I'm not a big fan of aero brake levers. Their need to route cables under handlebar tape adds a degree of complication without providing any offsetting benefit. Sure, they typically provide additional leverage but I am able to stop to my satisfaction with non-aero levers.
Those who share this point of view are evidently in the minority, as current production non-aero brake levers are shockingly scarce. The Dia Compe 204 brake levers are one of the very few offerings available so I ponied up $24 USD for a set:
These levers do have an integrated quick release, a feature I ever adore:
However, the quick release was not enough to redeem them from the unmistakable tinny cheapness they exude. I'll find some use for them, just not on the The Phoenix Project. The nicely done hoods are Campagnolo NR pattern, so those alone may be worth the $24 as this pattern fits a wide variety of vintage levers.
At this point, I was pretty much out of luck for new production non-aero levers. I could have abandoned non-aero levers but that would also mean abandoning the Toshi Stitch-on Leather Handlebar Wrap as that product will definitely not stretch over cable housings.
At this point, it is worth some discussion about the goals and guidelines of The Phoenix Project. Regular readers may recall that the thesis of the project is that it is possible to assemble a neo-classic bike using current production parts save the frame.
Actually, the purpose of The Phoenix Project is to test that thesis. One finding so far is that while it is strictly possible in the case of non-aero brake levers, the currently available levers are found to wanting in the area of high-end quality or at least the perception thereof.
So now we know and I moved on to vintage levers. I had in my possession a NOS set of Modolo Speedy levers:
In addition to being high quality, these are really fun levers with the nice countersunk drillium and engraving on the levers and the anatomic, reptile pattern hoods.
Their only flaw is that the Modolo logo is simply printed on the levers with no engraving. In such a prominent location, this will surely scratch off in time and the lack of engraving makes it difficult, if not impossible, to retouch. The prominent location will also ensure that these scratched logos will be highly visible to all.
The logo is a serious deficiency but by itself is not reason to reject these levers. Ultimately though, I decided that the Modolo levers were a bit too much fun and, uh, boisterous? Like the Dia Compe 204, they have their place, but didn't quite match the quiet dignity we are striving for on The Phoenix Project.
I'm glad I was so picky about the Dia Compe and Modolo levers because I finally found the perfect solution, Dura Ace 7400 brake levers:
Being the last non-aero Dura Ace brake levers, the 7400 model has to be in the running as the finest non-aero levers ever produced. Beyond that, like much Dura Ace stuff, they have the quiet dignity we desire, the logo is engraved and filled, and the hoods are Campagnolo NR pattern, ensuring some availability of replacements downstream. The hood pattern is a little bit of a surprise for Shimano levers which usually seem to have different hoods for virtually every different lever model.
Dura Ace is generally great stuff. However, Shimano breeds some well deserved resentment for all their non-compatibility tricks to foil third party vendors.
For instance, I long considered a Dura Ace 7803 triple crankset for this project. These are the last of the the Dura Ace triples and despite the OEM contoured chain rings, look pretty sharp with aftermarket, flat rings.
But the granny has a unique BCD of 92mm and I just couldn't abide that.
These are quite well made, but it is pretty hard to get very excited about brake levers, especially ones without a quick release.
The world has moved so far into the aero mode even many vintage enthusiasts have drunk the kool aid or at least decided that further resistance is futile. So touting non-aero levers for something other than a period correct build is dangerous territory.
But I will stand my ground. Non aero levers are simpler to set up. Once set up, the configuration is easier to alter because the cable slack is more readily available for, say, changing some of the brake hardware or the brakes themselves. Replacing cable housing doesn't necessitate new handlebar wrap and sometimes different levers themselves can be mounted on the existing clamps without having to rewrap bars.
They look better as well, typically having a more petite profile. The handlebars themselves look and feel better without the cables glommed underneath the wrap.
These may seem like minor points, but apart from the additional leverage, which I don't feel I need, I see no advantage to aero levers at all. Some may be bothered by the housing clutter over the bars but that has never troubled me. After all, we don't insist on aero routing for flat bars, do we?
Too vintage, too expensive, too unconventionally non-aero, and too Dura Ace for the Riv-stricken.
The levers themselves are just typical Dura Ace, no Phony Accent there. However, my intransigent, unreconstructed insistence on non-aero levers leaves this aspect of The Phoenix Project open to charges of studied and flamboyant retrogrouchery.
Gadzooks, these things were expensive! I could have just gone with the Dia Compe 204 for a fifth of the price and they would have worked just as well and had a quick release. But no, I had to have that warm, comforting Dura Ace aura.
We bring forward $2788 USD. There isn't much chance of finding a set of NOS Dura Ace BL-7400 levers on a retailer's shelf, so I shelled out an astronomical $129 USD to some guy on ebay.
The Sausage Factory
I want to test my choice and setup of stem, handlebar, and levers before installing the Toshi Stitch-on Leather Handlebar Wrap. You only get one shot with that, as holes must be cut to accommodate the lever clamps. So I installed some Deda tan cork tape I had around. It was a quick and dirty job, kind of messy, but I didn't expose too much of this sloppiness in these pics:
These levers definitely are the right ones: