People are getting themselves into pretty heavy situations on today's modern trail and all-mountain bikes, which are now every bit as capable as 8-inch-travel downhill rigs were just a decade ago. Whether we're riding the newest crop of steep-and-deep trails, or squeezing more speed out of rides we've done a thousand times, these new whips are giving us the confidence to push limits and go faster than ever before. It makes sense, then, that throwing a set of full-fledged downhill brakes on our trail bikes no longer feels outlandish.
It doesn't hurt that both SRAM and Shimano's downhill brakes are slimmer than ever before. Saints and Codes used to be big, beefy things that looked out of place on anything but a DH bike, but they've been dieting. So, we decided to give both a shot, not as downhill brakes as they were designed, but specifically to see how each functions as everyday trail stoppers.
SRAM Code RSC | $450/pair
The newest Code isn't an updated version of the old one—that big hunk of metal is gone, and has been replaced with what is essentially a scaled-up Guide brake, with a more robust caliper, larger pads, and more fluid volume. It's built on all the same technology that makes the Guide a leader in modulation and consistency—there's just more of it. About 50 grams per brake more.
A small sacrifice for an extraordinary boost in performance. They aren't just stronger, they're more consistent than their smaller cousins. You can be confident that the levers will pull to the same point every time, and they have an overall snappier, firmer, less-spongy lever feel. They stay consistent, even during long sections of heavy braking, but best of all, they have plenty of modulation.
This is something that the previous Codes lacked. Those suckers were either fully off or fully skidding. The power curve of the new ones feels a lot like the Guide brakes, just with much more overall strength. On long, steep descents, I'll sometimes need to throw a second finger on a Guide lever, but I haven't come close to needing to on the Codes. I can easily apply a little, or a lot, of power without breaking traction. I've found myself laying off the brakes for longer and braking harder into corners because I know the power will be there when I need it.
So, we've established that the Codes are excellent on demanding descents, but do they have too much power for ordinary trail riding? On normal rides, you're bound to encounter lower-speed stuff. Downhill bikes are spending more of their time going faster, and almost always on steep terrain—they're made exclusively for that kind of riding, and so are the brakes that are designed for them. Which is why, historically, they've been far too grabby on lower-angle terrain where there's less overall mass to slow down. It's like putting big-rig brakes on a Prius.
But the Codes aren't too strong or too grabby for little bikes on mellower terrain. That's partly due to the brakes' incredible modulation, but it's more than that. Actually less. What makes the Codes better suited to trail bikes than the Saints, is the same reason they're inferior downhill brakes—they're not nearly as strong. That's right, if you're looking for ultimate power the Saints have more of it, but I prefer the Codes as all-rounders. It's not just a power thing, but also fit. Even though they look bulkier than the Saints, the Code bodies are actually twice as thin, so they interfere less with other things like shifters, dropper levers and remote lockouts. The clamps are also more streamlined, which further helps them play nice with adjacent controls. Also, the contact-point-adjustment feature actually works. It allows you to match the throw of the front and rear levers without any pro tricks. I can always position the end of that lever blade exactly where I want, and that counts for a lot. The one thing I don't love is the noise they sometimes make. Codes come with metallic sintered pads, which make that annoying turkey warbling sound in dry, dusty conditions, that anyone who has ever run SRAM or Avid brakes knows all too well. If you're using these brakes for everyday riding like I am, I'd recommend swapping to the quieter organic ones.
Shimano Saint BR-M820-B | $480/pair
This version of the Saint brake was released years ago. It might not be all that new, but it's still one hell of a brake. We probably could have tested the new XT 4-piston against the Code. It turns out that power-wise, it would have been a more apples-to-apples comparison. But there are a couple things about that: First, we started this test before those new XTs came out, and second, the point of this thing was to test SRAM's strongest brake against Shimano's strongest brake. And the Saint is still Shimano's most-strapping stopper.
On the fastest, longest, most punishing descents, there's nothing that beats the control and security of having a set of Saints on your bike. They deliver an ungodly amount of power with an unprecedentedly light touch. There's no doubt that I can go much hotter into corners and scrub more speed in less distance with these brakes. On back-to-back runs, specifically trying to brake as late and as hard as possible, I felt more comfortable laying off the Saints for a touch longer. Even if that only amounts to a few feet, that could mean seconds off a race run. These things are excellent at shortening braking zones. They're perfect for racers who are trying to stay off the brakes as much as possible, and then grabbing fistfuls before each corner.
And, giving credit where it's due, these Saints are a whole lot less grabby than they used to be. It's much easier to modulate power with these, but they're still pretty grabby compared to the Codes. When I was a big pile of flesh and metal careening down a mountainside, the Saints had just the right amount of bite, but it was easy to grab too much brake when the trail evened out a bit—especially while I was getting used to them. Each time I'd swap back to my Saint-equipped test bike after being on other bikes, it would take my fingers a whole ride to re-learn the soft touch they require at lower speeds or shallower grades.
But, they're consistent as all get-out. Unlike the inconsistent dead-band issues I've had with some XT and XTR stoppers over the past couple years, I was confident that the Saints would bite at the exact same spot in the stroke each time I pulled them—something that's especially critical when trying to push braking zones.
I love how Shimano's reach adjustment is infinite instead of having notches like SRAM's brakes. But whenever I'm running Shimano brakes, I can never seem to get everything on the bar situated just how I want. They're especially incompatible with SRAM shifters—which I suppose makes sense considering they're competitors. Still, if I could always get my brake levers, shifter and dropper levers perfectly positioned every time, like I can with SRAM brakes, I'd be that much more in love with them.
There's another thing about the Saints that bothers me, and it's a gripe of mine with pretty much all current Shimano brakes: Those stupid finned pads are constantly rattling in the calipers. SRAM brakes are more prone to making noise while braking, but at least they don't constantly have me wondering if there's a bolt coming loose on my bike. Fortunately, Shimano still makes rattle-free non-finned pads that work in these brakes.