Back in Premier Edition issue 116, Team Singletrack caught up with German precision engineering company Trickstuff, in its hidden factory deep in a German housing estate.
Photography: James Vincent
We’re not the first to follow the ‘Trickstuff’ signs off the main thoroughfare into the residential side street – others before us have followed them in search of top hats, magic wands, and loaded decks of cards. While those expecting a magic shop may have been disappointed, we will not be – what is contained within this building is every bit as fascinating as any magic show. Surrounded by affluent-looking homes with sunloungers on terraces, it might seem like a funny location for the HQ of a bike company, but Klaus, the owner of Trickstuff, says he likes the natural security of being in a residential area. Stepping inside and meeting the team, we also suspect that the pace of life here in the side streets is a far better match than some industrial zone on the edge of town. As we’ll discover, Trickstuff brings together German engineering and precision, but with an approach to life and happiness that might be considered much more Mediterranean.
Trickstuff began life in 2003, founded by an engineer from Tune, who wanted to do something with bikes, but didn’t know what. A chance meeting at Eurobike with a brake pad engineer – who designed brakes for cars, trains and planes, but liked bikes – led to the establishment of a company in Munich producing Cleg brakes. For anyone Scottish, you may not be surprised to see that the logo of this company was a big fly. Why you’d want to name your company after a horrible biting fly that leaves a swollen weeping sore behind, neither Klaus nor us are too sure… maybe because it’s good for your brakes to have bite?
In 2007, Cleg brakes was taken over by Trickstuff, but in 2008 the whole Trickstuff company nearly closed. At this point Klaus stepped in. An industrial engineer by training and a keen cyclist, he had been working on advertising for Tune as a side project to his main job of advertising for big pharmaceutical companies. When the opportunity arose to turn cycling from a hobby into a job, he took it. This was a new life for Klaus – one that swapped suits for jeans – and as he talks about the company, he speaks with the enthusiasm and balance of one who appreciates what he has and understands what he values in life.
Taking over the company, he decided that he would restart everything from the supply chain up, with the aim of producing the most reliable product possible. Pistons, seals, pads and rotors were all improved, and the revised Cleg brakes were sold until 2015. However, an internet forum encounter led Klaus to Cornelius, a designer and engineer who shared his ideas about fundamentally changing the design of brakes to improve their function, and in 2011 they set about the development of what would become Piccola and Direttissima brakes.
During this five-year development period, Klaus and Cornelius recognised that to increase braking performance they had to create entirely new brake levers. First though, they re-engineered the Cleg calipers with new fluid paths to simplify the bleeding process, and implemented new stainless steel pistons to replace the previous coated pistons Trickstuff had been sourcing from Magura. The new stainless steel pistons were not only smoother and more durable compared to alloy pistons, they were also better at insulating the brake fluid from heat generated by the pads and rotors.
Turning towards the opposite end of the hydraulic lines, it was determined that to increase power and modulation, the lever architecture needed to be completely redesigned, and both the lever pivot location and the master cylinder orientation had to be altered.
For the Direttissima brake lever, you’ll see that the master cylinder is oriented to be parallel with the bars, which is similar to what you’d find with a set of Shimano or SRAM brakes. In comparison, the Piccola still technically uses a radial master cylinder to maintain its compact shape and low weight, but the leverage ratio has been changed by bringing the lever pivot in much closer to the bars and by angling the master cylinder outwards. Small changes, and perhaps only aesthetic differences to the untrained eye, but, for Klaus and Cornelius, these changes would prove to result in drastic changes in both feel and power.
Goodbye Mr Cornelius.
Cornelius has recently gone freelance in order to pursue his ‘Intend’ fork design – an upside-down suspension affair that we’d seen just a week or so before at a French enduro race, and were very surprised to see again in the offices of Trickstuff on one of the bikes racked up just inside the door. Alongside this flash-looking bike kitted out with the Intend fork and complete Trickstuff build kit were other staff bikes, plus a Cotic belonging to a customer. It’s a mixed bag of old and new, road and mountain bike.
