Disc brake experiment in Vuelta a España hailed as important step forward for pro cycling

by Shane Stokes


History was made in recent weeks with disc brakes making their Grand Tour debut for the first time ever. Permitted by the UCI as part of the ongoing trial into their use, the system appeared in the Vuelta a España when Trek Factory Racing rider Markel Irizar used discs on selected stages.

It was just the first step. The use of such devices will be far more widespread in 2016 as all WorldTour teams will be permitted to utilise them throughout the season.

In April the UCI set out the details of their introduction. It said then that all of the teams would have the opportunity to use such brakes at two events of their choosing during August and September of this year.

It added that testing would continue at all events on the UCI professional road calendar in 2016. Providing the experience was a satisfactory one, the systems would be officially introduced to the WorldTour in 2017.

“The aim is to eventually introduce disc brakes to all levels of road cycling,” said the UCI, making clear what the end goal is.

CyclingTips contacted Trek Factory Racing in relation to its experiences of using the new system in the Vuelta a España. According to Matt Shriver, the team’s technical director, Irizar was the only rider in the peloton to use disc brakes in the race.

The team selected him to use the Domane disc bike as he was the rider who best fitted the current geometry and size of the available model.

“He used it in some of the stages,” Shriver said. “We selected the stages we wanted to test him on based on the course profile, those with lots of descending, heavy braking, hairpin turns.

“Just something that would give us a good sample of different braking conditions.”

Markel Irizar (Trek Factory Racing, R) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) pictured in Estepona prior to the start of stage four of La Vuelta a Espana 2015
Markel Irizar (Trek Factory Racing, R) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) pictured in Estepona prior to the start of stage four of La Vuelta a Espana 2015

There was one slight complication: the team had hoped to also use them on wet days, thus testing them in slippery circumstances. However the race was an extremely dry one, with a minimal amount of rain.

That aside, the system was tested in other conditions and the verdict seems good.

“It has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Shriver. “Markel was blown away by the performance of the brakes. He has been really impressed with not only the braking power, but also the consistency throughout the lever pull.

“Even though you pull it really hard it is not completely locked up. It works almost like a car brake where it modulates really, really well.”

Cycling can be a dangerous sport and coming to a rapid halt is a clear advantage in some circumstances. Shriver gave an example of where the Shimano-constructed brakes made a difference.

“Markel was involved in the heavy pileup on stage eight where a lot of riders went down,” he stated. “We had three guys go down, even more. He said that he was the only guy who was able to stop in time.

“He said that he had that perfect test, the panic stop. He thought it might put him over the bars but it didn’t, he was able to stop really quick. He was blown away by how good they were.”

There was however one complication: the other riders in the bunch were on standard brakes and had greater difficulty in coming to a halt. This added to the difficulty of the situation; Irizar was hit from behind by a team-mate, although without any real injury.

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The question of safety

The problem highlighted on stage eight was that when one rider is on a braking system that is more effective, others will have difficulties in stopping as quickly.

This discrepancy within the bunch was one concern when the UCI said that the brakes would be trialled. Another was the claim that the discs could become hot enough to burn riders in the event of a crash.

Shriver acknowledged that these both were a topic of conversation in the peloton.

“On the first day, there was maybe a little bit of hesitation on the side of some of the riders. They are all on different teams and different bikes, but they all talk to each other during the race. A couple of them had concerns…one of the biggest concerns is just the safety of them.

“But I think after a few stages it was pretty clear that there wasn’t really much more danger than, say, a chainring or the spokes of a wheel moving.”

Irizar gave his thoughts on the new system early in the Vuelta.

“Many riders have been concerned about safety, like when it is really hot and if you crash it can cause damage by cutting someone or even burning,” he said. “So I think for the future Shimano may have to look at covering the disc, and once we are 100 percent sure that nothing can happen, then I think everyone will use it because for sure in the rain the [braking] difference is going to be huge.”

Shriver pointed out that the rear seat stay and the chain stay already afford some level of separation between discs and other riders, with those two tubes shielding the metal surface somewhat.

Still, if it is deemed necessary, he said that more can be done.

“For sure there would be a way to do a cover,” he stated. “If it was the case that discs were introduced and people were crashing and getting hurt, it would be something that you could do. It could potentially even make a bike more aerodynamic.

“It may evolve with all the disc brake movement that becomes just part of the way bikes are.”

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A third concern voiced by some is a question about whether brakes could fail suddenly. A small number of early users of disc brake systems have said that prolonged braking on descents – particularly in hot conditions – has led to issues where the brake fluid has leaked and the brakes have stopped working without warning.

For Shriver, this is a question that can be addressed.

