First Impressions: Shimano R785 Hydraulic Road Disc Brakes

Disc brakes and cycling are certainly no strangers to one another. Having bested the likes of the V-brake in the mountain-bike realm, hydraulic disc brakes have reigned supreme for nearly a decade.

Now, a bit later to the game, the road world is finally wising up to the benefits of disc brakes as well. With the introduction of SRAM’s Hydro R Disc Brake six months ago, and now Shimano’s R785 offering, there are now two options from well-proven component manufacturers on the market (Although after a recall of SRAM’s initial HydroR offering, their replacement remains four months out from getting back into the hands of consumers).

Look familiar? Well it should, the R785 caliper is essentially a rebadged Shimano XT caliper.

But, even though Shimano’s first hydraulic road brake is just coming to market, their relationship with the category is nothing new. In fact, the development process for Shimano’s hydraulic road program actually began five years ago.

With riders from the Rabobank and Française des Jeux cyclocross teams, Shimano began testing mechanical and hydraulic disc brakes in a forest in Europe in an effort to determine the characteristics and features most desired in an eventual drop-bar offering, and in turn establish a set of performance standards.

Off to the drawing boards Shimano engineers went, emerging in 2011 with the first drop-bar prototypes.

Beginning testing in Japan, Shimano engineers were first tasked with establishing their own benchmarks and testing protocols because, well, none really existed.

Eventually, testing was brought over to the Pyrenees where test riders flogged protoypes under all sorts of conditions—short, intense braking efforts as well as steady braking for the duration of the descent—legendary descents like the Gavia and the Stelvio to name a few.

When the target is “dependable, durable performance,” Shimano doesn’t take testing very lightly—it’s worth mentioning that test riders wore heavy dive belts during much of the testing to maximize the R785 system’s potential for failure.

The R785 Lever profile retains much of the look and feel of Shimano’s standard offerings.

But, fail the brakes did not. For this, Shimano points to its patented Ice-Tech rotors and finned brake pads. Massively increasing heat dissipation (to the tune of a 200-degree reduction at the rotor) the Ice-Tech rotors utilize the same aluminum-clad, Freeza-finned design as their mountain counterparts.

Thanks to the massive heat reduction courtesy of the brand’s Ice-Tech suite of technologies Shimano is able to recommend 140 millimeters for all riders—with no weight restrictions.

This is a notable achievement, not just for what high levels of heat management it necessitates, but also for the superior braking experience it provides. Whereas larger rotors are able to provide more power—and better heat dissipation—in a road application, where the need for absolute stopping power is trumped by the desire for greater modulation, the 140-millimeter rotor diameter is much more accommodating in this regard.

Equipped with reach and free-stroke adjustments, the lever feel of the R785 system is easily tailored too.

Although launched as a non-series offering, the R785 system is touted as an Ultegra-level product—leaving Shimano plenty of room to shed some weight for their eventual Dura-Ace offering.

So, are disc brakes the future for road bikes?

Well if it’s any indication, Dave Lawrence, Shimano’s road product manager thinks so.

“I think it’s the future…for everything,” he admitted during the R785 product presentation in Maui.

“Depending on people’s perspective, where they’re coming from, it’s more their riding experience—definitely the cyclocross racers see the advantages and they’re flocking to it.”

In addition to cyclocross riders, Lawrence also noted the unexpectedly positive reception from the triathlon community. With frame designs getting ever more complicated, and cable routings getter correspondingly treacherous, the newfound cable-routing flexibility hydraulic cables provide offer an attractive panacea to the problem.

Almost understandingly, among traditional road riders is where much of the challenge to widespread adoption resides. Those unfamiliar with disc brakes, let alone hydraulic systems, are unaware of the potential performance advantages available.

“One of the things that we were all aware of, was that for people to try new technology, obviously it has to perform well, but it has to look a certain way and feel a certain way,” Lawrence acknowledged.

Maui proved to be the perfect testing grounds for Shimano’s new R785 hydraulic disc brakes.

I recently had a chance to ride the R785 system at Shimano’s media launch on the Hawaiian island of Maui, home of the infamous Haleakala volcano, which reaches a rather lofty 10,000 feet above sea level.

This location however, was no coincidence. An uninterrupted 10,000 foot descent was the perfect testing ground for a new set of disc brakes whose heat management was purported to be second to none.

After a four-hour climb from sea level to 10,000 feet, I was definitely ready to start descending. What I wasn’t ready for however, was just how completely game changing the R785 system would prove to be.

What do a 10,000 foot descent and Shimano’s R785 disc brakes share in common? These adjectives: sublime, fantastic, unmatched, incredible, mind-blowing…you get the point.

Offering more modulation than many well-established mountain-bike offerings, the R785s completely changed what was possible in terms of braking, allowing for much later braking, and even offering enough control to even brake confidently mid-turn without fear of locking up the wheel. Almost instantly, I felt like my descending prowess had greatly improved, quickly becoming at-home with the intuitive feel of the R785 levers.

With such impressive performance advantages over traditional rim brakes, I’m personally convinced that Shimano’s R785 system represents the future of road braking, but invariably, it’s something that one has to experience for themselves to truly understand just how impressive they really are. Until then though, you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Kevin Rouse may have been a bit late to the bike-riding party, but he’s certainly making up for lost miles. Having discovered cycling while studying journalism at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, he enjoys long days in the saddle whenever—and however—he can get them. You can usually find him on two wheels, but if not, you’d be well served to check the nearest coffee shop.