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by James Huang
June 10, 2016
Photography by James Huang
CyclingTips learned in May that the short-lived disc brake trial period for elite-level racing was to be provisionally reinstated this month but last week’s planned meeting between the three key invested parties didn’t go as smoothly as some had hoped. There was some progress — namely, that disc brakes are now officially legal worldwide for mass-start amateur events such as gran fondos. However, discs continue to be banned for elite-level racing such as this month’s Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour de Suisse, as well as UCI-sanctioned events on national and international calendars.
The disc brake debate came to a head in April, when Movistar rider Fran Ventoso very publicly claimed that a gruesome leg injury he suffered at Paris-Roubaix was the result of a disc brake rotor. The UCI quickly reacted by halting the disc brake trial just three days later, and without first confirming the veracity of Ventoso’s account — a decision that not only affects the sport but the industry as a whole.
Since then, a forensic study commissioned by the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry (essentially a lobbying group for cycling companies) concluded that Ventoso’s injury was more likely caused by a chainring, not a disc rotor. Ventoso also has never named the rider whose rotor supposedly cut him, nor has he or his team been willing to comment further on the topic since the forensic findings were released.
Despite that apparently convincing evidence, plus industry assurances that rotors would nonetheless be provided to racers with rounded edges moving forward, the effort to reintroduce disc brakes into the pro ranks continues to meet considerable resistance from professional rider groups, who oppose even the option for individuals and teams that wish to use them.
According to a statement issued by the UCI after last week’s meeting, “[The use of disc brakes] in events on the international or national road race calendars remains suspended at the request of the Association des Groupes Cyclistes Professionnels (AIGCP), supported by the Cyclistes Professionnels Associés (CPA).”
There’s still some confusion on the legality of disc brakes at regional levels, however. While the UCI statement suggests that discs are not allowed for any national or international races that are sanctioned by the sport’s world governing body, national federations may still wield local authority. [CyclingTips reached out to the UCI for additional clarification but had yet to receive a response before this report was published.]
“USA Cycling is continuing to allow disc brakes,” said USA Cycling’s technical director, Chuck Hodge. “This is a continuation of our allowance — or rather a continuation of the fact that we have never not allowed them for road events under our regulations. Our initial discussion with the UCI (pre-ban) were that they were supportive of the national federations making their own rulings on the subject for domestic events. Our understanding from the UCI’s conversation with other federations is that this continues into the present.
“It is important to note that the UCI never created a regulation allowing for the use of disc brakes; they merely extended an already existing, but limited, test of the equipment to all UCI teams in all events,” Hodge continued. “It was this test extension that was stopped. As such, we are basically in the same position as we were last year as far as USA Cycling regulations are concerned.”
Disc brake proponents can look to one semi-bright point, however. The UCI has officially approved the technology for amateur events (such as gran fondos) but whether local federations can enact their own local bans is currently unclear.
“In the area of equipment, the UCI Management Committee approved a clarification to its regulations to make it clear that the use of disc brakes – already widespread – is authorised in mountain bike, trials and mass participation (road) events. These clarified rules are applicable with immediate effect.”
Industry sources contacted by CyclingTips believe there is a chance that disc brakes could still be reintroduced at the professional level before the Tour de France but those hopes are growing increasingly dim. Not only are bike companies unable to singlehandedly force the sport to accept the technology, but they also don’t want to be perceived as bullying their sponsored riders into doing something they don’t want to do. Either way, only the UCI can make the final decision, which is rife with political implications on both sides of the issue.
While the process for legalizing disc brakes in top-level competition has been anything but seamless, there is nevertheless widespread sentiment that it will happen; it just may take longer than anticipated. One such proponent is none other than former professional Cadel Evans, who spoke to CyclingTips on the topic during an event in Italy.
Evans made history by being the first Australian to win the Tour de France in 2011, but he also brings a unique perspective to the subject, having first began his 20-year professional career with seven years on the mountain bike World Cup circuit. He was also known to be one of the top road descenders at the time, and perhaps holds a more critical view on the role brakes play in racing as a result.
“It’s like most things in life — people are comfortable with the status quo and often resistant to change because you go into the unknown but it’s change for the better. I was in the change when disc brakes first came to mountain biking in the 90s, and there was some reluctance from riders there. They were mostly for reliability issues but thanks to the world of mountain bikes, those reliability issues are all history now. Now, I wouldn’t think of having a mountain bike without disc brakes because of evolutions that have passed and the changes that have been accepted.”
For Evans, the appeal of discs lies is their predictability and finer level of control, not any false claims of increased ultimate braking power (which is always limited by tire traction).
“In my personal riding experience, [discs provide] fantastic performance and brake modulation. It works the same every time you pull on the lever, which allows you to brake much later going into corners and carry more speed through the apex of the corner, which then results in higher exit speeds, which results in going faster, which results in a big grin on your face. I don’t think [the objections have] anything to do with the technology or the capabilities of disc brakes. In fact, after using it, I’m quite sure it’s not.”
Evans feels that the rider objections are rooted more in how disc brakes complicate support logistics — in particular, wheel and bike changes in the event of a puncture or other mechanical failure.
“In competition, you have the issue of wheel changes, neutral spares, and space on the roof of cars for spare bikes. In a Grand Tour, you have nine riders, and I think a car at the moment can just fit nine bikes on there but that’s it. So if the team leader has two or three punctures in a short space of time, it becomes an issue, and for that reason, riders might feel a bit nervous and uneasy about it. At that point, that’s probably where there’s just a little bit of doubt when your whole career is pretty much judged by the results you have at the end of the year.”
Still, there are the oft-repeated claims by current racers that disc brakes will result in an increase in serious lacerations or burns due to sharp and/or hot rotors. Evans doesn’t seem all that concerned, however.
“As a former racer and a current rider, I don’t want to get hurt, either! If there is a risk, of course, we don’t want to have anything that’s going to cause injury but I personally think safety would be greatly enhanced if everyone in the peloton had disc brakes because when it rains, you’re going to have the capability to brake in any conditions, and that will far outweigh any possible — and very minute — chance of being cut or burned from one component of the bike, which isn’t even that exposed at all.
“If you’re going to be cut by something, it’s going to be a chainring or brake lever or something that’s on the exterior of the bike. I do have a couple of scars on me — one or two teeth in the back of my leg — but trust me, it wasn’t a normal crash I was having for that to happen.”
In Evans’ opinion, disc brakes will eventually make their way into the pro peloton and everyone will benefit in the end.
“After the riders ride them and get used to them, and the mechanics and the teams and suppliers get used to them, they’ll wonder why they were reluctant to use them because they do perform so much better. In two years, they’ll all be wondering why they were arguing.”