I often get asked “what are the best brakes?” and “what is the best way to set them up?”. These are both simultaneously, simple and hard questions to answer as everyone has different requirement and feels different sensations through their fingers in slightly different ways. Even the simple subject of ‘lever reach’ is a really personal one. There are many factors that add up to good braking; power, modulation, feel, initial bite point, reach, lever ergonomics, fade, weather adaptability, wear and noise.

I am currently using this set up currently on my Nomad:

M9000 XTR Race levers.
M820 Saint calipers.
BH-90 Saint hoses (trimmed).
H03C Finned Metallic Pads.
RT-86 Ice Tech 203mm front rotor.
RT-86 Ice Tech 180mm rear rotor.

I had no problems with bleeding to a firm, crisp and responsive level. I have never had any problems with the servo wave based systems but I like to tinker and thought I would try what the M9000 levers feel like. They feel different and I like them. There is not necessarily a more direct feel but perhaps slightly more sensitivity (in a good way) to being able to feel what the brakes and wheels are doing through the levers that I really like.

Bleed notes:

I use Shimano bleed blocks in removed calipers so that the brake hose hangs as vertical as possible (easier to achieve on the front than the rear).

I generally use the cup bleed tool and a drain bottle method now but have and will use the two syringe method (modified AVID pro bleed syringes that have only ever been used with mineral oil). I think the cup method allows you to really check that the tiny bubbles are released during the final stages of the bleed whereas the syringe method relies on brute force during flushing to pull all the air out and sometimes misses a bubble or two.

Levers are always adjusted to full lever out (longest reach) and horizontal for bleeding (as per Shimano instructions).

I always tap the calipers, brake hose and lever bodies with a screw driver handle during the bleed.

The 35-45º up and down part for the levers at the end is really important (which is why Shimano include it in their instructions), there are regularly small bubbles into the cup during this stage of the bleed.

The squeeze and release of the lever is also important, there is occassionally a small air bubble or two at this stage. I then do the quick opening and closing of the bleed port on the caliper, with a proper bleed I rarely see air bubbles during this stage but Shimano recommend it for a reason.

I then re-install the wheels, return the controls to their normal positions and adjust the reach to my preferred position.

I used to run 180 mm rotors front and rear but have found that the 203 mm just provides more power and feel, with less finger effort and subsequent hand fatigue on really long downhills or when perfect braking is critical, than the 180 mm did. A 180 mm rotor on the rear is more than enough for both my Nomad and V-10.5.

Summary

I have bags of power; ie no fade, 20 minute downhill levels of power. I can lock up either wheel, at will, with very little finger effort. The feel through the carbon levers is great, lots of feed back about how much power and how close to lock up I am. I think that the modulation is great.

Just as a compare these are the other brake systems I either run, have run or ride regularly:
XTR M988 Trail (complete), RT-86 Rotors, F03C pads (Jackal).
Saint M820 (complete), RT-86 Rotors, H03C pads.
XTR M988 Trail levers on Saint M820 calipers (prefered the silver lever bodies) with SH-90 hoses, RT-86 rotors, H03C pads (V-10.5).
XT M8000 complete, RT-86 Rotors, F03C pads.
Guide RSC complete with centreline rotors (actually pretty good but did not ride them long enough to experience any bleed problems).
XT M785 complete, RT-86 rotors, F03C pads.
Codes with G2 Rotors, crazy powerful, not great feel.
Avid Elixer, good power, good feel but needed bleeding all the time.