The trouble with discs…….

When I wrote Crime and Punishment I expected a torrent of disagreement and outrage. I was pleasantly surprised. I moved onto helmets and had a lot of excellent feedback. I did lights and no one called me out. Perhaps it’s the nature of wordpress rather than an un-moderated forum but, so far, I’ve avoided controversy. I did contribute to a thread on road.cc about discs and it was suggested I get back to my “competing website to review some more ropey kit.” At last some negativity. You can’t really arrive on the internet till you get that.

So I approach this topic with a little energy and some trepidation. These past few weeks have been a watershed in relation to the use of discs in the pro-peloton and, it seems, one of the more polarising topics in relation to cycling ever. Who would have thought that it would have been more controversial than helmets? Certainly not I.

So, you’ll be aware of the history. At the Paris Roubaix race a few weeks ago Fran Ventoso got a rather serious looking injury when he crashed in a bunch. You may have seen his letter, http://movistarteam.com/news/2016-4-13/open-letter-fran-ventoso, it’s well considered and emotional. You have to feel for him. His claim is that a disc brake caused his injury. As a result of this the UCI moved swiftly to suspend disc brakes in professional racing. Just professional road racing though. Not mountain biking, not cyclocross. It was only a trial anyway, it hadn’t filtered down to road racing generally.

So the suspension is the suspension of a trial. Not the biggest issue ever but the ramifications are potentially huge. The investment in the disc brake industry is there for all to see. Wander down to your local bike shop, particularly if it’s a big old chain, and you’ll see the clear evidence of what the manufacturers want you to buy.

There doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of sitting on the fence when it comes to disc brakes on road bikes. The against camp believe, for a variety of reasons which we will come onto, that disc brakes should not feature on road bikes at all, ever, period.

But, what is a road bike? I asked that and was told that it involved 700c tyres, skinny tubes, drop handlebars. When I asked what brakes I was accused of stirring. There was no attempt at an agenda from me in that respect. Think of it as a nudge to discuss the issue, what exactly is a road bike? It seems fairly obvious, it’s a bike used on the road. But we can use any bike on the road. The road is not a preserve of the 22 speed carbon, deep section racing bike. Is a gravel bike a road bike? Does it remain a gravel bike even when being used on the road? Does a road bike become a gravel bike if it ventures off course? Surely the type of bike being used by the audaxer is a road bike. And, perhaps the biggest question of all, “we don’t need no stinking discs,” who on earth is “we?”

Perhaps that’s my pedantry. Perhaps the real issue is that we don’t need discs on the types of bikes that the professional riders use. We don’t need them because they don’t need them. And, even if we need them, for the reasons we will come to examine, perhaps they still don’t need them.

Throw another question into the mix as well, and maybe this one is the bigger one, whether we are about to see the consumer industry in a divergence from professional sport. Where once the tail wagged the dog and later the dog wagged the tail, it’s possible now that the tail is going to go off on its own. The dog is going to look a little less pretty perhaps, but it’s still a really nice dog. We stand at a crossroads, in the fascinating world of consumerism and its relationship with the pro peleton, why are we now seeing professional riders being asked to ride what the manufacturer wants us to buy when there is little, or no benefit to them? Is that a reversal of the norm? Or just the norm being modified slightly.

There are so many issues. So many views. I like discs. I have them on two bikes. I use one, a flat bar, for commuting. It has hydraulic brakes and I use it on the road. It’s exceptional in the wet. I have cable discs on my CX bike. They’re not quite as good because they don’t have the “feel” of the hydraulic ones. But they work perfectly well. And my Supersix is a road bike, at least in the sense that I think that people are generalising the term. It has rim brakes and a braking surface. There’s nothing controversial about it. You could use it in the Tour tomorrow. No, really, you could. It has a nice little UCI sticker on it.