Klaus explains that Freiburg is a cycling hotspot, and the location is ideal for cycling enthusiasts, with its many roads and trails providing a testing ground not just for Trickstuff, but for a number of other brands too. The only downside is that Freiburg is such a popular place to live that it is also expensive – not such a good factor, particularly in the lean margins of the bicycle industry. Klaus is also keen to keep all the machining local too. As the German car industry has boomed, this has caused him some difficulties; companies are not keen to produce CNC’d items in the relatively small quantities that he requires – and Klaus is unhappy with the quality produced by many who will supply him. While he would like to have the ability to create prototypes on site, he doesn’t see them moving to produce items in-house. He is, however, determined to keep machining local, partly because it makes communication easy, and partly because he values the ‘Made in Germany’ label, and he has now sourced a new supplier who is able to deliver to the tight tolerances Trickstuff requires.
Calipers are machined in batches of 200–400 at a time and, like the brake levers, they’re CNC machined from high-quality 7075 alloy. This is costly for Trickstuff, as not only is 7075 more expensive as a raw material, compared to other common alloys, it also takes longer to machine.
Lightest brake in the world?
Designed as a superlight cross-country brake, the Piccola uses the Cleg C2 caliper with a pair of 22mm diameter pistons clamping down on the rotor. Combined with its compact lever assembly, it’s a striking piece of engineering. “The Piccola brake is the lightest in the world, at 159g,” Klaus proudly states. He knows we’re sceptical, so he takes us out to the back of the workshop to place a front brake (with a 70cm long hose to be exact), on a set of precision digital scales. Sure enough, it weighs 159 grams. Compare that to Shimano XTR Race (198g), Magura MT8 (203g) and SRAM Level Ultimate (217g), and you start to get a feel for why Trickstuff believes it has something unique on its hands. Despite its low weight though, the Piccola has still been designed to provide proper braking power. According to data published by Bike Magazine, the Piccola concedes a 6% reduction in power compared to the Direttissima, but is 38% more powerful than the Magura MT8 – one of the benchmark brakes for cross-country racing.
If you want power though, it’s the gravity-focused Direttissima brake that deserves your attention. Using the bigger four-piston C41 caliper with a combination of 14mm and 17m diameter stainless steel pistons, the Direttissima is quoted by Trickstuff as being the most powerful brake in the world. And having recently tested a set in our disc brake group test, we have no reasons to doubt those claims.
Like the Piccola brake levers, the Direttissima also features a chunky CNC machined lever blade, with a smooth profile and polished surface that Klaus and the team agonised over during the development process. Dimpling or texturing of the lever blade was eschewed in order to let your finger slide naturally over the lever as it runs through its travel. The levers roll on no fewer than four cartridge bearings per side – two to hold the blade to the lever body, and two more to connect the lever to the master cylinder. This is 100% engineering overkill, but the result of this obscene attention to detail is the smoothest feeling brake that you will ever lay a finger on – silky would be an understatement. During your first lever squeeze, you’ll also notice just how little deadstroke there is. This is achieved via precision components inside the lever, which mean there is just 1.2mm of free throw at the lever tip before you’ll start to feel the brakes engage. Because of this, Trickstuff deliberately doesn’t offer pad contact adjustment on either the Piccola or the Direttissima brake levers, as this would ultimately require more complexity and more sealing, with the risk of a softer feel at the lever. Another interesting point to note is the lightweight band clamps used to attach the levers to the bars. Aside from keeping the weight low, these are engineered failure points that are designed to break away in the event of a crash, therefore saving the lever body and blade. Regardless, every single component of the brakes is replaceable and rebuildable.
You can put it on your salad.
The Piccola brake is designed specifically to run Bionol, a non-toxic and biodegradable fluid made from sunflower seeds and it features a hefty 2.2ml oil volume inside the master cylinder – compare that with the 1.9ml volume inside a Shimano brake. And the advantage is simple – more oil volume, more heat dissipation. In comparison, the Direttissima can run Bionol, mineral oil or DOT 5.1 fluid, which makes it attractive for riders who like to travel. It gets an even bigger 3ml reservoir of oil, which is the largest of any brake on the market, and that means you’ll need a pretty enormous amount of brake force to cause heat issues with the fluid.
While the Piccola housing is always black, both these and the Direttissima offer customisable colours for various parts of the brakes. With each brake built to order right here in the HQ, if you really want to, you could have the two halves of your calipers in different colours, and a range of different colours again in your levers. If you really want to. Klaus seems amused by our interest in the colours – for him, it’s all about reliability and performance.
