There’s been a lot of buzz around Growtac’s Equal mechanical disc brake calipers since they came onto the market last year: they’re lightweight, available in interesting colors and feature a design unlike existing options. In this long-term review, Morgan Taylor uncovers the quirks of a Growtac setup and dives into a comparison with existing options like Klampers, BB7s, and Spyres, while addressing the question: do the Growtacs live up to the hype?
Growtac’s Equal brakes made a splash when they hit the market last year: fun colors and an intriguing design, made in Japan. But the ultimate question remained: would they be a promising alternative for those of us who believe in the power of cable brakes? When Velo Orange reached out to offer a set for review, I said yes with the caveat that I wanted to ride them for a while—particularly into the wet season—before penning my thoughts. Well, it turns out we’ve now been through a whole winter and a whole summer, and I’ve ridden over 1,200 miles with these brakes.
The true test of any brake is how it performs in a variety of weather conditions and, for the Equal, I was especially interested in riding them in the wet conditions of Pacific Northwest winters. I was also aware that when the Equal brakes were launched, there was a lot of fanfare, but not a lot of substance to the discussion: pretty colors, good power, decent price, sideways thing – great. I wanted to know how they fared over the life of a set of pads, how much they squealed in the cold, and if they’d live up to the hype.
The immediate difference you’ll notice with Growtac’s design is the orientation of the actuating arm. The common options in the cable disc market – Avid BB7, TRP Spyre, and our long-time fave the Paul Klamper – all pull actuating arms that rotate parallel with the length of the bike. These brakes all use cam-actuated ball bearings to move a piston inward and squeeze the pads against the rotors.
In contrast, the Growtac actuating arm drives a shaft with a cam that directly actuates the piston. Rather than explaining this in detail, watch the video below to see the insides of a Growtac brake, and for comparison, check out Paul’s video of a Klamper disassembly.
Unboxing, Setup, and Notes on Cable Housing
In the Growtac box you’ll find a front and rear set of brakes, a full complement of high quality compressionless housing, inner cables and ferrules, and a detailed set of installation instructions.
The housing is Yokozuna-style with coiled steel around linear strands. Imagine the steel coil of a brake cable wrapped around a shift cable. This type of housing requires extra care when installing, but the same care that all cable brakes deserve: carefully cut and finished with a file. While Jagwire’s KEB-SL housing is better than non-compressionless housing, its kevlar sheath over linear strand design doesn’t provide quite as solid a result as the Yokozuna style. As such, I’m happy to see the good stuff included with the Growtacs.
Growtac’s setup instructions are clear and methodical. They recommend an interesting way of aligning the caliper to the rotor, and I was impressed with how simple it is. Loosely tighten the caliper bolts, then turn both pad adjuster screws in until they clamp down on the rotor. Adjust until the rotor is aligned with a slot in the caliper body, and then tighten down the caliper. Then, dial the pad adjusters back until the rotor spins freely. Some folks suggest this alignment technique with hydraulic brakes and in my experience it doesn’t work reliably, but it’s perfect with the Growtacs.
In the holistic systems of cable disc brakes, every component contributes to the experience. While I’ve mentioned meticulous setup and good housing, the final component to consider is your levers. Growtac’s brakes are all short pull compatible, which means most drop bar levers will work, but you have to make sure you use short pull compatible flat bar levers. My personal favorites are Paul’s Canti levers – they’re stiff and smooth and a joy to use – but there are plenty of other options that work.
Lever Feel and Power
Growtac’s brakes have by far the lightest actuation of any cable disc I’ve used. It takes barely a finger to pull the lever to the actuation point. Immediately I thought that these brakes could be useful for kids’ bikes, which are equipped with brakes that are surprisingly difficult to operate for small hands. It’s also just quite joyful to feel almost zero resistance when squeezing the lever through its free throw.
Unlike other options on the market (e.g. Klampers, BB7s, and Spyres), Growtacs can be set up with very little free throw in the lever. The cam-actuated pistons seem to retract out of the way quite quickly, which means you’ve got more leeway for getting the pads out of the way of a slightly-bent rotor. If you like your brakes to bite as soon as you start pulling them, with very little free throw, Growtacs are great. This is in marked contrast to haphazardly set up Spyres and BB7s that pull right to the bar before giving you full power.
With this kind of setup the Growtacs have impressive initial bite. When I put this build together I only had Shimano RT66 rotors on hand rather than the grippier RT86 Ice Techs I have leaned toward for years, and even then the power is impressive. In terms of power versus cable pull, I don’t find these brakes to have a big increase in power when you pull a lot harder; the power-to-cable-pull curve flattens out pretty quickly after that initial bite. Still, the power is great.
However, on the other end of the bite point preference spectrum are folks who like their brakes to bite with the lever as close to the bar as possible – and this is the camp I’m in. With mechanical brakes this preference can be limiting: it’s absolutely necessary to have a meticulous cable setup, and not all calipers are equal here. Generally I would say this kind of setup is borderline not possible with Spyres and BB7s as they’re not stiff enough, while Klampers shine with this high free throw, late bite setup.