I’m fascinated by bikes. All of them. I walk past bike racks in town and look at each and every one of them and yes I know that’s weird. I find something to like in each bike I look at. Even the bike shaped objects have something that I find interesting. I think that the Cannondale Slate is a wonderful thing. I want a Colnago C60, Tomassini X-Fire or Epoca R60. I’d like another single speed. I want to try a fat bike. If I won the lottery I’d have more bikes than Jay Leno has cars. Bikes are the most amazing form of transport that we’ve ever created as a species. Perfection. And since the safety bicycle came along not a lot has changed. They’re still that diamond shape. They still have two wheels and a saddle above them. There are massive variations but, at heart, they are all the same thing.

The march of technology grows pace. The complex relationship between consumerism, real world usage and what the manufacturers want to sell us becomes ever more complex. For a time it was an easier world. The STI lever, carbon, the demountable tyre. They added something, the manufacturers saw an opportunity to get the professional riders to use them because they wanted us to buy them, but the truth was that there was a benefit, even if that benefit was slight. For a long time what the pro rode was aspirational for the amateur but the amateur could still derive that benefit from it. Probably. It rather depends what that thing is.

A friend once suggested that index shifting was a solution in need of a problem. I take his point, but indexing is certainly likely to be more reliable in terms of being in the right gear most of the time. Of course, if your gears are out of whack there’s something to be said for the fine tuning of friction. I think it’s probably hard to argue against the demountable tyre. And electronic shifting? It’s certainly very lovely, particularly when it’s wireless, but necessary? But hey, electronic shifting never hurt anyone. Deep section wheels? Yeah, you go faster. Tri bars for TT? Check. But we’re getting into the specifics now. Things intended for certain tasks, things intended for gains, marginal or otherwise.

So what is the truth about discs? Is it even possible to say anymore? Well…….while they’ve been around on CX bikes for a while now, and MTB’s since, well practically the dawn of time, their explosion into the road bike scene has been a bit of a revelation. It does seem that every manufacturer now has a plethora of disc bikes in its range, virtually overnight. And there are some noted inclusions. Cannondale only make a disc version of their carbon Synapse, the fact that Colnago even make one is staggering, Storck have one, Cervelo have one, Team Sky have access to them. I’d wager that, had the recent accident not occurred, the Tour de France would have been full of the things. But now? They’re likely to be absent, certainly this year, maybe for good?

What price progress? What price technology? Imagine it this way. The bicycle was never invented. Someone gives you a diamond shaped frame and all the bits that you need. But, they say, there’s a problem. We don’t know how to slow it down. So you think, and you consider, and you look at the transport solutions around you. And you decide to use some rubber blocks to create friction on a machined surface on the outside of the rim. You think, that’ll do.

And the truth about discs is that most forms of transport use them with a minimum of fuss because, frankly, they are better. Better, it’s like road bike. It over generalises. The truth about discs is that it requires some further examination. Of all the bikes I own the one that gives me most pleasure to brake on is the Supersix. Provided that the road is dry, the blocks have not been contaminated with GT85 and there’s little dust build up on the rims then the braking experience is heavenly. It’s tactile, powerful and effective. With aluminium brake tracks, it’s sublime. But it’s not always that way. Introduce some dirt and you can feel it, it nags at you, makes it feel less than perfect. Introduce some rain and it becomes a little bit of a lottery. Is there enough grip between these pads, these wheels, these tyres, this road? Which bit is going to cause me to come off? Was it the brakes……

And the theory is that discs are better. At least equal in the dry, much better in the wet. And if something is at least equal and better then it must be better. A mathematical conclusion based on interpretation of language. But, again, it’s not that easy. Discs are great in the dry. You might hear that they add more modulation, more variation allowing you to control the braking force easier. That’s an over generalisation. Some do as do some rim brakes. Poorly set up disc brakes can have poor modulation. Better in the wet? Almost certainly likely to be the case. As long as you can live with the potential for squealing and don’t imagine that you can’t hear the grit either, don’t imagine that it’s a digital experience, don’t imagine that it’s sanitised. And that exists in the dry as well. The setup on my Ritchey Swiss Cross with TRP Hy Rd was sublime. In dry weather braking the discs hummed. In wet weather? No idea. Not my wet weather bike. How about the Shimano SLX on my Bivio? Superb power, superb one finger modulation, often a bit gritty feeling in the dry, sometimes squeal in the wet. More power than my rim brakes? Undoubtedly. More power in the dry than rim brakes in practice? No.

