REVIEW: Avid Code disc brakes

Are Avid's new freeride stoppers up to the task on the Shore?

Words and photos by Stuart Kernaghan

Mountain bike disc brakes have come a long way in the 20-odd years that they've been around. In that time, they've gone from rudimentary Flintstone-esque devices that were only moderately effective at slowing a bike down to engineering wonders that use carbon fibre, lightweight alloys, and a variety of different designs. Some are still a little lacking in the stopping department, but most do a pretty good job and they've found a home on every type of ride from the bargain hardtail to top-of-the-line freeride and DH bikes.

Until recently, most disc brakes could have been classified as journeymen brakes - intended to be used in every application. You'd find the same brake on an XC bike as a Shore bike, the only difference being the rotor size. That's changing, though, as companies are catering to riders' increasingly discerning tastes. XC riders want lightweight, all-mountain riders want durable, and freeriders and DHers want powerful and durable, and that has resulted in a variety of different types of disc brakes. One brake that's specifically designed for the rigours of freeriding and downhilling is the new Avid Code.

Spec sheet
The Avid Codes are a four-piston hydraulic disc brake that use DOT (brake) fluid to drive the 15mm pistons into the two brake pads, and the pads into the rotor. Pretty simple concept, really, but what's impressive is the way that task is executed.

The four-piston Code, with centre-mount hose and two-piece caliper that's held together with four bolts.

Unlike many other disc brakes out there these days, the Code's brake line mounts in the centre of the two-piece caliper rather than one of the sides or top. This is supposed to increase power and make the hose safer in the event of a crash. According to Avid, the Codes have 10 to 12% more power than the Juicy 7 due to the centre mount, placing them between the 7s and the Magura Gustav in terms of stopping power.

The split-clamp Code levers move on three sealed bearings for better modulation and lighter lever feel, which in turn will result in less hand fatigue. Pad contact adjustment has moved from the top of the master cylinder where it is on the Juicys to the front of the cylinder, to keep it from breaking off in a crash.

The pad contact adjust knob is tucked out of harm's way, and the fluid reservoir sits close to the bar for a clean look.

That nod to durability can also be found in the internal cam for the lever, which breaks away when you stack and comes back into position rather than snapping off. A 2.5mm reach adjust screw is located at the end of the lever blade. It can be adjusted with the rebound adjust knob on newer RockShox forks, but only after you get it moving the first time with some sort of multi-tool.

Riders have two choices when they buy Codes: the 185mm or 203mm rotor version. Each kit ships complete, assembled and pre-bled with Clean Sweep rotors and the appropriate size adaptor (both International Standard and post for the front). The brakeset comes with organic pads, but sintered pads are available for aftermarket purchase as well. Weight is 561g for a 185mm front brake set-up, and 597g for the 203mm front.

The Codes mount up using Avid's Caliper Positioning System, a series of concave and convex washers that allow the caliper to orient itself to the rotor, rather than the disc mount. This should result in drag-free performance even if the mount is out of alignment for some reason.

Direct mount set-up on a Totem (using some other company's rotor)
Stopping the insanity!
I've ridden Avids before on test bikes in the past, but for most of my riding career, I've been a Shimano fan. I always enjoyed the modulation of the Shimanos, and the fact that I could set them up for one-finger braking. The last Shimanos I was riding were Saints with 203mm rotors, and I was pretty happy with the performance. There were two problems with the Shimanos, though. The front and rear levers invariably felt different, and the SRAM shifters don't exactly fit cleanly under the Shimano lever. In fact, the carbon covers on both X.O shifters have gotten a bit beat up after a few crashes. I lived with both things, though.

The latter issue was resolved when I was setting up the Codes and my X.O shifters, thanks to Avid's new MatchMaker. It combines the rear clamp for the brakes and the mounting clamp for the shifter in one, cleaning up the bar and giving you several different set-up options. The brake levers can be set up either inboard or outboard of the shifter, and the shifter can be moved in or out from the lever once you're happy with that position. You can also change the angle of the shifter, tucking it right up under the brake lever or pointing it at the ground. I run my shifters right under the lever, and tried both mounting positions before settling on the inboard of the two.

