The majority of headlines emanating from the first World Cup cyclocross race of the season were dedicated to Lars van der Haar, winner of the men's pro race. And by all means the first elite level triumph of the 22-year-old Dutch Rabobank rider's career was a significant feat.
But perhaps even more significant was the bike - and components - van der Haar rode to victory on the famed Cauberg course at Valkenburg in the Netherlands. The race machine in question was a Giant TCX Advanced spec'd with Shimano Dura Ace Di2 9070 electronic drivetrain and Shimano's new hydraulic disc brakes. This marked the first time in history that a World Cup race had been won by a rider using a disc brake-equipped bike.
"If you can out brake Sven Nys, who is known as the most technical rider in the peloton, that says everything," said van der Haar, referring to the reigning world champion and a rider known as one of the best bike handlers in the business.
Van der Haar spent several months testing the new brake system leading up to the season, and was impressed right away, telling the Dutch cycling website www.cyclo-cross.info, "The larger braking force is definitely an advantage, especially in [very muddy races] where you need a lot of braking. The few times I reverted to cantilevers, it seemed like I could not stop."
"I'm sure the others will follow soon," added Rabobank team boss Richard Groenendaal.
This might sound odd to U.S. 'cross fans, who've grown accustomed to seeing the likes of Jeremy Powers, Tim Johnson and numerous other riders tear up the domestic cyclocross circuit on disc brake-equipped bikes. But the top European pros have thus far been reluctant to embrace the new technology, scared off by the perceived weight penalty. Now that may start to change.
This baby-faced pro just might cause a revolution in top level cyclocross racing.
"Honestly, I think it's a huge step," said Tom Hopper, team mechanic for the Rapha-Focus cyclocross team, which includes Powers, who runs SRAM's already-available HydroR disc brake system.
The only caveat, adds Hopper, is that van der Haar is one of the smallest riders in the pro cyclocross peloton, meaning there is less of a weight penalty since his frame is so small to begin with.
"[Weight] is definitely the biggest concern with the Euro riders," said Hopper. "I'm sure the performance advantages will start to spread with the top European riders. But it's not a complete home run yet. I don't see many riders making the switch mid season. The top Euros have made their brake choice at this point in the year. They need to see more from hydraulic disc at the top level every weekend all season long. But personally, I'm convinced that they are the future of cyclocross brakes. With the weight penalty trending down every year, it will be hard to argue against them."
Hopper also figured that van der Haar was a little more willing to experiment that his older peers. "It's a perfect storm of sorts," he said. "Van der Haar is on the rise and his sponsors have all jumped on board with disc. I bet it was much easier to convince a young rider like him then a veteran rider who's been running the same set-up for years."
Of course it would be unfair to attribute van der Haar's win solely to mechanical advantage. The reigning Dutch national champ is a supreme talent, who already has a pair of U23 world titles to his name. But the fact that it was a wet and somewhat muddy in Valkenburg surely plays to the strengths of disc brake systems, which provide more modulated and controlled braking, especially in wet riding conditions.
"The true test will be if he can do the same ride on a really muddy race," added Hopper.
That may be true, but the folks from Shimano are already understandably excited.
"This weekend's win by van der Haar on Shimano's new R785 hydraulic road and cyclorcross disc brake system at Valkenburg demonstrates that disc brake systems can win at the World Cup level," said Shimano road product manager Dave Lawrence. "When combined with Di2 they make a formidable combination. It's safe to assume that disc brakes will permeate more in competition and we plan to equip more top racers, and ultimately consumers, with this technology."
RoadBikeReview.com will be getting an up close look at Shimano's new disc brake system at the beginning of next month, and will post a full report soon after.
In the meantime, check out this video to see highlights from the men's elite race from Valkenburg: