First Impression: Shredding SRAM’s New Guide RSC Disc Brakes

Sram Guide RSC Brakes

With their latest MTB stoppers in short supply, I was fortunate to get my hands on a set of the new SRAM Guide RSC disc brakes just in time for the very challenging Pisgah Enduro.

Not often would I consider swapping my favorite stoppers, Formula R0’s, for something different the week before an event that incorporates roughly 55 miles spread over 7 stages with around 13,000 feet of technical and rough climbing and descending. But the Guides were easy to set up and felt good right out of the box.  Still, I did pack my Formulas in my tool bag juuuust in case a 20 mile pre-ride left me in doubt.  Needless to say, the Guides stayed on.”

Sram's Swinglink lever design requires less lever throw while giving you excellent modulation

SRAM’s Swinglink lever design requires less lever throw while producing improved modulation and plenty of power.

The SRAM Guides come in 3 variations: R, RS, and RSC.  R = Reach Adjust, S = Swinglink, and C = Contact (pad) Adjust.  The lever’s all new reservoir and bladder shape are said to offer a more failsafe management of fluid, reduce the chance for air bubbles and improve back-pressure relief to improve braking consistency.  The Swinglink pivot is what SRAM says will set their brakes apart from the competition.  In addition to producing a more positive pad engagement, once in contact with the disc, the Swinglink is said to give the brakes’ modulation a more linear delivery.  This should give the brakes less of an on/off feel and more of an on/controlled feel without sacrificing power.

The lever reach knob and pad contact adjustment wheel are easy to adjust on the fly with gloves.

The well designed lever reach knob and pad contact adjustment wheel are easy to adjust on the fly with gloves.

To really fine tune the brakes, SRAM incorporated “Lever Pivot Bearings” to keep the nicely designed “one finger” lever blade pulling smooth and feeling solid.  They also came up with a much improved way of adjusting both lever position and pad contact. I’ve played with several brakes’ reach and contact adjustments, but the Guide’s are one of if not the easiest to fine tune.  The reach adjust was pretty easy to work, but the contact adjustment was not only easy, but had a wide range to work within. Even as many as five clicks of adjustment made only the slightest change letting a rider really get it where they want it.

Sram used the existing XO Trail calipar but the all new Centerline rotors are designed to reduce brake noise.

The Guides are the first to use their all new Centerline rotors which are designed to reduce brake noise.  SRAM chose to use their recently developed dual piston XO Trail calipers for the new Guide Brake system.

The SRAM Guides came packaged with their new Centerline rotors that are designed to even out the center of friction to reduce vibration. Vibration that we all know as incredibly irritating noise.  I ran a 180mm up front and a 160mm out back.  My initial ride in dry conditions did not produce any vibration or noise, and in wet conditions, the Centerline Rotors seem to have reduced brake noise significantly.  SRAM still uses the same hose fittings they’ve used for years so cutting the hose and setting them back up was as easy as ever.  First thing I noticed was the brakes were not near as big as they appeared in pictures.  Because they use a smaller lever blade similar to Shimano’s, the entire assembly looked huge in pictures, but actually are not any bigger than Shimano’s XTR Trail brakes.  Initial lever feel on the workstand had a similar “hard hit” as the Shimanos but with a softer feel at the end of the lever’s initial stroke.  Not spongy, but progressive…… so I hoped.

Like all the top brake offerings from Sram, the Guides are Matchmaker X compatible.

Like all the top brake offerings from SRAM, the Guides are Matchmaker X compatible.

The initial feel of the brakes was good once bedded in on my local trails, but these are “trail” brakes, not XC brakes so the jury was still out until I got to Pisgah’s now not so secret proving grounds.  Thanks to our friend Hak, we got to shuttle to what was to be some very difficult-to-get-to timed segments for our pre-ride.  In general they worked great, but once we hit the 2 biggies, Kitsuma and Heartbreak, they really came alive.  We were not riding the course at race pace so there was a ton of hard braking.  Though I never experienced any brake fade, the 160 rear was noticeably inadequate for a person weighing in around 185lb hitting speeds in the mid-30′s with a really grabby tire on a long technical descent.  The (now blue) 160mm rotors were not up to that job, but because I brought a standard 180mm Avid HSX rotor along as back-up, all was good in the world come race day.

The graph above shows exactly what I felt comparing the Guides to the XTR Trails.

The graph above shows exactly what I felt comparing the Guides to the XTR Trail stoppers.