The Code / MatchMaker / X.O combination, in one of the many different configurations that are possible.

The 203mm Codes and I made our first appearance together on the Shore last November, just before the skies opened up and the trails shut down. The first thing I noticed was the lever adjustability. I like to set my levers close to the bar to minimize hand fatigue on the long rides. I'm also a big guy - about 250lbs. with gear, plus the bike - and usually have to work the brakes pretty hard to come to a stop. Setting the levers too far from the bars leads a one-fingered claw after a long day of riding. I was able to find a comfortable place for the reach, which would normally be the end of the story with my Shimanos, but then I went to work on the pad contact adjustment.

This was something new to me. I was used to running two levers that felt different. Brake fluid had to travel further to get to the rear brake, it's normal, blah blah blah. Not any more. Adjust the rear to where it's comfortable and then dial in the front so it feels the same. Not exactly revolutionary if you've been running Avids for a while, but a decidedly different sensation if you're used to something else. And a welcome one at that.

Being able to adjust the front and rear brake so they feel the same is a highly underrated feature. It allows you to focus on the ride, rather than thinking that you've got to start braking a fraction of a second earlier with the rear brake because it takes just that little bit longer to engage the pistons.

A bird's eye view showing one of the three cartridge bearings on which the lever pivots,
and the bleed screw above the letter 'c'.

Over the next few months, I took these brakes up and down all three mountains on the Shore. I rode with the organic pads a few times, but swapped them out for the sintered pads to increase braking power in the wet weather. Power wasn't bad with the organics, but the near-Biblical riding conditions we've seen this winter really demand a lot of brakes on the Shore - especially for big riders.

Once the sintered pads bedded in, the power was truly impressive. I've been able to lock up both the front and rear wheels with very little effort. More than that, though, modulation is quite apparent. There is a whole range of braking power available, from the faintest whisper to a full-blown hurricane. Tired hands and the one-fingered claw have become a thing of the past, as I'm able to slow or stop the bike without having to reef on the levers any more. It is definitely on par with what I've come to expect from Shimanos, and perhaps even a bit better.

That range of power, plus the increased braking power that is possible when you really have to get on the stoppers, translates into more control on the trail. I'm now able to stop, balance, sight my line, and let go of the brakes. Combined with a stiff fork - I'm on a RockShox Totem right now - and the Codes can add a noticeable degree of precision to your riding.

This is one of the lines where you appreciate the control possible thanks to the Codes. || Photo: Kim Beck

There has been the odd dry day on the trails in the last few months, and the Codes are superb in those conditions. They run quietly (assuming your rotors aren't bent), stop ridiculously quickly, and allow an even lighter touch on the brakes. Even experienced riders will definitely have to take caution to ride, not slide, in dry conditions with these brakes. It's that easy to lock up the rear wheel.

Fit is an important part of the function equation, and the Codes pass that test with flying colours as well. The lever blades on the Codes are comfortable, and have a solid feel. The hook at the end was comfortable and easy to grip without being overly pointed or having a sharp bend at the transition. One-fingered braking was as comfortable as with Shimano levers, but had a more solid feeling thanks to a more stout, stiffer lever. If you decide you don't like the stock levers or want to upgrade for the bling factor, aftermarket component maker Straitline Components has replacement levers for the Codes in the works.

One of the most impressive things about the Codes is the durability. The slop that you find in many brake levers, even some that have just come out of the box, is non-existent even after several months of hard riding. There's none. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada. These levers are as firm as the day they were mounted, and that's saying a fair bit considering the way I ride.

