Disc or no Disc?

By: James Morrison Mar 20

Share |

It was an unavoidable element of this year's NAHBS: the disc brake-equipped road bicycle. Just about every other booth had at least one disc road bike on display and several wheel manufacturers are rolling out new disc-compatible road wheels all the time. Fresh off the experience of NAHBS, it's hard not to feel like we're in an inexorable slide toward disc road being the future, or at least a large part of the future, of road bike specification. But is this really a good idea?

With the advantage of hindsight we can posit that the rise of disc brakes on mountain bikes was sort of a no-brainer. For most, if not all, mountain applications modern disc brakes offer clear and pronounced advantages over even the most advanced rim brake options. Having lived through this transition ourselves, we distinctly remember disc brakes coming to prominence on mountain bikes and the only real griping came from mechanics who had to deal with the first generations of often-finicky, sometimes jury-rigged, disc brake setups. These growing pains aside, there was little argument against the functional and technical superiority of the disc systems.


In cyclocross we've seen the recent UCI legalization of disc brakes and the ensuing product deluge from bicycle manufacturers introducing entire lineups of disc-compatible cross bikes. On race courses, the adoption of disc brake setups has been somewhat more tepid. The Americans seem more willing to jump headlong into disc brakes, whereas their European counterparts appear to be more reticent to invest in the "new" technology of disc. In unofficial conversations we've had with some Euro cross racers who will, for now, remain nameless, their primary hangup on disc is that they feel the increased braking power and consistency is offset by greater brake drag and poor mud clearance. In logical Euro fashion, their opinion boils down to something like, "We know the advantages and limitations of canti brakes; we don't really know the character of disc brakes yet, so why not stick with what we know works?"

Fair enough. The disc brake is here to stay for cross, whether or not the Euros adopt it for racing. The investment has been made on the product side. For high-end racers wanting to hit the cross course on tubular-rimmed disc brake compatible wheels, such things are available for a price. For customers seeking a price point cross bike with clincher tire offerings, 29" inch mountain wheels are readily available at a wide range of specs and prices. Compared to adopting disc brakes across the board for road, there are relatively few stumbling blocks from a product compatibility standpoint. Not so in road...


Road bikes still account for one of the largest market-shares in the entirety of the bicycle industry. Converting to disc brakes on road bikes would require an industry-wide rethink and redevelopment of not only frames but also wheels and the brakes themselves. This is the supply-side issue, or at least one of them. The other is asking the simple question of whether or not disc brakes for road bikes are even a good idea from the perspective of the cyclist.

Over the next couple weeks, we are going to bring you a series of articles designed to shed some light on this topic. We're going to try to take a scientific approach to this question when possible, and also try to get as much input from various viewpoints on the less scientific, more subjective aspect of this question. We're going to talk to various friends and colleagues in the industry to get their various views.

We're also going to do some testing of our own: We are currently finishing up production on a disc brake version of the Gaulzetti Corsa that we're going to ride extensively and see what it reveals to us. We're choosing the Corsa because it's the bike with which we are most familiar and we have many, many hours spent riding the non-disc version of this bike, so for us, the test will be the clearest way to evaluate the disc brake system on a familiar platform. It is worth noting from a sales and production standpoint we could care less if we're building disc or non-disc Gaulzetti frames. From our business perspective disc and standard road frames are equal so this is not an attempt to market one or the other brake system, but rather an attempt to arrive at logical conclusions based on what we discover for ourselves.

More coming soon. This should be a fun project and if you have anything to add to our little study here, or if there is anyone you feel we should talk to in our research, please send us a note.



© Copyright 2013 - Embrocation Cycling, INC