Banned at the start line: National rules on road disc brakes cause confusion

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American team Cylance Pro Cycling recently crossed the border into Canada to compete at BC Superweek — a jam-packed event comprising nine races over 10 days. Cylance announced earlier in the year that it was making a full commitment to racing disc-equipped Cannondale SuperSix EVO Hi-Mod bikes throughout the entire season, and not surprisingly, brought those bikes with them to British Columbia.

The problem? While USA Cycling currently allows disc brakes to be used in mass-start road races, Cycling Canada does not. Per rule 1.3.025 N, “Disc brakes are not permitted in road cycling events (unless specifically approved by the UCI).”

Cylance riders raced their disc-equipped bikes as usual on the first night of racing, and to them, nothing seemed at all out of the ordinary. But at the Ladner Criterium the next day, Cycling Canada officials informed the team – at the start line – that its bikes were not legal for competition, and its riders would not be permitted to compete.

“We have been racing disc brakes all year,” said Cylance rider Justin Williams. “My only understanding until this point was that the UCI gave the ok for the bikes to be raced. The officials let us race the first night, a race categorized the same as Ladner. We literally had no idea anything was up the day of the race. The team went through its normal pre-race routine: we signed in, had our meeting, I even rolled through the line a few times checking out the course.

“They had a lot of opportunities to pull us aside and inform us of the situation yet no one said anything until we we lined up. It felt a bit personal to all of a sudden have things change, especially to have it happen while we were on the start line. I think there is a disconnect between organizers, officials, and riders.”

The team was therefore forced to scramble for replacement machines. Luckily for Williams, he was able to hastily borrow the rim-brake bike of Canadian teammate Joelle Numainville before the gun went off (and ended up winning).

Nevertheless, Cylance’s situation in Canada highlights the state of flux that currently describes the state of disc brakes and road racing. Are they legal or aren’t they?

UCI vs. national rules

After a decidedly rocky introduction, disc brakes are now becoming more common in the pro road racing peloton, with Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Flooring) winning five stage wins (so far) at this year’s Tour de France on a disc-equipped Specialized S-Works Venge.

Other riders are warming to the idea as well, but make no mistake — disc brakes are still very much in a trial period. While the UCI is currently allowing their use in road racing, the governing body has yet to explicitly approve them.

“The trial has been ongoing since January this year, with teams introducing disc brakes gradually throughout the season,” said UCI head of communications Sébastien Gillot. “The UCI Equipment Commission and its stakeholders — the riders, teams, organizers, service providers, and industry — have continuous discussions and assessment of the trial before any recommendations are made to the UCI Management Committee.”

As a result, the decision on whether disc brakes are allowed in mass-start events is currently left up to national governing bodies, and those rulings are anything but consistent.

On the one hand, USA Cycling has been decidedly progressive. The organization posted a statement on its website in May that explicitly allowed the use of disc brakes for any events that fall under its local jurisdiction, but aren’t on the UCI road calendar.

“We have always allowed [disc brakes] in USA Cycling road races since their introduction from the mountain-bike community,” said USA Cycling technical director Randy Shafer. “USA Cycling has been in contact with the UCI’s technical manager, Mark Barfield, to discuss this and make him aware of our allowance of this equipment.

“USA Cycling has reviewed four years of our most recent accident reporting and have not yet found any injury attributed to a disc brake being used,” Shafer continued. “We believe that our national membership is best served by the allowance of these brakes.”

However, other organizations, such as Cycling Canada, are taking more of a wait-and-see approach, usually following the current UCI technical guidelines to the letter. In other words, since the UCI hasn’t yet expressly approved disc brakes in road events, neither are they.

“The UCI have now restarted their wide-scale testing of disc brakes in the professional peloton as they monitor the situation with a view to permitting their use at all levels of the sport,” read a statement from British Cycling. “However while that testing phase runs, the existing rules remain in place, namely that disc brakes are banned in all domestic road and closed circuit racing.”

Current Australian federation rules technically do not allow disc brakes in road races, either, but it sounds like that may be changing soon.

“Cycling Australia has undertaken a review of the introduction of disc brakes and we expect to make an announcement shortly,” said Kipp Kaufmann, Cycling Australia’s general manager of sport. “There is strong support from our network and our goal is to see that disc brakes will be allowed for all local competition.”

Unlike what happened with the Cylance team, most consumers can’t count on being able to quickly secure a loaner machine if it turns out that the disc-equipped machine they recently purchased isn’t allowed in an event for which they just registered. Given the uncertainty that continues to linger regarding the legality of disc brakes in sanctioned road events, anyone looking at a new-bike purchase has some tough questions to ask.

For example, if you buy a disc-equipped bike, will it be legal at the events you’re interested in riding? Or if you buy a bike with rim brakes, but the UCI ends up approving disc brakes soon afterward, will that affect its resale value?

Full steam ahead on the industry side

The UCI and national governing bodies continue to wrestle with the legality of disc brakes, but there’s little ambiguity when it comes to the bike industry: as far as they’re concerned, disc brakes are the future, and officially legal or not, that ship has sailed. Despite the UCI’s waffling on the topic, more than a handful of companies are throwing their full weight behind the technology, with many even offering their newest models exclusively in disc-brake formats.

Giant was the first major brand to take this stance, launching its revamped Defy Advanced family of endurance road bikes in a disc-only format back in 2014 — well before there was much public talk at all about disc brakes being legal.

“With a three-year development cycle, we have to be able to see into the future — or at least we have to be able to bank on the future,” said Giant’s global product marketing manager, Andrew Juskaitis. “At the end of the day, we here at Giant all truly believe in the benefits of disc-brake technology on road bikes. We know it’s only going to get better with time, but even as it sits right now, we just believe that, if you’re racing or riding on the road, you are better off using disc brake technology.

“With that premise, we march forward in our product development, truly believing in disc brakes, and we spend the majority of our engineering resources focused on making the bike a better overall project with the integration of disc brakes on that bike. We are aware that there’s been a tremendous amount of flip-flopping with the UCI’s firm decision to go yay or nay, officially, with disc-brake technology, and that waffling is something that we obviously don’t like. It creates confusion in the marketplace, it can create issues with localized racing, or even consumers who just want to partake in gran fondo-type events. We don’t like it. But we’re trying to see past all of that, and we’re just banking on the future that the UCI will come to grasp that disc brakes have a place on road bikes and should be approved for all use.”

Either way, the UCI would do all of the road cycling community a favor by making a decision sooner rather than later. In the meantime, if you’re disc-curious, pondering a new bike, and even considering participating in a sanctioned event, be sure to check your local regulations first — because until the UCI issues its ruling, this cloud of confusion will continue to loom over all of our heads.

CyclingTips Australian tech editor Matt Wikstrom contributed to this article.

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