'Matter'

Matter: Yokozuna Motoko Disc Brakes

Disc brakes are quickly becoming standard equipment on cyclocross and gravel bikes, despite protestations from many in the cycling world. While this shift was a foregone conclusion to many mountain bikers who also spend time on drop-bar bikes, disc brakes remain anathema to a small portion of the cyclocross world. On the road, disc bikes are being raced at the highest level, and are making a fitful transition into standard use. Meanwhile, on salesroom floors across the world, fewer and fewer drop bar bikes are being sold with rim brakes. Rim brakes remain wholly adequate for many riders on the road, but they are already appearing antiquated against the backdrop of disc machines.

For this review, I spent the whole cyclocross 2017 season and the winter ‘snirt’ season, more than 1,500km, on Yokozuna’s Motoko disc brakes. The Motoko is a hybrid of sorts, translating the pull of a standard road cable into actuation of a hydraulic piston at the brake caliper, and is an appealing option for bike builds and conversions that either aim to extend the life of existing mechanical brake/shift levers, keep costs down compared to hydraulic systems, or simply deploy a simple disc solution. Read on to find out how the Motoko performed across a wide range of conditions and demands.

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I had a great experience racing the Motokos in Rochester in September, 2017. I didn’t love the Dugast tubulars on my A-bike, so I opted to race my B-bike instead with the Motokos on it. Photo: @pygauthier1

Framing

For this review, which focuses on the performance of Yokozuna’s Motoko cable/hydraulic hybrid disc brakes in the cyclocross context (and some ‘gravel’) I had a few ‘research questions’ I set out to answer:

  1. Would the Motoko make cable discs a viable option for cyclocross racing from an operational perspective (braking power, modulation, while on the hoods, braking with one or two fingers)?
  2. Would the Motoko resist discernable pad wear during muddy cyclocross races?
  3. Would the Motoko handle wheel changes with subtly different rotor spacing with ease?
  4. Would changing brake pads significantly affect operation and wear rate?
  5. Would adjustment of the brakes to account for pad wear be possible while racing?
  6. Would the system’s cables hold up to wet conditions?

As you can see, I wasn’t concerned with heat management. Obviously, with a closed system like the Motoko, where a small amount of mineral oil is compressed by the lever-arm push-rod to drive each piston, excessive heat transmitted from pads to pistons will cause thermal expansion of the fluid, thus ‘tightening the brakes,’ i.e., reducing lever pull. Cyclocross does not generate such heat, so I didn’t give this much thought, nor did I expect to do any descending on dirt roads or trails that would lead to that. I didn’t.

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I had a great experience racing the Motokos in Rochester in September, 2017. I didn’t love the Dugast tubulars on my A-bike, so I opted to race my B-bike instead with the Motokos on it. Photo: @typemistress

Before covering the answers to my research questions, let’s quickly cover the brakes themselves, out of the box.

Motoko Overview

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Price: $124.99 USD per wheel.

Specifications: Available in glossy gray or black, the Motoko\ships with 160mm stainless steel rotors, their Reaction compressionless cable housing, stainless steel cables, ferrules and end-caps. Claimed weight is 145g per caliper.

Mounting options: Available in either post-mount or flat-mount formats, the Motoko calipers deliver a couple nice features that are unique to hybrid cable/hydraulic systems.

Features: First, a knurled adjuster on the caliper’s piston affords the ability to fine tune pad clearance to the rotor, and thus, cable pull. This is in effect the same as a barrel adjuster.

Second, the hydraulic design allows for piston adjustment side to side. This means that if you switch wheels, for example, and your rotor spacing isn’t identical to your first wheel (often the case), you don’t need to move the whole caliper (unless it’s way off). Instead, you can push the piston that’s running too close to the rotor away, which will then push the opposite piston out. It’s easy and effective. Full hydraulic systems also work this way, assuming neither piston is holding its position due to a lack of lubrication. So for riders changing wheels often, this simple adjustment could be worth a lot (adjusting calipers over and over will eventually wear their flat-mount threads and fork post-mount threads out).

Special Sauce: The ‘value-added’ of the Motoko disc brake package is their cable and housing. This is an aspect of cable disc brakes many riders will not appreciate, and I have to say, I don’t think the majority of new mechanics understand either.

Cable-operated disc brakes run through more housing than any other brake system. For this reason, there is more friction between cable and the inside of the housing. As the housing takes twists and turns from brake lever to caliper, each bend increases friction. At each end of the housing that is cut, there is the potential for a rough opening that the cable will drag on. This is why brake housing ends need to be carefully cut and filed flat, a step many mechanics skip. Cheap housing will degrade internally quickly, increasing drag. Cheap cables will have coarse strands of wire running through their housing, introducing drag from the get-go. In addition, typical housing will compress under load, absorbing power the rider’s hand is trying to transmit into the brake caliper. Since contamination is the enemy of all cable systems, full housing is the sensible approach for cable discs, which thus increases the length of cable housing to compress. These are some of the reasons people have had negative impressions of cable disc brake systems: poor components between lever and caliper.

