Comment: What does the UCI’s (semi) legalisation of disc brakes mean?

Are disc brakes on the verge of taking over?

The ‘disc brakes on road bikes’ debate is something that’s stirred up quite a passionate argument between those who want them and those that don’t. Now the UCI are going to allow pro teams to trial disc brakes in August and September, before a full trial next year and possible legalisation in 2017, does that mean the disc brake is on the verge of taking over?

Personally, I find it hard to fall on either side of the proverbial fence. While I agree that disc brakes aren’t desperately needed on road bikes, it doesn’t mean they’re not better than rim brakes. Because they are. That doesn’t mean that rim brakes aren’t adequate or, in most cases, more than adequate, it just means disc brakes are even better.

Are disc brakes on the verge of taking over?

There also seems to be a bit of a false assumption that disc brakes are championed because they’re more powerful than their rim-based equivalents, but that’s not strictly true, and modern, top-end rim calipers offer really impressive braking force. The great thing about disc brakes, and especially the latest hydraulic versions, is that you can get that same braking power for far less effort at the brake lever, and with fair more modulation.

Plus, they brake at the hub rather than the rim, which is also a more efficient way of doing things. Add that to the fact that the hydraulic system is almost maintenance-free, and that wheel (or, rather, rim) wear will be greatly reduced, and there are certainly undeniable advantages to a disc brake system.

Are they ugly? Well, that’s a matter of opinion. I’ve seen road bikes that I think look good with discs on. For example, I quite like Specialized’s S-Works Disc version of the Tarmac. I think it looks pretty cool but, on the other hand, I vastly prefer the rim brake version of the Cannondale Synapse. I don’t really have any concrete reasons for either, that’s just what I like. Given that there’s no empirical way of measuring attractiveness, it’s down to the individual to decide whether the way to bless – or burden – a bike with discs.

Anyway, having moved a little off topic, what about the pros? Well first off, which races they choose to use them in will be very interesting as the UCI’s statement says teams will be able to use bikes with disc brakes at two events of their choice during August and September this year.

For example, late September is the Giro di Lombardia, where there’s traditionally a very high chance of rain and numerous descents, and if the heavens open as they did in 2012, will teams on disc brakes have an advantage? Too right they will. However, as Philippe Gilbert has previously mentioned, this could also prove to be dangerous as if you have a group of riders ploughing downhill into a soaking wet corner and some have far better braking capabilities than the others (it’s in the wet that disc brakes are also significantly better than rim brakes), the chances of a pile up will be higher, even with the level of bike handling ability in the pro peloton.

The UCI still has to address issues around neutral services, compatibility and the speed of wheel changes (Pic: Sirotti)

Plus, some teams are sponsored by brands that don’t currently offer disc-equipped models in their respective race ranges (Canyon and Merida, for example) so does that mean those manufacturers will have to get a model ready? Or, more likely, are they already working on something? Of course, just because the teams can use them, it doesn’t mean the will, but personally I think any team that chooses not to would be foolish for at least not trialling the system as they don’t have anything to lose.

This trial is just that – a trial – and it will be interesting to note how teams, race organisers and the UCI combat issues around neutral service (particularly when some riders are on rim brakes and some are on disc brakes), compatibility and the speed of wheel changes. These are all issues that need to be resolved before a complete adoption of disc brakes.

At the ‘grass (tarmac?) roots’ level of cycling, discs are already seeping into road bikes at every level, not least on machines aimed at sportive riders. And while they won’t kill off bikes with traditional rim brakes, expect to see even more going forward now the UCI have seemingly given discs the green light – or, rather, the amber light?

At the pro level, it’ll be interesting to see which teams take up the option this summer, and what the feedback from the pros is. This is an experimental time for road cycling and there’s been a lot of talk from various riders about disc brakes. Given that none of them have had the option to use them in racing until now, maybe their views will change for the better (or worse) once they’ve had a chance to use them in anger?

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