I’m not great at going downhill. At any speed, and on any form of transportation. In my youth I was decent, but after some pretty serious broken bones/crashes and too many close calls to count (thank God for guard rails, knee pads and snow powder), I’ve developed a more cautious—okay flat-out wimpy—attitude toward most of my former downhill pursuits.

I don’t think I’m alone here. And without drawing criticism for pulling out the female card on this, I think my gender might have a bit to do with it. Growing up I didn’t spend a remarkable amount of time flying down hills on my bike and eating pavement, tinkering with the gears on my Huffy, or even learning very much about bike maintenance at all. Now I’m sure some of you ladies out there were proficient in tire slime, brake bleeding and bike builds by the time you were 10, and that’s great, but I don’t think you were in the majority. Bike maintenance skills and descending skills are two separate things, but in a way I believe they do go hand in hand. At 16 I went to my first bike maintenance class, and not only was I the only girl, but the (male) instructor ended up changing the tire for me and just showing me how to do it instead of making me do it myself like everyone else. Now, I could have spoken up, but I think at 16 I was worried I would hold everyone else up if they had to wait for me to figure it out. I think situations like that are common for women and girls learning to ride and take care of a bike, and so they are too often left out on their own to learn some of the trickier skills, ones that not only make you a stronger, more confident rider but also make you a safer rider as well.

These are also skills that, when overlooked, can take the fun out of the sport entirely. A couple years ago, I did my first Mt. Palomar ride, and let’s just say my journey downhill wasn’t the exhilarating experience I was hoping for. It ended with me face down in some gravel about halfway down, crying like a newborn and swearing I would never get on a bike again. Nothing was broken (except my spirit), but it did a number on my riding confidence that, if I’m being honest, I still haven’t totally recovered from. I started avoiding large descents—exactly what I should have been doing more of to make me a better rider. This spring, I attempted Mt. Palomar again on a whim, and got so freaked out at the thought of crashing again that I pulled over, shaking uncontrollably, and hitched a ride down the rest of the mountain. Fear conquered? Not exactly.

When I found out that I would be testing Shimano’s new R785 hydraulic disc brakes and Ultegra Di2 shifting system in Maui, I immediately saw the writing on the wall. Mt. Haleakala, Maui’s largest volcano, is a famous 10,000-foot climb (the longest paved climb in the world in fact), and going down it on a bike has become quite popular. Putting two and two together it seemed pretty obvious that I was about to hurl myself down another long descent, this time with a group of advanced road riders. Uh-oh.

The weirdest part is that I had actually already done it. When I was 14 my family and I were one of the thousands of tourists who rode down it on janky mountain bikes as part of a day tour. But that was back in my younger days, when perhaps my own sense of mortality hadn’t been hammered into my skull. The entire flight to Maui my thoughts varied from images of me crashing, to even worse images of the other riders (all men, of course) simply pointing and laughing at me as I screeched my way down the hill like my mother had so many years ago. Holy crap, I’ve turned into my mother!

Driving up the volcano with the other riders, I was uncharacteristically silent. My supped-up Specialized Roubaix had handled a long ride the day before like a champ, but none of the descents we’d done were anything like Haleakala, and other than some pretty awesome hairpin turns on rolling terrain, I hadn’t really had a chance to test out the disc brakes.

Don’t let that smile fool you. I’m freaking out! Photo by Shimano/Eric Wynn

Up at the top of Haleakala, it’s like you’ve landed on another planet. The air is thin and you’re often above the clouds, so the roads are event a bit wet. It’s much, much colder, and on that day it also happened to be incredibly windy. Thank you Mother Nature.

I snapped into my pedals and waited for the rest of the guys to shove off ahead of me. Then I took a breath, and pushed off. Heading around the first turn I recited everything they had reminded me before we took off: Inside leg up, outside leg down, weight in outside foot, etc. Yes I knew all of this already, but when you’re freaking out sometimes it’s just nice to go back to the basics and stay in the moment.