For me the jury is out. I do think that they are better, but that over generalises type, pads, discs, setup, weather, rider, frame, fork. I could go on.

And I’ve been a proponent of the disc brake. If N=1 then, insert sad face. But if N=1 then the most important thing is riding your bike. Discs do inspire a bit of confidence, you’re more likely to go out in the wet. Your wheels are likely to last longer. If N+1 then don’t worry about it. Get one with discs for those days, get one without for the others if you want.

And beauty? Well, it’s in the eye of the beholder. Apparently the purists believe that discs ruin aesthetics.

c60d_2

That’s a Colnago C60 disc. No, really, the discs are there. Is that what you looked at? Or did you admire the lugging first? Or shudder at the presence of Dura Ace on a Colnago?

How about a Kuota? Spot the discs? I had to look twice. I don’t find it particularly nice, but it’s not the discs that are killing it.

kryond-ultel-16-1200

What about the Dogma? Ugly because of the discs? Or ugly because it’s a Dogma?

dogma_f8_disk-1024x570

They might look better with rim brakes, the C60 certainly, but it’s pretty hard to understand the “kill it with fire” response that disc brakes seem to provoke.

So far, so meh. Probably a bit “better,” possibly a bit uglier. What else is there? Well, weight for a start. Yes, they add weight. Yet many of them still make the UCI 6.8kg limit. Indeed, adding discs is possibly preferable to adding lead weights under the bottom bracket. It’s quite easy to meet that limit in the pro tour. And, for you and I, a 7.5kg disc equipped super bike is still fairly good……

It does rather limit your wheel choices. Or, at least, there just aren’t quite so many. But the explosion in those has been fairly radical in the last year. There’s something for every budget, hell Zipp have one in their range as well.

And then there’s the safety. We’ve bolted chain saw blades onto wheels. It’s asking for trouble and that trouble is now here. Of course, discs have been there for years in the MTB scene, but we’re told that road biking, whatever that is, is more dangerous as a result of discs. That’s possibly true, the mere addition of one more factor must, on any risk assessed basis, just be that tad more unsafe. And the straw man of “what about motorcade riders, helicopters, neutralised stages and people with dogs,” is rather beside the point. Those things are unlikely to go away because they are necessary or, at least, a rare inconvenience. But do we need discs? Can we make them safer?

The mailbags of the big sites have been full of people asking the questions to which, currently, we can only guess the answer to. But Lennard Zinn is a pretty good guy to ask so it’s worth having a look at this.

Lennard Zinn on the tech of discs

It’s fair to point out, of course, that all sorts of things have caused accidents over the years. The disc question goes beyond that and asks whether/whatever accident causes a crash, would an injury have followed with calipers? The manufacturers have been asked to consider whether the edges can be rounded off. The jury is out on that too. Some think it might work, others think, at those small thicknesses, it may make matters worse. Is the answer to install fairings? It’s an interesting idea. And, of course, much of this contributes to one of the bigger issues relating to professionals using discs, standardisation. What size rotor is best? What size is likely to cut flesh the least? What about thru axles? What about alignment? What about wheels from the neutral service car? Give me back my simplicity. The peloton want to go old school.

And then the knee jerked and jerked again

And that’s that for now, it seems. If you’re planning on a trip over the channel or, it seems, doing the Tour of Cambridgeshire, you way want to check whether you can use your disc brake bike. It may be that we see Sportives in the UK follow suit. You may want to get your dusty old rim brake equipped bike out of the shed. It may be that you’re about to be marginalised based on anecdote.

