Dancing to the disc(o) beat

By Andrew Brown, February 2021

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Even with multi-millionaires flinging their professional-mechanic-supported opinions into the ring, we remain convinced that the benefits of disc brakes far outweigh their downsides. 

Brakes. Let’s face it, even the most hipster of riders still needs something to help them stop.

However, there is a debate to be had about what type of brakes are best. Or least bad. And it kicked off again the other week thanks to Chris Froome (who at least one part of the JRTB team thinks can speak no wrong) expressed his reticence about their stopping ability and all-round performance.

There’s a good discussion about his Factor OSTRO Vam bike review​ ​available via YouTube (here​) – which is worth watching before you read the article –​ ​via Cycling Tips(a rival online magazine).

He doesn’t like disc brakes much. Which is fair enough. And his main gripe is constant rubbing. So, I thought I’d put his comments into some non-professional context. And when I say non-professional, I’d suggest my rider profile is that of a ‘normal’, slow, overweight middle-aged man. I hesitate to say MAMIL, but you get the picture. I’ve got two bikes, both Genesis and both with disc brakes. I’ve ridden with calliper brakes too – a lot. What is my preference? – discs every time. They are way safer, far more consistent. I do not use them because I’m a sucker for marketing and industry ‘direction’. I like them because they give me more confidence.

But like anything on a bike they are not perfect. But you know what, and at the risk of being rude about Chris Froome, a lot of the issues I have are operator failure. Dirt gets into pads, they squeak, they clog up and they get hot.

Let’s look at heat. Apparently for mountain bikes there is less of an issue for heating up and the rotors not functioning properly and fluid in some disc brakes just becoming gunk and clogging up. For me I experienced this issue on the first major mountain descent in France on the​ ​Joux Plane​. I was lucky to get away last year and even luckier to have friends with a home at the foot of the climb. I’m less fortunate in my skills on a bike. Hence my descent was fraught with fear and I was on the brakes way too much and the whole system overheated. You could have fried an egg on the rotors. Next day, no brake. Which was alarming as I went up the climb again (idiot) and hadn’t noticed the lack of braking until 70-year-old Frenchmen were scattered in different directions avoiding me on the way down. Lesson – brake lightly, but firmly as required and not constantly on a 12km descent. You wear your brakes out.

Squeaking, rubbing – what’s this about? Dirt basically. Muck and filth on winter roads and riding on trails etc. Things clog up. And that’s made worse by a lack of maintenance (by me) and lazy, or just bad washing. It is easy to corrupt pads by getting oil, or lubricant on them. Too easy in fact. But allegedly (I say allegedly as I am nervous about mechanical stuff) you simply take them apart and clean them properly. Or insert new pads. It isn’t hard – I am just lazy and lack skill.

Chris Froome has mechanics for this stuff. It is not his problem. I would guess his issue is speed, intense braking and heat – either going downhill or just into sharp bends and the rapid switch for pace at 50kmh to less than 15kmh. So, maybe, that’s why in professional racing disc brakes are not quite there 100%. But for us normal folk – I think the little ‘issues’ he describes are worth putting up with. Put up with, but don’t ignore. If you don’t deal with the issues after a while then the problems get worse – like with anything (think wrong saddle height, bad clothing) – and you will, like me on occasion come a cropper (ask me nicely and I’ll explain how riding into a wall to stop is better than a car).

So, do we need disc brakes? The answer is yes. They are more consistent in all weather conditions and if you either take them to a bike shop, or study a ​YouTube video​, are easy to maintain – like almost all basic bike components.

They are also the harbinger of a recent cycling phenomenon - gravel biking. Without the tyranny of rim brake widths, bike designers have been free to cut loose, and we have seen the outputs of this freedom - super wide tyres. go anywhere bikes, new converts into cycling. A dynamic, fluid, mixing of mountain biking and road biking, and adventure, and touring. The road both less and more travelled. 

Die-hard cyclists of yesteryear will never be won over to discs, rotors and pads and will remain loyal to the traditional calliper brake. But disc brakes do represent the future and they will continue to improve. Put up with the squeak and the rubbing. It’s going to be fine.

All credits: JRtB, 2021

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