06 June 2017

Boosting An "Innovation"

Although I remained, first and foremost, a road cyclist, I did a pretty fair amount of mountain biking during the '90's.

It seemed that every week, someone or another was coming up with an "innovation".  Many of them were in the area of suspension:  springs, elastomers, even air- and water-filled cartridges were employed in telescoping front forks as well as suspension systems on the rear of the frame.  And, of course, there were seatposts and even stems with suspension devices built in. E-bay is full of such stuff.

Some of those "innovations" have evolved and exist today. Others, thankfully, have been relegated to the dustbin of history, to paraphrase Marx.  (Karl or Groucho--take your pick!)  Among the latter category are almost any suspension system that relied on elastomers (as well as a few other components, such as clipless pedals, that substituted them for springs) as well as U-brakes and the lamented or lamentable (depending on your point of view) Tioga Disc Drive.

Now, as I have said in earlier posts, these "innovations", and just about every other I've seen in four decades of cycling, had been done before--in most cases, long before--they were introduced as the latest new thing.  Suspension systems of one kind or another have been around for as long as anything we would now recognize as a bicycle, as have alternatives (or things that aspired to be such) to conventional spoking for wheels.  Other "innovations" that weren't new when they were introduced include indexed shifting and hubs with integrated cog carriers--or, for that matter, just about any alternative to screwed-on freewheels that's come along.  

Another "great new" idea that came along during my mountain bike days was the "brake booster".


Until Shimano introduced linear-pull, or "V", brakes in 1996, mountain bikes used cantilever brakes, which mount to brazed-on bosses.  "Cantis" had been used on touring bikes and tandems for decades before that, but some mountain bikers--especially in the then-nascent subgenre of downhill riding--complained about their flexiness, fussiness and propensity for collecting mud.  The booster was an attempt to address that first complaint.  

Even after "V" brakes were introduced, some riders continued to use "boosters".  While "V"s are simpler to set up and adjust (on some bikes, anyway), they still shared the same problem with cantis:  They mounted on bosses that were rather small.  That is where most of the flex--and, in a few cases, breakage--occurred, especially with the hard,sudden braking that's so often a part of off-road riding. 

While some riders had legitimate use for boosters, I suspect others used them as fashion statements, as the boosters--like so many other mountain bike parts and accessories of that time--were available in a rainbow of colors.

Or, if you cared more about weight than color, you could get your booster in titanum:

To me, titanium boosters never made sense because, as strong as titanium is, it's more flexible than steel or aluminum alloy.  But, if you had other titanium parts--or a titanium frame--you didn't want anything that clashed!

As with so many other "innovations", brake boosters weren't an innovation.  Indeed, back in the 1960s and 1970's, Spence Wolf was making them for the center-pull brakes found on most touring bikes of that time:

Yes, he is the same Spence Wolf I mentioned a few days ago:  the one who retrofitted Campagnolo Nuovo Record derailleurs with extra-long cages he made.  He founded Cupertino Bike Shop in the 1950s and presided over it for a quarter-century.  He was main importer and vendor of Alex Singer frames in the US, and he and "Fritz" Kuhn of Kopp's Cycles were probably the leading Cinelli dealers.

I suspect that most of the mountain bikers with whom I rode--indeed, most mountain bikers--had no idea of who Spence Wolf was, let alone that he was responsible for one of the "new" ideas some of them adopted!


  1. Never tried brake boosters, although the Magura hydraulic rim brakes that came with my 1997 Pro-Flex Beast were extremely powerful, the stoutest, most trouble-free rim brakes I've ever used. The main issue with that bike was that the elastomers got hard as rocks after a year or two, and finally they were no longer available. I spent several hundred dollars for some custom shocks made by Risse Racing, and that made a world of difference in the ride. I sold that bike on ebay a few years ago after buying a Trek full-suspension bike with disc brakes.

  2. MT--Your story sounds familiar. Elastomers work fine until they get hard. Then, when the company that makes the part with the elastomer stops making that part, you can't get replacement elastomers. I know a few people have made their own elastomers or found other work-arounds. (My Englund air cartridge made a world of difference in my Rock Shox Judy.)