My Opinion On Disc Brakes

I woke up one day recently, surprised to read that I’d become one of the world’s leading opponents of disc brakes.   Apparently we’re adamantly opposed to them for cyclocross.  Sort of strange that we’d offer a disc brake option on every wheel we build, then, but who knows? The world makes some strange connections sometimes. 

This characterization must come from a blog I wrote nearly two years ago, toward the end of the cx season that I spent using discs.  I’m actually not going to revisit that blog while writing this, since it will be much more fun to have someone call me out on how I re-characterize what I wrote then. 

My issues, as I recall, were:

1.       The power and modulation weren’t substantively more than the best cantilevers, which in my mind are Avid Shorty Ultimates (BB7s were, at the time, the best mechanical option, so comparing best to best was valid).

2.       The dilemma of either having brake rub or loosely adjusted brakes was frustrating to me.  No mechanical brake at the time offered dual-sided engagement, and pad clearance when using road brake calipers was a known issue, so this wasn’t really a rogue impression that I had.

3.       Having a 135-spaced disc wheel in a world of 130-spaced rim brake wheels was inconvenient.

4.       I’d had one instance where my rear brake pad didn’t last through a race.  This was the issue that so many disc-brake users experienced at CX Nationals in Madison last year. 

We were extensively testing discs in 2011.  Many had gone hog wild about how discs were incomparably superior, and would be taking over the world within minutes, yet I was one of maybe 2% of cx racers who were actually using them at the time.  The cocktail of authority and ignorance displayed there has always particularly rankled me, and there was definitely some flavor of “dude, until you’ve actually really tested it, you know nothing, so shut the f up” going on for me.  There was a generally complete dismissal of the real and present shortcomings that I was experiencing. 

I also thought that there were challenges to frame design, not as much with cx frames but with road frames, where the narrow q factors, 400-ish mm chainstays, and 135 spacing wouldn’t play nice together.  At the time, I believe I foresaw 11 speed complicating things, and said that 130mm spacing, plus discs, plus 11 speed, would cause challenges.  At the time, there was no standard over hub spacing, nor disc diameter.  None of these is sorted out, as yet.  People fail to consider disc diameter as an element of frame design.  It’s a big deal. 

So, am I the world’s leading opponent of discs?  I use them exclusively on my mountain bike.  A few weeks ago I had maybe the most fun day on a bike I’ve ever had, at Bryce Resort’s bike park.  Six hours of downhill runs later, my hands had zero fatigue thanks to hydro discs and 180mm rotors.  I’ve said many times that I probably wouldn’t even ride a mountain bike that didn’t have discs.  Hydraulic road brifters have proliferated, (although those brifters are some freaky looking hardware!), and I’d guess they work way way better than the mechanicals I used.  As electronic shifting keeps marching on, the re-decoupling of shifting and braking that I’ve talked about a lot (at least in conversations, if not necessarily in blogs to which I can link), that will offer more latitude for hydraulic lever engineering. 

Following my experience two seasons ago, I went back to cantis for cross, and am still there.  In the fields I race in, I sure don’t see many disc bikes, so I’m not alone in that.  Over time, discs will inevitably dominate, because that’s the way things go.  For now, they’re still a small minority of the bikes I see at cx races.  Top-level US crossers use them, but the top echelon of crossers in the world don’t (van der Haar being a possible exception).  For road racing, it’s a moot point because they aren’t allowed.  For a dedicated gravel or adventure bike, I’d probably prefer discs, but I’d only go hydraulics (maybe those TRP ones with the integrated cable to hydro conversion?). 

For me, the charge of being anti-disc dies on the welcome mat because we offer disc option on every wheel we build.  When my current cross bike dies whatever death is in store for it, I may choose to have a disc bike for my A bike, and I may not.  Until then, if not being a raving evangelist for the undeniable necessity and categorical superiority of discs makes me the world’s leading opponent of them, well, guilty as charged. 



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As you well know, I have what I consider a best-of-both-worlds setup with the front disc and rear canti. All my road wheels work with the 130 spacing, including my PowerTap. I didn't have to build a dedicated trainer tire 135 spacing wheel. I did have to build 3 front wheels, but that wasn't nearly as daunting or expensive as buying or building 3 whole wheelsets. One argument I hear with disc wheels/135 is for the MTB wheelset swap. But with tubeless, it's not a matter of minutes to change a set of tires, and it usually requires a compressor. You can't show up on race day and decide on tires then. It works well enough: I brake hard with the front, then control speed with the rear. The braking could be better, but for CX it's usually not a matter of stopping, it's just a matter of slowing a little.As for my issues- I wore the front disc pads (new) in two races at Worlds. I also wore through another set at Devil's Backbone this year when I caught a tour bus coming down Reed's Gap at 55mph (the bus was going 30, and I had to stay on the brakes to stay behind it for 2 miles.)

Sean Yeager

I really like the idea of disc brakes on road bikes that have carbon rims, but you're right, 11-speed cassettes and a disc brake is a lot to throw back there. The primary reason I like them on carbon rims is the heat issue with rim brakes and carbon rims.But then, disc brakes have heat issues themselves. For that reason, with my size (180 or so, since I'm around 6'1"), I'd refuse to go with the 140mm discs they seem to be trending towards. Yeah, going with 160mm isn't seen as being trendy. I don't care. If there's anything I've learned from 40 years of surviving bike rides, it's humility. I had a crash on Highway 49 this year, where I very nearly missed a head-on collision in a hairpin going into the Auburn Ravine. No matter how good a rider you are, you can make mistakes, and when you miss a car by a foot, it makes you think.Hardly anyone is as good a rider as they think they are. You have to build in some level of conservatism in your choice of components, so I always move away from steep angles, carbon everything, and silly things like 140mm rotors that save about 2 ounces per wheel.I just think the 140mm trend is dangerous, and we need to be careful right here and now. Yeah, I've seen the Colnago C-59 Disc, and it's beautiful. But not with 140mm discs; not at my size. I'll stick with my Centaurs and 105s and Mavic and Velocity AL rims for now (I've never been a "Ford OR Chevy" guy…).


For what it's worth, I have the TRP brakes with the integrated cable to hydro converter on my cross bike and they are mighty fine stoppers. That being said, they do need a lot of cable pull so my ~2010 Force brake levers need to be pulled almost all the way to the bar before I can lock the brakes.


I've begun to realize the marketeers (Big Guns suppliers) and family riders far out number the performance based few. Those that spend 1000-3000 on a wheel set, even less. While I've always enjoyed disc brakes in icy winter rides compared to rims, I still opt to run canti or V. Regardless of performance opinions, growing up and at 58 years now, like jm's post, I'll hold out. I am a old crotchety rider and that's my story, so I'm sticking to it.


never saw the industry push something that the riders largely don't want so hard…I agree eventually it will be all you can get, but I'm going to hold out as long as I can…the big 3 (specialized, cannondale, and trek) are pushing them so hard…viva la cantisrespectfm


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