Freewheeling: The Road Disc Revolution Is Now

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More importantly, said Becker, was the fact that the hydraulic disc project was in part a collaborative effort. “We have been sharing specifications [with some bike makers] the whole way. I wouldn’t call it total co-development. But certainly we’ve been keeping each other abreast on the products that are being designed to make sure they are compatible. We also share data back and forth because we need the bike makers to do the proper testing. And we’ve had them build us frames so we could take [the hydraulic systems] out on the roads and test them ourselves.”

Even after all that development time and testing, Becker calls SRAM’s first go at hydraulic braking “conservative.”

“We didn’t shoot for making the lightest possible system,” he said. “We wanted it to be super robust and we wanted it to fit a multitude of frames without having to create special standards. But I think as things evolve, you’ll see people figuring out how the different forces affect things. You’ll see changes on where the brakes are attached. There will be quite a bit of learning over the next few years as everyone figures out how to use these new technologies.”

So someday could we see a Tour de France winner crossing the finish line on the Champs-Élysées aboard a disc-equipped bike? “Someday, maybe,” guessed Becker. “But a lot will have to come together in terms of frames, wheels, race support. It will all need to homogeneous across the peloton. And that is something that is out of our control. What I can tell you is that no one in the industry makes money making bikes for UCI racing. That just costs us money.”

Like nearly all new products that come onto the cycling market, the UCI is currently giving disc brakes the proverbial sniff test. But Becker says there are no deadlines or even time lines on when that process might conclude. “We are in the business of making products that are useful to the consumer,” he added. “Hopefully we can convince the powers that be, but we are selling the product regardless.”

There’s much irony in Becker’s final statement. Normally top pros get first crack at new cycling technology, and then it trickles down to consumers. But this time, you and I will get the chance to ride road disc long before Alberto Contador or Bradley Wiggins get clearance to race it.

So what will we do with this newfound access to disc brakes? And do we really need them? Many will argue the answer is, no. In an on-going RoadBikeReview poll, nearly 50 percent of respondents answered, “Don’t need them,” when asked what their stance on road disc was. Another 32 percent labeled themselves, “Interested, but waiting another year.”

I personally fall into the third category, which represented 8 percent of the poll respondents, who answered they wanted a set of hydraulic disc brakes sooner rather than later. To my way of thinking the new possibilities simply outweigh the negatives.

Scott Bikes’ Montgomery agrees. “It would open up so much more terrain for riding if I had brakes that worked better,” he said. “For instance, I like to ride my ’cross bike on mellow single track trails sometimes. And if I had better brakes I could actually get some swoopy trail turns in. But because I am trying to keep my speed in check using 1990s technology, I cant.”

Even if aggressive cyclocross riding isn’t your thing, it’s likely at least some who are reading this enjoy the occasional road bike foray onto dirt roads. There again you have a situation where better, more modulated braking could be a huge performance advantage. Think about dropping down a wash-boarded section of gravel road, or bending around a loose dirt, sharp turn. Indeed, disc brakes — and the opportunity to run wider tires because you are not limited by caliper width — could turn our road bikes into true Swiss Army knives, capable of conquering all types of terrain.

It’s also worth noting that what some will call an ungainly tall brake lever hood (SRAM claims its 1cm taller than standard models) to me simply represents one more secure place to grab hold of. And what’s wrong with that?

As for questions of weight and aerodynamics, there aren’t any really good answers yet. Yes your bike will be a little heavier, and no it wont be as aero. But I personally am not overly concerned with being ultra aero, and I honestly believe that within a few product cycles, the industry will come up with creative – and safe – ways to keep the weight penalty in check. In the meantime, I’ll make up lost time on the descents. Let the revolution roll on.

About the author: Jason Sumner

An avid cyclist, Jason Sumner has been writing about two-wheeled pursuits of all kinds since 1999. He’s covered the Tour de France, the Olympic Games, and dozens of other international cycling events. He also likes to throw himself into the fray, penning first-person accounts of cycling adventures all over the globe. Sumner, who joined the / staff in 2013, has also done extensive gear testing and is the author of the cycling guide book "75 Classic Rides: Colorado." When not writing or riding, the native Coloradoan can be found enjoying time with his wife Lisa and daughter Cora.

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  • Len says:

    Another solution in search of a problem.

    On-road, discs have always made sense on foul-weather commuter bikes, but that’s about it.

    Despite the fact that the industry is, as ever, amped about ‘up-technologizing’ the road bike so that it can charge us more $$$, most riders I know are not champing at the bit to try road discs. Or hydro braking either.

    • Harley says:

      I’ve been chomping at the bit for road bike disc brakes for over a decade.

      They have superior stopping power in all conditions; lighten the rotating mass of the wheel; stop rim wear; are mainly easier to maintain (imo); free the rim design from needing a pad contact area; etc. There aren’t many good reasons to stick with an inferior braking mechanism.