“It is something that goes back to the components manufacturer,” he insisted. “We do a lot of research. Our partner Shimano does all that research before they are ready to come to the market with something like that. So no, it is not a concern at all for us.

“You can manage the heat with different size rotors and different pad compounds. It is not super common…it can happen. That is why with our wheels we spec our own brake pad, because we know that it won’t happen with those.”

For him, he argues that the current system in the peloton poses more danger than that which could be its replacement. “I think more people have the risk of riding a carbon wheel, heating up a rim and the tub exploding.”

Obstacles to overcome

A new system of disc brakes in the peloton would of course present challenges. The first is wheel changes; right now, the bulk of the peloton is on standard brakes, making it more difficult for riders on a newer setup to receive wheels in the event of a puncture.

Shriver said that in the Vuelta the team got around this by carrying spare bikes for Irizar. Of course relying on that comes with a time penalty; in races, there are times when neutral service is quicker to get to a rider.

Once disc brakes become more widespread it will be necessary for cars to have spare wheels and for those changes to be carried out as quickly as possible.

A complication with this is that disc brakes require thru-axles, which must be threaded into place during each wheel change. Shriver accepts that existing systems take a little longer to swop wheels than a standard quick release lever.

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This will likely change over time; once it becomes of paramount importance for changes to be faster, the technology will be tweaked. However he states that a portion of a delay is also down to a lack of familiarity with the newer setup.

“It’s more from an education standpoint…as mechanics are on the road, they are not really familiar with having to pay attention to lining up a disc rotor into a calliper,” he said. “They just slap a wheel in there into the dropouts and go, but this is a little bit more intricate. You have to think about putting that rotor right in between a calliper.”

Part of speeding up changes and also avoiding chaos is, he suggests, down to deciding on an industry standard in relation to thru-axles and rotor size. “With that, you can have everybody riding the same rotors. You can have neutral support with an axle system that is easy.

“Right now we are gathering extra information to say, ‘yep, disc brakes are the future.’ We can then work on figuring out those other pieces of the puzzle.”

“I think that in a couple of years everyone will love it”

Trek’s Domane disc bikes have been available to consumers for more than a year. Shriver says that the machines are one of the company’s ‘higher-selling endurance platforms worldwide.’

Given that an adoption of the disc system by the professionals will inevitably bring about an increase in sales – many consumers emulate the pros, after all – you might argue that he has an interest in selling the idea that disc brakes will be a big success in the pro bunch.

Still, there are logical reasons why discs could be better. They should limit the wide variation in braking performance between the current rims and pads, and greatly limit the incidences of tubular rolling and blowouts caused by hot rims.

There are arguments that wet weather performance will be more powerful and more predictable; that too is a plus.

The team plans to continue testing the wheels in the coming months. Both Irizar and Shriver seem upbeat about things thus far.

“I think it’s the same when the electronic shifting came…it had a negative reaction at first and now everybody loves it,” said Irizar. “I think that in a couple of years for sure everyone will love it.

“This is the first step, of course, there are some things we can improve. But this was Shimano’s goal, to have it tested in races to have the information. I think with some small changes that this will be the future.”

Shriver also says that evolution is needed and that improvements will be made. He sees the Vuelta experiment as being important in that regard, and said that work will continue.

“The idea here was just to get a good feedback on the performance and to see is it worth it…in other words, is this the direction that professional racing is headed?” he said.

“The verdict is we still need more testing, but I think now after what we did at the Vuelta, that really kicked things off. A lot of other teams are already asking component manufacturers for groupsets and they are also asking their frame manufacturers for bikes.

“I think it is going to quickly change to a point where it is going to evolve really fast now. Hopefully not too fast, though, because that is what we need to be careful of.

“It needs to be well-calculated and thought out process, because if everyone rushes to market with products that are not ready, then it can backfire. People will go back to ‘we don’t need disc brakes, because remember when this happened.’

“So, it just needs to be calculated. For racing there are a few hurdles that we need to get over and some standards.”

Still, he said that the Vuelta test showed that there are real benefits. “Markel didn’t get a chance to test the brakes in wet conditions, but he still felt like there was an advantage in the dry. He said he was able to carry more speed into the turns and to stop so much later.

“Other riders were on the brakes earlier setting up for the turn, but he could go in so much quicker and shut down so much faster than everybody.

“He felt it was an advantage. On a stage with a long descent, he felt that he could get away from other riders. It could be a real factor if someone had disc brakes and was very aggressive in downhills.

“Overall, this is really exciting. It changes the game, it changes it a lot. There is a lot of opportunity to use disc brakes to your advantage.

“There are a couple of little hurdles that the industry will quickly get over, then you will see disc brakes a lot more in the coming years.”

It’s early days yet, but all indications are that this will be the case.

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