Back in the 1990s the Union Cycliste Internationale decided it was time for riders to start wearing helmets. The riders reacted with a strike and the UCI backed down. They waited before taking another run at such a rule and then they acquiesced to riders’ wishes by allowing them to take the helmets off at the bottom of the climb on mountain stages that finished at the top of an ascent.
It wasn’t a particularly distinguished bit of rule making. That said, the UCI’s technical committee has been criticized many times for rules that aren’t logically consistent or do nothing to increase the quality of racing or rider safety.
So when the UCI decided to “experiment” (their word) with disc brakes in the peloton, anyone with an eye on history was ready to conclude that this would not end well.
The first problem was that not all teams immediately switched to discs. Why this didn’t happen is a mystery. Component sponsors have enough clout by virtue of what they pay as sponsors to dictate what the riders use. It’s one thing to allow riders to choose between different models of a manufacturer’s bike line, but mixing disc and rim brakes in the peloton is asking for trouble.
The second problem was that this was one technical advancement the pros didn’t particularly want. That’s not news. Pro cyclists are known to be slow to accept new ideas. Zipp went to great lengths to convince riders of the Garmin team that their wheels were strong enough for Paris-Roubaix, only to have Magnus Backstedt DNF because he destroyed his wheels on the cobbles. Getting riders back on their wheels required a bit of diplomacy and outside-of-race testing. The Zipp Firecrest 303 is arguably one of the most desirable wheels for the pavé these days.
Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo should have shown up to their sponsored teams’ training camps with disc-equipped bikes for the riders to begin trying on training rides. They’d have done well to do what Specialized did with journalists when they introduced the Tarmac disc: they took us to a descent with both the disc and rim brake Tarmacs and lets us do the descent repeatedly to experience both. Strava made it possible to analyze times on the descent and see firsthand how the later braking afforded by discs enable a rider to reach the bottom of a descent faster than if they were using rim calipers. Pros may be superstitious and change resistant, but they want to go fast. It’s rare that a rider can’t be led to seeing how better equipment will lead to a better performance.
The third big problem was that issues of neutral support hadn’t been adequately addressed. People weren’t convinced that you could swap wheels without the rotor rubbing a pad. With 10-speed drivetrains, neutral support had to carry both Shimano and Campy wheels. No one had done sufficient research to know whether there would be issues with swapping wheels.
The fourth problem—and this was their biggest issue—was not listening to rider concerns for safety. Some of the initial reaction was completely knee jerk (Why has no one’s arms been up exclaiming the danger of that buzz saw mounted to the bottom bracket?), but it wasn’t without merit. While it’s completely unreasonable for the pros to say they deserve to ride what they want and still be paid by equipment manufacturers, when someone raises a question about safety, they deserve to be heard, and answered. Riders and fans alike have wondered why the sharp edges of rotors haven’t been rounded off to eliminate the sharp edges. Considering how complicated the construction is of so much of what the riders use, adding another step or two to refine the disc rotors would not have increased their expense wildly.
But now the disc experiment has been boarded up. Fran Ventoso, a Spanish rider with the Movistar team was injured at Paris-Roubaix, and he says the cut he received came from a bike with disc brakes. That said, we don’t know for sure. He reports that he managed to avoid falling on other riders in a crash and stayed upright, but once he began pedaling again, he noticed something wasn’t right and looked down to see the cut.
I can report from my own experience with picking up a cut on my leg from a bike that there aren’t a lot of nerve endings in that area, so it’s easier than you think to miss a cut of that nature. It’s also true that everyone around me immediately blamed the disc rotor, mostly because I had a horrific cut and there were discs on my bike. I was amazed how everyone insisted the discs were at fault without so much as looking at the shape of the cut. As it happens, the cut came from a pedal, not the rotor, something we could verify thanks to the blood on the pedal. Maybe it’s just natural to leap to conclusions when disc brakes are involved. My point here is that there are other sharp objects on a bike that can cut you. I’ve got questions about how a rotor would need to be positioned to cause such a shallow cut, a la a deli meat slicer. My point isn’t to say he’s wrong, but that without the benefit of seeing blood on a component, we don’t really know. It’s also true that this was convenient enough to the cause (if not Ventoso’s season), to allow the rush to judgment against discs. I don’t think there are many people outside of Osaka, Chicago or Veneto who really wanted the truth.
This thing is an orgy of blame. Blame for the component manufacturers for not doing more proactive PR with the riders and for not making sure that wheels could be swapped between brands, blame for the riders for being so close-minded, and blame for the UCI for not guiding this better.
The shame is that I know disc brakes are truly better in performance, if somewhat heavier. They’ll get better. And I know they’d allow pros greater control, which would allow them to descend faster and maybe avoid some crashes. But none of that matters. The pitchforks are out and we are unlikely to see pros on discs again for a couple of years.