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Formula C1 Brakes: Reviewed

Formula's New Design

Words by Jon Harris. Photos by Morgan Taylor.
February 24th, 2014

Italy… the land of fast cars, high fashion, fine leather shoes, Monica Bellucci and promiscuous politicians. Italians can’t be accused of lacking passion for what they do. Products of any kind coming from Italy always somehow capture a certain style while also being very effective at what they are designed to do.

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The C1 is Formula’s new pricepoint brake option.

Cycling has a strong following in Italy and the presence of companies such as Campagnolo, Pinarello, Giordana and other fabled names have a part in that. Italy is also home to two companies well known in the mountain bike world: Marzocchi and Formula. The interesting thing about these two companies is that they both came to mountain biking from the world of motorcycles, but obviously with different areas of expertise, Marzocchi being suspension and Formula’s being braking systems.

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It is a two-piston design with 140, 160, or 180mm rotors.

Formula has been making brakes for mountain bikes since the early 1990’s yet this is the first time I have been able to ride a set. They are not a brand that you see on bikes very often though they do seem to be creeping into some manufacturer’s spec sheets with Rocky Mountain having them on a number of their bikes over the past few years and Specialized in the current year. Given the presence of Shimano and SRAM in local bike shops you can also see why Formula might not have a very strong presence in the aftermarket here in Canada too.

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The lever shape differs from what we’ve seen from Formula, and with that comes a new lever feel.

I had the new “budget” brake from Formula to test, the C1. The instantly noticeable difference between this brake and the rest of the Formula range is the brake lever. This lever has a more traditional look than the rest of the range and features a replaceable cartridge master cylinder. I’m not sure how useful I would find that feature but apparently it makes for easier serving. Out of the box the brake impresses with components that are nicely finished and a quality feel due to the lack of plastic parts.

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The lever is a simple design with only a tooled reach adjustment.

The hardware that is supplied with the brakes is all titanium, even the rotor bolts which common on any budget brake from other manufacturers. Another nice touch was the finishing on the rotor itself. I haven’t seen a stamped one piece rotor where the rough edges have been painted such as these and it just all adds up to a reassuring quality feel to the components. The lever doesn’t have bite point adjustments but does have the old school style of lever reach (using an allen key). For me this doesn’t give me too much pain in getting the lever set up but for some riders this may be a concern.

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The rotors exude a higher quality than the price may indicate.

Out on the trail the brakes took the usual amount of time to bed in and I did a few laps of the block to get them up to safe braking levels to be taken off road. With the great riding conditions that we’ve had recently I’ve had a lot of opportunity to test the brakes on all kinds of descents and in both wet and dry conditions. Once the pads and discs were fully bedded in braking power was definitely on par with current two-piston offerings on the market.

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The industrial design of the caliper is also reasonably smooth.

The feel of the brake is very different from the Shimano XT brakes that I was coming off of with a much softer feel to the lever once the pads were against the disc – which actually makes for slightly more controlled braking in my mind. I didn’t experience any fading of the brakes on longer descents but on one of my muddier rides I did feel that the rear brake had pumped up a little, pushing the bite point of the brake a little further out.

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A reminder where the C1s were born.

So while I was out riding with Morgan recently he asked me the crux question; “Would you put your XT brakes back on?” My response wasn’t instant and I paused to think about it. I do prefer the lever shape on the Shimano brakes, that short lever with the really pronounced hook to the end means that there is no question that your finger is hooked onto the lever… but.. and the big but is that once the brakes are at the bite point and you are applying power, I actually prefer the feel of the Formula C1.

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The C1 brake goes for a hair under $160 a side.

So would I re-fit my XT brakes? For now I don’t think I will and I will keep running the C1’s to see how they stand up for a while longer. Overall the Formula C1 is a worthy competitor to other brakes on the market and ultimately the decision on whether to buy them will come down to price and whether you like the lever feel.


Surprisingly good performance out of the “budget” Formulas… ready to take some market share?

  • rnayel

    Formula makes great brakes in my opinion. I ran a set of The Ones for a couple of seasons (frequent bleeding required, offset by light weight and very good power), now I have a set of R0 with the oval piston on my all mountain bike, both brakes have been powerful and reliable.

  • GladePlayboy

    I agree.. I made the switch to R0s on my DH bike and T1s on my AM bike recently after trying all the usual suspects over the past few years.

