Formula R1 Disc Brakes
"Go faster with better brakes." Say it again. "Go faster with better brakes." It's an odd concept, but one we came to embrace after riding the Formula Oro Puro disc brakes for the first time a few years back. Because we were able to control our speed better through the modulation of the brake, we could carry more speed into, and through, the corners of the most gnarly singletrack. We fell in love.
So when we were selected to receive a set of the much-hyped, weight-weenie wet dream Formula R1 disc brakes we were both excited, intrigued, and frankly, a bit skeptical. Why? Well, for starters, the Formula Oro Puro had set the bar high -- the R1 would have a lot to live up to. In our experience, the Puro marked an incredible convergence of every desirable trait in a high-end disc brake:
Easy to maintain? Check.
Sexy? You bet.
That aside, Formula reportedly shaved 70 grams from what was arguably the lightest disc brake on the market -- again, the Oro Puro. The skepticism and questions were mounting: how realistic will their claimed weight be? If it is, does it sacrifice the power, or
Our set arrived shortly before Thanksgiving, providing us a solid four-month review period while our trails are at their fastest. When we removed them from the box, the weight differential was instantly perceptible -- much lighter than any other disc brake we'd laid our hands on. Naturally, we quickly made our way to our trusty Park DS-2 Digital Tabletop Scale which soon backed up what we suspected -- a complete front brake assembly (caliper, lever, 850mm hose, all mounting hardware, 160mm rotor and six aluminum rotor bolts) registered an incredible 274g. Sure it's 4g (~ 1.5%) above their advertised weight, but that's pretty rockin' in our book considering the previous lightweight standards -- the Formula Oro Puro and Magura Marta SL -- came in around 345g. 25% heavier! No matter how you slice it, 70 grams per wheel is an impressive weight savings. For those of you who don't "think in grams", that's about 1/3 of a pound lighter for a complete bike.
While the featherweights admittedly got our blood pumping, it was time to string them on our Santa Cruz Blur LT test mule and put them through the wringer. As we prepared our work area for the install, we started to inspect the brakes a little closer. The R1 is a complete departure for Formula -- it uses a one-piece forged radial master cylinder and one-piece forged caliper, allowing Formula to drop significant weight and provide a sleek look. The brake hose loses the carbon/Kevlar weave of the Oro Puro. Instead it was finished in silver which, we were told, was to simply maintain the system's aesthetic.
While aesthetic is anything but our focus for this review, we recognize its importance, and certainly feel the need to address it here. If you're depleting your resources to customize your dream bike, you want it to be a reflection of yourself and your efforts. This was not lost on Formula when they designed the R1. The matte black anodized calipers and master cylinders, and silver clamps resonate with a modern industrial tone, and anodized red bits provide a perfect touch of elegance. We credit Formula for a very smart touch -- each of the red bolts on the R1 utilizes the same size wrench -- a Torx T15. The lone silver Torx bolt (the bleed port) uses a T10 wrench. Because the hardware is aluminum, it is especially important to use the correct size or you'll strip the bolt. And chances are you won't find one that pretty at your local hardware store!
We look at part of the review process as trying to push our luck -- because that's what happens in the real world -- then we work to resolve any problems that arise. With that in mind, we began our install. Being mindful not to "flip" the lines, we carefully bolted our brakes to the frame, ran the lines, and left the excess hose at the handlebar. We removed the compression fitting and clipped the line to the appropriate length with our Park CN-10 cable cutters. By keeping the higher, cut end of the hose near the bar, a capillary effect holds the DOT 4 fluid in place, minimizing any mess. Once we had the line cut, we re-inserted the compression fitting and reconnected the line.
Proper installation technique is to trim the brake hose, and perform a bench bleed, but in reality, most end users do not. So in the interest of a thorough real world review, we elected not to as well, and see what happened. Once we had our lines cut to length and installed, we'd have probably been just fine to roll out. But we didn't -- we performed a vacuum bleed -- a quickie approach to fine tune and be sure we didn't have any pesky air bubbles in our lines.
The vacuum bleed process is a simple one: 1/ remove the bleed port screw; 2/ insert the bleed fitting with a syringe with ~10cc of fluid (in Formula's case DOT 4); 3/ create the vacuum (by gently pulling the syringe); 4/ tap the air bubbles out while maintaining the vacuum; 5/ lightly and rapidly cycle the lever a few times to work out any trapped air; 6/ once the air bubbles are out, gently push fluid back into the master cylinder to ensure a good seal when you replace the bleed port screw; 7/ remove the bleed fitting and have a rag handy to sop up any fluid leaks; 8/ replace the bleed port screw; 9/ wipe the master cylinder and surrounding areas clean with a rag and some rubbing alcohol; 10/ check your work.
After our vacuum bleed the brakes felt great -- sporting a lively but firm lever feel. We could barely wait to hit the trail. There were a couple differences between the R1 bleed versus our prior Formula bleeds. First, the bleed fitting itself is of critical importance. In the past, we've been able to use an Avid bleed fitting in a pinch on a Formula brake and vice-versa. With the R1, the forged shape of the master cylinder prevents the use of a non-Formula bleed fitting, as the shoulder of the shorter bleed fittings will hit the ridge to which the handlebar clamp connects. The Formula bleed fitting, found in the Formula bleed kit, is elongated which allows for the requisite clearance. Second, Formula designed the bleed port on the R1 to be in the correct position for a bleed. Therefore, there is no need to orient the lever upward as is required with other Formula models. Simply keep it in the normal riding position, and you'll be fine -- a nice touch.
During our four month test period, we logged nearly 1,000 singletrack miles with the Formula R1. The trails here in Arkansas are notably twisty and tight with undulating hills, adorned with plenty-a-rock garden and roots. It's really a mountain bike paradise, but a well kept secret all the same. Out of the gate, our lever reach was a bit longer than we might like, but a 2mm Allen wrench inserted into the lever blade cured that with about a half turn trailside.
We should mention that the R1 has two different official rotors -- the one-piece, and the marginally lighter (about four grams per) two-piece design featuring an anodized red alloy carrier. Our set arrived with the one-piece rotors, and we had opted for a 180mm front and 160mm rear. Had ours come with the two-piece design, we can only speculate that the weight would have nailed the Formula advertised weight of 270g, instead of being 4 grams over. Replacing the stock aluminum hardware with some aftermarket titanium bits could easily drop another 10g per wheel.
On the trail, the Formula R1 disc brake impressed. The caliper, whose power is supplied by two 22mm pistons housed within its forged and anodized aluminum body, repeatedly served up plenty of power even in the twistiest singletrack or on prolonged descents. It's really an engineering marvel -- you pick these up out of the box, and you think to yourself, "No way (can these stop me)." But they did, time and time again.
When we squeezed the lever of the R1, it engaged the rotor faster than many disc brakes we've tested previously. This includes Avid Juicy, Magura Marta or Formula's own Oro disc brakes among others. This could have been a major turn off -- there's nothing worse than a disc brake that instantly applies all its power like a switch. But, we didn't find this to be a problem at all because of the ability to modulate the applied power. In fact, we found just the opposite to be true -- we were more confident and responsive in our braking. We've traditionally ridden with two fingers on the brake levers, and we found ourselves riding with just one. After riding mountain bikes for some 20 years now, it's something so personal and so subjective, it's almost a part of our DNA. To change that now is very strange. We skidded less, and controlled more. We were faster out of corners that had gotten the better of us in the past.
March in Arkansas means rain, and between the miles we'd compiled, and a series of some particularly gritty rides, we needed to change the brake pads. The R1 uses the same brake pad as the Formula One or Mega brakes. The process didn't change from the Oro series to the R1. Simply unthread and remove the Torx T15 bolt at the back of the caliper, pinch the brake pads and pull them out. Drop in the new pads and thread in the Torx T15 bolt. Nice and easy. This could easily be done in a matter of minutes trailside or in race transition if necessity arose (assuming you had a spare set of pads of course.)
About the only negative we found -- and we worked hard to find one -- was an occasional squealing noise when the rotor would get wet. To be fair, this is the case with most disc brakes. It wasn't problematic, however, as it would stop as soon as heat would build up and dry the rotor.
They say money changes everything, and it just might with the Formula R1 -- they're not cheap. At $360 per wheel, and $54 to $108 per rotor, they're likely the most expensive mountain bike disc brake on the planet. But Formula was on a mission when they engineered the R1 disc brake -- they set out to build the no-holds-barred, lightest, easiest to maintain, peak performing, top-of-the-line disc brakeset. What they achieved was disc brake nirvana.