The Latest Intel on Disc Brakes on the Road

Peter Glassford
by Peter Glassford
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The Latest Intel on Disc Brakes on the Road

If you have been keeping an eye on headlines in the bicycling world, you will have noticed that disc brakes are becoming much more popular on the road. Whether you should make the switch has become a relatively easy decision as early model bugs, racing rule changes, weight differences and safety concerns are addressed. But the debate continues.

Since I come from a mountain biking background, I asked Andrew Randell, a former pro road cyclist and coach with The Cycling Gym in Toronto, to share his experiences with road disc brakes. “My first experience came after a winter spent riding my mountain and gravel bikes, both of which had disc brakes,” Randell said. “Then I headed to California for a spring training camp on my road bike. Coming off our first climb I went to tap my brakes into the first corner, and I was shocked that the rim brakes barely slowed me down! It was a shock to see in a real-world setting the difference between traditional rim brakes and the disc brake. There is no comparison. Disc brakes all the way. I’ll be racing on them this year.”

SAFETY

While many bicycle brands have switched almost entirely to disc brakes on their road bikes, the competitive road cycling world has been slow to accept disc brakes, despite the increased braking power and control disc brakes provide, especially in wet weather. While road cyclists don’t generally have the same all-weather braking concerns off-road cyclists do, the lack of control on long mountain descents is enough to convince most riders disc brakes are the way to go. Randell provides a cautionary tale, “I have seen the tires blow off the traditional carbon rims when riders are on long descents with lots of braking. The carbon doesn’t dissipate the heat from the rim brake well.”

WEIGHT, AERODYNAMICS AND APPEARANCE

The root of the disc brake debate on the road can be almost entirely traced to these three aspects: weight, aerodynamics and appearance.

Appearance is a big selling feature for road bikes and is largely a personal preference. A clean-looking bicycle is a thing of beauty and getting used to the disc-rotor takes time for some road purists.

The two other aspects of the debate are becoming easier to come to terms with. For aerodynamics on the flats, the reality is the disc and the rotor sit out in the wind more than rim brakes, which are often hidden inside the front forks. However, as the disc technology is embraced, the aero difference is not so noticeable — and when combined with braking power the difference may become nill.

In terms of weight, for climbers, the extra weight of the disc, cable-housing and brake adds to the bike’s overall weight but disc bikes are now available at the UCI weight limit (14.96 pounds), which means you can have a light bike that rides well and also provides great braking power. An added bonus is the wider rim that many disc bikes can run, which allows for a wider tire and further gains in comfort, if not also in rolling resistance and control.

RACE RULES AND LOGISTICS

If you plan to compete on your road bike, it is worth doing some investigation into whether the race allows disc brakes. Races that are prohibiting them are decreasing and generally do not affect age-group athletes who are outside of UCI competition, but they do exist so check with your regional governing body and your specific goal races to be sure. Even in the pro ranks, discs are slowly being accepted. For 2018, pro teams Trek-Segafredo and Canyon-SRAM will be using discs in almost all of their races.

The current UCI ruling, which allows disc brakes without 90-degree edges, provides some guidance on improving the safety of discs in the event of a crash where a body part comes into contact with the disc. This ruling seems to encapsulate what riders, such as pro Jeremy Powers found by testing his own hand on a rotor.

MAINTENANCE AND TRAVEL

The maintenance of hydraulic brakes compared to cable actuated brakes will be a concern for some riders, but the day-to-day function is as smooth as rim brakes. For a full overhaul, Randell suggests that “once you get used to having them it’s no big deal. I thought that servicing them was going to be a big ordeal, but in fact, it isn’t that hard.”


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For travel, discs require a bit more padding and preparation. The rotors are often bent in travel so it is best to remove your discs and store them in padding in your bike box. Randell adds, “Make sure you don’t squeeze your levers while the wheel is off, using a block or piece of plastic to keep the pads spread is a great idea when you travel. As a bonus, most road bikes with disc have thru-axles, which actually work really well as a brace to keep your rear triangle and fork from getting crushed in the bike box. “

Will you embrace disc brakes this year? Have you made the switch?

About the Author

Peter Glassford
Peter Glassford

Peter is a cycling coach and registered kinesiologist from Ontario, Canada. He travels frequently to work with athletes at races, camps and clinics. He also races mountain bikes for Trek Canada and pursues adventure in all types of movement. Follow @peterglassford on Twitter, or check out his online and in-person coaching at www.smartathlete.ca.

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