Getting the hang of it. Photo by Andy Van Bergen

Right off the bat, I was amazed at how easy I could control my speed in and out of the turns with the disc brakes. The magic behind the disc system starts with their ICE technologies. The SM-RT99 Ice Tech FREEZA rotor (basically the “disc” in the disc brake configuration), is very similar to the rotor discs seen on their mountain bike line, offering the same braking precision normally reserved for off-road. The “fin-like” design attaches to the center hub, helps dissipate heat under even the most extreme conditions.

In a typical rim brake, if you drag the pads along the rim for too long (which many nervous riders do in a steep descent), the amount of heat can lead to loss of braking power due to heat’s destruction of the pad and rim itself. This leads to that scary “jerky” motion while braking, which is basically a degraded and uneven pad grabbing the rim. Over time, that can lead to complete brake failure.

The R785 brake caliper is made of a three-layer, stainless steel and aluminum composite material designed for heat dissipation and modular control in any type of condition. What this really means is that you can brake confidently into a turn in any type of weather. The brake prototypes were tested in both wet, rainy off-road conditions in Japan and dry, and on technically demanding descents in Italy with riders of all abilities. What the data showed is that these brakes can handle a pro tour rider’s front-wheel only, late-braking into steep mountain turns as easily as someone white knuckling it down Mt. Palomar. While the heat created by these braking techniques spiked at different times (the pro rider’s quick braking spiked the heat while the recreational rider’s constant braking created a slower, more consistent rise in heat), at the end of the ride their braking systems would still be at roughly the same temperature. All told, the R785 braking system has upward of 200 degrees of heat dissipation compared to regular rim braking systems.

Finally, the R785 brake lever, which is only compatible with Shimano’s Di2 shifting system (both their DuraAce and new Ultegra series), allows for several different customization options for both the shifting and braking configurations. With the Di2 E-Tube software, you can create multi-shift speed (how many gears you shift at once by holding down the lever), as well as modularity (how hard you have to pull the lever to begin to brake).

There are a few things to consider with these new Shimano systems. At 1066 grams, the R785 braking system isn’t exactly the lightest or most aerodynamic system around. However, the Ultegra 6870 E-shifting system is 126 grams lighter than their previous Di2 system, and if you get an internal battery then the 6870 is slightly lighter (9 grams) than their newest Ultegra 11-speed mechanical groupset, the 6800.  Because the R785 system is only compatible with the Di2 shifting system, you’re looking at a pretty significant price upgrade (American pricing won’t be available until next month). If you’ve got some dough to spare however, I would consider it a more than worthy investment, especially since the E-Tube software will continue to be updatable with almost any new Di2 innovations that may appear down the line.

Being able to pick up speed while taking in the views was a great feeling. Photo by Andy Van Bergen.

After a few nervous turns going down the highest part of Haleakala, I felt my confidence begin to soar—as well as my speed. While I’m probably a ways away from one of those people who can stay in their drops and lean into a steep, windy descent, just having the control the braking and shifting systems gave me allowed me to focus more on re-learning my descending techniques instead of wasting all my energy holding on for dear life. The skills I learned that day have helped me immensely back on my own rig, and most importantly given me the renewed confidence in my riding to keep working at it.

While hydraulic disc brakes are still not UCI-legal (sorry any racers out there) and the bar-end shifters aren’t in existence (yet), this new road system is a very important step in the right direction for the future of braking systems. There isn’t currently any aerodynamic data on the disc brakes, but the weight alone is a mark against it in the triathlon world. But I spoke with Shimano spokesman Dave Lawrence about the future of disc brakes in the triathlon market, and he indicated that it was a possibility.

The Ultegra Di2 shifters offer shifting customization and a natural lever feel. Photo by Shimano/Eric Wynn

Overall, I see the R785 as a sound investment for many different types of rider. From a recreational rider looking for more control on wet or dry surfaces, to an entry-level triathlete on an aero bike frame who wants to focus on shorter, more technical races where brake modulation can make a huge difference. It’s about customization, control and confidence, which both the Di2 system and the brakes give you in spades.