First Impressions: Full Speed Ahead Afterburner Disc Brakes

Full Speed Ahead (FSA) might not be the first name that pops into your head when you think of hydraulic brakes, but the Washington-based company aims to change that with the introduction of their new Afterburner and K-Force disc brakesets. Knowing how stiff the competition is in the brake market, FSA didn’t just slap their name on an existing brake plucked from a catalog. Both models feature one-piece forged calipers, tool-free reach and pad-contact adjusters, front- and rear-specific hoses, and utilize mineral oil instead of DOT brake fluid.

The Afterburner and K-Force share the same internals, but differ in materials used for the caliper, lever, and hardware.To keep the price down, the $289 MSRP Afterburner is spec’d with forged alloy levers and aluminum calipers (the $369 K-Force gets carbon levers, magnesium calipers, and stainless steel mounting hardware). We tested prototype and production versions of the Afterburner brakeset with FSA’s optional lightweight (160mm) rotors. Weight for one lever, hose, caliper, and rotor was 340g.

Installation of the Afterburner brakes was simple and straightforward. FSA supplied the brakes with hoses pre-trimmed to our specs, so bleeding wasn’t necessary (we’ll save that for a future update). The slender levers paired nicely with microSHIFT and SRAM trigger shifters. Adjusting the angle of the brake hoses via the banjo fittings required only an 8mm socket, and didn’t result in the loss of any brake fluid. Centering the calipers took only minimal effort, and neither rotor required truing. Note that rotors and adapters are not included with Full Speed Ahead’s disc brakes. By offering those items à la carte, riders can select the exact bits-and-pieces needed for their setups.

When you grab the Afterburner levers for the first time, you immediately notice how quickly the brakes react. There is no perceivable lag between pulling the lever and when the pistons begin to move. Thanks to the front- and rear-specific brake lines, both levers feel evenly matched when it comes to stiffness (the longer rear-hose is optimized to help reduce expansion). The levers’ tool-free reach adjusters offer an impressive range of adjustment that should suit riders of all sizes. And once you’ve dialed-in the levers’ reach, you can easily fine-tune the pad contact/engagement via the indexed adjuster (located on the perch, near the main pivot).

On the trail, the Afterburners have a very linear feel. Braking power is good, and it’s easy to modulate the brakes. Unlike some brakes that have a noticeable spike in power–which often translates to an on/off feel–the Afterburners offer superior control and predictability. We found that unwanted wheel lock-ups were all but eliminated, especially in tight, technical terrain. While we haven’t yet tested the brakes on extremely long descents, we can report that there have not been any issues with overheating or pad glazing. As an aside, the stock semi-metallic pads have been blissfully quiet during our review period.

Can the company known for its cockpit components and cranksets compete in the MTB brake market? We’d have to say yes. FSA has succeeded in bringing to market a brake that delivers features and functionality that are easily on a par with the more-established brands’ offerings.

Disclosure: Full Speed Ahead provided review samples for this article, but offered no other form of compensation for this review.

First Impressions: Challenge Gravel Grinder Tires

Challenge’s tubular and open tubular road tires are renowned for their supple ride. The Italian company is no stranger to the off-road set, as their Alamanzo and Strada Biancha tires have proven extremely popular with gravel riders. Challenge recently expanded their gravel offerings with the introduction of the new Gravel Grinder model.

The Gravel Grinder is available in tubular ($118.99 MSRP), open tubular ($83.99 MSRP), and clincher versions. Clinchers are offered with 60TPI ($37.99 MSRP) or 120TPI casings ($47.99 MSRP). The tubular and open tubular models are constructed by hand using non-vulcanized construction, whereas the clinchers are manufactured using conventional vulcanized construction. We recently tested the 700×38 clincher Gravel Grinder with the 120TPI casing.

Challenge GG tire

Our Gravel Grinder samples weighed 382g per-tire, which is less than the advertised weight of 402g. At the 80psi maximum pressure, the tires measured 37.5mm wide (on Whiskey’s No 7 carbon rims). The Gravel Grinders could be easily mounted (and removed) without tire levers on the aforementioned Whisky rims, as well as Mavic’s Ksyrium Elite S wheels. Both sample tires mounted without any hops or wobbles.