  • Cheez1ts

    I have a set of The Ones that have held up really well for a number of seasons now, and a set of The One FR that didn’t do so well. My dad had a set of the RX that didn’t do so well either. Both The One FR and the RX use the same lever, and this is the part that eventually failed on both brakes. The service we’ve had from Formula has been good, but replacing levers isn’t cheap.
    It looks like the replaceable cartridge master cylinder your uncertain about might help out with this problem. I’m glad your going to keep on using the brakes as I’d like to see how long it takes you to need the feature, and how useful it is.

    • Jon-boy

      Thanks for the feedback. Never having run formula brakes and never having a brake that needed anything other than a bleed i didn’t know that earlier formula brakes were afflicted with these issues. I have had the brakes one for about a month, but that has seen me on the bike a lot, I would guess at 35 hours of riding time so far.

      • GladePlayboy

        I have two sets of 2013 Formula brakes. There has been no need to bleed either of them even after cutting the hoses and riding for a season. As are as weights are concerned Formula’s stated weights are almost always bang on in my experience.

  • cerealkilla

    If you’re going to pro review a product, it’s kind of good habit to give the weight. You have the chance to throw it on a scale, without any of the manufacturer estimated weight BS, yet you leave the weenies among us wringing our hands in anguish of the unknown. Price seems comparable to (if not better than) XT. I think the change in lever shape is a big deal. Old Formulae were known to be a poor choice for people that like their lever close to the bar. I also found their old brakes really on-and-off. A softer progression in the braking power makes it sound like a big (and good) step forward from their previous models.

    • Jon-boy

      I can throw them on a scale and update…. But currently the bike is packed in a bag waiting for me to fly to New Zealand!
      On lever bite points, I like to have the bite point so that the lever is parallel to the bar at that point. I was absolutely able to have the lever set up like that. I don’t see why I couldn’t have had the bite point even closer to the bar as that new lever shape should allow it.

      • Liberty555

        So you’re packing up your bike and heading all the way to NZ… and taking some relatively untried brakes which you may not be able to get parts for…

        And you took XT brakes off? Brakes which the world over are acknowledged as reliable, solid and which parts ban be obtained anywhere…

        If they are from Italy, they will only work for a short part of the day and need constant attention from you.

        Loco en el Coco.

      • Cheez1ts

        I don’t think it’s all old Formula levers that had this issue, but some did. The levers on my The One brakes don’t go in nearly as far the the RX levers. I’ve I had smaller hands I could see the one levers being an issue.

      • Cheez1ts

        *If I had…

      • Jon-boy

        The XT brakes are with me too as back ups. It did cross my mind.

      • awesterner

        I always thought the best thing about the Formula brakes are the spare bits available. CRC has basically every part imaginable. You could build a set up just from spares alone. They are very simple as well.

        I’ve had Formula since the K18. Personally I like the feel, which is why I typically keep going for them. I have a set of older R1 on my 29er, and the newest version of the T1S on my Mojo. I think the R1 modulate a bit better, maybe because they are less powerful. The T1s have almost too much power for a 27lb bike, so they are a tad more difficult to modulate. For the best feel, use OEM pads, not the Brake Authority ones from MEC.

        Re: the levers. The new levers on the T1S are not as nice as earlier versions. The reach is longer. You can trick that with a creative bleed, or do what I did, buy some shorter reach adjusters.

        Overall, not to shabby. I would like to try some Shimano’s, but that’s just tossing money at something I don’t need.

        Reliability is very good. I went 2 full seasons on the old R1 before they started to pump up a bit . All they needed was a bleed.

  • dorse

    I have two sets of R1′s and my wife has two sets of the ones. I like the levers and the feel. With only 7 inch discs on the front and six inch on the rear they brake almost as well as my 8 inch Magura Gustaf’s
    The carbon fiber levers are crazy expensive. I was able to get three of the sets for $200 a side. I had to pay full price for the first R1′s

    Very light and good stopping and feathering. Formula for the win.

  • bogey

    “The hardware that is supplied with the brakes is all titanium, even the rotor bolts which common on any budget brake from other manufacturers.”

    Are you sure? Really, really sure? Those look more like the steel screws that Formula does. They’re plated steel but still very nice and also light.

    • Jon-boy

      Yeah I stand corrected on that. I did a scale test on the bolts and they are lighter than the steel bolts that were used for my XT discs assumed they were titanium as I misread the spec on the website: http://www.formula-italy.com/en/product/c1/62

    • morgman

      We’ve confirmed and updated the article. Good quality steel bolts they are.

