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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cross Post: Disc Brakes, The UCI and Innovation

My Taiwan Bike

I think just from looking at my bike, anyone can tell that it is really not fish nor fowl... of course not... it is a friggin' bike. But besides the poor comparisons, it is, if anything else, a fine example of a brief period of time when bicycle manufacturers were playing with the concept of the cyclocross bike.

I have CX geometry, cable routing, and clearance. I have extra-light scandium tubing similar to some road bikes a few years ago. I then built up the bike to handle mostly road conditions, but with stronger (heavier) wheels. For the most part my bike can pass as a road bike at first glance. The most glaringly obvious difference is my choice in brakes: Shimano BR 505R Mechanical Discs.

For a period in the early to mid 2000s, CX bikes, which traditionally run cantilever brakes, were being outfitted with disc tabs. Manufacturers hoped the popularity of disc brakes in mountain bike racing might, pardon the pun, CROSS over to cyclocross. The biggest problem with cantilever brakes is that they are just not very powerful with poor modulation. Well... they can be made acceptably powerful, but it takes some rigging. Anyways, some companies led by Avid (BB7/BB5) decided to market disc brakes to work with STI levers as a better stopping brake that could be lighter than their hydraulic counterparts in the mountain bike world, and used in CX racing. Between about 2003 and 2006 a few companies produced frames and forks with CX in mind. The light disc crosser made several appearances on the websites of well known builders, but in the end the trend tapered off.

Salsa, the manufacturer of my bike, ended up taking all the elements behind my bike's "purpose" and diverting them into three other bikes; the cyclocross racer in the Chili Con Crosso, the utility-cross bike in the La Cruz, and the dirt road bike in the Vaya... but the all in one, race/dirt road/disc equipped multi-bike was gone.

There are several reasons for why disc brakes have not become more commonplace on more types of bicycles. Most critics of disc brakes cite "weight" as the predominant issue, with the average set of mechanical discs adding approximately one lb. to a bike's weight. Another issue has been safety. There are some riders who fear a white-hot rotor searing off a limb in a pile-up. The third major issue is that disc brakes are "overkill" for cyclocross racing and therefore are unnecessary for CX bikes.

In my own opinion I think the criticism stems from two primary sources.

The first is from the corner of the "cyclocross essentialists" (now watch as I essentialize), who revel in promoting and preserving a romantic view of olde time racing like in the golden age of European cyclocross racing. These are the types who are keen to determine how "real" a cyclocross rig can be base on its material composition and on the austerity of the component group. This is the "steel is real" crowd who believe the term "cyclocross" is reserved for racing cyclocross only. If the bike is not raced then it is not a CX bike. This would mean there are no cyclocross bikes sitting in bike shops as they have not been christened in a race. The same logic would make a steak knife only a knife until it cuts a steak, or a running shoe just a shoe, until you have run in it. I figure the geometry is for CX, which is also good geometry for other things, and therefore a CX bike. The cyclocross essentialists view the disc brake as sacrilege. Let's face it, a lot of people care what others think about their bikes and don't want to be perceived as a Fred. Disc brakes are like wearing scuba flippers to a state dinner.

The second point shares some sentiments with the first, but it more focused and concrete, beyond conjecture and my own perceptions of how others perceive they are being perceived.

Until this year the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), the world governing body for organized bicycle racing, did not sanction the use of disc brakes in cyclocross racing. The effect of such a rule might seem minor as few of the races that are conducted each season are actually sanctioned races under the UCI guidelines. Although there had been talk of allowing disc brakes in UCI races for years, it seemed like the annual appeal of the issue would forever remain D.O.A. The UCI has a reputation for being a stickler for tradition and a wrecking ground for many innovations. The UCI's ban on the ultra-aero Specialized Shiv TT bike, which had formerly been allowed to race, has become somewhat of a warning to all, of the volatile and seemingly arbitrary sentiments of the Council of Grand Old Men at the UCI. The whim of the UCI can translate into a multimillion dollar fiasco as manufacturers must change their designs to placate the official rule makers. Companies who would like to market a cyclocross bike want to see it doing its advertising out on the course and adhering to UCI rules is a major part of that ability to advertise. Isn't that what a lot of racing is about anyways... advertising!

The race is where the street cred comes into play, which sells the bikes. If Lance Armstrong won a the TdF with ape hangars and foxtails, there would be a slew of manufactures producing a cavalcade of Schwinn Stingrays for an eager public. The race provides a symbol of authenticity for the buyer, a security blanket, and plays on the fantasy side of cycling. We would all love to ride like the greats and as athletes we keep pushing ourselves to get better. We often rely on our equipment to make up for what we don't have in our legs, and sporting a bike that looks "professional" is one way to outwardly project one's aspirations (and insecurities). "You don't know me. I have exactly what Sven Nys is riding. I could be pro and you'd have no idea." The disc tab was just a very obvious symbol that the rider is not racing in UCI races and their legitimacy/authenticity could be called into question. The important factor is to "appear" to be legit. With so many people hoping to buy the aura of legitimacy and authenticity, it is no wonder the disc never caught on and manufacturers had little incentive to devote resources to engineer smaller, lighter and better disc brakes.