A look at the guts of the Code || Photo: © SRAM

I was half-expecting the Power Adjust knob to get very gritty in the crappy conditions that characterize winter Shore riding - this was a major issue with Hayes El Caminos - but I was pleasantly surprised at how smooth the knobs have stayed on the Codes. After repeated drenchings on the trail, fountains of Shore grit, and a number of baths under the neighbour's garden hose, it's still easy to feel the detents and the knobs roll smoothly.

My true test of a quality component is the ability to forget about it because it does its job so well. You aren't constantly fiddling, adjusting this or that, trying to find the perfect position, compensating for wear, dealing with issues after a crash. After four months of hard riding on the Codes in some truly terrible conditions, I don't give them a second though. They've held up beautifully and I have complete confidence that they're ready for a long summer of abuse at the bike park.

Are the Codes perfect?
No, they're not perfect, but I have to nit-pick to find problems. The biggest one would have to be the noise factor - both the organic and sintered pads were noisy when they were wet. Brakes will be noisy in the wet weather, that's to be expected. Some are just noisier than others, and I would have liked it if the Codes were a bit less noisy.

I also managed to bend one of the Clean Sweep rotors in two different directions. That was a new one for me. I've bent many a rotor in one way, but this one bent in on the rotor spoke and out on the braking surface. It went in the garbage.

Some people may complain that the Codes are heavy, but they only weighed 80g more than the Saints that they replaced; there will be a greater difference with other brakesets. But do those brakes offer the same stopping power? Likely not. Whether you're willing to add a bit of weight for considerably more stopping power will be up to individual riders. Personally, I can live with the extra grams.

And at the end of the day...
Other than those few minor issues, I didn't have any problems at all with the Codes. They were remarkably consistent, predictable, and reliable. Stopping distance has gotten markedly shorter over time and power has increased as the rotors have fully bedded in, and as I've really come to trust the Codes.

Once the pads and rotors were bedded in, these brakes undoubtedly had the most power I've ever felt in a hydraulic disc brake. They haul my bike and I to a dead stop more quickly than any other brake that I've used. I have to be careful not to reef on them too hard when I'm only riding with one hand or I'll send myself over the bar. Power in wet conditions is excellent - the ability to stop in the wet is always going to be somewhat dependant on the terrain - and downright scary when it's dry. Clydesdales should definitely put the Codes on their wish list if they're not getting the stopping power they want from their current discs.

Wet, wet, wet. The entrance to this log is challenging if you don't check your speed. || Photo: Kim Beck

The Codes aren't just for the big-boned set, though. Freeriders, DHers, and anyone who wants the combination of modulation and raw power from their stoppers should have a close look at the Codes. Some riders may actually find themselves able to go from a 203mm rotor to a 185mm rotor due to the increased stopping power over what they're currently running. And wouldn't that be a nice thing.

From the time the Codes were installed on my bike, they've performed as you would expect from a top-level freeride / DH brake. They're mechanically flawless, they have held up very well to adverse conditions, they stop smoothly and predictably, there is no lever slop, they are amazingly comfortable, and they are able to transfer a huge amount of power to the rotor with less effort than most other brakes available today. That adds up to superior performance, increased control on the bike, and hopefully a better ride.

MSRP for the Codes is US$230 / CDN$325 per wheel for the 185mm size and US$235 / CDN$332.50 per wheel for the 203mm size. The brakes come as a complete set, pre-bled with rotors and the appropriate size adaptor (both International Standard and post for the front).

A new rotor will cost you either US$45 / 50 or CDN$55 / 60 and you'll spend $10-15 per new adaptor. Replacement pads are about US$25 / CDN$28.50 per pair for both the organic and sintered, while the bleed kit will set you back around US$35 / CDN$37.50.

- Stuart Kernaghan

Anything to say about this?  Preach it brothers and sisters!

Pros: Cons:

- Amazing stopping power
- Excellent modulation
- Pad contact knob
- Range adjustments to customize fit when combined with MatchMakers
- Stiff levers
- No slop in levers after months of riding
- Did I mention amazing stopping power?

- Not the cheapest brakes
- Not the lightest brakes
- They put other brakes to shame?