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“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;”
For those that skipped freshman English, “The Road Not Taken” is Robert Frost’s seminal 1920 poem about the American Spirit, or indecision depending on interpretation, that ends with the lines: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.” And that truly proves one thing: Robert Frost would ride disc.
Words: Ben Edwards
Drawings: Chris Edwards
Bikes are about opportunity and exceeding our imagined limits, and disc brakes have done more to unleash the bike than anything since the pneumatic tire. Their wet-weather performance is undeniable, but perhaps the biggest revelation is the way disc brakes have redefined what constitutes “rideable” on a road bike. Mountain bikes are getting dusty and the heart of a “gravel” or “adventure” bike is simply a road bike with wider tires and disc brakes. No other upgrade will so fundamentally change a bike. So then why are so many riders upset about the rise of the disc road bike?
The peloton is full of naysayers, those who claim disc brakes are just a way to pry more money from our pockets. No one needs disc brakes, they say; calipers are more than enough. Other criticism includes: Disc brakes are only for wet climates or those who are bad at descending; they are too difficult to work on; they will make my bike too heavy; or, I can lock my wheel up with a rim brake, so who needs discs?
If you’ve been riding a mountain bike for the past 15 years, these arguments may sound very familiar. Each and every one of them was used to try and turn the tide as mountain bikes transitioned to disc braking. How did the battle go? Disc brakes not only won, they demolished cantilevers, V-brakes, roller-cams and every other standard out there. No mountain bikers currently riding disc, not even those old naysayers, would trade their disc brakes for rim brakes today. Sure, some vintage enthusiasts are still riding rim brakes on their Fat Chances, and a roadie on a ’82 Ciocc with five-speed Campagnolo Nuovo Record will be forgiven for railing against disc road.
The rest of us have already acknowledged the “marginal gains” or “incremental improvements” argument in cycling. We buy more cogs, shave grams from our wheels, look for stiffer shoes, hydrate, recover, up the TPI, lower the PSI, install ceramic, worry about Newton Meters, watts-per-kilo and drag coefficients, debate stiffness-to-weight and endlessly chase KOMs. Incremental improvements are what cycling is all about.
It was Keith Bontrager who first introduced us to the term “mature art”—which means an art where the big breakthroughs have already occurred and improvement comes in small advancements. The bicycle is certainly a mature art, and in this environment disc brakes on road bikes represent a huge leap forward. Interestingly Bontrager also told us that the disc brake is the best thing that could ever happen to road wheels. Liberating the rim from braking would result in lighter, stronger and more aerodynamic wheels as well as eliminate all the issues presented by braking on carbon.
Why are disc brakes better? It’s not about more power. Riders who claim they can already lock up a rim brake are correct, power is not the issue. What disc brakes offer is better modulation of that power and making power more accessible. In short, one finger from the hoods can deliver enough power to lock up a disc brake, but the power band of that stopping force is wide and forgiving, allowing riders to easily apply exactly how much power they want without ever using the caliper-flexing-four-finger-death-grip that some combinations of road, rim and pad present.
Obviously, the wet-weather performance is beyond compare and beginners will get enormous confidence from disc brakes, but any rider that has ventured off the beaten path and found themselves staring down a steep fire road or careening down gravel only to be greeted by an unsuspecting switchback will tell you that disc brakes are worth the weight penalty. Experienced descenders on the road, in perfect conditions, will find themselves pushing limits with more confidence and a larger insurance policy on disc brakes.
Essentially any rider that has ever ridden disc beyond a parking lot will admit, sometimes grudgingly, that disc brakes are better. And they are better in a bigger and more quantifiable way than the vast majority of things we do to get faster. It’s time to acknowledge that the road disc is here to stay—and it’s about time. The rim brake needs to take its place alongside wool jerseys, toe clips and friction shifting as another cool relic that added to our sport’s rich heritage. Or, as Frost wrote, “I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence.”
Words: Ben Edwards
Drawings: Chris Edwards