That is... until the new UCI ruling on discs.

Even after the ruling there was still some shoulder shrugging and debate over whether the industry would make any moves back toward the disc brake, or if the ruling would be an arbitrary footnote.

Stevens Disc Crosser

The answer came sooner than expected.

Stevens has been showing a disc equipped prototype of their cyclocross bike at this year's Eurobike expo and the company seems ready to move forward with development for a 2012 launch. There may be other brands to follow with their own disc equipped rigs. Now, if the companies would like to sell disc equipped rigs, all they have to do is put a few under the buns of their sponsored riders. It is rarely about what the riders like, but rather what they are given to promote. There is nothing preventing discs to appear at the WCC.

I hope this latest swing toward disc brakes sparks some more innovation from the component companies to better refine the technology and bring better products to the consumer.

Now, with the UCI's blessing, we could be seeing some really interesting things.

Canyon Project 6.8


  1. My mouth is watering at that Canyon Project.

  2. Yeah, I would totally switch over if they work better and are lighter.

  3. The carbon Lapierre CX bike that Francois Mourey is currently racing has a rear disc mount and routing for it, but the stock Easton EC90 fork on it does not have mounts of course. It appears as if frame manufacturers are ready to respond quickly to a demand for disc-equipped framesets should demand present itself, especially on the high-end since the smaller volumes are a little more flexible. However, the engineering/manufacturing task of a light-weight disc caliper suitable for use with integrated road levers is probably going to be the hold-up. Once the weight of those systems comes down, I'm sure that the pro riders can easily be swayed to endorse them.

    Yet I think you may have overestimated the effect of "street cred" on the availability of disc-tabs on road/CX bikes, at least as far as frame manufacturers go. It may be a small cost to design and build bikes with the tab, but it would cost more than say a chain don't see those on bikes and race bikes all used to have them. But a chain hanger has proven not to be a critical selling point on a bike, much as disc tabs were in the era of the UCI disc ban. If they don't help sell the bike, larger manufacturers will eliminate them on high volume bikes to save money. The cost savings are multiplied many times over, thus being worth it to the company in the long run. The same tactic explains why many manufacturers spec' garbage pedals on their box bikes.

    OK, sure, Colnago is more concerned about street cred, since Sven doesn't use them.

    Keep in mind also that almost no 130mm OLD disc hubs exist (ignoring Bontrager) and almost all road and CX bikes are made with that spacing.

    If I were a product developer, I'd be all green on disc-equipped frameset once two conditions were met: 1) world cup riders use and win with discs (=high profile advertising) 2) those discs are widely available to Cat3 and masters racers (=potential consumers with $$$). Once those conditions are met, every manufacturer will rush to market disc-equipped bikes with much fanfare, and then brake technology will trickle down to entry-level within 2 years or so.

    I've felt good about the Tektro CX-9 mini linear-pull brakes I've used in a few CX races this fall, but I now that Seattle has had snow and will probably have more I really wish I had discs for commuting on the icy, hilly streets. It's less than fun.


  4. oh, to clarify the previous comment, I meant to sum the first couple of paragraphs by saying that disc tabs weren't really a stigma that pushed away consumers so much as they were an extraneous feature that did not contribute to selling bikes.

    also, I meant to say that current "road" discs (Avid BB7 and Shimano BR505) are powerful enough but are distinctly heavier than cantis and lack the modulation of a good road caliper. maybe those traits can be improved with enough development or maybe it will require a gestalt approach with an integrated shift/brake lever to match.


  5. MV,

    I hope you've shaken the jetlag. I was out on a ride yesterday and was thinking about a post you might be interested in. It will take a while to craft, but is surely on the way.

    Thanks for the detailed response.

    I agree with a lot of what you wrote.

    This is almost a catch 22 scenario. Someone has to podium with discs to get the manufacturers to start pushing them. Manufacturers have to start pushing them to get someone to podium.

    I have talked to a few guys here in the bike industry who say that the big frame companies WILL make a new marketing push with discs beginning in late 2011 and 2012.

    It'll be like composite frames. They need to go out and tell everyone how much better they are. The key will be having a light option on a 130mm hub.

    I did a (terrible) race a couple weeks ago in the rain and the discs really performed better in the hilly downhills. Safer. A lot of guys lost it coming off the hill. With a couple taps my brakes were bone dry.

    Thanks again!