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An overview of the 5 best cantilever brakes for touring

I’m in the process of converting a vintage mountain bike into a more comfortable touring bike. Since it has boring Shimano Altus cantilever brakes I was thinking of upgrading it, hence my search for the best cantilever brakes for touring.

I always associated cantilever brakes with either very old bikes that predated the v-brake era, or budget bikes because v-brakes were apparently more premium.

I’ve done a comparison between v-brakes and cantilever brakes, and although cantilevers are nice, they were an absolute disaster to set up correctly.

But maybe today’s cantilever brakes would prove to be different. So let’s find out what my research dug up in this overview of the best cantilever brakes for touring.

Shimano BR-CX50 cantilever brakes

Shimano BR-CX50 cantilever brakes

A very obvious place to start looking is at Shimano and their BR-CX50 brakes. Although in general I find Shimano parts to be a kind of blend, there’s no denying their quality and reliability.

By far the biggest issue I have with cantilever brakes is adjustability. There are just so many moving parts in the brake shoe area.

With Shimano’s current brake shoes they’ve tackled that problem. I’m used to sticking the aluminum part of the brake shoe through a number of parts that all move independently from each other.

These brake shoes remove that issue with a single bolt going through a cylinder, which makes height adjustment independent from angle adjustment (for toe in).

Dual spring tension bolts allow for further fine tuning to allow the brakes to touch your rims at the same time.

The cable inline adjuster is also an improvement upon the standard cable yoke, making it easier to get the brakes operating as desired.

In terms of looks, they fit somewhere between frog-legs and v-brake like closeness. The short brake shoes allow them to clear the fork, so you don’t have to deflate your tire to remove it, except maybe for some wide mountain bike tires.

Shimano is never known for making lightweight products and at 175 grams per pair they prove to be the heaviest on this list. They only come in brushed aluminum.

So a lot of things have been thought of making these Shimano cantilever brakes an excellent choice for high quality, reliability and easy adjustment.

Dia-Compe DC980 cantilever brakes

Dia-Compe DC980 cantilever brakes

Because I didn’t want Shimano brakes I bought these Dia-Compe DC980 cantilever brakes. When compared to the Shimano ones, there are a number of striking differences.

First of all the Dia-Compe brakes are more classic looking and harken back to how cantilever brakes looked in the ’80s, like the Shimano Exage Trail BR-AT50 I have on my 1986 Koga Miyata Adventure.

That kind of makes sense because the design of the 980 is decades old and pretty much unchanged.

One of the issues these brakes solve and what Shimano has copied, is the lack of spring housing. Older-style cantilever brakes have delicate plastic housings with a hole in them to hold the spring in place while tension is applied. It was not uncommon for these housings to break and tear, which would make your brake unusable.

The opened spring design of the Dia Compe allows for a stronger spring with a longer arm, allowing for more tension and a tighter feel. Tension bolts on either side allow for further adjustment.

The brake shoes are v-brake type, which is an improvement because there’s less fuss setting them up. And they are fitting for these classic-looking brakes, although I prefer the Shimano ease of installation.

They are 140 grams per pair, come with a classic straddle cable and guide. Color options are silver or black anodized.

The rounded look with the wide stance is definitely retro-looking and a great option for powerful touring cantilever brakes with Japanese build quality.

Pauls Components Touring cantilever brakes

Pauls Components Touring cantilever brakes

Pauls Components offers two cantilever brakes and one apparently specifically designed for touring.

Products from the American CNC wizard are notoriously expensive and these brakes are no exception. Especially considering the fact that cables and their crescent cable guide, the moon unit, are not included. That means you’ll be paying over 200 USD to obtain 2 pairs.

The obvious question then becomes, if it’s worth that type of money. The simple answer is no, because these brakes aren’t 4 times as good as their competition’s counterparts.

So what do you get for such a premium price that might sway you in their direction?

You get red Kool Stop brake pads, which operate as traditional v-brake ones, just as with the Dia-Compe cantilevers. But those can be had separately so they hardly justify the price.

At 99 grams, the CNC machined arms are very light for a pair.

Instead of small bolts the springs reside in huge adjuster nuts, making this part of the brake much less delicate and virtually unbreakable.

2 o-rings per brake arm located on the pivot reduce the risk of brake interference because of mud.

Besides silver and black anodized, there are also blue and purple versions available.

Velo Orange Grand Cru Zeste Cantilever Brakeset

Velo Orange Grand Cru Zeste cantilever brakes

The Velo Orange Grand Cru Zeste cantilever brakes are unique-looking pieces of cycling kit.

They are very low profile for luggage clearance and prevent your heels from getting into contact with the brake arms.

They have a distinctive double plated design, which ostensibly is made for increased mud clearance. Although I have to be honest and say that this setup might actually increase mud getting caked between the plates. When compared to other cantilever brakes, there’s little where mud could get stuck.

There’s a barrel adjuster in the cable and more traditional small allen key bolts for fine tuning spring tension.

The brake pads have reusable pad holders which is a nice touch, and are the large version. In combination with the arm length and when correctly set up, it means the brakes are very powerful.

They come in silver and black anodized versions and include cables and nice-looking cable yokes.

Avid Shorty Ultimate cantilever brakes

Avid Shorty Ultimate low profile cantilever brakes
Avid Shorty Ultimate standard cantilever brakes

No best of list of cantilever brakes can disregard the Avid Shorty Ultimate brakes, known as the best cyclocross brakes around.

The black anodized version with red bolts is stunningly beautiful and the brakes offer every bit of tech to make them the top of the line choice.

They have a similar brake shoe as the Shimano BR-CX50, but with a smaller and stronger bolt. It comes with a functional cable yoke and easy to use barrel adjuster to fine tune cable adjustment.

Unique to these brakes is the dual setup of classic frog legs and the semi low profile option. Though for best braking power the latter option is best.

Spring adjustment, as with the Pauls Components cantilever brakes, is achieved with a large nut, which is a better and more robust option than the smaller allen key bolts. They make for easier adjustment that can be more delicately calibrated.

At 129 grams for a pair the weight is reasonably light. The price however is not, because a full set will be around 200 USD.

Specifications cantilever brakes for touring

Name
weight
spring adjustment
cable tension
brake pads
Shimano BR-CX50
175 grams
screw
barrel adjuster
cartridge
Dia-Compe DC980
140 grams
allen bolt
none
standard
Pauls Components Touring
99 grams
adjuster nut
none
standard
Velo Orange Grand Cru Zeste
141 grams
allen bolt
barrel adjuster
cartridge
Avid Shorty Ultimate
129 grams
adjuster nut
barrel adjuster
cartridge
bio vanseijen

Johan van Seijen

Founder Restoration.bike

Johan van Seijen is the founder of restoration.bike. His cycling career has seen him at the starting line of classics such as the Amstel Gold Race and Liege Bastogne Liege. Realizing his racing capacity would fall short of what was needed he obtained a MS from the University of Amsterdam in engineering. His love for cycling changed into riding in an amateur capacity with his local cycling club TFC Weesp as a roadie and supporting MTB Noordwest as a mountain biker. He repairs, restores, and builds bicycles and shares his knowledge on YouTube, Facebook and this website. 

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