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I have experienced a strange failure of my brake.

I was descending a steep smooth road, using only my front brake (my rear brake was broken; it was an unplanned bail from a route). I tried keeping the speed low, so i could jump off the bike at any moment.

After going this way for maybe 2 minutes, I stopped briefly to let some car pass (so released the brake for a few seconds). As I continued to descend, I pressed the brake, and surprisingly, its handle went all the way to the handlebar without doing any braking! So I immediately jumped off.

I didn't believe at first the bad luck I had, but then I pressed again and again on the brake (not while riding now), and gradually it returned to normal; after 1 minute it would give full braking force again.

So I wonder, is this an expected way a brake would fail while overheating? I heard that it would start to stink really bad before it became dangerous to ride, so I didn't worry about overheating.

The model of my brake is Hayes Nine.

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This is why I only run cable actuated brakes. Random, sudden failure of my brakes is not something I ever want to deal with. –  Benzo Jul 27 '13 at 13:58
1  
I've never had any random sudden failures and have been using hydraulics for seven years. My Shimano Deore hydraulics worked flawlessly for six years without requiring anything more than new pads. –  James Morris Jul 28 '13 at 9:58
    
@Benzo: Mechanical brakes are not an option for aggressive trail or downhill riding. All technologies have pros and cons. –  cherouvim Jul 30 '13 at 9:04
    
@Benzo, I've had both brake cables snap on a ride once. Was a total junker of a bike, but both together is pretty bad luck. –  alex May 6 at 6:47
    
Any brake can fail on a long downhill. But what you describe does sound more like a poorly-bled system, or a leak somewhere. (Why did the other brake fail?) –  Daniel R Hicks May 6 at 11:37

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The least you need to do is bleed the brakes to remove trapped air. It's best though if you completelly change the fluids and bleed. You can do that in an LBS, or yourself if you have a bleeding kit and know how to do it.

The reason for the behavior you described is that air is trapped in the system and makes things mushy and unpredictable. The fact that after a couple of lever presses it came back to "normal" is because hydraulic brakes are auto adjusting both on the pads end (when pads are worn) and on the lever end (when air is in the system).

Air bubbles exist in the system either because a proper bleed was not done in the first place or because the fluids absorbed moisture which vapourated and turned into air as soon as you overheated the fluids. Also note that as soon as the fluids absorb moisture (water) then the boiling point falls even more so having this issue is even easier.

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+1 for bleeding, though I've had a case where steam came off the front caliper due to piston, bore, banjo bolt, and bleeder seals needing replacement –  moshbear Jul 28 '13 at 12:49
3  
brake fade isn't just for cars. –  Chris H Jul 29 '13 at 10:26
    
@ChrisH: +1 for the wikipedia article which explains the fluid fade. –  erik Jul 17 '14 at 1:38
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This reply misses the point of fading due to boiling brake fluid and that this is expected behavior for hydraulic disk brakes (which is really what this question is all about). To me it doesn't sound like the OP needs to bleed his brakes as much as change braking patterns and adjust his expectations. –  Kenned May 6 at 8:53

All brakes work by converting kinetic energy into heat through friction.

In disk brakes, the heat builds up in both the rotors and calipers. Under heavy sustained braking, such as down a long steep hill, the calipers can get hot enough to start to boil the brake fluid.

Because gases are easily compressible, boiling brake fluid causes a loss of braking ability. This is called brake fade.

The good news. This will go away as soon as the brakes are allowed to cool down, and only happens on sustained heavy braking. 2 minutes constantly engaged is certainly a very long time to brake.

The bad new. This can only be avoided by using an individual brake less. On long downhills, switching between front and rear will allow each brake to cool in turn, and stop brake fade.

If the brakes do use something like DOT4 brake fluid (usually not for bicycles) the fluid will eventually wear out, and fade badly. This happens when water gets into the fluid, lowering the boiling point. Flushing the brakes with new fluid will help if the fluid has degraded.

This is true for all hydraulically activated brakes, on any vehicle anywhere.

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Good answer. Just to add, from the Hayes website some of their disk brakes indeed use DOT4, others mineral oil. As you say, DOT4 can take up water over time which then evaporates and makes the brake "spongy". In that case, replacing the fluid may make it better. But generally it's good to be aware of this issue, use both brakes and stop at regular intervals on a long descent. –  Stephan Matthiesen Jul 19 at 16:32

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