While putting the brakes through their paces, what I really noticed and liked about them was the solid engagement followed by a very controllable ability to “feather” them without locking up the brakes unless I wanted to.  There were sections that I could easily control my speed at the last second without skidding.  The brakes did not feel mushy – there was plenty of effortless power on tap when you ask for it.  I would describe it as more of a sweet spot that you have complete control of until you tell your trigger finger to fire.  Once lit up, the Guide RSC’s put down gobs of speed robbing power, but with good control.  Predictability is key here, and the Guide RSC brakes get top marks for this.

Side by side look with Shimano's "standard setting" XTR Trail brakes

Face to face with Shimano’s “standard setting” XTR Trail brakes shows the similarities in the lever’s size and shape.

So the big question is: How do these stand up against Shimano’s “holy grail” XTR Trail brakes?  I had spent time on the XTR Trails prior, and got to do a quick side by side comparison between them and the Guides, but because of a bad storm system interrupting my ride day, I wasn’t able to get them out on the trail for back to back runs.  Initial lever feel of the Guides is similar to the XTR Trails, as is the size of the lever blade.  The Shimano levers have a slightly easier pull than the Guides, but just barely.  I am one of the few who thinks that the Shimanos are a little too on/off feeling, but I agree with the masses they are just plain fantastic performers.  Preference for brake feel is as subjective as choosing wheel sizes, so I won’t/can’t say which feels better. I give the SRAM Guides props on having a great tooless lever and contact adjustment.  Though not a deal breaker since the contact adjustment should be “set and forget”, but things happen at times to where we need to dial something mid ride, and I like that about the Guides.

Look for a long term review down the road to see how SRAM’s new Guides really stand the test of time.

Comments

SB - 06/18/14 - 10:59pm

Nice looking brake. Though it sort of appears to be a tacit admission from SRAM that they should have never departed from the Juicy?!

Big shame about the DOT fluid. Just when so many brakes are finally running something less toxic, and more appropriate to mountain bikes…SRAM stays the nasty course.

Chris - 06/18/14 - 11:55pm

I too am one of the few who find the Shimano’s too be too on/off. I also find there levers a tad short/awkward angle.

I’m very happy with my XO Trails and the graph above explains it…consistent leverage ratio. The Guide looks to be a step back in that regard in terms of deviating leverage ratio. They do have a larger reservoir and shouldn’t require special bleeding tricks to accommodate worn pads and maintain pad contact point.

Seems to me SRAM gave up there best differentiator for me too-ism.

k - 06/19/14 - 12:31am

Getting these as fast as I can. XO trail calipers with juicy levers and xt link internals = BOOYA!

Mindless - 06/19/14 - 2:14am

First impressions are irrelevant for SRAM brakes. They all worked OK… for a little bit.

Bill - 06/19/14 - 2:41am

As an AVID Juicy fan, i am sad to see SRAM go the way of Shimano and shorten their lever. I am a middle finger braker, from the days of Shimano Rapid Fire. With a shorter lever, I am lost on this product. Fingers are forever crossed that my Juicys never kick the bucket.

iperov - 06/19/14 - 2:51am

I have no time to maintenance hydraulic brakes, and have no such mountains where hydraulic brakes will be useful.

Jdog - 06/19/14 - 3:30am

I have about a month on the guides. I actually prefer the levers to XTs and the braking has been smooth and quiet so far. I have been on rides where others have had sneaky brakes and surprisingly these have made zero noise.

Just for kicks, I have been trying them with various rotors. They work great with both magura and shimano ice tech rotors.

I can’t speak to long term durability but in short time I have owned them I am digging them.
Enough in fact that they have stayed on my bike. That in fact is telling as I was thinking I would ditch them after I was done testing them.

Ryan - 06/19/14 - 5:49am

OT I know, but what lock out lever is that?

Bubbrubb - 06/19/14 - 8:01am

@ryan, it’s the knee-savaging Thomson dropper post lever.

wheeler - 06/19/14 - 8:35am

I really hope these brakes are just as good, if not better than anything from Shimano. The Avid brakes really are a pain in the butt to maintain. Good luck Sram, I hope these are a home run.

MikeC - 06/19/14 - 8:56am

Good luck, all you beta testers who try these out…

herrow prease - 06/19/14 - 11:30am

How many brakes does SRAM/avid need to keep trying to make? They need to just stop making anything to do with hydraulic brakes. They can’t do it. They can’t do it on road, they can’t do it on mtb. They are a complete failure at it. Just stop. Leave the brakes up to shimano and you guys work on something else like wireless shifting or some weight weenie thing that doesn’t work after a few months. I am saying this as a bike mechanic. The amount of time I spend repairing any/all sram/avid hydraulic brakes compared to shimano is like 95/5. They have always been..Well.. Crap..

