Despite a small weight penalty compared to traditional rim brakes, Giant choose to make significant investment in disc brake technology with its new Defy endurance road bike line. Photos by Chris Milliman
Giant stuck with traditional quick release set-ups for its new Defy line. Other manufacturers have opted for thru-axles, some 12mm, some 15mm. Some use both, such as the new Mares cyclocross bike from Focus. But variances like that simply don’t work in the professional peloton, where neutral service providers such as Mavic need to be able to take care of nearly 200 riders, but don’t have the cargo capacity to carry dozens of different set-up wheels.
“Right now there are multiple conversations happening between a few of the big brands and everyone is talking the same talk,” explained Giant’s Swanson. “We all know that for the technology to be embraced by the highest level of racing, there has to be a consistent standard and it needs to have quick release functionality so that you can change wheels on the fly.”
Swanson‘s choice would be 12mm thru-axles. “That gives you some added stiffness so you could remove some of the extra frame material from the fork leg,” he said. “That will help keep the weight penalty in check.”
Heretofore, that weight penalty might not necessarily have been a major issue in the pro peloton. As it is right now, most team mechanics are forced to add otherwise-unnecessary weight to bikes just to stay within compliance of the UCI’s 6.8kg (14.99 pounds) weight limit. But with new bikes such as Trek’s ultra-light Émonda line coming to market, perhaps that rule could see amendments soon as well.
“Bikes should weigh however much [the manufacturer] wants them to weigh, provided they have all the commercial safety certifications,” said Swanson. “If it is fit enough for sale it should be fit enough to race.”
To wit, the Trek Émonda SLR 10 has a claimed weight of just 10.25 pounds, and a size 60cm test model Émonda SLR 8 equipped with alloy wheels that just showed up at the RoadBikeReview offices weighed 14.1 pounds without pedals. But no bikes in the Émonda line come spec’d with disc brakes.
“We don’t see a lot of demand on race bikes,” said Trek road product manager Ben Coates, whose company does spec discs on some of its Domane endurance bikes.
Adoption of disc brakes in the pro peloton will require that the industry adopt some kind of axle standard in order to make wheel changes fast. Photo by Graham Watson
But might that attitude change if the UCI changed its tune? Swanson believes so, and says the recent regime change at the UCI has resulted in more openness to technology rule changes. “[Since Brian Cookson replaced Pat McQuaid as UCI president] the attitude has been much more positive and progressive, which is really important to the industry,” Swanson said. “Sometimes manufacturers aren’t willing to pull the trigger on new technology because you need racing as a marketing vehicle.”
Clearly, though, disc brakes are not falling into that well. Like Giant, Specialized has gotten behind the idea despite the lack of UCI approval, launching multiple rotor-equipped bikes, including some Tarmac models, which made it one of the first manufactures to spec disc brakes on a race bike rather than only endurance geometry frames.
“We are full gas on disc brakes,” said Specialized spokesman Chris Riekert. “It’s something we see as more than just a wet weather advantage. There’s so much more available braking power and when you mix the race geometry of the Tarmac with that extra braking and you have a really diverse weapon. At the same time, I think it will take a while before it catches on in the pro peloton. When the weight comes down and you have enough wheel options, that’s when you’ll see that switchover.”
“Right now I just don’t see disc brakes being to the point where they are ready for racing application,” added Jonathan Vaughters, general manager of the Garmin-Sharp team, who race on Cervélo, which has yet to offer a disc brake-equipped road bike. “But I’d guess all those bugs get worked out in the next few years. Than at that point you can concentrate on making the rim better structurally and more aero without worrying about the braking surface. Right now it seems like wheels either have a great braking surface but are kind of heavy, or they are super aero and light with a shitty braking surface. When you bring all that together, things will change.”
Team cars can only carry so many spare bikes and spare wheels.
Most argue when that change does comes, it must be universal across the pro peloton. The notion of some riders with disc-equipped brakes riding in close proximity to others who are still running rim brakes makes people nervous.
“If everyone doesn’t have them then you’re going to have a lot more crashes because they stop differently than normal brakes,” said BMC Racing’s general manager Jim Ochowicz, whose team finished fourth in the team standings at this year’s Tour. “If we do it, it has to be all in, not half half.”
Swanson counters that International Olympic Committee rules could make an all-or-nothing proposition untenable. “IOC rules say you cant have mandatory technology like that so close to the Olympics, and 2016 is an Olympic year. So it might have to be a mix at first,” he said. “But for me the larger problem is that right now we are still using modified mountain bike technology. Once UCI approval comes, you’ll see all the manufactures focusing on road and that will get the weights down quickly and adoption will follow.”
It would appear then that disc brakes are eventually coming to the pro peloton. But do they belong there? We give the last word to NetApp’s Dempster, whose sentiment, while not universal among his pro tour peers, is shared by many. “I’ve ridden mountain bikes with disc brakes and you just stop faster,” he said. “I just don’t see why stopping faster would be bad.”