I’ve never been excited about them, but when the UCI decided to allow them, and more bike companies were putting them on road bikes, I began to surrender. I even went so far as to defend them to my friend Kurt, a lamenting traditionalist who was belly-aching about the new technology. Although I didn’t completely disagree, I joked that the bike industry was progressing with or without his permission.
Besides, he still rides steel, so what does he know?
As easy as it is to argue that hydraulic disc brakes and wireless shifting are the way of the future (and maybe they are) it appears that Kurt was right too – and this is putting USA Cycling in a tricky position that it needs to address quickly and with great caution.
The UCI suspended the use of disc brakes in the pro peloton after a nasty crash at Paris Roubaix that reportedly resulted in one rider being sliced open by a rotor. The French Cycling Federation then did the same, essentially banning them for all amateurs in French competition, leaving many wondering if USA Cycling will follow suit.
To be clear, even though discs have been banned by the pros in the past (and will continue to be, at least for the foreseeable future) they have always been legal under USAC rules. In fact, one could argue that USAC could simply maintain a policy that has always been in place, but doing so would be to ignore major environmental changes.
Disc brakes have been historically uncommon at road races because bike manufactures were not designing road bikes with them. On occasion, you may spot someone with a cross bike, but other than that, it has been a non-issue.
However, once the UCI announced that it would legalize them, bike companies rolled out several road models with disc brakes, naturally believing that consumers will want to emulate the pros. The surge in availability will lead to an inevitable rise of disc brake bikes in amateur pelotons, regardless of the UCI’s reversal, essentially creating a situation where, if USAC keeps its current policy, it is condoning their use.
Inaction becomes action.
But if bans are rooted in minimizing risks to riders, then discs must offer clear benefits that make those risks worthwhile. Otherwise, why allow them?
Without a good answer, it will appear that USAC is more concerned with bike companies’ profits, and their relationships with those companies, than the safety of riders and the development of the sport.
Personally, it’s hard to see a good reason road or crit racers need disc brakes. Yes, they are better in the wet and on poor road surfaces, most notably with carbon wheels, but those benefits are marginal at best.
For a comparable example, you need to look no further than the ban on time trial bikes in road races; we would all be faster if we used them, but that advantage is not worth the injuries that would occur.
Furthermore racing discs in crits and road races may not only be more dangerous during a crashes but may also create more crashes than they prevent as they provide riders with too much stopping power. This will be particularly true at the entry levels as those riders often over-brake while learning to carry speed and take lines properly.
Potential injuries aside, disc brakes will also result in riders spending more and getting less on new bikes. Entry-level and mid-level race bikes that come with discs will also offer lower quality drivetrains or wheels than in the past. For example, I have always felt that an aluminum frame bike with a Shimano 105 or Sram Rival group was a great starter bike for any beginner looking to race. Most major manufacturers offer those bikes for $1,200 – $1,800, which isn’t cheap for a first-time buyer, but it isn’t terribly unreasonable either. To add disc brakes, companies are either going to lower the quality of the drivetrain to keep the costs the same or move that bike up in price.
Either way the bike is going to be heavier than it needs to be while adding nothing in return because those bikes do not come with carbon wheels, which is where disc are needed if they are needed at all.
The UCI and the FCF clearly believe disc pose a serious threat to rider safety. If USAC is going to continue to allow them, it needs to provide us with clear reasons why, or at least strong evidence to the contrary.
Otherwise, for an organization that has been heavily criticized for being more concerned with profits and business relationships than the development of the sport, USAC will be making a dangerous PR move that could result in injuries far beyond that of public image.