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VeloNews tech department predictions for the new year: disc brakes and electric shifting everywhere

An electric-shifting, hydraulic disc-braking road bike is in your future. It's just a matter of when.

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Disc brakes are showing up on 'cross bikes, as shown in this reader-submitted pic by Brian Kadan

Product development being a multi-year process, and tech editors being a notoriously jaded bunch, it can be hard to pinpoint the launch date of game-changing product developments. We often get excited about mere concepts — spied at a race or a trade show — that suggest future seismic shifts in the marketplace.

So in 2010, for example, the Big Three component companies, Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo, did not introduce any major new road groups (although SRAM’s budget Apex group, with its super-low gear compact gearing, is notable).

But, last year you could actually buy and ride some new technology that was first revealed in 2009. We’re thinking of Shimano’s heavily redesigned XTR group and Trek’s Speed Concept TT bikes, which brought the Kamm tail, which we first wrote about in 2009, to the cycling world.

In a similar way, in 2010 we got excited about hints of some new developments that MIGHT hit the market in late 2011 or later. Shimano will bring out an Ultegra Di2 group for the 2012 model year (its exact ship date is unknown) and Campagnolo is getting closer to coming to market with an electric group. In the realm of speculation, hydraulic disc brakes could hit the road and ‘cross markets in a big way soon.

Before our predictions, let’s take a look back at some more developments from 2010:

The past

Avid’s Ultimate Shorty cyclocross brakes were game changers, in that they were the first ‘cross brakes that actually work.

And the era of wide rims seems to have finally set in. Hed’s super-wide offerings, Zipp’s new Firecrest rim shape, and a wealth of nice wide mountain rims from Easton, NoTubes, Mavic and others has started cropping up. But that trend has crept slowly onto our radar, deprived of the splash we tech writers live for.

The future

Disc brakes — everywhere!
Mountain, cyclocross, and perhaps even road. The UCI rule changes this summer have paved the way for discs in ‘cross. Now the technology just needs to catch up. Redline has had road and ‘cross bikes with discs for years, and Volagi showed a sweet new disc-brake-equipped road bike at Interbike last fall. But those bikes have cable-activated discs. I want to see hydraulic road levers.

Redline's Conquest Classic
Redline's Conquest Classic shows how it's done with cables.

We’re a few years down the line before discs make a dent in the ‘cross market, and even farther away from seeing them on the road in a big way— if we ever do. The UCI would have to legalize them for road racing first, of course.

Right now we’re pegging SRAM for the first hydraulic-equipped road lever. Hydraulic brakes, for ‘cross first, make sense. Even with a tiny, light little rotor (100mm? 120?) they’d have plenty of power in all conditions. They’d also be lighter than the cable-actuated options currently available.

It could be a team effort for SRAM. Avid, owned by SRAM, does disc brakes better than just about everyone already. Plus SRAM owns Zipp, who could perhaps be the first major carbon rim manufacturer to ditch the brake track.

That said, we see the greatest opportunity for hydraulic discs with road levers in conjunction with electronic groups. There’s enough space for a master cylinder in those levers, which are devoid of the mechanics required for cable actuated shifting. Come on Shimano, hup hup!

Why hydraulic discs? Because cantilevers are terrible, as a rule, and get even worse as conditions get wetter or icier. Plus, as carbon rims continue to gain market share both inside and outside of racing circles, their deficits in the braking department are becoming alarmingly clear, even during normal road riding. Overheating can cause tubular glue to soften to the point of danger, and carbon clinchers to blow tires right off. Braking performance in the presence of water is downright shameful. Imagine how light carbon rims could be if there was no need for a brake track at all (although that would be balanced a bit by the need for beefier stays and forks). Mountain bike rims are largely disc-specific these days, making them lighter and stronger than ever. Road rims could easily follow suit.

There was push-back against discs on mountain bikes, remember. That seems absurd now, but the technology wasn’t there. The same applies here — once manufacturers catch up, we’ll wonder why on earthy we hung onto cantilevers for so long. I just wish they’d hurry up.

More electronic

Campagnolo electric components
Campy's electric rear mech

Dura-Ace Di2 is remarkable, and its possibilities have only begun to be explored. From Shimano, we’re expecting an Ultegra level electronic group to be debuted soon. That means Di2 (the “D” in Di2 doesn’t stand for Dura-Ace, it stands for Digital) bikes for well under $5,000, hopefully under $4,000.

Campagnolo has been testing its own electronic group, with working prototypes seen at the 2011 Giro d’Italia route presentation, and plans to outfit the entire Movistar/Pinarello ProTeam squad with the group. That means it could be available to consumers as early as 2012 — definitely by ’13.

SRAM spokesmen have said over and over that they’re not getting into the electronic game. But with Campy and Shimano on the bandwagon, and prices dropping down to attainable levels, they may have to revise that position sometime soon. Who knows, maybe even Mavic will get back in the game. Actually, no, scratch that one.

We can’t wait for electronic mountain groups. Rumor within the industry is that an electronic group for the dirt is being tested in Japan. After the most recent mechanical XTR release, it’s unlikely we’d see an electronic version sooner than 2013, even if it is ready for production at this very minute (which it is not).

Even if the rumors are false, we can’t imagine NOT seeing an electronic XTR group in the next few years. The technology is simply too good to leave it to the road. And we already know Dura-Ace Di2 is quite durable — people have been using it for cyclocross, and even modifying it for their mountain bikes for some time now.

In the end, the VeloNews tech department is prepared to say that electronic groups will hold a large share of high-end markets within the next decade

Increased integration
I foresee both equipment integration and integration with other cyclists, regardless of their location. Actually the latter was a prediction from VeloNews’ stellar Photo Editor, Brad Kaminski, but I love the idea.

Trek Madone DuoTrap
Trek's Madone DuoTrap - the sign of things to come?

For integration within bikes themselves, look towards electronics. Trek’s DuoTrap is a fine example, integrating ANT+ Sport wireless capabilities into the frame. Expect more companies to include similar options.

Integration with other cyclists is an intriguing concept. As cycling computers advance, adding power, GPS capabilities and the like, you’ll be able to race your buddies across the country in real time. Virtual group rides, if you will.

Sharing and comparing rides has already become popular with sites like Strava, and the trend will continue. Eventually, your cycling head unit will have a data plan, able to stream ride data to the Cloud and back down to a friend anywhere in the world. As the Facebook generation matures, they’re going to want the ability to share rides — I think they’ll get it.

Think we’re crazy?
Think I’m a bit nuts? Have something else in mind? Let us know in the comments section below.