The UCI’s long-time ban on disc brakes in professional racing will be partially lifted in August and September of this year, when all professional teams will be allowed to test discs in two events of their choice.
Testing will continue through 2016, when teams will be allowed to test discs in all professional road events. If testing goes well, discs will be formally introduced to the pro peloton in 2017, with the goal of eventually bringing the technology to all levels of road racing.
The decision comes after years of deliberation between the UCI and the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry (WFSGI), a group that represents cycling industry interests, which was seeking to bring discs to road racing.
Though disc brakes have been common in mountain bike racing for over a decade, the technology has been controversial on the road, where concerns over wheel changes, neutral support, crash safety, and overheating have led the UCI to exercise caution.
“The industry is delighted by this news and also thanks the UCI for the very positive collaboration. This decision will further develop innovation and create new possibilities for the bicycle industry as well as additional performance for the riders. There is still some fine-tuning to do on detailed requirements for the procedure, but it is very exciting to finally have reached this decision. The remaining open topics such as neutral race support or the UCI and Teams protocol will be tackled soon,” said WFSGI Secretary General Robbert de Kock said in a UCI press release.
UCI President Brian Cookson also weighed in, saying, “Although disc brakes have been used for around a decade in mountain biking and for the last two years in cyclocross, their introduction to road cycling must be carefully studied in collaboration with all those who are directly concerned. That includes riders, teams, and manufacturers. This step is part of the UCI’s desire to encourage innovation in order to ensure cycling is even more attractive for spectators, riders, bike users and broadcasters.”
Discs were first introduced to cyclocross two years ago, and have seen slow but steady adoption in that discipline. Adoption has accelerated as technological hurdles have been overcome.
Two of the three major component producers, SRAM and Shimano, currently produce a hydraulic road disc brake system. The third, Campagnolo, is currently developing its own hydraulic disc system, but it has yet to come to market.
Hydraulic disc systems offer significant benefits over cable-actuated discs, improving power and modulation while adding key features like automatic pad wear adjustment. The advent of road-specific hydraulic systems are seen as key to the road disc movement.
The popularity of discs has been quickly rising among consumers. Most major bike brands now offer disc versions of some of their framesets. The industry, which uses professional racing to market its technology to consumers, has been a major advocate in the push for hydraulic discs in road racing. The deliberations between the WFSGI and UCI largely centered on how to bring discs into pro road racing, not whether they belong there at all.
There are myriad technical concerns, and not all have been sorted. That, presumably, is the purpose of the two test events in 2015 and the extensive testing that will occur in 2016. Axle standards have not yet been agreed upon within the industry, and the tight tolerances of a disc system mean that wheel swaps have a higher potential to result in rubbing or noisy brakes.
The technical hurdles can almost certainly be overcome. Safety concerns, particularly surrounding the effect of spinning, sharp rotors in large crashes, could still slow or halt the technology’s implementation.
Rider sentiment surrounding disc brakes has been mixed. Many have concerns over the sharp edges on disc rotors, which can easily slice skin when spinning. Others fear the potential for an increase in crashes due a dramatic difference in brake power between those with and without discs.
Some pros, like former world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), are worried if you add quicker-stopping disc brakes, it could provoke even more pileups in an ever more nervous peloton.
“If you crash on a disc brake, it can open you up. And if you get it on a vein, well, I am worried about the security. I would be more scared of disc brakes,” Gilbert said at a team camp earlier this season. “You would have to adapt all the material as well. Now they are made for braking with carbon fiber wheels, which is pretty slow. If we do this, we need to have the entire peloton on the same material. With the WorldTour teams, the Continental and Pro Continental teams, you could see some on disc brakes, and some not on disc brakes. With disc brakes, you can stop in 10 meters, but without, it takes 20 meters. It could create problems.”
Others, like classics star Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quick-Step), welcome the change. “The brakes are only for safety, and I don’t really get the point when they say you can’t really have any better brakes. Any other sport that has to go fast and depends on speed, like motorsport, they all depend on brakes. Brakes allow you to go faster. And much safer. And we can’t use those brakes,” he said last year.
Ted King (Cannondale-Garmin), whose team bike sponsor has a number of disc-ready frames available, is in favor of discs as well. “It’s a head-scratcher. I’m a fan. I had the privilege of using the [Cannondale] Synapse disc. Loved it. It’s a sweet bike. But ultimately, it has to be universal. You can’t have guys on disc brakes and guys on rim brakes in the same peloton. Sooner or later, hopefully it’s universal. There are some dangerous races out there, and better braking would make a big difference,” he said.