Will the UCI’s disc-brake ruling impact major bike brands — or will consumers even care?

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MONTEREY, CA (CT) — At last week’s Sea Otter Classic, Scott Rittschof, senior vice president of global marketing at Cannondale, bumped into Slate Olson, vice president of global marketing at Specialized. In passing he joked, “Want to buy some disc brakes?”

It was a moment of levity regarding a serious situation for bike manufacturers.

With last week’s announcement by the UCI that it has suspended the use of disc brakes in professional road racing, the cycling industry’s major bike manufacturers are left scrambling on their 2018 product lines, which are currently being finalized — if they haven’t already.

The news comes two months after Bicycle Retailer and Industry News reported that the industry was sitting on nearly 250,000 more bikes in unsold inventory at the end of 2015 compared to the end of 2014, a 44% increase year over year. The extra inventory caused Specialized, Trek, and Giant to discount their 2016 model year bikes.

And now, with 2017 bikes already in various states of production, major manufacturers are being forced to recalibrate the implementation of disc road on high-end race bikes, which may or may not be ridden at the sport’s highest level in the coming months and years.

At the Sea Otter Classic, CyclingTips spoke with managers from Giant, Focus, Specialized, and Scott, both on-record and off-record, about how the UCI decision will impact their 2018 product lines. Reaction varied, from frustration to indignation to indifference.

“As we’re working on model year 2018 and 2019, we are considering heavily investing into road disc,” said Andrew Juskaitis, global product marketing manager at Giant Bicycle, title sponsor of the Giant-Alpecin squad. “All of our product development is with road disc in mind. With this development, we need to have an emergency meeting very quickly to discuss if we’re going to continue pursuing our road disc program, because we always rely on our team to prove our product first. That’s how we operate; if the team doesn’t race it, for the most part, we’re not going to sell it to consumers. So we need to have a very serious discussion, immediately, to determine how this ruling will affect future product development for Giant.”

The UCI statement, dated April 14, called for an immediate suspension of the “trial of disc brakes currently being carried out in road races” upon request by the Association Internationale des Groupes Cyclistes Professionnels (AIGCP) following injuries suffered by Movistar rider Francisco Ventoso at Paris-Roubaix — injuries believed to have been caused by a disc rotor in a pile-up. The request was supported by the Cyclistes Professionnels Associés (CPA), the group that represents pro riders.

The statement added that the UCI would continue its “extensive consultations on the subject” through its Equipment Commission, while reaffirming that rider security “has always been and will always remain its absolute priority.”

Several members of the UCI Equipment Commission, including Rolf Aldag, Bobbie Traksel, and Pascal Chanteur, are former professional racers, while commission member Robbert de Kock is Secretary General of the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry.

Some marketing and product managers called the UCI’s decision a “knee-jerk reaction,” pointing to the fact that a rider was killed by a race motorcycle, with no immediate rule changes, while a rider was possibly, but not definitively, cut by a disc rotor, drawing an immediate ruling that impacts not only bike brands, but the livelihoods of their employees and all those who work at retailers that carry these brands.

“If this reaction — and it seems to be a reaction, as I know there are a lot questions surrounding this incident — really does become something permanent, it’s going to make us have to consider pretty significant changes,” said Olson at Specialized, bike sponsor of Etixx-QuickStep, Astana, and Tinkoff. “For 2018, the date to make those changes has already passed, to some degree. We could scramble, and we could do a lot, but ultimately, for us, we’re working quickly within the industry to see if we can get some sort of resolution with the UCI in the coming month to give us an idea.”

Others suggested that this UCI decision could mark the definitive moment when brands no longer showcase their flagship models through professional road racing, and instead focus on the end consumer, who might prefer technology not allowed at the sport’s highest level.  Pile-ups are a reality in professional racing, however they are not a concern for most consumers.

As it stands currently, bicycle racing is still one of the only elite sports where everyday consumers can still buy the same gear as the top professional riders – something unheard of in other equipment-intensive sports such as automobile and motorcycle racing. Should such a split occur, cycling may become even more unusual in that amateurs will actually have access to equipment that performs better than what the biggest stars can officially use in competition.

“One of the questions we will need to ask ourselves — because we are pretty far down the road already, with product development — is that maybe our team doesn’t race on the product that we’re selling to consumers,” Juskaitis said. “Maybe this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and that says, okay, we have the team, and we want to win races, and we obviously want them to be racing on Giant product, but maybe we stop creating state-of-the-art product for our team, and start focusing directly on the end user who isn’t entered into UCI-level events.”

Perhaps the bigger question the industry faces is whether or not pro team sponsorships directly influence the number of team-replica bikes sold — or whether it’s more about simply building brand awareness.

