06.04.2017

DISC BRAKES - THE FUTURE OF CYCLING?

Cycling has always been fertile soil for controversies. And not only for those connected to doping, but also for those that affect other aspects of the disciplines. Like technology and R&D.

In the last year, in particular, much discussion has risen around the use of disc brakes.

The UCI – cycling’s governing body – launched the first test of disc brakes in pro races in the spring of 2016. However, after an accident occurred to Spanish rider Fran Ventoso (Movistar), they immediately stopped the trial for further investigation. Ventoso claimed that the disc rotor was responsible for the wounds he suffered from a crash during Paris-Roubaix in 2016.

Fast forward to 2017: the UCI resumed the tests and the Belgian rider Tom Boonen (Quick- Step Floors) was the very first athlete to win a race on a bike with disc brakes. 

However, a few races on in the season, a second crash put another question mark on the use of disc brakes. The Welshman Owain Doull (Team Sky) reported a nasty cut on his left shoe at the end of stage one of the Abu Dhabi Tour. He claimed the cut was caused by German Marcel Kittel’s disc brake.

So are disc brakes really made of the finest ninja blades of Hattori Hanzō - and should they be banned? 

A test by the US cycling magazine “Velonews” (along with several others you can find on You Tube) suggests the answer is “in certain circumstances, yes”. What they did is pretty easy: they put a disc-braked bike on a turbo trainer, started to pedal and put random things under the disc rotor to see the effect of the blades on different materials. They used a shoe, their own hand, chicken thighs and a piece of paper. They found the rotor can eventually cut the skin (and chicken legs), but it requires a lot of effort and it is probably not as dangerous as the effects of chain rings or bladed spokes.

Hazards aside, which must all still be proven in detail, disc brakes have really changed the bikes we ride and allowed for possibilities that were not possible with the former, standard “rim brakes”.

I tried disc brakes both on a Canyon Endurace (hydraulic version) and a Cervélo P5X (mechanical disc brake) – and I am a convert. The power you can transmit to the brake pads with a disc compared to a standard “rim brake” is way more effective and performs at its best on long descents, wet days and/or if you ate too much turkey over Christmas. With less effort required from your hands, you can have a better and more modular result. And the more the descent requires you to slow down and pull on your brakes, the more you actually feel safer and more in control with less effort.

At the same time, though, the downside of disc brakes for the greater and general public is that if something goes wrong when you’re on your ride, it's harder to diagnose it and fix it on your own.

It’s probably like the “fracture” between the digital and print press. Will digital replace print in full? Probably not, but the evolution has changed the field and there is no way back. The same will probably happen with disc and rim brakes. Rimmed ones will remain (for the delight of the nostalgics), but the industry has already gone towards discs – big time. 

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