Radic Kaha Brake Set Review
Aotearoa-built brake delivers intuitive power
Words & images by Justin Henehan, from Spoke Issue 87
The 1990s were an exciting time for mountain bike parts. It was a decade when cottage industry manufacturers were pushing the boundaries of CNC machining with riotous exuberance. It was the era that spawned Kooka’s splatter-annodised cranks and Ringle’s 3DV parts (a colour so vivid you could detach a retina by staring at it too hard). It was an era of peacocking in milled billet.
In those days, you could pick up a magazine and see any number of new companies sporting bizarre, hollowed-out pieces of aluminium built more by feel rather than FEA analyses. It was a special time to be a bike nerd.
These days, when a small player jumps into the market it’s usually with a small but useful widget that makes your bike work slightly better. If successful, those companies go on to expand with other small and simple—but ultimately safe—products…maybe even a pair of pedals.
That’s why Radic Performance is such an exciting prospect: Taylor Grey didn’t follow that small and safe blueprint, he went straight for complicated and high performance; he went straight for the big boys; he started with a mountain bike brake.
Radic Performance made a big first impression with its early caliper prototypes. Those were experiments in additive manufacturing, which Taylor says ended up being a step beyond what was possible with the technology at the time. The complex architecture of a brake caliper was simply too difficult to produce, he says.
Undeterred, he set about producing a CNC-machined caliper. His mission: to offer something designed and assembled in New Zealand that would outperform the major players and rival the best on the market. And so, the Kaha was created.
At $1200 per set, the Radic Kaha sits at a similar price point to SRAM’s top Code RSC brake set ($1120-$1180), and slightly above Shimano’s XTR M9120 brake set ($960-$1000).
For that, you get an exquisitely machined aluminium lever and caliper that moves on sealed stainless bearings, held together with titanium fastenings, and connected by stainless steel, braided hydraulic hoses.
There’s a no-nonsense look to the Kaha. Material has been removed where it makes sense according to detailed FEA analyses. The long lever sits tight to the bar and is braced against the bar at two points to resist clamp-flex. There are no sharp angles or edges to the contact points, and the rounded lever curves to a haptically-pleasing hook at its end.
The brakes are configurable to use either DOT 5.1 or mineral oil, so you can choose your preference. That oil is pushed by a 9mm master cylinder piston with low-friction dynamic PTFE seals to a pair of 17mm and 16mm stainless steel pistons at each caliper.
The Kaha uses the same fittings as SRAM’s Bleeding Edge system, so when you do need to bleed them, you know it’ll be easy and mess-free. The calipers are also fully serviceable and rebuildable, which is a nice touch in this era of disposable everything.
Taylor developed his own brake pad for the Kaha. He says he was able to dial in an organic-based pad material that offers more initial bite and less noise than sintered pads, as well as a shorter bed-in time. The Radic Performance brake pads are based on the Hope Tech 4 brake pad shape, so most bike stores should have replacements that’ll work.
On the Trail
Taylor says he did everything he could to reduce friction within the system. The result is a brake with an incredibly light lever feel —I’m pretty sure there’s more friction in my finger joints. He also designed the Kaha to have very little lever throw, which took a little getting used to, but soon had me questioning my braking technique.
I was able to ride the Kaha for about a month back-to-back against SRAM’s Code RSC and Shimano’s XTR M9120 brakes. What stood out over that period was how much I’d become accustomed to brakes with lots of lever throw and friction.
Some brakes can make you feel like you’re fumbling about in the dark for a light switch only to find a floodlight pointed straight at your face. As a result of years of riding brakes like that, I’d become conditioned to riding with the brake lever on a little, feeling for the pad touching the rotor so I could feather the brake without feeling like I’d jabbed a stick through my spokes.
In contrast, when you grab a handful of the Kaha, there’s no wondering when they’re going to bite or how much. At first, I thought the bite point felt a bit soft, but what I was feeling was modulation, which turns out to be important because of the other impressive thing about these brakes—raw power. The Kaha have plenty of grunt—easily as much as the other brakes I was riding—but it’s power that builds intuitively, with very little effort, and in an almost sensuous way …kind of like the saxophone part in George Michael’s Careless Whisper.
The Kaha brakes never showed signs of overheating or inconsistency as I whistled my way down a range of descents, from Wellington, to Nelson, to Queenstown and Craigieburn. I tried my best to boil and burn them down a dusty Fringed Hill DH in the fierce sun, braking heavily the whole way (in the name of science, of course), but they stayed resolutely fade-free. Kiwi downhill and enduro racer, Daniel Self, has been putting a pair through their paces and Taylor says this reflected his (faster, harder, and much, much more skilful) testing.
The closest brake that I can compare the Kaha to is Hope’s new Tech4 V4 brakes. Both have very light lever action, but the Kaha takes slightly less effort to engage, has a bit more power and builds that power more intuitively. I also prefer the rounder, more hooked Kaha lever shape to the squarer Hope levers.
However, there are a few small things I didn’t like about the Kaha.
There’s no bite-point adjustment, and the small screw that adjusts lever reach is hard to use. It’s also a bit sharp, if, like me, you climb with your hands on the body of the brake lever. The reach-adjustment screw stayed tucked out of the way, though, so it wasn’t a problem in any riding scenario that matters. It would be great to have a reach adjustment knob to make dialing in the brake a bit easier.
The levers have a removable faceplate with two bolts rather than a hinge, which makes installing them a little fiddly, but not much more-so than Shimano’s push-button hinge system or SRAM’s single-bolt clam-clamp. The brake lever as a whole is quite long, so you have to run them a long way inboard. This didn’t bother me but could be irksome for some. The current Kaha levers are also not compatible with matchmakers, which might bother people who pride themselves on a shipshape cockpit. Taylor says he’ll soon have matchmaker faceplates available.
Lastly, the braided stainless steel lines, chosen for their resistance to expansion, are very thick. Some bikes with tight internal routing ports may run into fit issues. Taylor recommends getting in touch with him directly if you’re worried this could be a problem on your bike.
While this seems like a bit of a list, these few points are only small niggles that pale into insignificance next to the how good the Kaha feel on the trail. They really are impressive.
Overall, Radic Performance’s Kaha is an incredible debut into the high-stakes world of mountain bike brakes. It’s an amazing feat, really: Taylor, out of a room in his house in Auckland, has created a beautiful brake that delivers lots of power in way that’s very intuitive to use.
The Kaha is a brake for someone who loves supporting the little guy and who cares about where their parts are made. It’s also a brake for someone who covets the exotic and values quality, performance and feel. To own a set of these brakes is to be part of something very special: a high-quality Aotearoa-built brake that rivals the best in the business.