  • boot

    So do they use two fingers in Italy? One wreck and those long levers are toast (Avid flashback man those stoppers sucked) I’m sticking with XT reliability and durability… they’re not perfect, but I’ve had to bleed them once in two years. When you forget about your brakes, they’re doing it right.

    • awesterner

      I don’t think the flat part of the lever is much wider, if at all wider than the shimano’s. Might look that way as the lever arm is extended further away. Similar to Avid? Anyway, in term a of Shimano reliability…big bonus if you lose your brakes in rural Italy, olive oil works (or so I’ve been told. I think Woodro did an emergency fix with cooking oil.

  • hampstead_bandit

    another day, today yet another warranty claim on a production boxed bike with C1 brakes. Both brakes leaking from the screw-in fitting on the master cylinder hose.

    This is the 10th warranty claim I’ve done this winter already on this model of brake, all on brand new boxed bikes being built (pdi) for customers. All leaking in same place – seems like QC or manufacturing issue?

    Had similar problems some seasons back also on Formula brakes on boxed production bikes. Turnaround was lengthy and repaired or replaced brakes would fail on first ride. Had customers that had numerous brakes fail. Apparently a problem with an undersized “o” ring according to the factory.

    Here in the UK? Warranty support poor on Formula, typically a few weeks to get sorted, which does not work for a retailer stuck with a brand new bike suspension bike they cannot sell.

    Avid in contrast is very quick turnaround as SRAM don’t f*ck about, most the time the brakes are replaced FOC which is generally a bonus for the customer as their OE brake gets upgraded to aftermarket brake (which often has carbon fibre lever blade or other goodies!)

  • Pete Linden

    Bought a stumpjumper comp from Specialized, after 5 months and four bleeds, the brakes feel like junk and there is now vertical play in the lever. That cannot be fixed since the lever is riveted. Called Specialized and told me to order Shimano XT brakes and give me the credit back…won’t ever use a set of these again!

  • Marcus

    I have seen quite a few people mention how they like their formula brakes, but have not specifically used the C1’s. Unfortunately there is a major flaw with these. I, like Pete in this thread, have
    had the same issues. But instead of 4 bleeds in 5 months, 4 in 1 month. I have owned my stumpy evo for one month and it has been to the bike shop 4 times to bleed the brakes, due to the lever reaching
    the handlebar only after 1-2 rides. Word is specialized is swapping these out under warranty with Shimanos. I am going to the bike shop today to request that they do this. It is sad that when you google ‘formula c1 brakes’ the second most popular website is one about issues with the brakes. I think Formula really made a bad mistake with these brakes and potentially just damaged a
    relationship with a very large manufacturer.

    • Marcus

      Just an update to this… Specialized has received so many
      complaints/claims on these brakes that Formula has stopped compensating them
      for replacement of different brakes. My
      LBS contacted them and advised that they would need to try a ‘new bleed
      procedure’ before they address replacing them. So my LBS did the new bleed procedure and 1
      ride later the brake levers were touching the bar again. My LBS contacted them again and they agreed
      to replace them with Shimano XT’s, which I am very happy about. I love the bike… it will be nice to not bring
      it into the shop every week though! I
      appreciate my LBS for working through it with Specialized, even if it was
      jumping through a few hoops.

  • barryoreefe

    This thread is just confirming my own braking woes… I have just taken delivery of a Commencal Hip Hop, fitted with these shoddy stoppers… upon assembling the bike I found that one master cylinder was weeping fluid at the screwthread,and the other had no pressure at the lever whatsoever, the fluid having leaked out in transit into the packaging! And this with both nuts screwed in to their absolute limit.

    An email to Commencal for a warranty claim was met with “take them to your nearest Formula dealer”, which smacks of them having had a few issues along these lines, This “fix” for me is a round trip of 40 miles to a chain bike store I don’t have any faith in anyway… they will be being replaced with XT’s tomorrow. A shame for Commencal, as the bike is beautiful quality otherwise. These manufacturers, especially the more independent ones, are doing themselves no favours fitting this rubbish to their bikes… QC and design quality very poor.

    They may work well in isolation, but I can’t comment on their performance with them being supplied “not fit for purpose”. Sounds like they need regular tending to after the event too, to keep them anywhere up to scratch.

    AVOID!