To Disc or Not to Disc? A Consideration of the Issue Bogging us Down
To disc or not to disc? That is the age old question posed to every buyer and seller of carbon framed goods. It's prominence, when placed in conjunction with pitiful stop gaps such as gear ratios, bottom bracket torsional stiffness and church wall Instagram chic, cannot be overstated. It has occupied the recondite minds of history's gargoyles and it's greats; Henry V rallying his numerically inferior troops at Agincourt, clover tunicked Josef Stalin with his finger on the Purge button, between the blonde prime ministerial frills of a pontificating Boris Johnson, all of them obsessed to the point of importunance - do I go disc? Ok, perhaps I'm overegging it's historical relevance somewhat, but, the point remains that despite these technologically tumultuous times in which industry after industry harks back to past methods of production under the prevailing yet apocryphal pretense of geological sustainability, mid to high end cycle equipment is going the whole hog and innovating. Disc brakes are flavour of the month, they're this season's boutique expert recommendation. Yet as the hydraulic disc brake pitch flails from the billboards in our cycling metropolis, I'd say it's time to examine a) the disc brake's efficacy and b) the passage down which these advancements may lead us. Are said components just the product of media marketised chintz; glitzy offerings flung from a deceitful rep's briefcase, or are they indeed a shining example of things to come? So let's scrub some speed from this often heated, vitriolic clash and give the system a good bleed.
Laughter as the Russian dictator hears of Trotsky's rim brake proclivities © RIA Novosti
First on the list of issues to be mollified; the differentiation between bike riding done on the road and the same activity done off it. Hydraulic discs, as commonly referred today, a shiny metal rotar glistening in the noon day sun, it's hose spooling, clamped to the side of a Fox 36 suspension fork; zip tied by convention, or rooted glamorously through a miniscule blade of carbon, largely hidden under the mask of integration, have a divine purpose and home off road. It's worth pointing out, as I chalk my scrutinous cue, that any dastardly long pots or incredulous safety shots I execute against the disc brake, are fired solely with road bikes in mind. Mountain bikers along with their distant intermediary gravel cousins, should be swept aside from this discussion as the dissent towards discs when tumbling down some welsh ravine or halting before a trail's checkpoint, have time and time again been harshly stopped in their tracks.
For a touch of context, the disc brake, as any solicitor, head teacher or jumped up City nerk might recognise it today (an amalgam of professions whom the industry have unwittingly marked out as their disc target market), sprung into being around 1987 with Formula's red anodised closed system. It had hydraulic lines taken from the controls of a construction crane and lightweight rotars coming straight from the vice and clamp of a local knifemaker. Fast forward some years later and not only would Britain's Redcar Rocket Danny Hart be taking the soggy 2011 Champery Downhill World Mountain Bike Championships by storm under the same system, but his on-road compatriots like Chris Froome and Simon Yates would also be charging up mountains on albeit the same products, save for a mighty four pot caliper or desk fan sized 203mm set of rotars. Other ever so slightly less fortunate genres of disc brake have tried to impose themselves on the market, including the lesser known ugly species of cable/hydraulic hybrid. A brake whose utility on planning paper is plain for all to see, but, whose functionality in praxis (a ghastly convergence of cable operated lever that turns mid route via a housing, into a hydraulic hose) leaves one feeling that the inventors ideas are rubbing, somewhat harshly, against realism's sintered pads.
It may be obvious to state when penning an article discussing the topic, that disc brakes probably have as many retractors as they do proponents. The adoption of disc brakes on drop handlebar road bicycles which, for as long as a rear derailleur has existed, have featured more conventional caliper rim brakes, has upset manifold legions of what the otherside would coin fuddy-duddy rednecks, grasping onto cycling's past with as much vim as they do their beloved rim brake lever.
Both sides of the aisle seem to have their well guided reasons. Those supporting the motion that disc brakes are in fact the real deal, would cite the insurmountable power provided by a hydraulic system, the supposed reduction in maintenance borne from a concept that uses fluid over a cable, and the unexplored benefit - one which I personally found to be the greatest box ticked - of increased overall ride rigidity from the 100mm and 142mm axles required to facilitate the discs. Those against the motion would probably adduce that excessive force on brakes in the pro peloton is sheer overkill, especially in a culture where brakes are said to be as abstained from as erythropoietin. Just the other day, Bahrain Victorious' Matej Mohoric appeared to misjudge the appropriate force needed to slow him into a sweeping left hander, a stunt that first sent him over the handlebars and concurrently out of this year's Giro. Other disc related incidents include Miguel Angel Lopez's harem scarem aquaplane into a wall at the 2020 Tour's soapy opening stage. The Columbian's back wheel ferociously skidded in a move that looked more befitting for a speedway rider than that of a Grand Tour contender. Again, the maintenance argument, to the opposition, could be seen as an a priori surmisation. Disc brakes have a distinct tendancy to allow air into the system, a problem whose remedy might set you back £30-50 in your local bike shop or 45 top tube banging minutes in the garage of a home mechanic. A bothersome task neither Danny Hart nor Simon Yates, I would wager, ever have to undergo. An improvement in stiffness is one thing the critics can't hurdle. They may instead argue that "stiffer, lighter and more aero" (the mantra of any shop floor assistant worth their salt) is a continuation of the industry's meretriciousness, and the perpetuation of such claptrap contrasts with other sale tools, like 'comfort' and the much loved peculiar adage 'rideability'. Anti-disc activists may also say that, with the exception of INEOS Grenadiers and a handful of Pro Continental teams, the sur le coup roadside wheel change is a luxury of times gone by. Unless you happen to have a mechanic equipped with a pneumatic drill and mastery in the arts of the automotive pit stop, the chances of the unlucky sufferer of a puncture getting back at it quickly, are very slim. In the flurry, the Directeur Sportif or neutral service now revert to handing over a brand new £15,000 bike from their rooftop flock. In keeping with the motor sport metaphor, such radical on the spot repairs would be comparable to Fernando Alonso's Alpine F1 team carrying a spare chassis, just in case the Spaniard's left front should go up in tatters. This, to any balanced viewer not burdened with the biases of business interests, is where the argument for disc brakes begins to lock up.
