Debatable: Integrated Brake Lever Clamps are Nonsense

Blister Mountain Bike Review on the Topic of the Week
Shimano I-Spec EV Clamps
Debatable: Integrated Brake Lever Clamps are Nonsense, BLISTER

At the risk of turning the Debatable series into “David complains about aesthetics-driven bike features” or perhaps “David tells the kids to get off his lawn”, this week I’m turning my attention to integrated brake and shifter clamps, and why I don’t like them.

Early efforts at the concept were especially terrible. Many offered no independent adjustment of the brake lever and shifter position at all. Shimano even went one step further and tried to combine the brake lever and shifter with their short-lived Dual Control phase but the less that’s said about that misbegotten experiment, the better. I’m firmly convinced that Shimano attempting to cram that dumpster fire down riders’ throats opened the door for SRAM to get a real foothold in the mountain bike market, by sending people — myself included — running screaming for something, anything else.

Sram’s original Matchmaker clamps allowed for a degree of adjustability between the shifter and brake lever positions, but it wasn’t nearly enough — particularly in terms of the angle between the two. And despite having been mostly replaced by the newer, better Matchmaker X platform, the original Matchmaker system is still floating around out there, including as an option on brakes from other brands, including Magura. And it sucks. Unless you want to run your brake levers pointed basically straight down, there’s no way to get the shifter into a comfortable position where both paddles are readily accessible.

I’ll concede that I can get everything positioned acceptably with both SRAM’s newer Matchmaker X setup as well as Shimano’s latest I-Spec EV system (at least in the higher-end versions of the latter — more on that in a minute). And so while I don’t immediately swap them out for standard clamps the way I do when a test bike shows up with the old Matchmaker system, I’m still firmly opposed to combining the clamps together.

Blister Topic of the Week
Separate clamps look fine and work better

The biggest reason is that it makes swapping parts and/or finding replacements harder. Have a bike with Shimano I-Spec II mounts, but want to try Hayes brakes (the Dominion A4s are still, hands down, my favorite option going currently)? The requisite clamp is an extra $41. For the right side, only. That’s not to take a shot at Hayes — it’s a similar story for most other brands of brake, too. And to make matters worse, Shimano is on their fourth iteration of the I-Spec standard, making cross-compatibility a nightmare. Some companies, including Wolftooth and Problem Solvers, make specialized adapters to mix and match various oddball combinations, but if you break a shifter on a trip, what are the odds that the only shop you can find with a shifter in stock (thanks, Covid) happens to have the right one of those, too? This was never a problem back when everything came with separate clamps, and all for what? Five grams of weight savings and arguably cleaner aesthetics?

SRAM has at least stuck to their Matchmaker X standard for quite a while now and doesn’t do the same nonsense as Shimano, where lower-end groups get less adjustment range. With the current I-Spec EV system, Deore shifter/brake combinations can rotate separately by 10°, SLX and XT get 20°, and only the top-of-the-line XTR gets the full 60° range. But combining the clamps still makes compatibility trickier, reduces the adjustability, and makes the shifter and brake assemblies more complicated and (marginally, I’ll grant) harder to work on. And there’s just no significant upside. Give me separate clamps.

As always, let us know what you think in the comments. Just be nice if you’re going to call me a grumpy old man. I’m only 31.

11 comments on “Debatable: Integrated Brake Lever Clamps are Nonsense”

  1. I’m kind of agree. The after market solution from Wolf Tooth are not great. And for the little advantage of a cleaner cockpit the complications are not worth it…but I love clean cockpit too… A very 2022 mtbiker problem!

  2. I agree with some of the issues you mention, it’s a bit of exaggeration to say it doesn’t make any sense. You are clearly focusing on mixed brand compatibility which clearly none of them are worried about making you life easier. I’m perfectly happy running code + eagle with matchmaker, also remember some of the solutions can work both with a clamp or not, once again sram matchmaker. To me they offer a clean handlebar look, but sometimes it actually offers a better positioning for my shifter, side to side, vs using a stand alone clamp. Now when it comes to mixing different brands, I do agree, while you can easily make a wolftooth remote share the clamp with whatever brake you like, the shifter/axs controller is a different story!

  3. If you break an integrated shifter, there’s nothing stopping you putting on a bar clamp version, if that’s all you can find (bar clamp being the most likely you’ll find, probably). I do agree with changing out brakes from Shimano to SRAM or Hayes but for most people its a non issue, as they keep what their bike came with 99% of the time – I have for the last 6 bikes I’ve owned and I’m often swapping out other parts (cranks, wheels, saddle, posts).

    An integrated dropper lever fixed an issue I had with a dropper, where it was either too close to the grips or too far away, when the clamp-style dropper was on either side of my brake lever. Changing to an integrated dropper lever allowed me to put the lever in just the right position.

  4. David,

    Someone in the industry told me once that bike reviewers and journalists tend to dislike proprietary standards/specs/fitment significantly more than than bike consumers. I can’t say I disagree. Thoughts?

    • I’m sure that I’m swapping parts around more than the average rider, and that makes integrated clamps a bigger headache. But Durt McGurk (see below) absolutely nails why I don’t want integrated clamps to be the default. Unless you specifically care about the integration, they’re just worse. The folks who really want to tidy things up can “upgrade”.

  5. 1000 percent agree. I’ve worked in a bike shop for 13 years, and this has been a constant headache. I understand that some people really like the “cleaner” cockpit. I guess I’d say it doesn’t need to go away, but it shouldn’t be standard. When you order a new bike, it should ship with seperate clamps. This means a customer who wants to switch to a different brand of brake, or replace a broken part can easily do so. Bike shops can stock more volume in a smaller variety of replacement parts. 95% of our customers don’t seem to care how their parts are attached, they just want them to work. A customer who really likes the clean cockpit is usually motivated enough to spend time finding or waiting for just the right parts, and to they can still ride their bike in the meantime.

    In a busy bike town, the number one job of a bike shop is to keep people rolling. If new bikes came standard with seperate clamps for shifters and brakes, that would be easier to do.

  6. The ergonomic advantage of match making systems is the #1 awesome thing about them! With SRAM shifter/SRAM brakes, SRAM/ TRP, and Shimano/SRAM setups I would never be able to mount my brakes and shifters where they feel the best for me. There would always be some sort of overlap of the clamps. Horses for courses, but if you break your Shimano levers you’re still going to have to wait till 2023 to get new ones ;P

  7. + Infinity. It is impossible for me to get an integrated shifter/brake combo to be ergonomically perfect for both. Close? Sure. Perfect? Nope.

    That said, I’ve never cared quite enough to do anything about it……….

  8. The problem is, some lntegrated adapter (for example Hayes peace maker…) don’t allow rotation thus there are more chances you break a part during a crash.

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