That’s where we’re at. It’s actually a pretty sorry tale. We’re at the point of divergence. What does the dog and/or the tail need to do?

So, I say this. Let the peloton do what it wants and, for the love of whatever deity you follow, don’t aspire to them. Do what you want. And, to the industry, give them what they need, give us what we want. We’re at a crossroads now. It’s going to be fascinating to see how demand drives design and how fear drives de-evolution. I’m not sure the norm has been reversed. The pro peloton is a testing ground and always has been. The crucial difference this time round is that the thing that they’re being asked to sell to us may not be to their benefit and, it seems, may well be to their detriment.

Discs have a place in road riding because road riding and road bikes defy categorisation. They are many things to many different people. If discs have no place in racing, so be it, ban them. Just don’t let the disc “experiment” die because the professionals are put at risk by it. Let them get on with their rim brakes, they’re welcome to them. Let those of us who want discs keep them.

In 50 years we’ll look back and laugh at this blip. We’ll certainly have moved on. Sensory electronic shifting, wireless brakes, nano tech puncture proof tyres. That frame though, bet you it’ll still be diamond shaped.

UPDATE: 3rd May 2016. So, it seems that the TDF will feature discs then after a Doctor seemingly concluded that the injury to Ventoso was a chain ring rather than a disc. Oh dear, and oh well. Looks like it was all a little premature then.

COMMENT

My good friend Jon posited this after I wrote the piece. I won’t add too many comments here, this isn’t road.cc but it’s a good perspective to have.

“The UCI gets a lots of things wrong but last week they made the right decision. Indeed, that decision ultimately righted the wrong decision they made in introducing a badly thought out trial at the behest of bike manufacturers. I can’t think of any other example of consumer-level tech being imposed on the elite levels – it doesn’t happen in any other sport or any other area of cycling kit. It’s a sales strategy by manufacturers. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but let’s be honest and open.

Even Brent Copeland, whose Lampre team are all on discs and is a long-term advocate, thinks they shouldn’t be used in their current form in elite racing and should have covers. As for the Etape etc ban, it’s unfortunate but understandable. The front of these events is propbably just as competitive and quick as some lower UCI races. More importantly, they’re protecting themselves against potential legal action until the UCI make a final judgement.

So I really don’t understand why there’s a fuss (unless you’re planning to do the Etape and have disc brakes, in which case I sympathise). Ride your chosen bike, in your chosen way, and enjoy yourself!”

And, I agree, at least in part. I think the question over who leads who, and who should lead who, is deliberately left open. And I’m not convinced that the wet commute analogy is a separate issue, see yesterday’s (Liege) race for example. I think what’s ultimately fascinating is that your point about transference is correct, on no other occasions has the amateur sales drive pushed the pros into this position. Safety and classicism aside that’s not without some humour.

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5 thoughts on “The trouble with discs…….

  1. Ugly because it’s a Dogma!

    I’ve never ridden a disc brake equipped road bike so I can’t comment. My only experience is an el-cheapo Halfords mountain bike that had a front cable disc and I don’t think that’s a fair comparison (it was rubbish by the way, worse than the rear rim brake). All my bikes have rim brakes, makes all my wheels interchangeable depending on conditions and my mood.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. N+1 helps me there. And identical wheels on my two disc braked bikes. You should try a road disc at some point, particularly with SRAM Force or Shimano RS685. They’re pretty damn good. In fact, my wheels, the Pro Lite Revo reviewed on here, are only 1550g. Not bad for discs.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Definitely ugly because it’s a Dogma, and how comical is it that one of the most expensive production bikes is ugly because it’s it?

    Other than that, I find it amazing you wrote around the issue with that many words! I’ve got three: They are better. They can also be exceptionally dangerous in a crash.

    The rub is, if the UCI bans them and I buy a new ViAS disc and decide to race, well then I have to buy another ViAS, and that would be a bummer.

    Liked by 1 person

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