Disc brakes in the professional peloton — a pointless distraction.

I’ve been hearing worrying rumours that there might be luddites in the professional peloton? Atavistic and superstitious people in cycling? Perish the thought!

The latest round of “disc brakes are lethal” came up during the Abu Dhabi Tour when, after a multiple-rider crash that also included Marcel Kittel, Owain Doull, the young Team Sky rider, was injured. Rather incautiously, Doull blamed Kittel’s disc-braked equipped Specialized for cutting a hole in his shoe and injuring his foot*.

The crash occurred on the first stage when Doull hit a barrier, which, it was later shown, had some sharp, rusted metalwork. There was a ruddy mark around the tear in the lorica on his shoe, too. Following the crash, and Doull’s interview, the peloton, cycling twitter, and various internet forums blew up along the familiar battle lines:

  1. Discs are bad, they’re not ready for prime time
  2. The peloton is being forced by sponsors to use a dangerous device to sell bikes to the public.
  3. Discs are great, I won’t go back.
  4. What’s wrong with rim brakes?

Let me add a bit of colour, now, to each of these:

1. Discs are bad, they’re not ready for prime time

Disc brakes have been around on for a long time. They work beautifully on mountain bikes, and work very well on road bikes. The modest aerodynamic and weight penalties are just that, modest, and certainly won’t affect performance. The tired argument that they create unpredictable levels of braking in the peloton is entirely baseless. The rims currently used by riders — Zipp, Enve, Mavic, Canpagnolo etc. — all have different braking performance under different conditions.

2. The peloton is being forced by sponsors to use a dangerous device to sell bikes to the public.

Adam Hansen, surprisingly, rolled out the tired old trope blaming evil corporate overlords for workplace accidents. Imagine that, an equipment sponsor of a sport not exactly flush with cash, daring to use the teams they sponsor to sell products. What has the world come to?! Hansen is clearly happy with technology, he’s just a being a bit selective. There were a lot of people who came down really hard on carbon fibre in the early days, that frame failures would lead to injury and death, but Hansen hasn’t let that stop him creating a business selling lightweight carbon shoes.

3. Discs are great, I won’t go back.

They are good, and will be better as soon as all manufacturers adhere to a standard around thru-axle specifications and rotor size. This is obviously happening in the professional peloton, and when it trickles down to us mere mortals, cyclists will have a much easier time choosing wheels.

4. Whats’s wrong with rim brakes?

Nothing, I have multiple road bikes with rim brakes. Often these arguments come from the same people who still can’t see the point in electronic shifting, 11-speed gearing, and power meters. Technological change will continue with or without you, it is entirely indifferent to your opinions. The impassive march of innovation in the cycling industry really doesn’t give a shit if you think we should have stopped at 9-speed or that press-fit bottom brackets are the worst.

Back to Owain Doull:

I understand that his comments were made just after the race, and he was probably hungry/in pain/in shock or whatever, but they were daft. He clearly hasn’t had proper media training.

Media training didn’t stop Chris Froome, however, from sticking his oar in:

My prediction: these guys will start evangelising disc brakes like cheap tent revival pastors as soon as Shimano and Pinarello want to to start marketing a new disc-brake road bike.

Doull’s post-race outburst has already been widely refuted by by just about everyone, including the bike industry. This incident and the Francisco Ventoso wild goose chase last year, show a pattern of embarrassment that proves the peloton and even the UCI are hopelessly credulous. There are plenty of things on a bike that can injure you, not least spinning spokes and 53-tooth chainrings. The intransigence towards disc brakes is part of a long tradition of professional cyclists being hostile towards new technology, usually to their detriment. Most famously, Laurent Fignon, in the 1989 Tour de France, lost the final stage and the race to Greg Lemond who used a more aerodynamic setup. The failure of French teams in adopting modern training methods, searching for those final few performance percentage points, has, in no small part, seen them unable to put a French winner on the top podium of their own national race.

Ultimately, I’m a little shocked that the risks to rider safety by race vehicles and road furniture — dangers that are orders of magnitude higher than bike equipment — aren’t getting the same levels of coverage and scrutiny. Despite the death of Antoine Demoitié, the career threatening injuries to Taylor Phinney, Peter Stetina and others, all we’ve had are vague promises of investigations and inquiries from the UCI. One dubious story last year at Paris-Roubaix about disc brakes, and the UCI banned them without asking the obvious questions. I suspect that this is a helpful divergence for the UCI, and they’ve happily fuelled the distraction. Furthermore, the riders’ union (the CPA) and its president, Gianni Bugno, need to find better things to do with their time than writing letters to the UCI about disc brakes.

This entire issue is a red herring. Cycling has many more pressing problems, from the underfunded women’s side of the sport to doping. The UCI certainly aren’t helping their credibility issue, and it’s time for Brian Cookson to show some strong leadership, starting with proving the UCI itself isn’t hostile to technological progress. I mean, who can forget the sock height debacle.

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*Here is Doull’s full quote (LOL, I know):

“My shoe was cut to pieces. That’s definitely a disc brake that has done that,” said Doull.
“It’s gone straight through the shoe into my foot. It’s lucky that’s not my leg to be honest. If anything I’ve come off lucky there, if that’d been my leg it would have cut straight through it, for sure. You’ve seen my shoe — it’s gone straight through that.”
“Nothing else could cut like that, it’s like a knife, it cut straight through it. You can see that thin line, it’s exactly in line, cut there and cut there on my shoe and both straight through in an arrow-straight line.”

post script:

Here’s a bit of photo evidence that calls Owain Doull’s story into question: