The following story first appeared in the winter 2021 print issue of Beta. To get print, sign up to be a Beta Pass or Outside+ member. Membership details HERE.
The current version of Shimano’s strongest stopper first hit the market close to 10 years ago. It hasn’t changed since. This, and the fact that the the world’s fastest gravity racers continue to use the Saint M820 brake, speaks volumes.
“The outright power and tune of that brake are still perfectly relevant in world-class DH competition to this day,” says Nick Murdick, Shimano’s North American mountain bike product manager.
Ahead of its time.
That’s partly because the stopping power of the M820 brake was so far ahead of its time. Look at how different downhill bikes are now than they were a decade ago. Think about how much advancement has happened. How much harder the equipment is being pushed. And how much faster racers are going. Then consider that a brake designed before all those advancements happened is still relevant.
“It’s a classic case of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” says legendary freerider and longtime Shimano athlete Matt Hunter. “It feels satisfying to build a bike with these because when you’re bolting them on, you know that, many years down the trail, they are still going to be dialed.”
The death of downhill.
Another reason for their longevity is that downhill bikes aren’t as popular anymore. As single-crown bikes started edging toward the capability of the DH bikes we used to ride, so did the need for stronger trail brakes. “As the popularity and need for 4-piston brakes on trail bikes grew, that’s where we put our efforts,” Murdick says.
Saint isn’t a trail group, but Shimano borrowed ideas from its success. In fact, the caliper of the XT M8020 4-piston brake was a repainted Saint caliper. The difference in power was handled at the lever, with a different shape to the Servo Wave, a cam that adds mechanical advantage to the brake system.
Even when compared to the newest XTR 4-piston brakes, I’m blown away by how consistent and firm the lever feel is on the Saints. They provide pure brute stopping power on the most demanding descents. They don’t fade at all, and I’m able to go faster and brake later into corners with less wheel lockup. I can count on them time and time again without burning up rotors or needing to bleed the system. So why aren’t they more popular, especially on all these 50-pound e-bikes hitting the market? Wouldn’t Shimano want their strongest brake on those beasts?
Murdick answers: “The current XT and XTR brakes have the same overall power as the Saints, they’re just tuned differently. What you’re feeling in regards to lever firmness could be attributed to the Saint caliper itself being beefier, so it would flex less under hard braking and deliver a little more clamping force than an XTR caliper. If you pull as hard as you can on either brake, the pistons come out of the caliper with the same force.”
Saint’s power is solid. By tuning the shape of the Servo Wave it requires less initial pulling force at the lever. Some people like the more aggressive Saint tune, others prefer the feel of XTR. “I’m stoked that our athletes have a choice of modulation tunes with the XTR brake now,” says Murdick “but several of our athletes are still most comfortable with the quick response of Saint.”
Saint had an almost-prophetic amount of power when it came out in 2012. Our riding style and our bikes—their geometry, and pretty much every other component on them—have been playing catch up this whole time.
From Winter 2021