The Union Cycliste Internationale has just greenlighted the use of disc brakes in the pro peloton for the 2016 season. This is arguably the single biggest technological change in the pro peloton since the introduction of the cable-actuated rear derailleur in the late 1940s. Those rear derailleurs—first the Simplex, then the Campagnolo Gran Sport—changed racing and admission to the Tour de France podium was governed by the presence of a rear derailleur on a bike. First Fausto Coppi, then Ferdinand Kübler and Hugo Koblet, the Tour was never the same.
But racing was different in the ’40s and ’50s; not every rider made the transition to the rear derailleur in the same year. The transition to disc brakes can and will be different for a couple of reasons.
Given how important pro racing is to product development, marketing objectives not to mention larger brand identity, it’s a lock that every WorldTeam will ride disc brakes for the whole of the season. What’s less certain is just how many Professional Continental and Continental teams will be sponsored with bikes equipped with disc brakes. The Professional Continental teams seem likely to get bikes with disc brakes, but given the dozens of Continental teams there are around the world, a betting man could be forgiven for thinking some smaller operations will hit the road with rim brakes.
The central question has always been how the differences in braking performance would affect the peloton. In this regard, the transition to disc brakes echoes the peloton’s switch from fixed gear to freewheels. The freewheel changed how riders cornered and the presence of someone on a fixed cog, charging through the pack as everyone else coasted caused expletive shouting that is still echoing off the streets of Europe.
Because of the superior power and modulation of disc brakes, riders brake later and brake harder with discs. For pros, who already take that to levels mere mortals find extreme, it means that a rider with rim brakes following a rider with discs will need to brake earlier, and possibly give up that draft, or that spot in the paceline. Following a rider with discs into a corner could make for some interesting … events.
In a real-world sense, the have/have not question was aimed squarely at Campagnolo. Until recently, there was no word from the venerable Italian manufacturer on whether or not it would even produce a disc brake. We now know that Campagnolo filed a patent for a disc system in June of 2014 and that it uses an insert in the handlebar to hold the fluid reservoir. We also know that Campagnolo showed off a system to select product managers at Taichung Bike Week. We’re told that four teams will be testing the system during the 2016 season. Given the long wait between the first EPS prototypes and when the system went into production, we shouldn’t hold our breath that it will be for sale in 2017, though it would be nice if it was.
Beyond the have/have not issue is one of neutral support. The UCI has stipulated 160mm rotors, but the presence of quick release skewers means that alignment could still be an issue, and a pad rubbing a rotor is (sort of understandably) the stuff of skinny boy tantrums. Here is another argument for through-axles—that through-axles result in more precise alignment of the wheel in the frame, leading to a reduced likelihood of brake rub following a wheel change. But that extra time for neutral wheel changes will be as popular as when the barista runs out of skim milk just as it’s time to make your latté.
The UCI’s announcement including a second announcement. Discs will be legal for use in amateur ranks for the 2017 season. I’d like to think that what will increase will be the yelling, not the crashing. The big news is that ’17 is likely to be the year where we see the first mass extinction of rim brakes from new groupsets. They are likely to disappear from Dura-Ace and Ultegra, if not 105. The same seems likely for Red and Force, maybe Rival, too.
Rim brakes will persist and they will persist for a very long time. But discs are becoming the dominant technology and if there’s only one piece of info you file away, it’s this: I’ve yet to meet a rider who has ridden discs on a road bike who dismissed them and said they preferred their rim brakes.