The UCI, cycling’s governing body, has a long and chequered history when it comes to disc brakes. Although it was adopted in mountain biking without any hassles, when it first spilled over into cyclocross, the governing body’s response was less than enthusiastic.
In fact, after a number of manufacturers had already introduced disc-equipped cyclocross bikes into their lineups, the UCI decided to ban disc brakes from January 2004. This was bad news for those who had invested in disc brake equipped bikes, and even worse news for companies like Cannondale.
Then, less than seven years later, and for no clearly discernible reason, it had a change of heart, and announced that for the 2010/2011 cyclocross season, disc brakes would once again be legal in cyclocross. They have remained legal ever since.
Of course, it was only a matter of time before disc brakes started making their way into road racing, which is the doorway to a much larger market, and after a couple of low-key, limited trials from August to September 2015, the UCI opened the doors to the use of disc brakes in the pro peloton, on a trial basis, in 2016.
Now road racing is a completely different ball game to cyclocross. The speeds are higher, there are large groups of riders riding in extremely close proximity, and there are also periods of extended braking. Although none of these issues might seem vitally important, the trouble starts when the first rider goes down. Quite soon you are faced with a big pile of bikes and bodies, and it is here that the disc brake can become a problem. Through braking, the pads on a disc brake can act like a whetstone on a knife, honing the edge of the brake rotor to a level of sharpness usually only found in surgical instruments. Add to that the heat build up that can occur with extended braking, and you add a burn hazard to the cutting hazard. At least that means that many wounds caused by disc brake could, at least in theory, be cauterised as well.
It is this surgical sharpness of a disc brake rotor in a crash that was apparently to blame for some rather nasty injuries that Francesco Ventoso (Movistar) suffered during a crash in Paris-Roubaix, and which led to a suspension of the UCI’s trial of disc brakes in the pro peloton.
However, it was not made clear whether the suspension would lead to a termination, or whether it was only to last until an acceptable solution to the problem could be found. Now, judging by reports coming out of a UCI equipment commission meeting, the on again, off again trial may indeed be on again, starting in June. Notes from the call, seen by reporters for cyclingtips.com, suggests that the trial may be restarted with modifications to the brake rotors, in this case rounded edges rather than the current squared off edges, with the shape of the rotor potentially also being up for review, back towards a more traditional round outer profile rather than the currently popular cut-out profiles.
Of course, with increased weight and complexity, worse aerodynamics, and potentially limited braking improvement offered in most racing conditions, it remains questionable whether disc brakes will ever move beyond the highly specialised challenges provided by spring classics like Paris-Roubaix. The high mountains of Le Tour may yet be very, very far off for disc brakes.