Being built to order to tight tolerances and manufactured and assembled in Germany, it’s all with the aim of creating the most reliable product on the market, but it does come at a cost… by any definition they’re not cheap to build or buy. However, the slim profits on the brakes themselves aren’t how the company pays the wages. The brake pads are the key to this. Trickstuff has the sole rights to the compound that is used on its brake pads – and which are made to fit a whole range of other manufacturers’ brakes, not just its own. Selling 50,000 brake pads a year, it has quietly acquired a reputation for very good pads. So good that it’s said that word has spread among the mechanics on the pro circuit, and Trickstuff brake pads are finding their way into teams not currently sponsored by the brand. Perhaps next year we’ll see more official sponsorship, besides the existing Polygon Team arrangement?
As well as the brake pads, Trickstuff produces ‘Dächle’ rotors. Dächle translates as ‘small roofs’, and refers to the chamfered edge on the rotor which allows it to be guided into the space between the pads, rather than hitting them straight on when replacing a wheel – the kind of time-saving detail demanded by racers. Again, these rotors are available to fit many different brake brands.
Attending to details.
This kind of attention to little details has led to a range of other bits and pieces that the Trickstuff staff felt they could do better than elsewhere in the market. There’s a ‘Triple B’ tool that works as a rotor truing tool, piston pusher, and bottle opener (in German, these three things all begin with B). Or there’s the ‘Bremskolben-Holzwerkzeug’ or ‘Wooden Piston Push Back Tool’, specifically for dealing with ceramic brake pistons. Then, the ‘not really beautiful, but really useful’ steel bleed blocks used to check the bite point after bleeding your brakes – compatible with any two- or four-piston brakes. There’s even a tool, invented by Cornelius, for pressing in – or out – damper bushings or spacers in a rear shock. Perhaps more obviously for a brake company, it also sells bleed kits – again, because they were sure they could do them better than others in the market were offering.
It’s the little details like the fact that the syringes don’t have rubber elements on them as this degrades more rapidly, and they have a specially made brass adapter that goes between the bleed port and the tube that joins to the syringe. The brass adapter has lots of teeth to make sure it grips the tube tightly, and has a long, slim shaft so it can get into deeper holes. If you’ve ever had a tube pop out while you’ve been trying to bleed a brake, you’ll appreciate these little touches. The kit comes with M4 and M6 sized adapters, so you can bleed any brakes. It also comes with a little plug and needle pairing so that you can get the bleed just right, especially on inner routed brake hoses where you have to disconnect the brake to fit it – a frustration for Trickstuff, when it aims to deliver perfectly bled brakes to customers and then the first thing that happens is the customer takes them apart to fit them.
Jeans and tees.
For all the obsession over detail, the HQ doesn’t feel tense or stuffy. It’s tidy, but not clinical. There are no starched shirts, just T-shirts and trainers and a few office dogs. Staff come and go at a leisurely pace – it’s not completely clear if they’re working or just dropping in to chat with their friends. The brake testing machine – built as a project for a Masters thesis by a student – is a literally shining example of high-tech engineering, but while its computer screen offers detailed data on braking performance, there’s a definite childlike delight displayed by its operators in simply making brake discs glow, or filling the air with the smell of burning pads. There is the distinct feeling that staff are exceptionally clever and free to explore their ideas and pursue side projects, because what comes out of these experiments may just prove useful – or better.
Looking like it might be an experiment in home brewing, an example of this ‘what if’ tinkering is on display in the workshop – it’s a brake bleeding station. The idea is that it will allow them to bleed more than one set of brakes at a time, and won’t waste any fluid while doing so. Cunning. It’s all mounted on a pallet for now – we suspect that unless someone finds a reason why something else would be better, this old pallet is likely to stay. Similarly, the staff bikes might have some nice Trickstuff bling about them, but it’s attached to some fairly old models of bikes. If it works, don’t fix it – unless you’re making it better.
Klaus bought Trickstuff with the aim of making his life better and of finding joy in his work. From where we’re sitting, chatting over pizza and wishing we had time to extend our visit into a ride and a beer, (though maybe not a pub quiz, as we’re sure their superbrains would thrash us), we think he’s doing pretty well. We wave goodbye to this happy handful of staff, and head on our way. There’s been no rabbit in a hat, but plenty of surprises and a definite sprinkling of magic.