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Commentary: Disc brakes and cycling’s leadership vacuum

The idea of self-driving cars freaks a lot of people out. Emotionally, it’s terrifying to think about what might happen if the computer controlling your car shut down in the middle of an intersection. But, logically, it seems clear that a computer won’t be nearly as fallible as a human who is…

The idea of self-driving cars freaks a lot of people out. Emotionally, it’s terrifying to think about what might happen if the computer controlling your car shut down in the middle of an intersection. But, logically, it seems clear that a computer won’t be nearly as fallible as a human who is driving while texting, reading billboards, or thinking about what to make for dinner.

I say “seems” for a reason. The truth is we don’t know yet. That’s why Google, Apple, and other companies — with government approval and oversight — have spent several years and millions of miles testing self-driving cars and collecting data. Even when Google recently suffered the first crash ever to be caused by one of its cars, the experiment was allowed to continue.

That’s because, if and when the government decides to legalize self-driving cars, it will do so only after the data has conclusively shown that they are safer. And once the decision has been made, it will stand. When the inevitable first fatality happens and the Luddites lose their minds, the authorities will have more than enough data to put the isolated incident in context and see the wisdom of staying the course.

Compare that to how professional cycling has handled disc brakes. Just months into a trial period — ostensibly run to collect the data necessary for a final decision — the UCI ended things after one isolated incident. And, as road.cc’s Mat Brett pointed out with great detail, there are legitimate reasons to believe that disc brakes had nothing to do with Fran Ventoso’s injury.

I’m not downplaying the severity of the gash to Ventoso’s leg. It was a terrifying wound. But while he blames a disc rotor, he says didn’t even know he was cut until a short time later, after he had already started riding again. So even he can’t say for sure a rotor was the culprit. Yet based on that single data point — that might not even be relevant — the UCI has killed disc brakes in the pro peloton.

“Killed” might be overly strong. But we’re not likely to see disc brakes back in pro races for a long time. Introducing them was contentious enough. Reintroducing them, after validating any and all fears by removing them, will be much more difficult. (For the record, I ride and love road disc brakes. But I’m also very happy with rim brakes.)

The truth is there probably wasn’t enough data yet to justify this experiment in the pro ranks, nor was there enough data to justify ending it. Both decisions are emblematic of a power vacuum resulting from a dysfunctional governing body.

In 2005, the Harvard Business Review detailed the corrosive cultures of what it called “passive-aggressive organizations.” These are companies and organizations in which “no decision is ever final,” “good information is hard to obtain,” and there is either “too much control at the top or not enough.”

That last point is an important one. The Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid UCI suffered from too much control, because those men ran it almost as a personal fiefdom. They didn’t tolerate dissent, and that intransigence created rifts that splintered professional cycling.

Current president Brian Cookson, to his credit, pledged to decentralize UCI control to give more people a voice, with an eye toward patching up those rifts and unifying the sport.

I don’t envy him his job. The UCI has to deal with various groups working at cross-purposes: riders, manufacturers, anti-doping authorities, sponsors, and race organizers. I’m convinced that Cookson’s intentions are good — that he truly loves cycling and wants the sport to succeed. (Why else subject himself to the thankless job of UCI president?) But it’s safe to say he has overcorrected. There is now not enough control at the top.

Ideally, the UCI would be strong enough to tell industry trade groups that they must present more complete data before disc brakes will be allowed in the pro peloton (the risk of cuts seems like it would have been a straightforward thing to study), and also strong enough to stand by its decisions. An organization in which no decision is ever final can’t move forward. How can anyone make plans when the ground is always shifting beneath them?

The industry isn’t blameless here. I completely understand why manufacturers want to sell more product. They’re businesses, after all. And, like them, I rather enjoy making a living. But by pushing the UCI to test disc brakes before the pro peloton was ready, they antagonized racers and created a climate in which a single injury that we don’t even know was caused by a rotor was grounds for banning disc brakes.

Yes, taking the extra couple of years to collect data and let pros warm to the idea before introducing discs into races would have been tough. But however long that might have taken, the entirely avoidable events of the past week have likely set the whole endeavor back even farther.

Nor are pro riders blameless. They are wedded to tradition and reflexively emotional about any changes to their equipment (which is completely understandable). One gets the sense that most of them were looking for any excuse to get discs banned.

If I’m being honest, journalists, including myself, also share some blame. We’ve criticized the cycling world for dragging its feet on discs and also criticized races for allowing them before the technology was race-ready.

But having groups working at cross-purposes or acting irrationally is normal and is, in fact, precisely why governing bodies are needed. The only way to navigate these big, multi-party situations is via an organization with final authority.

When seat belts started becoming standard in automobiles, there was fierce consumer and industry resistance. Wild ideas took root, including that seat belts would trap people under water and that it was actually safer to be thrown from crashing car than to be secured inside it. Luckily, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (which is also regulating the self-driving car experiments) looked at decades of data, and seatbelt use became the law.

With the way the UCI handled both the decision to try out disc brakes and the decision to kill the experiment, cycling’s governing body — which is already being undermined at every turn by ASO — has ceded even more of its authority. The UCI introduced disc brakes at the behest of manufacturers and pulled them at the behest of riders. And ASO is still taking the Tour de France out of the UCI WorldTour. So who’s in charge?

We can’t say who won this week. It could very well be that discs are safer and that pros will be missing out. It could be that consumers are better off with discs but that pros should stick with rim brakes. It could be that manufacturers were premature with discs or, conversely, that they’ve been 100 percent correct. But the experiment that would have answered those questions is over for now.

What is clear is that as long as the UCI continues to function as a passive-aggressive organization, everyone in the sport loses. Even the ones who think they’re winning.