  • Jimbo99 says:

    Gonna be hillarious ? Changing brake pads is going to be like fixing a motorcycle. Why hydraulic, why not a self adjusting cable, like some clutches on automobiles have ? I can’t see me bleeding brake lines, that brake fluid spurting all over the frame of the bike and floor. This is just sheer genius ?

    • Gillis says:

      Jimbo99, I take it you’ve never owned a mtb with discs as your assumptions are totally off base. Changing pads doesn’t require bleeding. Heck, with modern systems you don’t even need to bleed but once a year or less. I had a older pair of Hayes that I didn’t bleed for over 3 years without any problems.

    • aclinjury says:

      don’t get the brake fluid on those pads or else they won’t brake.

    • jim says:

      nothey do it on MTB bike now. notany harderr unless wheile changing the pads out you grab the levers than u will need to bleed than

  • Abe Froman says:

    “It doesn’t happen often, but on hot days you will see a tire blowing under heavy braking due to the rim heating up.”

    In over 30 years and 250k miles of racing, training, commuting; this has happened to me or someone I know 0 times. Shows me how much of a problem it is. If you are using your brakes so much that it heats up the rim until something fails, I’d the the problem is with the person applying the brakes. You might cause the tube to fail with disc brakes; you will just heat/boil the brake fluid until the lever comes back to the bar and you have no brakes.

    I can see their advantage in wet weather conditions but on a clean dry road, I don’t see them having a significant advantage. Don’t need them or want them and I don’t go out of my way to ride in the rain.

    • Abe Froman says:

      That should be “you might not cause the tube to fail with disc brakes”

    • aclinjury says:

      The pro-disc crowds sure make a big stink about
      1) riding in the rain, when in real life most people avoid the rain, well except if you’re my gramp on his hydrib

      2) high speed descent causing the tire to blowout. Perhaps these folks just are not good bike handler, therefore perhaps they should just ride flat and skip the mountains?

      • Harley says:

        They’ll stop you faster in the dry too. This makes a difference when riding in traffic, around pedestrians on shared bike paths, etc.

  • Aaron says:

    Had a nice rain ride yesterday….discs would have been nice. Living in the Midwest though, with no mountains to speak of, wet performance would be the only benefit in my eyes. And as we previously mentioned, most folks avoid riding in the rain anyway so I can see why so many say it doesn’t matter to them. Now if I lived in a region with big, long descents….yeah, I’d like them.

  • Eric says:

    People tend to forget that you can overheat disc brakes too. The tire may not blow off, but the rotor can warp and really cause some issues.

    • Harley says:

      Yes, but with disc brakes the problem is less severe and more easily dealt with (e.g. you can swap to a larger disc if you’re overheating your smaller one often).

  • Ken says:

    I’ve been riding disk on my MTB (s) for over a decade. I’ve had XTR and Avid. Never had to bleed. Pad replacement is simple. Don’t know what all the fuss is about.

  • TA1200 says:

    As my experiences on my mountain bike show, disc brakes offer important advanges: they work more powerful and are easier to modulate especially in wet conditions and notably with carbon rims, brake power can easely be up- and downgraded with other disc sizes, hydraulic pipes break rarer than brake cables.
    Of course you also get disadvantages wich last less or more on your skills: 3/4-1 lb more weight per bike will slow ambitious climbers, they might cost as much as high end rim brakes (also the pads), not everyone is able to change himself pads nor brake fluid (every couple of years), the question of aerodynamic is a more one.
    The communities are: depending of your behaviour and technic, you may overheat both systems and get a failure, you have to avoid damages on disc and rim surface, brake power and modulation are also affected by quality of brake and pads, the less you and your bike weigh and the more broad-shouldered you are, the less you must brake.
    Heavy climbers will benefy considerious more from the safety advantages than light bikers who rarely leave the flats. Finally I will have to estimate if I would invest more money into this marvelous hobby at next bike change.

  • swami says:

    My ‘cross bike has mechanical discs. It’s heavy, partly because of the braking system. However, it’s most definitely my Swiss army knife. I use it to race cyclocross (I know, heavy). It’s my commuter. It’s my gravel grinder. At one time, it was even my century ride. Do I care that those discs add a pound+? At ‘cross races, sure. If I were uber-competitive, I’d definitely think twice about discs, and mechanicals of course suck (relative to hydraulics) for lots of reasons. BUT at those same ‘cross races, the modulation, the non-issues of mud clearing and wet braking, and sheer braking power/performance are all winners for me. Commuting, (I live in the Pac NW) reliable braking in the rain is a real win. Gravel? 1-finger braking and modulation going over washboard at speed is another win. If I were in the market for another Swiss army knife, I’d do hydraulics in a second – particularly given what today is probably just a 1/2-pound penalty. …but Road? I can see some benefits, but this is a technology that will need to shake out quite a bit and standardize before I’d make that jump. Of course I have a sub-16lbs road bike that I love – I am very much not in the market there. Even if I were? Even after years for exposure to the benefits of discs on a “road” bike, I’d be disinclined. There are times I’m too hot in the corners, and better modulation & braking power would benefit me – but not many. For me, all the other benefits don’t apply to road rides.

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