A lot has been changing this year in the bicycle industry and in particular the way we slow down and stop. Brakes on bikes have slowly evolved but still work in largely the same way as they have for many years, two pads pinching or squeezing the rotating rim of a wheel until it eventually stops. This works well and is predictable. So long as you have a nice smooth braking surface on a straight and true wheel with a set of good brake pads your in business.
On alloy and steel rims this is a very effective form of braking however things get interesting when you start braking on carbon fibre rims. Carbon fibre rims can be very light and stiff with interesting aero profiles but their down fall is that they don’t brake as well particularly in wet conditions. The slick resin finish of their braking surface dissipates heat poorly and when wet the water acts as a lubricant between the pad and rim making for slow and unpredictable braking. This can really make things tricky on a long, wet, Alpine descents.
But wait there maybe a solution. What if you could get better braking in all conditions, with less effort, regardless of the rim material?… The answer is disc brakes. Disc brakes have been around for many years in the world of mountain biking. They work with either a cable or hydraulics and have a small braking disc or “Rotor” mounted onto the spinning hub with a separate braking calliper.
They have finally arrived to road bikes after all these years but with mixed reactions from the road biking scene. While tech junkies revel in the advance in brake technology, traditionalist’s claim they ruin the lines of a classic racing bike and are happy with brakes just the way they are. Most big bicycle manufacturers seem to have jumped on the technology offering a host of disc brake specific models from low end starter bikes to top end race bikes. With obvious benefits who wouldn’t want better brakes?
Even the UCI seems to have gotten on the band wagon and has finally allowed disc brakes to be used during 2016 races to test the technology and see how it works in real world racing. Some pros love them and others seem dismissive of them. The worry from the professional peloton seems to be that braking distances will be shorter on disc braked bikes than conventional bikes. This could lead to pile ups in corners at high speed. The 2016 season had been going well with many pro’s racing successfully on disc brakes until an accident at Paris Roubaix in April. Francisco Ventoso of the Movistar team was involved in a crash and suffered a nasty wound, slicing his muscle down to the bone. He claims that a hot spinning rotor from someones disc brake cut into him during the crash. This lead to a UCI investigation and a temporary suspension of the use of disc brakes in professional racing. As of writing the UCI has decided to re-allow disc brakes in the pro Peloton starting in June. If the trial goes well we could see disc brakes become the norm in professional racing in 2017.
Will disc brakes work on any bike? Unfortunately not. You need a frame that is designed to take disc brakes and has the necessary mounting points on the forks and rear triangle. This is also where things get a little more complicated as companies struggle to decide on which format the disc brakes should use to mount to the frame and mount the wheel to the bike. The current favourite for mounting the disc calliper to the frame is Shimano’s “Flat Mount” system which looks like its becoming the industry standard. Wheels however are a little more tricky. Some companies use a normal quick release but this seems to cause problems with the disc potentially rubbing the pads during out of the saddle efforts and whilst sprinting. A better solution and another Mountain bike invention is “Thru Axles” which have a single shaft that slides through the drop-out and screws into the frame securing the wheel. These come in various diameters that are yet to be standardised.
So what are the downsides? Well its hard to argue against better and more predictable brakes but there are inevitably a few draw backs. The weight is the biggest issue that most people talk about, but that mostly stems from the fact that most wheels designed to run disc brakes are built around a standard rim with a braking surface. Companies have now just started making lighter rims specifically for disc braked bikes without the braking surface on the rims and with more aerodynamic profiles, so expect the weight to come down on disc brakes.
Our view at Ride Strong is that better brakes are always a good thing, however standard brakes are currently very good so don’t feel you need to sell your favourite bike just to get this advantage. If your in the market for a new bike then disc brakes are definitely worth considering. If you can wait one or maybe two years then so much the better. This will give manufacture’s and the UCI time to iron out some of the creases and hopefully create a universal standard for mounting these brakes to wheels and frame. The last thing you want to buy is the equivalent of a Betamax video tape, it may have been great technology at the time but the industry never accepted it as the standard and the world all bought into the VHS format. So maybe its time to break with tradition and get disc brakes on your next bike!