If any cantilever brake could bring me back, it was gonna be this one

Paul Touring Cantilever brake. Photo: Eric Gneckow/ element.ly

Ah, I remember it like it was yesterday – the screeching yowl of my seemingly powerless cantilever brakes, my hands gripping the levers with such force that I was sure I would snap a cable or a finger as my loaded touring bike crept slowly, helplessly, down that steep hill and into racing Seattle traffic. This was Day 1 of my Pacific Coast bike tour, and I faced the dreaded question many in mortal danger have asked themselves: did I just eat my last Chipotle burrito?

Thankfully the answer to that question was “no.” Yet this harrowing experience vaulted me into a crowded cadre of cyclists who have experimented with any and all ideas possible in the space/time continuum to boost the performance of a cantilever brake system. Since I am lazy and unintelligent, I was also quite willing to abandon my experiments as soon as road-compatible V-brakes became readily available at the local shop.

I had sworn off cantilevers for good. Which is why I was stoked to review the Paul Component Engineering Touring Cantilever. If any cantilever brake could bring me back, it was gonna be this one. So did it?

Starting with the basics, Paul says each touring canti weighs in at 99 grams. The brakes ship with salmon-compound Kool Stop Thinline pads, as well as a straddle wire (with a nifty “Paul” stamp), a basic cable carrier, a cable end to finish things off and a coveted “Paul” sticker for your 1995 Toyota 4Runner. Or your 2013 Prius, whatever floats your boat. Brakes are sold as singles, and listed at $123 retail.

When you pull these things out of the bag, you will see, right off the bat, that you are holding something kickass. These are CNC-machined beauties. Each edge is crisp and consistent. The bracing behind the arms to resist flex looks great.  The coiled springs are like earrings for a back hoe. These things are svelte, yet beefy. Business, yet fun. Curvy, yet angular. Like a 1995 4Runner.

Somewhere. Sometime. Photo: Eric Gneckow/ element.ly

So then you do the install, and you get stoked! The pivot on this brake, and others in the Paul lineup, is an awesome and easy-to-service design. Each arm is sealed with a couple of O-rings (think mud and wet) and comes pre-greased. The mechanism rotates on its own sleeve, limiting friction. You set the spring tension to the desired feel with a 15-millimeter wrench, bolt on those Kool-Stops and hit the road for a very exciting session of slowing down!

After riding road-compatible V-brakes for around five years, I realized they came at the price of modulation. Because it takes more cable pull to actuate a high-leverage V-brake, you end up pulling your road lever nearly to the bar aaaaaaaaand WHAM! Braking engage! If you ride in a tight paceline with such a brake, you better pay attention when you try to feather that thing.

This lovely brakeset from Paul turns that modulation knob way, way up. The brake pads move more per displacement of the brake lever, meaning that you get more control when the pads start to bite the brake surface. You can drag the rear brake to bleed a little speed without risk of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. And you don’t need to run the pads as close to the rim, so if you are a horrible person like me, you can get away with a little more “creativity” in the shape of your rim (or mud clearance). Very important disclaimer here: you MUST toe in the pads, particularly on the front! The banshee screamers will find you if you neglect to do this, and you will fail to realize the best performance of this brake. No excuses!

Now, do you sacrifice some power compared to a V-brake? Yes, you simply do. Yet rest assured, this is the bee’s knees cantilever brake that you stare at on your buddy’s custom steel cross bike for a reason. This is THE ONE. I can’t speak for Paul’s Neo-Retro Cantilever, which is a wide-stance stopper that the company claims will bend your chainstays. But I can speak for the touring canti, and this brake will serve you well.

I can’t believe it, but like the sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives. I’m totally sold. The Paul Touring Cantilever is a high-performance brake with excellent modulation. This brake has plenty of stopping power for road and cross. The machining is cosmic, and the design itself is burly and beautiful. When you consider the included pads and other items, and many years of expected service, it’s actually a pretty good value.

I suspect that these brakes would have inspired much more confidence on that fateful day in Seattle, especially compared to the pig iron, gumball-machine cantilevers I was running on that day. It’s hard to say, since I was carrying, like, the weight of at least four boxes of wine on top of my gear, so…that’s a big ask of a rim brake under any circumstances.

Paul Touring Cantilever brake, rolling deep in Portland. Photo: Eric Gneckow/ element.ly