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Disc brakes literally revolutionized the mountain bike wheel. Those are the words of our tech editor, RC, on the development of the hydraulic disc brake. It is hard to overstate how much they changed the way we ride bikes - and anybody who hasn't slid down a muddy downhill course with no bite at all from their brakes will struggle to comprehend just how much better things are today because of disc brakes. There is a second significance to their development though - it was the first major breakthrough for mountain bikes that came from Europe. While you can debate the lines of influence of the birth of our sport, the fact is that modern mountain biking as we recognize it hails from the Marin pioneers in the late 1970s. Much of the template that the bikes we ride now hail from that period, emerging from California or Colorado, with advances that we take for granted today, like fat tires or the suspension fork. The disc brake was the first European breakthrough to permanently alter that template.

It was a small, Italian company who introduced the first hydraulic disc brake to mountain biking back in 1993 - Formula. Tucked away in the back streets of the town of Prato, nestling on the edge of the Tuscan hills, it seems an unlikely home for such an innovation. Like much of early mountain biking, its roots lie in our sport's nearest motorized relation - trials. Company founder, Andrea Beccoci, looked at the brakes on his motorbike and began not only asking why they weren't available for a mountain bike, but working on practical ways to make it a reality. While their product line may have evolved and expanded over the years, one thing has not changed - Formula still handle a lot of their production in-house in Italy.

Formula's headquarters are an unassuming industrial unit, tucked just behind Prato's Chinatown. As the business grew over the years they also took on a second unit some 15 minutes out of town where the heavier machining takes place.

 

A shy man who prefers to stay out of the limelight, Andrea Becocci insists that we should not talk about him because he is the company's past and he wants to look to the future. Like many of the European mountain bike pioneers his roots are in trials, which he has been involved with since the 1970s.

This is how the major parts of their Italian-made brakes arrive at the Formula factory. They don't do the forging themselves in-house, but all their aluminum parts are forged nearby in Italy. For magnesium parts, like their fork lowers and the bodies of their The One brakes, they admit that they have to get that done in the Far East, because it's just too expensive to get it done in Italy as things stand. While the outer form looks recognizable at this stage, forging doesn't produce the intricate shapes within the body that make up the cylinders, threads and fitments.

  

For those intricate shapes, the raw parts head to the CNC machine - what's impressive with the Formula set-up is the sheer size and capacity of the machines; it's bigger than many of the Far East factories use even.

 

Before and after. To give you some idea of the extent of the work done by the CNC machines, on the right is the raw piece and on the left you can see where the threads have been cut in, the cylinders milled out to the precise tolerances and surfaces faced to mount the brake.

 

After machining, the parts are polished en mass.

The final step at this stage of production is that the pieces are all checked and hand-finished.

Production then shifts to the assembly area at the headquarters in Prato.

Development of the first disc brakes hinged on two factors that needed to be addressed to introduce the motorcycle technology to mountain bikes. The first, obvious one, is the mounting - how do you physically attach the brakes to the frame and wheels? Second is maybe less apparent, but equally critical - hoses. What was common on motorbikes was simply too heavy for a mountain bike, so one of Alberto's real breakthroughs was to realise that the hydraulic hoses used in industrial cranes were lighter, but robust enough for the job.

  

With the size and delicacy of the pieces being assembled, the brake lines are all put together by hand.

 

While the main lines are hand-assembled, Formula's proprietary Speed Lock system that allows easy detachment and removal of brake lines is done by machine. We weren't allowed to take photos of the machine from a distance - they are quite secretive about it because they developed it themselves. Although Italian engineering may have a reputation for artistry rather than technical innovation, Formula go a long way to breaking that stereotype. Throughout production they have unique machines, designed by Alberto and his team to tackle the exacting demands of their products.

  

Because the levers and calipers are slightly less fiddly much of the production has been robotised, again a rather un-Italian approach to industrial processes.

Machines are not trusted for the final steps of the lever and caliper assembly though, and it is a person who does the final stages and checks the assembly.

 

Once assembly of the individual elements is complete they are laser marked, not only for the logos, but to add a QR code that records the batches the elements came from and tracks it throughout its life beyond the factory.

 

Final assembly is another hand process, attaching the levers, lines and calipers together.

 

Fully assembled brakes are then taken downstairs for the last step in their production - adding the oil to the system.

 

With the brakes themselves ready, it's just the discs that are needed to complete the system. For their high end brakes Formula use two part discs, so there is some float to help them stay true as the metal expands under the heat of hard braking. The outer part is stamped, while the centre is forged, then machined at their second building.

 

It is slightly less secret than the Speed Lock machine, but the machine for joining the parts of the discs together is another unique creation devised by Formula. It drives rivets into the joins, but not so tight that it takes the float out of the disc.

 

With brake and disc complete, the pair are then either shipped out to customers, or end up here with Otto (below) and Bomba (above) for prepping for Formula's athletes.

      

The face of Formula. While many of their products aren't the cheapest out there, a big part of what you pay for is having people who care about the company and the products they make as much as the people at Formula clearly do.

Enjoyed this article? Check it and other great MTB articles out in its original location at PinkBike.com

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