Disc Brakes Are Coming -- and Right Soon!

I recently rebuilt a carbon rimmed wheel for my customer Jessica; she had distorted the front wheel after a long descent, stuck behind a slow moving vehicle - forcing her to brake for long periods at a time. It was no problem for me to lace up one of my Fifty rims to get her back on the road but it got me thinking about disc brakes for bicycles.

In the past few months I’ve set up a number of bicycles with hydraulic braking systems from both Shimano and SRAM. We share premises with Stinner Frameworks and do all of their complete build-outs, more and more of which are set up to runs discs. I was happy with the relative ease of installation for each company’s products, but I was ecstatic with the way each system worked. Each offered smooth, controlled, and powerful braking, easily surpassing the best rim brake systems with which I have familiarity. So, disc braking is on its way onto consumers’ bicycles and into the professional ranks; it would have happened this model year if Campagnolo had a disc braking system ready by now. As it is, they’ve been given one more year to get something ready for the Pro peleton, so we’ll see discs getting the full UCI blessing for the 2017 season, accompanied by a comprehensive offering of discs on consumer product, maybe reaching down as low as the 700-800 dollar range.

 So, why the mixed reaction to discs?

A bicycle frame is the heart of the machine; it can make a bicycle feel like an extension of the rider. It can be your best buddy on a hairy descent, a tricky sprint, or the last twenty miles before reaching the hostel where you’ll spend the night. Riders develop a connection with their machines in the most personal sense. If the bike that you’ve trusted for countless races, for adventures beyond number, is now obsolete because it can’t accept disc brakes, it’s not going to be easy to accept new technology, no matter how good “they” say it is.

 I’ve been around long enough to witness a few milestones in bicycle technology. I remember when Shimano introduced SIS, or Shimano Index Shift. The traditionalists said SIS really stood for “Shift into Spokes”, or “Stupid Idiot Shifting”. Nonetheless, it gained widespread approval when we realized that it took less time to make a gear change and we could concentrate on riding faster because of it. The relocation of the shifters to the brake lever made it even easier to be in the optimum gear at any time, further increasing our average speeds. On most bicycles, the index system was accompanied by a rear hub that was wider than previous hubs. In time, we sucked it up and bought new frames because the benefit of superior shifting became so hard to deny.

A similar thing happened with rear wheels when freehub systems were introduced by Shimano and Suntour. Cyclists had been happy with freewheels (and broken rear axles) for fifty years before the Japanese introduced “freehubs”, which offered vastly more durable rear hubs. It also ushered in the possibility of introducing more sprockets onto a rear wheel without undermining reliability. Once again, we recognized this as a good thing and dumped our Regina, Suntour and Atom freewheels in favor of the new system.

 I think the same thing will happen with road disc. Part of the confusion has been because the industry has not moved in a monolithic fashion on the subject. Company A is all for disc brakes; company B is holding back. Company C releases their version and has to recall most of its product. How can this do anything other than muddy the waters? I think, in a few years time, this will be viewed as a hiccup. Of course, If you want rim brakes on your 2018 model, you will still be able to source bikes that feature them; but there will be no remaining doubt about the efficacy of disc brakes.

If you doubt my predictions, I invite you to contemplate how disc brakes have changed the world of mountain bikes.

(Photos by Gabe Fox)