The Gravel Grinders’ profile can best be described as neutral. The casing lacks the peaks or squared-off edges found on some competitors’ tires. In use, this translates to a tire that handles very predictably on both paved and unpaved surfaces. For mixed-terrain use, we ran the Gravel Grinders at 55-60psi front, and 65-70psi rear. For dedicated dirt and gravel riding, we found that dropping the pressure 10psi worked well. Even at the lower pressures, tire squirm/flex wasn’t a problem (we ran the tires exclusively with inner tubes).

On pavement, Challenge’s diamond-style center tread was surprisingly smooth and quiet. We didn’t notice any excessive vibration, and the tires’ speed was on par with road tires of similar size and weight. That smooth ride also carried over to dirt and gravel. On hardpack, the low-profile tread was fast and predictable. In softer soil and gravel, the tires tracked well, and offered plenty of traction. Cornering with the Gravel Grinders was especially good. There are no dead-zones between the tires’ center and side knobs, so you can lean the bike over without experiencing one of those “Oh shi…” moments.

Challenge GG side - detail

We can’t speak to long term durability just yet, but the Gravel Grinders have held up very well during our testing. Even with 150-200 miles of paved-road commuting use, tread wear has been minimal. Challenge’s Puncture Protection Strip (PPS) has proved effective at fending off both thorns and broken glass, and the 120TPI casing has withstood Colorado’s rocky trails. If you’re looking for a durable tire that won’t slow you down on gravel or pavement, Challenge’s Gravel Grinder is definitely worth checking out.

Disclosure: Challenge provided review samples for this article, but offered no other form of compensation for this review.

First Impressions: Louis Garneau Course Helmet

Every season, the bicycle industry seems to latch onto a particular trend. Recently, companies both large and small have been touting aerodynamics as the next big thing. Whether it’s bikes, wheels, or even helmets, each manufacturer claims that their wind-slicing product will save you time and energy. With helmets, however, those savings sometimes come at the cost of ventilation and cooling. To bridge aerodynamics and ventilation, Louis Garneau developed the Course ($239.99 MSRP) helmet by using a blend of labwork and real-life conditions.

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The helmet’s profile and ample vents help channel air over the rider’s head.

At first glance, the Course looks like a conventional cycling helmet. Compare Louis Garneau’s Course (with its 31 vents) to the aero offerings from Giro and Specialized, and you’re probably wondering how much aerodynamic benefit could come from such a well-ventilated helmet. According to wind tunnel testing performed by Louis Garneau, the Course can knock up to 2 minutes and 40 seconds off a 40 km time trial. Increase the distance to 180 km, and the savings bumps up to 14 minutes and 10 seconds (compared to a conventional cycling helmet).

While I may lack the facilities needed to qualify Louis Garneau’s data, I can tell you that the Course’s ventilation is excellent. The helmet’s ample airflow, combined with the X-static XT2™ padding kept me comfortable (and funk-free) during unseasonably-warm spring weather. If you have sensitive skin, or your current helmet’s straps just rub you the wrong way, you’ll definitely appreciate the Course’s ultra-soft straps (which are easy to adjust thanks to flip-lock Pro-lock dividers). To keep the helmet planted firmly on your noggin, Louis Garneau’s Spiderlock PRO II stabilizing system can be adjusted on-the-fly with one hand.

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Adjusting the retention system is easy thanks to the large, indexed dial.

There’s more to the Course than just improved aerodynamics and increased ventilation. For increased protection, the helmet’s in-mold construction is reinforced with ring-shaped plastic at the base of the helmet. Additionally, an internal frame reinforces the helmet’s structure so that integrity isn’t compromised by the large vents. On May 4th, I had the unexpected misfortune of testing the Course’s safety features. I was on a trail that I’d ridden hundreds of times. One moment I was riding along, and the next I was spitting out blood and dirt. I’m still unsure of exactly what happened, but I suspect that the bike’s front wheel washed out, I overcompensated, and then went down (head-first). Thankfully, the helmet took the brunt of the impact, which resulted in a large dent in the foam, and piercing of the outer shell.

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Impact damage to the author’s helmet.

The Course complies with CPSC, ASTM, and CEN safety standards, and is available in sizes small, medium, and large. My large sample helmet weighed 324g excluding the Spiderlock Vision LED light. Louis Garneau includes a second set of X-static XT pads with each helmet, as well as two CR2032 batteries for the aforementioned LED light.

Disclosure: Louis Garneau provided review samples for this article, but offered no other form of compensation for this review.