm not referring to those plastic Simplex derailleurs or the longer-lasting but worse-shifting Huret models.  Unless you acquired a bike that was never ridden, you've probably had to replace your shifters by now.  Even If you didn't need to, you might have.

On the other hand, there's a good chance you're still riding your Mafac "Racer" brakes.  You might have replaced the pads and cables--actually, you should have because even if the bike wasn't ridden, the cables were probably corroded and the pads hardened.  If you did, and your brakes are adjusted, they work as well as--or even better than--most brakes available today.

I am mentioning them because, for about two decades, they achieved a distinction very few other bike parts held:  They were used on bikes at all price and quality levels, from the machines ridden by Tour de France winners to the most utilitarian city and town bikes.  Some time in the mid-1970's, Mafac came out with the "Competition", which was really the same brake with a shorter reach.  Later, it was cleaned up and polished (and still later offered with gold anodizing).  A longer version of the Competition --i.e., one with the same reach as the Racer--was also marketed.


The one other difference between the "Racer" and "Competition" was the straddle cable:  The one on the Competition had double ball ends, while the Racer used what was essentially a shorter link of derailleur cable (with the barrel-shaped end used on Campagnolo and Simplex shifters) bolted into hex-shaped ends.

While some may see these brakes as anachronisms, they have an important place in cycling history. Some cycling historians say they were "the first brakes that actually worked".  That is almost not hyperbole:  There seemed to be a mentality among brake-makers (at least those that made brakes for road bikes) that was expressed by a Campagnolo representative at a training session:  The purpose of the brake is not to stop, but to decelerate.  Some would argue that notion gave the brakes of the time too much credit.

(When I first got serious about cycling, there was a joke that the Universal 68 side-pull--commonly supplied on bikes that were otherwise all-Campagnolo--was a "courtesy" brake.)

One reason for Mafac's superior power was the way the brake block attached to the arm:  through an eyebolt.  This allowed a far greater range of adjustability along the vertical and horizontal planes.  This was particularly important with rims like the Constrictor Asp, which did not have flat parallel sides.

(The Asp seems almost like an embryonic version of today's V-shaped "aero" rims!)

Another advantage offered by the "Racer" brakes was that the length of the straddle cable could be adjusted to optimize the mechanical advantage of the brake.  This allowed the brakes to work well with a variety of different levers, as well as with the pads set all the way up or all the way down--or anywhere in between--on the brake arm.

Now, you might be thinking that the first working center pull--and the one on which others were based, at least in part--is not so important because sidepulls have advanced so much, and so Mafac has been relegated to la poubelle de l'histoireWell, even though Mafac hasn't been in business for about three decades, their place in cycling history is sure because of the very first product they made, about seven years before the "Racer" was introduced.

Their cantilever brake, introduced in 1946, remained in production throughout the company's history (about four decades).  It's not the first of its type.  But, compared to the ones that had been made before, it was easy to set up and use, and was more powerful.  For as long as Mafac made them, nearly every lightweight tandem was equipped with them.  So were many high-quality bikes made for fully-loaded touring, and most cyclo-cross racers.  For the latter, cyclists often brazed the necessary posts to old racing frames to accommodate the cantilevers which, in addition to offering superior stopping power, were not as easily clogged by the mud that is an essential element of any cyclo-cross race.

The early mountain bikes also used Mafac cantis.  When Dia-Compe and Shimano made  cantilever brakes that appeared on off-the-shelf touring bikes (and second-generation mountain bikes) sold in the US, their designs were basically adaptations and refinements of Mafac's.  Weinmann also more-or-less copied Mafac cantis and, apparently, bought Mafac's tooling and continued making cantis, in steel as well as alloy, until their own demise in the 1990's.

Many of us still use cantis today.  Those of you who use V-brakes also have to thank Mafac, because Vees were developed from cantis.  And even those of us who use dual-pivot sidepulls owe a debt of gratitude to Manufacture Auvergnoise de Freins et Accessories pour Cycle for developing the centerpull that helped to make it possible!

For me, it's interesting to recall that Frank Chrinko, the proprietor of Highland Park (NJ) Cyclery when I was working there, would not ride any brakes but Mafac centerpulls.  In fact, he put a set of Competitions, along with a mixture of Campagnolo and top-shelf French and Japanese parts, on a frame that was built custom for him. 


  1. Indeed, the biggest problem with Mafac even today is that a good set of replacement pads costs about the same as a whole set of brakes on eBay.

  2. Another good feature of Mafacs, at least the ones with the cheap Mafac levers, is that you could adjust the brakes right at the levers. I never saw that feature on any Weinmann levers.

  3. Steve--You're right about the pads. I always use Kool Stop (Mathauser) salmon-colored pads, which cost more than some new brakes. I would recommend those pads to anyone who wants to use Mafacs--or any other vintage brakes--as daily riders.

    Weinmann did make one lever with an adjuster barrel at the top of the hood. So did Dia-Compe. Some Schwinns, Raleighs and Motobecanes came with them during the mid-'70s, which may have been the only time they were produced: http://www.swissbicycles.com/components/components-and-equipment/

  4. How we used to dream of exotic alloy brakes when we rode our steel braked three speeds. Imagine my surprise when I saw a pair of Mafac levers peeping over a wall today. They were on a Mixte framed bike in the village. I must try and get a better look...

  5. Coline--An old mixte in a French village. If that doesn't sound like a postcard picture, I don't know what does!

    1. Yesterday I was without a camera, today the bike is guarded by a huge dog! That closer look at the bike shows the double tubes stopping at the down tube... Nice French racing blue. I have not given up hope of getting closer.