Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Road Disc Brakes: Another Step Closer

To be filed under "I Can't Wait."

In an interesting (and somewhat ironic) follow up to yesterday's post about more disc brake recalls, I found this story today on BikeRadar about how the UCI is moving closer to approving disc brakes for professional road racing bikes, which means they will be one step closer to becoming ubiquitous on most road bikes, regardless of whether they will be raced or not.

Much to the chagrin of the bicycle industry and weight weenies alike, the UCI has long been somewhat of a wet blanket, with their skepticism of some of the new technology and designs for pro-level racing bikes. Over the years they have set minimum weight standards, opposed bike designs that deviated too much from the traditional racing frame, opposed disc brakes, and blocked the use of lots of other innovations.

But under new leadership, the UCI may be poised to be much friendlier to new designs and technology. According to the BikeRadar article, the UCI has appointed a new consultant technical advisor who has promised "to work closer with the industry and collaborate on safety tests and ratification of new technologies."

One industry insider pointed out how the new leadership will likely be more open to new innovations. "Previously we saw the UCI like a castle. We were knocking and banging on the door constantly but it was never opened. Now they have opened it from the inside: Welcome!"

At the Taipei International Cycle Show, road disc brakes were apparently a big topic, and the industry is getting pretty excited. Said one industry insider, "This is a new era at the UCI -- they are open to it. There is now a disc brake group with the UCI, with the lookout to a possible introduction to road racing within the next few years."

The BikeRadar article ended with the following, very hopeful, quote, "It's the clearest indication we've had yet of a real step towards disc brakes used in the pro peloton and certainly backs up claims on both sides of embracing new technologies for a new era."

Obviously, disc brakes are already making inroads onto road bikes, considering that UCI regulations only pertain to the pros, and don't really have any effect on general consumers, amateur racers, triathletes, or others. But so much of the industry today operates on a "top-down" approach, putting such an emphasis on what the pros are riding, and filtering the racer influence down through bikes that will never be raced. The fact that the pros are still riding on rim brakes acts as a bit of a damper. But my guess is that once all the pros get moved onto disc brakes, then finding any bike with high-quality rim brakes will become more and more difficult. My prediction is that eventually, rim brakes will be found on nothing but cheap, entry-level bikes. And as far as I'm concerned, that is not something to celebrate.

I still am not "sold" on disc brakes. I think there is widespread denial of their drawbacks. I don't believe the hype, and I still see benefits in the simplicity of a good set of classic rim brakes. I guess I wouldn't be a Retrogrouch if I saw it differently.


  1. For me its a mixed bag. I don't see the advantage (modulation?) in a pro road race setting, and certainly not for the weekend roadies. The discs are heavier than calipers (though that may change), the fork needs to be stronger and ride quality can suffer as a result, and wheel alignment gets pickier (all hail the thru axel!). I do like seeing the discs on road bikes with frame clearance for wider tires, simply because it enables larger wheel sizing without some of the drawbacks of cantis or large calipers.

    Unquestionably the worst is cheap discs. I have a Mongoose full suspension MTB with disc brakes that is an absolute horror to behold. Maybe I'll send you photos to fuel some nightmares.

    Just to keep my Retrogrouch cardholder status alive, you should know that there is sweet new steel frame road bike with my name on it that'll be built up this weekend. I haven't lost the faith.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Nathan. My experience with disc brakes (mechanical) is that they had less modulation than good side pulls. I've never tried hydraulic versions, but I've heard they're better in that regard. My thoughts on making the discs lighter is that it only exacerbates the problems of overheating and disc warping. In the case of hydraulic brakes, that heat can pose problems with the brake fluid, too. I'm glad you mentioned about the stronger fork/ride quality issue -- it's something that gets side-stepped a lot.

      Have fun building up the new bike!

  2. It seems to me that a disc brake is nothing more than a heat sink that is intended to first absorb and then radiate away kinetic energy that has been converted into heat energy. To do this, it needs a large diameter and a large mass to absorb the heat without damage to the heat sink or the friction materials. Instead, what we currently have is a small diameter disc and a small mass optimized for style and light weight not function. Add to this the asymmetry of the brake mount and the twisting forces which result and you have an effective recipe for failure but it sure is stylin'! This is a perfect triumph of style over function caused by the mistaken assumption that technology appropriate for motorcycles is equally appropriate for bicycles.