The Motoko brake system includes Yokozuna’s  compressionless Rapidwire housing (5mm), which is ‘jet-lubed,’ and their tightly wound die-drawn stainless steel cables, all long enough for full housing routing on any bike, with the exception of a tandem. Ferrule and cable ends are also included. All of this comprises the Reaction Cable System Yokozuna sells separately, at $45.99 USD.

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Rotors: The included rotors are generic, but a good choice. The wavy pattern on their outer edge is an established method for pushing mud and grit away from the pads as the brake is actuated, which is good for mud, obviously. Their venting holes are a good compromise between cooling and mud retention, making these rotors well suited to mixed conditions. For a lot of high speed descending on paved surfaces, rotors with more holes like those included with SRAM’s Force group would be a little better suited.

Pads: I tested Yokozuna’s generic organic compound pads and their cross-country pads, also organic. Head to head, the XC pads produced more bite, due to the metal material mixed into their organic compound. There was no discernible difference in wear between the two types of pad.

Installation: I was already using Yokozuna’s compressionless housing and a high quality cable with my Avid BB-7 brakes when the Motokos arrived. The installation was simple, requiring zero tweaks to housing length. I was done the change-over in perhaps 15 minutes. The finish of the brakes was impressive, not least the brass bushings used for the actuating arm pivot.

Results:

Question 1: Would the Motoko make cable discs a viable option for cyclocross racing from an operational perspective (braking power, modulation, while on the hoods, braking with one or two fingers)?

Answer: Maybe. The devil is in the details. My starting point here is that I want to be able to ride my cyclocross bike like a mountain bike in terms of braking: hands on hoods, braking with index finger. Why? I want as many fingers gripping the hoods as possible for handling the bike, especially over rough ground while also getting all the power I need from one-finger braking. Like on a mountain bike.

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An example of a one-finger braking situation in the dry. I’m on my SRAM hydros here, A-bike. Photo: @rotationalmass

I can’t get enough power out of the Motoko to achieve one finger braking. Is the system on par with the best mechanical brakes I’ve ridden? Yes. Do my SRAM hydraulic brakes provide true one-finger braking in all situations? No, I’m still working on sourcing pads that will make that possible. The Motoko does provide enough power for two-finger braking.

Question 2: Would the Motoko resist discernable pad wear during muddy cyclocross races?

Answer: No. Some mud is fine for brake pad wear, other mud is brutal. I raced in both, and the latter (gritty stuff) wore my pads down to the point of having a lot more lever throw than I wanted. Full sintered (metallic) pads or those using other compounds like carbon or ceramic might wear better; I aim to do more testing on pads to determine what the best options are for gritty mud. The spring classics are all about killing brake pads!

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So much mud….and a frozen brake cable. Photo: @evelyngelion

Question 3: Would the Motoko handle wheel changes with subtly different rotor spacing with ease?

Answer: Yes. Moving the pistons side to side is easily done with a tire lever or similar tool to accommodate a subtly differently spaced rotor. No problem.

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Question 4: Would changing brake pads significantly affect operation and wear rate?

Answer: Operation, a bit, yes. Yokozuna’s XC pads provide more bite than the generic stock pads. Wear was not noticeably different between pads.

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Good luck adjusting for pad wear in these conditions….

Question 5: Would adjustment of the brakes to account for pad wear be possible while racing?

Answer: No. I ran inline barrel adjusters for this purpose, but in muddy conditions, especially cold, there was no way I was going to pull off adjusting the cables while racing.

Question 6: Would the brakes’ cables hold up to wet conditions?

Answer: Yes and no. With a stock, out-of-the-box setup, the front would be totally fine, but not the rear, because the cable exit points up, making for a perfect water collector into the housing. Noting this before riding in any wet conditions, I dug an old shift cable seal out of my spare parts and installed it. It sort of worked, but not completely.

A simple, though perhaps elusive solution to cable contamination for the #yokozunamotoko mechanical/hydro rear brake I’m testing. The front isn’t prone to contamination, as the cable housing points down at its opening, but the rear points up. Low friction between cable and housing is vital to create and maintaining a smooth, as-close-to-hydro-as-possible lever feel, and the Yokozuna compressionless housing helps here, and eliminates sponginess too. I dug up a JagWire ferrule, which has a pipe extending from it, and this sliding boot that would normally be used for a derailleur cable. I trimmed the pipe to just extend through the brake’s cable stop, and the boot fits over top of that. It’s obviously a little longer than optimal, but this is not affecting the cable pull. The cable is now fully sealed from end to end. I have a newly released high polish JagWire from @phatmoosecycles to install next, which should take me as close to hydro feel as possible. #dynamicdirtduo #matter #gearreview #productreview #producttesting #motoko #bikehack

A post shared by Matt Surch Ⓥ (@cyclosomatic) on

The seal wasn’t perfect, and water did end up penetrating, which proved quite problematic during the last race of the season, which was at sub-freezing temperatures. My rear brake cable froze within the housing, so when I pulled the brake the pads wouldn’t retract. I’d have to push the caliper arm with my foot to get them to back off the rotor! This meant my spare bike wasn’t as useful as it should have been during the race. I had to delay switching bikes until past mid-way, when my A-bike was a total mud-monster. From there I couldn’t use the rear brake, lest it lock on me. So I raced the second half with front brake only. Detrimental. If I were to do it all over again I’d use silicone to lock in whatever seal I installed, and this would likely prove reliable. I would recommend this step to anyone using the Motoko.

I didn’t expect it, but encountered an odd issue with a piston sticking after doing a skills session in the sand. One piston stopped retracting, and caused incessant pad rubbing. After some work on the brake I discovered that a grain of send had wedged itself between the piston and caliper body. Once removed (no disassembly required) the brake returned to normal function. This was a good learning experience, and I was glad it didn’t happen during a race. My contact at Yokozuna in the US had never heard of this occurring, so I suspect it was an anomaly.

Conclusion

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As a long-time user of Yokozuna’s compressionless brake housing (which is a top-quality product), I have developed a lot of respect for the brand. They produce a unique and superior product in their compressionless shift and brake housing, in addition to excellent rim brake pads. They are not all about marketing glitz and glam, but focused on producing products of substance. I respect and appreciate this.

The astute reader will note that the Motoko is very similar to the Juin Tech flat mount brake; they appear to be the same brakes with different branding. So what are we getting from Yokozuna we’re not getting from Juin Tech? Foremost, their outstanding compressionless housing and their high quality cables. Second, Yokozuna has a great team of professionals based out of the US to provide product support. Are the brakes branded Juin Tech meeting a lower tolerance spec than those that are sold as Yokozunas? I don’t know, but this is a common practice in the industry: identical appearing products that meet different tolerance specifications. The 1,500 + kilometres I’ve put in on the Motokos, including winter riding on snow and ice, with salt exposure, indicated they are manufactured to tight tolerances, and I couldn’t be happier with their durability and corrosion resistance.

Against Avid’s BB-7 brakes with the same cables and housing (Yokozuna), raw power is equivalent, as is modulation. The improvement the Motoko offers is simpler pad adjustment, and the ability to easily adjust for pad wear mid-ride. Not mid-race, mid-ride. The TRP Hy/Rd mechanical to hydraulic calipers are meant to adjust pads automatically for wear, but from what I’ve seen from fellow riders, are plagues with issues, from weak, spongy feel to lock-up in cold temperatures. They are also significantly heavier and more complicated than the Motoko. I would not personally invest in the Hy/Rd. TRP’s Spyre offers a full-mechanical option that activates both pistons at once, allowing for similar adjustment for wear to the Motoko. I hear positive things about these brakes in general, but also complaints about their lack of absolute power. Whatever system you might consider that uses mechanical levers, I recommend 160mm rotors over 140s. Not all bikes accommodate 160s. . . .

There’s a growing demand for disc brake systems covering bikes with anything from 8 to 11-speed drivetrains (12 for MTB, of course). In order to keep costs down, mechanical brake levers are specified on countless bike models, which require mechanical disc brake calipers. In contrast, more expensive disc hydraulic brakes are found on mid-range and higher level bikes.

Bikes are expensive these days, and most riders in the know understand that a good frame and fork is the heart of the machine. It makes sense to invest in a frame and fork that’ll serve its owner well over years of use, perhaps seeing a wheel upgrade down the road, and upgrades to components as they wear out.

Mechanical disc brakes can get you onto a quality disc brake platform, use mechanical brakes for a while, evaluate whether your needs are being met, and then decide whether to spring for a hydraulic system as an upgrade. The fact is, there are pros and cons to both, it’s simply not the case that hydraulic systems are better in every regard than mechanical ones. For a travel bike, for example, I would seriously consider using Motokos so that I could fit any brake lever and a bar-end shifter if one of my shift/brake levers was damaged beyond use.

Yokozuna offers a complete package in the Motoko, with the exception of a seal for the rear cable exit, which requires some effort to seal. The system is well made, easy to set up, and performs well across a broad range of conditions. While the system doesn’t offer the performance of a hydraulic brake, it is far more effective than the best rim-brake option on the market, especially when used with carbon rims. For those looking to get rolling on discs on a budget, the Motoko stands out as an excellent option.

MATTER RATING: 8.5/10

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Given Yokozuna’s Motoko brake is not designed to take on hydraulic systems, but to compliment them in a sea of options, my rating is restricted to their performance as a mechanical-pull system. Given the overall quality of the package, from calipers to mounting hardware, rotors, cables and housing, I consider the Motoko a strong value for their cost. From a sheer performance perspective the system is very effective, with the exception of the cable contamination issue I discuss above, which I would suggest Yokozuna address with a specific ferrule and rubber boot. It might take some hunting around for the average rider to source a solution for this oversight, so I recommend asking around early if you plan to set up a pair on your bike.

You can check out Yokozuna’s full range of products here, and follow them on FaceBook here.

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