Nevertheless, ameteur and modern professional road cyclists, however contractually obliged the latter may be to act in such a fashion, have taken to this new branch of technological 'innovation' in the same way they have electronic shifting and chunky mirror-lensed glasses. Momentum behind stratagems of hydraulic deceleration are only gaining in speed. The pervasiveness of our little metallic friends is inescapable, as Eurosport's Sean Kelly babbles characteristically with a hot chip in his mouth on the whys and wherefores of that day's particular parcours, the great mass of the peloton drags it's way up a picturesque incline, the industry's radiant future glinting from the bottom 80% of it's forks. We've certainly come a long way since disc brake's inception, since the chunky levers first poked a peephole through the WorldTour curtain. Attitudes towards them have moved very quickly; original concerns of your discs being 160mm scythes ripping the calf of your nearest rival, giving 'cutting edge' technology an entirely new definition, are now examples of far flung fear. To a newbie in his first forays of the sport, disc brakes would appear to be the status quo, a product's regular accompaniment; the absolute done thing.
Rim brake propaganda: Ineos' Ganna and Bernal leave discs to eat their dust. © Getty Images
Before 2018 for example, a race contender on discs would've shocked and appalled the handbag slinging cycle community. Some (and I'm not excluding myself from this viewpoint) might be of the opinion that the industry's biggest players needed a fresh revolutionary idea to flog to the masses. It seems that I can hardly pen a piece for Casquettes and Bidons without prodding my finger in the political pudding. Yet to a sceptic, the idea that Specialised, Trek, Giant, Scott, Cannondale and any other members of the big table suddenly stumbled upon and marketed to an almost devilish effect, era-defining technology that resulted in every consumer needing discs and thus needing a new frame and wheelset to be shortsightedness of the most egregious kind and unforgivable ignorance of the top brass' motivations. Perhaps the most famous disc brake defector is Australian YouTuber Durianrider. In his opinion, the famous five, alongside smaller companies, have collectively shouldered the rim brake into the barriers, wiping out model runs of the older caliper brakes hand over fist. Sigma Sports, Bike Radar, Cycling Weekly and other popular content creators are fully paid up members of this new wave according to him, skewing reviews to portray discs in a more favourable light and accepting hefty paychecks in return. I don't think things are quite so nefarious; Durianrider isn't a man free of scandal by any stretch of the imagination. He's stumbled into spats and has made Twitter beef his meat and drink over the last couple of years, gaining popularity since his excoriation began. I feel that he may be grabbing too much lever here though, sending his indoctrinated fanatics skidding from the straight and narrow of acceptable brake discourse.
Chris Froome, himself heavier and less efficient since his unfortunate crash, stoked the blazing row when he detailed his thoughts on Israel Start-Up Nation's new Factor Ostro VAM race bike in February of this year. In the 5 minute video, Froome says that he's "not 100% sold on [discs] myself", and enumerates their "constant rubbing, the potential for mechanicals, the overheating, the disc becoming a bit warped", all said through a cheeky grin, while the industry considers its riposte.
A ringleader for the rims: Froomey don't like a disc. © Chris Froome via Instagram
As the heat dissipates from this sticky merging of viewpoints, the question begs. Where do we go from here? How will a miscegenation of discers, non-discers and disc agnostics manifest itself? It's clear that discs are going nowhere; their monopolies only increase with every victory by a disc-fitted rider, which itself is an approaching statistical certitude. Sram, Shimano and Campagnolo's loyal Opposition can tally victories and crashes all they like, archiving Ineos and (occasionally) UAE Emirates; legendary hanger-oners, nostalgic big shots to whom the inducements of organisations to ride discs are mere pennies in their deep pockets. Disc brakes are, in my view, simply something we have to do. They tie perfectly with the progressive ethos of the upcoming 20's. Boris and his Brexit coterie 'building back better.' Meanwhile we all get hopelessly entangled in the brake argument, throwing our two pence worth in, when in fact we should unite under the common banner of cycling, and slow the hell down.