Matt - 06/19/14 - 12:34pm

I like some of the stuff SRAM does including most notably pushing the 1x technology forward.

However, you would have to be INSANE to buy any brakes from them especially a first generation brake. I don’t care what generation of brake you talk about, Juicy, XX, XO, etc.., they have all had problems with noise, pressure, consistency, durability, serviceability, etc, etc… My favorite was when I started a ride the brakes would have perfect feel and then during the ride I would pull on the lever and there would be no brake response as I flew off the trail cursing SRAM as I laid in a heap in some poison oak bush.

hellbelly - 06/19/14 - 1:00pm

I have been a SRAM fan since ’05 including their assorted brake systems. I started running Codes (R’s) back in ’07 and always found them to be easy to set up, bleed and maintain. They always have delivered consistent modulation and power and have never left me doing the “oh sh*t” drill. Sure they are heavier than some of their other offerings which seems to keep the XC types away, but they just work and at far more reasonable cost than the competitors offerings. I found it interesting when the XO Trails showed up with the same basic design a couple of years ago and the reviews said the same things about them as I have found with the Codes. I also never have cared for the on/off feel of the Shimano’s. The only ones without this quality are the XTR trails, but you will pay a lot more for them. I will keep my Codes for the time being, but when you are ready to unload some used Guides Trey, let me know. ;)

Al Boneta - 06/19/14 - 1:09pm

I’ll reserve my armchair engineering and prejudgments until I actually try them. I really like my XO trail bikes and while XT/XTR brakes have proven more reliable, I hate the lever feel. The XOs haven’t given me any trouble in the 3 years I have been running them. I suppose bleeding brakes is a hassle for those who don’t perform their own maintenance.

Dude - 06/19/14 - 1:29pm

I have had a few weeks on the Guide RSC model and I am extremely impressed. Set up was standard operating procedure. There were no problems with trimming lines and bleeding. I did find the contact point adj to be counter intuitive. The reach adj is indexed and I think it makes it feel cheap. However that is a “feel” thing and it functions fine.

The first real braking experience on the trail led to an out loud “Oh my GOD!”. Now maybe I was just dialed that day, but the braking/cornering aspect was a whole new level of natural. Every ride since then I have found them right at home on my bike.

I love riding/ racing with guys who have elixirs and juicys that way I know just how close I am to catching them or in a rare instance how far back they are. The Guides gave me one big HOWL after a little stretch through some tall wet grass straight into a super fast section ending in a hard downhill hairpin. Other than that instance they have been silent.

But how does it compare to Shimano?
I replaced a XTR M987 brakeset with these and I would say outright power is equal, however the lever feel is much more refined with the Guides. That should be the case given the cam system in the Guides. I don’t think there is any doubt that SRAM has been playing catch up in the hydraulic disc brake market. Now they are at least in the same ball field. I dig the super light action of Shimanos, trail and race. The fast engagement of the Shimano’s and tidy looks still have my heart.

I feel as though SRAM has executed beautifully technology that Shimano brought to the masses, all while keeping it decidedly SRAM and distinctively different. Time will tell how they hold up and such, but for now I say that we as the consumer are the real winners. Two great options from to great companies. Choose whichever label, looks or loyalty you prefer, and run it. I can guarantee you they are not coming off my bike for a long while.

john R - 06/19/14 - 2:49pm

Have to agree with herrow prease.

WG - 06/19/14 - 2:53pm

It’s just amazing how solid your opinions are about a product that you haven’t even tested or seen in person yet. Truly impressive.

Matt - 06/19/14 - 3:28pm

@WG, really don’t know what you are talking about. You should reread and comprehend the posts.

rupert3k - 06/19/14 - 9:19pm

In 2013 I bought 3 bikes, 2 of which had Avid brakes.
I became annoyed with constant bleeding and recently replaced Avid with Saint & XT.
Naturally I considered Guide but a revised lever wasn’t really enough to clinch the deal, especially with the cheapest entry level R costing slightly more than XT.
Dude: An especially well written comment from a level headed gentleman, respect & gratitude.

vhom - 06/21/14 - 6:07am

The question is…how are these going to fare with against the new generation of Shimano brakes coming out this fall. Seems like SRAM up their game on Shimano, but the 985 are 4 years old now. I had the 985 and love them. They didn’t have the on/off switch like the SLX I had before. Currently running Elixir 1s on my bike and they actually work good, but holding out for a Guide vs Shimano 9020 review.

vhom - 06/21/14 - 6:17am

Sorry, it’s 988, not 985.

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