Mafac and Weinmann
So many vintage road bikes still have their Weinmann or Mafac centre pull brakes intact. They were once the staple braking components on many French bikes, from the introduction of Mafac Racer brakes in 1952, to their eventual demise which came about in the early 1980’s. Mafac Racer brakes are the most celebrated of all the centre pull types, even though Weinmann’s Vainqueur are perhaps just as iconic. Nowadays, it’s all about the side pulls, yet we shouldn’t give up on the mechanical wonder and aesthetic beauty of centre pull brakes. The question is, is it easy to swap out centre pulls for side pull calipers?
The Small Details
Centre pull brakes require cable stops, but side pulls don’t.
Side pull brakes are a simpler set up, and require less parts. For starters, centre pulls, both front and rear, require the small but crucial addition of cable stops to work. The front is fitted on the steerer within the headset, and needs to slip down the steerer as it is unthreaded. Typically, a vintage French steerer won’t take a standard cable stop bracket; it requires a flat and not a keyed bracket design. So if you want side pull brakes and don’t like the look of a redundant front cable stop protruding from your headset, you’ll need a French spacer with the appropriate flat to replace it. It’s a small but important detail; to re-space your headset if you’ve removed the stop.
Side Pulls are Simpler
Like many elements of the bike technology which was developed in the 1980’s, braking became a simpler and more user-friendly experience. The side pull doesn’t require the cable stops which the centre pull needs. The rear one, secured by the seatpost bolt, is easily bypassed. Side pulls also doesn’t require a hanger or a straddle cable, and there is much less faffing when it comes to fitting one. A side pull is a lot easier to install, can be centred easier by adjusting the centre bolt, and has the advantage of the barrel adjuster for precise tuning. But don’t be fooled into thinking replacing your centre pull will be without problems.
Not So Simple
So no need for the brake cable stop. Bypass the rear one. Use the same levers as the ones already installed. Cut a new stretch of housing to run from each lever to each caliper. For me, it was all looking good, when I ran into the problem: Reach. The rear caliper was fine, as clearance there wasn’t an issue. But the front caliper was basically useless, because it couldn’t reach the rim of the front wheel. I had forgotten how adaptable centre pulls are, as they were designed to adapt to many different rim scenarios. Indeed, Mafac Racer brakes were used on winning Tour De France bikes with 700c racing wheels, but were just as much at home on touring bikes with large spacing for mudguards. They were versatile. These Weinmann 500 calipers were a lot less so.
Why It Didn’t Work
Originally this Jacotey bike I am rebuilding had Mafac Racer brakes installed. The fork was designed to give lots of clearance for the very purpose of fitting centre pull brakes, and for providing plenty of room for mudguards. So when it came to installing my Weinmann 500’s, the distance between the fork brake hole and the rim of a 700c wheel was too great for these side pulls. These Weinmann 500 calipers are best described as having medium reach, not long reach. Their maximum reach, measured from the centre of the brake bolt to the centre of the brake pad at its lowest point, is 157mm. This was not enough to reach the 700c rim, and about half of the brake pad would rub against the tyre when applied.
Would a CLB Work?
Interestingly, one brake pad of this Weinmann caliper would sit correctly against the 700c rim when pressed, but the other pad wouldn’t. I concluded that these calipers needed about 4mm more reach for both sides to align with the rim. It was bloody disappointing. I was at a bit of a loss about what to do. Then I looked at a CLB caliper I had, which had been lying around for months. It looked slightly larger than the Weinmann, so I got my hopes up. Would it just about reach? Did it have that extra 4mm needed?
The short answer is no. I am not a big fan of CLB brakes, just by the fact that the ones I’ve come across over the years have often lost their spring tension and are as springy as soft cheese. Weinmanns fare much better. This particular caliper, however, did have good spring tension ( hallelujah ). After fitting it without the cable, it seemed to work. Both pads looked to just about mach the rim. Needless to say I got my hopes up, which I tend to do. But alas, after installing the cable, I realised that it was a foolish wish; this CLB caliper had exactly the same reach as the Weinmann, damn it! 157mm. What I really needed was a real, dedicated, hard ass long reach caliper for this job. I needed a Weinmann 810.
Going Long, Very Long
I bought them for £8.00 off Ebay, not including the £3.95 shipping. Weinmann 810 calipers have a maximum reach of 179mm!! So I went a bit over the top I admit. I think a front caliper with a reach of 165mm would have sufficed, as the description that Steve Griffiths of Classic Lightweights applies to these particular mega calipers is “for balloon tyred bicycles“. But it works for me. I took the extra 14mm reach as peace of mind that it would easily fit, and it did. Below you can see how the caliper easily mounts into position over the rim, with plenty of reach to spare.
Conclusion and Cautions
Swapping out your centre pulls for side pulls definitely simplifies the mechanical side of your braking setup. You can do away with the extra parts, as described above, and it’s easy to understand why side pulls are now the standard on most bikes. Yet, you shouldn’t forget that there can be complications. Short reach side pulls may not suitable many vintage bike forks, and many post 1980’s calipers have recessed brake bolts, that won’t reach through a traditional front fork. I’ve made that mistake before, as the construction of brake bolts changed in the 1980’s. Most of all, check your front fork clearance before swapping out your centre pulls, or you may be forced to spend some extra money.