Road Cycling

Disc brakes are now the default on road bikes – and no one cares –

Last weekend, Nairo Quintana blazed up the notorious 10km climb to Chalet Reynard on Mont Ventoux, to win stage three of the Tour de la Provence and take the overall race lead.

After the stage, chatter across the cycling media was focused almost entirely on the return to form of a rider whose star has waned slightly in recent years. What didn’t warrant a mention, however, was that Quintana rode a bike equipped with disc brakes.

Riding for the second-tier UCI Pro Continental Arkéa–Samsic team, Quintana piloted Canyon’s Ultimate CF SLX Disc frameset, with a Shimano Dura-Ace R9170 Di2 drivetrain and tubular versions of its Dura-Ace R9100 C40 Disc wheels.

Nothing remarkable then, but perhaps that’s the point.

Disc brake bikes might dominate WorldTour bikes in 2020, but it’s easy to forget the controversy that surrounded their introduction to the professional circuit, with concerns over rider safety and increased system weight initially stalling the rate of adoption.

The first UCI road race win on disc brakes by Tom Boonen at the Tour a San Juan in January 2017, aboard a Specialized S-Works Venge ViAS Disc, now seems like a lifetime ago.

And the fact a pure climber can win a race up one of the sport’s most iconic climbs (to Chalet Reynard, at least – the very top of Ventoux is covered in snow) on a disc brake bike without anyone batting an eyelid shows how far road cycling has come in only a few years. Have we finally crossed the Rubicon for braking on road bikes?

Nairo Quintana won a mountain stage of the Tour de la Provence on a disc-equipped Canyon Ultimate CF SLX and no one batted an eyelid.

Nairo Quintana won a mountain stage of the Tour de la Provence on a disc-equipped Canyon Ultimate CF SLX and no one batted an eyelid.
Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Like any piece of new cycling tech, it’s tempting to argue that this change is merely commercially driven, and that the industry wants us all to believe our rim brake machines are obsolete and should immediately be consigned to the scrap heap, simply so they can extract more of our hard-earned cash from us.

And while there is undoubtedly a certain amount of truth in that (yes, BikeRadar can exclusively reveal that the bike industry wants you to buy more new bikes), in reality it’s hard to argue with the fact that in simple performance terms, hydraulic disc brakes have a number of advantages over cable-actuated rim brakes, especially if you want to use carbon wheels.

Even the weight difference between rim and disc brake systems has been rendered irrelevant. Many brands, Canyon included, now offer production disc brake road bikes that come in well under the UCI’s 6.8kg minimum weight limit for bikes.

Of course, you personally might not need those advantages, but at the cutting edge of the sport the gains are more important, even if some teams and riders haven’t got on board yet.

Cycling is a sport that has a keen and justifiable fondness for tradition, but the tendency for its upper echelons to cling desperately to outdated technology in the face of progress perhaps isn’t its greatest asset.

It’s fun to remember, for example, that the great Sean Kelly doggedly stuck with toe-clips and straps up until 1993, despite Look having introduced its PP65 clipless pedal almost a decade earlier. I don’t know of many cyclists who, with the benefit of hindsight, think he was right to do so.

And this is before we even think about other anachronistic cycling tech such as tubular tyres, presta valves, weight weenie-ism and derailleurs. Just because something new and better exists doesn’t mean we should bin everything we already have, but we also shouldn’t pretend that the old stuff is better just because it’s what we’re used to.

Granted, a Grand Tour general classification win for disc brakes remains elusive at the time of writing – and that’s surely only a matter of time anyway (it would almost certainly have happened already if Team Ineos had a different bike sponsor).

But with disc brake bikes now winning every other kind of road race, surely even the die-hard rim brake fanatics out there will have to admit that discs are now the default option for road bikes.