Exclusive: The Brake that Changed Everything
No one wanted disc brakes...and now we can't live without them. It all started with the Hayes Mag.
By Vernon Felton
Photo by JP Van Swae
Originally published in November 2013 issue of Bike
Nearly every mountain bike wears disc brakes today, but it wasn’t long ago that they weren’t even part of the mountain biking milieu. The Hayes Mag disc brake, which debuted in 1997, changed that—and set the template for every disc brake that followed. But that’s still just the tip of the iceberg because disc brakes changed almost every corner of the mountain bike component universe. The Hayes Mag set off a landslide of innovation in not only stoppers, but tire, frame and wheel design as well.
YEARS & YEARS OF TRULY CRAP BRAKES
Before the Hayes Mag hit the market, stopping your bike meant squeezing a V-Brake’s two slivers of rubber against your rim. This worked modestly well in dry conditions but in wet weather, V-Brakes merely excelled at collecting mud, squealing and simply refusing to stop your bike at all. We had high-tech frames, forks and wheels, but our brakes were stubbornly set in the Jurassic. The only reason we thought this acceptable was that we didn’t know any better.
Prior to the mid-90s mountain bikers relied on 1970s touring-bike technology to bring themselves to a stop. This was as shitty as it sounds. Lots of squeezing, not a lot of stopping. A fair bit of wrecking. When the first V-Brakes hit the market, they were a revelation. Riders swore they were too powerful. Of course, you adjusted to them and were amazed you’d ever gotten by on technology pioneered by the French during the first World War.
So when disc brakes started to show up, it seemed like overkill. Who needed anything more? It’d be like using a bazooka to swat a fly. Or at least it seemed that way to the hordes of mountain bikers who merely wanted their brakes to weight an ounce and come in bright colors.
But the guys at Hayes knew better. They had spent years making disc brakes for trucks, tractors, motorcycles and anything else with wheels. When mountain biking boomed in the mid-90s, they saw a match made in heaven.
The rest of the world didn’t see it that way.
“I remember going to Mammoth and people saying, ‘We don’t need this thing. it has too much power!’” recalls Scott Boyd, who as Hayes’ head wrench held the unenviable job of pushing the product to the masses at NORBA and World Cup races. “If it weighed more than their purple-ano V-Brakes, they didn’t want anything to do with it.”
Too much power was never a complaint voiced by downhillers, however. Though modulation was never the mag’s strong suit, it quickly became a fixture on the gravity scene. Small race teams soon took to the brake and word began to spread that if you were serious about speed and pushing the edge of control, these were the brakes to own.
Back in those early days, it took a lot of commitment to use a set of Hayes Mags. You couldn’t just bolt a set to your rig; 99 percent of bikes didn’t (understandably) have disc brake mounts. Likewise, disc-compatible wheels really didn’t exist. “You had to overcome a lot of obstacles as a consumer,” admits Boyd, “to actually get and use the brake. It’s like that any time you are pioneering a technology—people don’t know they need it and there are no resources out there to support the new product. So, yeah, it was an uphill battle, for sure.”
AND FROM THE MIDWEST CAME A CHAMPION…
Hayes benefitted from all the small, boutique brands that were racing with Hayes Mag brakes—it validated the technology. Small brands, however, don’t buy in volume or put the product into the average consumer’s hands. The real turning point for Hayes and its fledgeling disc brake came in 1999, when Trek and Gary Fisher equipped the 8900 and X-Caliber hardtails, respectively, with the brake, a move that vouched for Hayes’ technology and sent the message that disc brakes were not just for downhillers.
While Trek gets bad mouthed frequently for being “conservative,” the truth is that the Wisconsin-based company has pushed a good many innovations itself and its support of disc brakes was both bold and risky. It would be another three years (an eternity in the world of product development) before the bulk of the industry would throw their weight behind the technology.
For Joe Vadeboncoeur, however, it just made sense. Today Vadeboncoeur is Trek’s global director of product development. “I was Fisher product manager back then and there was a guy at Trek , Wes Wilcox, who was in charge at Trek. Wes and I both had a similar background—we raced motorcycles when we were kids and had gotten into bicycles later.”
“We’d started to go from having 80-millimeter forks on our bikes and putting on 120-millimeter forks and we were like, ‘Wow, look at all the extra capability of this bike!’
“We were pushing bikes harder, riding faster,” says Vadeboncoeur. “Once you did that, the weak link was obvious. We needed better brakes.”
There were downsides.
“No one knew how to work on them,” admits Vadeboncoeur. “They were heavy too and did anyone really understand the proper pad material for a bicycle versus a motorcycle? All those kinds of things had to be worked out, but we knew there was a future out there for disc brakes and we were interested in experimenting and playing around and finding something better than the V-Brake. Not everyone saw it that way, of course. People weren’t walking into shops asking for a bike with disc brakes because they didn’t know they needed it in the first place. That’s the challenge of product development. You ride all the time. You have access to all the latest technologies and you can see how some new product will make riding better, but you are then faced with selling people this thing that they have no experience with at all. It’s understandable: They’ve been riding just fine for years without this thing, so why would they feel like they need it?”
In truth, Trek’s long-travel hardtails with their disc brakes didn’t sell all that well, though they are considered something of a cult classic today. “Well,” says Vadeboncoeur, “they were definitely ahead of their time. Sometime that works in your favor. Sometimes it doesn’t. Our job in product development, though, is to try and make things better—to make the bike and the act of riding it more fun. Sometimes people can see where you’re going and they support it. Other times, you’re too far ahead of the curve and it’ll be years before people accept it. You still have to push the edge though—that’s the mission; that’s what makes this job so great.”
FROM PARIAH TO POPULAR
You know how this story ends–disc brakes for everyone. Enough big companies spec’d disc brakes, people eventually got around to riding discs and realized that—holy crap—their sorry old V-Brakes really sucked. Sure, the Hayes Mags were heavy. Yes, they had all the braking subtlety of a Louisville Slugger to the knee, and, of course, we all had to learn how to avoid spilling DOT-3 all over the family-room carpet during overhauls, but the Hayes offered real power and that was something utterly lacking in the majority of brake systems on the market.
Hayes had a massive head start on the competition and, as a result, the Mag remained relatively unchanged for a staggering eight years, a fact that cemented its reputation as one of the most enduring and influential products in mountain biking history. Shimano and Magura developed interesting rivals, but early Magura brakes had more reliability problems than Hayes and it took awhile for Shimano to enter the market with all its might. Really, until the Avid Juicy came on the scene, the Mag was the unquestioned leader.
This brake’s importance, however, extends beyond the world of hydro stoppers.
“Disc brakes changed everything,” says Boyd. “Well, almost everything. They definitely impacted frame design. They changed spoke lacing patterns, hub shell design and radically changed the parameters for rims, which got a lot lighter once they no longer were being squeezed for hours and hours. They also changed tire design. Once you had all that braking power, you wanted something wider with a better footprint. Tire width, casings, it all changed. Disc brakes—and that first Mag model in particular—changed mountain biking in ways that a lot of people never realize.”