With the UCI expected to ratify the use of road discs in pro races at any moment should we get ready for the sales damn to burst?

Will road discs set the tills ringing?

In the early 1900s the French cycle-touring editor Paul de Vivie – most usually known by his pen-name Vélocio – rode thousands of miles through the Alps on a bicycle equipped with a rudimentary gear changing system of his own design. He chastised the pro peloton who struggled to climb mountains when he could do so easily, even with loaded pannier bags.

“It is a timid Tour that avoids the true difficulties,” he wrote in 1910 of the riders in the Tour de France, the seven-year old race organised by newspaper L’Auto.

“Why does it not go over the Galibier, the Izoard, the Tourmalet? Then one could see how good a single-speed bike is," he chastised in his magazine Le Cycliste, adding: "L’Auto keeps simpletons in the belief that a single gear is sufficient to go anywhere one desires.”

Tour de France organiser Henri Desgrange spat back: “True men don’t change their gears!” (The debate was held via competing editorials in both Le Cycliste and L’Auto.)

That variable gears were clearly better didn’t seem to bother Desgrange or pro riders (they were forbidden from riding with gears). Consumers long had better choice than the pros – Peugeot had road bikes with parallelogram derailleurs as early as 1935 but it wasn’t until 1947 that Coppi used Simplex gears on his road bike. Similarly, when Tulio Campagnolo patented the quick release skewer in 1930, and founded his eponymously-named bicycle component company, it took some years before the QR became standard equipment on road bikes. Technological improvements don’t get adopted by pros immediately. Many still subscribe to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” way of looking at life.

So, don’t expect road bikes equipped with cantilever brakes to become “old fashioned” overnight even if, as expected, the Union Cycliste Internationale finally okays the use of road disc brakes in the pro peloton.

That the UCI is very close to a decision was revealed at the Taipei show by the World Federation Sporting Goods Industry. The WFSGI’s “disc brake group” (made up of bike industry tech experts who want to sell disc brakes) has provided the UCI with technical data, test reports, and feedback from some ProTour teams.

Accell Group’s Jeroen Snijders Blok, chairman of the WFSGI Bicycle Committee, said: “Very soon we can expect a decision by the UCI on when disc brakes can be used in UCI races. Whether they will be be okayed to be used in UCI races that are taking place this year is not yet clear.”

However, it’s clear they will be ratified soon. Just because they will become “legal” doesn’t mean they’ll be taken up with gusto by ProTour teams. There are logistical hurdles to leap given that neutral support vehicles will have to carry two types of wheels. And, if the best use of disc brakes is for descents, perhaps disc-brake equipped bikes will be used only for mountain stages?

Of more importance to you and I is whether being sanctioned by the UCI will make disc brakes something every roadie will want, leading to a profitable churn as weekend warriors switch to “modern” disc-equipped road bikes. Other cycle tech developments have shown us that this churn takes many years.

Clearly, if disc brakes offer performance benefits – and descending more quickly because of confidence in the ability to stop in all-weathers is very much a performance benefit – they will be eventually adopted by the pro peloton and thereafter by everybody else. But the churn could take ten years or more and, if it does take this long, there would be little clear benefit to the trade as the sales of new bikes would take place almost at the same time as the standard churn. 

Nevertheless, change is good, and innovation always to be welcomed, a point expressed by Vélocio in 1911:

“Make no mistake, uniformity is leading us directly towards boredom and towards routine, whilst diversity, even though it distracts us, holds our attention, our interest and the spirit of enquiry always on the watch. To change is not always to perfect, and I know that better than any others newly come to cyclo-technology. But to stand still, to sink into a rut, that is the worst of things for industries and for men."

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