“If you think about it, this separation of what 99% of cyclists are using, this separation from that population and the UCI elite road racing, that’s already been happening,” said Zack Vestal, bike marketing manager at Scott Sports, which sponsors Orica-GreenEdge and IAM Cycling. “You can always justify having a professional road racing team, from a brand statement perspective, or brand positioning. The UCI and its tech decisions are grossly and increasingly irrelevant to everything else. We’re asking this question now, while the WorldTour still has to ride 14.99 pound [6.8kg] bikes, while the rest of us having been riding 12-pound [5.4kg] bikes for the last five years.

“I still want disc. I think most of everybody else wants discs,” Vestal continued. “If that means Heinrich Haussler, or whoever else, can’t ride disc, well, it’s a bummer for him. But everyone else still can, other than several hundred professional road racers. Does this decision affect our production runs? Honestly, no, because everyone else wants disc road bikes.”

Jeff Rowe is the operations manager at Focus Bikes USA, a subsidiary of the German brand that sponsors AG2r La Mondiale. Rowe said that it’s “too early to tell” if the introduction of disc brakes on road racing at UCI WorldTour level was going to impact sales, and that if the UCI rules out racing with disc brakes, it wouldn’t likely change Focus’s production run plans for 2017 and 2018.

“There is a question about how many bikes you sell, based on your pro team, and how many bikes you make that a pro team would never ride, which are all the bread and butter of the bicycle industry,” said Rowe. “And that’s not going to go away. Those who have ridden disc brakes know what the advantages are, and what the disadvantages are.

“I don’t think the WorldTour sells the bulk of bicycles that are sold,” Rowe continued. “At the WorldTour level, it’s very much a branding exercise — keeping your brand recognition high in bike shops. I’m not sure that the consumer is going to care that their favorite pro team is running caliper brakes if, on the shop floor, there’s a caliper version of the bike and a disc-brake version of the bike available. A racer is usually going to go for the lightest possible thing, and depending on the style of racing they’re doing, in endurance racing, or gravel grinding — which is the fastest-growing segment of racing — disc brakes are always going to be the best for that, because you don’t have to worry about caliper clearance, or tire size, and you don’t have to worry about your wheel going out of true. That’s where discs already have a foothold, and they got that foothold without any WorldTour team racing them. It’s growing. People want to ride it.”

There are points regarding the use of disc brakes in the pro peloton that can be argued either way. Could the danger of being sliced by a rotor in a mass pile-up be outweighed by the number of crashes prevented by their increased stopping power? It’s impossible to quantify.

However what is known is that the UCI’s decision is already impacting the industry, and it’s possible to envision a future where most major cycling events — mountain bike, cyclocross, triathlon, and time trials — are contested using disc brakes, while peloton-style road racing is not.

And further, because UCI article 1.3.007 requires that all bikes used in competition be commercially available to retail customers, manufacturers would still have to produce rim-brake versions of WorldTour bikes for consumers.

“I think it’s a fair question, does the pro peloton truly have a trickle-down effect, or should there be a different set of rules for pro racing?” Olson said. “There’s a lot at stake, either way. Ultimately, most of us are not Marcel Kittel. We’re in a different league, no matter what. So there is probably something to be said that it’s okay that there’s a distinction between the two. But we’re really hopeful that we can work together, as a group, and find a resolution that makes sense, and also makes it easy to advance on all fronts, because it takes a lot of effort and resource if we’re having to run two different games.”

Editor’s Note: After this story was written, the French Cycling Federation (FFC) announced that it would ban bikes equipped with disc brakes at all road events, including French sportives such as the popular L’Etape du Tour, which annually draws 15,000 participants. The full decision can be found here

Prior to the French federation’s ruling, USA Cycling CEO and president Derek Bouchard-Hall had told CyclingTips that the U.S. federation was closely watching the situation with the UCI.

“USA Cycling is still trying to determine what we’re going to do, with what we control,” Bouchard-Hall said. “What I don’t want us to do is be completely reactionary — to see one accident, and one data point, and then draw a conclusion based off of that. We need to be far more thoughtful than that. Our technical director, Chuck Hodge, is working on this right now. It’s difficult, when the UCI has a ruling — are we going to allow them, when they don’t? That’s a difficult position to be in. We’re just trying to think through it. We totally understand the impact it has on the industry, and the industry is critical to our sport. But safety is very important, and I don’t think we really understand the safety issue. It’s too early, isn’t it? There are a lot of things to consider. It’s difficult when you have a technical concern about safety, and it’s probably right to be conservative. Discs can also prevent crashes. It’s a complex issue. It feels early to make a decision, but we’re going to have to, and we’re still thinking it through.”

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