So, how do the Growtacs fare with this kind of setup? I’ll say this: they can do it, but the lever feel changes a lot depending on where the actuating arm is when the pad bites. And when they’re set up to bite late, the lever gets quite mushy. Even if you don’t prefer a late bite, setting up for early bite and letting the pads and rotors wear down over time, you’ll get to this mushy moment. When the actuating arm gets beyond perpendicular, the lever will just pull right to the bar without any increase in power, but also without loss of power.
Are They Finicky?
I find this very interesting because I do quite like the feel of a soft lever bite as long as it’s still giving adequate power. However, in order to maintain this type of feel, you have to adjust your barrel and/or pad adjusters more often. Over the course of a very long ride, you may find your lever feel to be much different at the beginning versus the end. I don’t think this is a particularly negative trait to these brakes, since none of the other mechanical brakes work very well when the lever feels that soft.
For average day-to-day riding, I don’t mind letting the lever feel get mushy, but before a big ride I’ll make sure to dial in more of an early bite setup. It takes less time to do that than it does to oil my chain, and makes for a super solid feeling setup. If you’re picky, you might do this more often, but I actually like the soft lever feel for everyday use.
Over the Long Run
The first 600 miles of this review period encompassed a wet winter of daily commuting in the Pacific Northwest. I had my answer to the squeal question within a few months: the Growtacs do make some noise when braking on a cold rotor, but quiet down within a couple rotations of the wheel and stay that way for a while.
The second half of the review period included more long rides as I scouted adventure routes and bopped up and down the chunky gravel trails on Vancouver’s North Shore mountains. I rode this bike for one heavily loaded three-day tour with lots of steep hills, and never felt like the brakes lacked power for adventuring and touring.
I’ve adjusted the cables and pad adjusters many times, and yet, even now at nearly 1,250 miles, the original pads are still going strong. (I lost one of the rubber pad adjuster plugs at some point; I’d prefer a threaded cap if it’s even required at all?) The housing, despite not being name brand Yokozuna, is top notch and still buttery smooth. And, I really love the light action of these brakes.
I’m somewhat surprised I haven’t worn through the stock pads yet so, needless to say, I’ve been impressed with their performance. When the time does come, the Growtacs use the easy-to-find Shimano K-series standard, which are available from Shimano as well as many aftermarket providers; Velo Orange also sells OEM replacements. As for rotors, I’ve also been pleasantly surprised with the RT66s on this build. Is my RT86 era is coming to an end?
Should You Buy Them?
The big questions people always ask me about these brakes are: Are they worth the cost, and how do they compare to Klampers? I feel like those questions are correlated and connected with skepticism around these really nice products in the mechanical brake market. That skepticism says: why would you buy Growtacs or Klampers when Spyres or BB7s exist? Here is my answer from a household with five sets of Klampers and two sets of Growtacs, a couple sets of BB7s on bikes I take care of and zero Spyres.
I personally have no problem with BB7s. Even with the same meticulous setup they aren’t quite as stiff as Klampers, but I consider them a totally acceptable brake. At the same time there are plenty of folks who trash BB7s and say Spyres are the only way to go. My personal experience with Spyres and their long pull counterpart, Spykes, is generally “meh.” Two-sided actuation doesn’t provide a better end user experience in my opinion, and the classic Spyre annoyance of the pad adjusters backing out is too much for me.
Lots of people will complain that the price is higher than Spyres and BB7s – let’s just make that transparent. When considering the price of a set of Growtacs ($365 for flat mount, $405 for post mount), note that a Yokozuna brake cable kit costs $60. So that’s about $153 per caliper for flat mount, and $173 for post mount. Klampers are $244. BB7s are $63, or $95 for the anodized upgrade with stainless hardware. Spyres are $80, or $105 for the lighter weight SLC model (yet, still heavier than Growtac).
Sprinkles of Luxury
Carefully considered builds cost money, and even the most frugal often have a few sprinkles of luxury in the form of long-lasting parts. Whether you put that money into a headset, a rear hub, a dynamo system… it’s up to you! Personally, I am committed to meticulously setup cable brakes on everything short of a mountain bike, and really enjoy the good stuff. For the folks that simply prefer hydraulic brakes all the time, these likely won’t change your mind – but they also never claimed to be able to do that.
Would I buy Growtacs over Klampers? That’s a tough call to make, but fortunately both offer a different sort of value. Strictly based on aesthetics, the Klampers are more sculpturally machined and nicely finished, and their colors pop a bit more. The Growtacs are lighter weight and have that light actuation at the lever. If you like a solid lever feel all the time, Klampers offer more consistency, but if you like soft lever feel, Growtacs offer that. And honestly, if you don’t care about any of that stuff, get some BB7s, set them up with nice levers and housing, and laugh your way to the bank.
A sneak peek at the upcoming full build gallery with my Elephant National Forest Explorer…
Wait, What About Those Colors?
Alright, so the brakes in these photos aren’t available to buy. I actually got two sets of brakes, and swapped the colors around. I think it’s a neat way to show the brake’s construction and lets the eye focus on each side individually. Given that Growtac packages the brakes in complete pairs with cable sets, I don’t think it’s likely you’ll see mixed sets available from them. However, the folks at Velo Orange (who distribute Growtac in North America) are big fans of fun, so maybe there’s hope for the color-curious among us?
- Light action
- Lots of power
- Light weight
- Fun colors
- Great housing
- Short pull only
- Variable lever feel
- Only sold in pairs
See more at Velo Orange.