Riding the Brakes Redux

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So now that I have about 1000 miles on the disc brake bike (I spent 9 days riding my behind off in Tucson), in all sorts of weather (during the trip to Tucson, we got 2 of Tucson's average 12 rainy days per year), on all sorts of roads and grades, with groups large and small and alone, what's the report?First off, they stop well. Very well. While riding in a traffic light-rich environment, I noticed myself coming to a stop much sooner than others. I very much still think that mixed company riding is not a big deal. The argument that everyone will have to switch at once for a peloton to work is a straw man. The simple fact is that when you ride with a group, you have the ability choose how quickly you brake, and though it might take a little getting used to, the few hundred miles I'd done prior to the trip were much more than needed to acclimate me for riding disc brakes in a group. But when you want to, yeah, you can stop quickly. 

During the first ride or two, I actually skidded more than a few times while braking. I've tried to describe it a few times without a ton of success, but what I notice is that instead of thinking "how much pull do I need to get the job done," you think "how much less power than a full skid do I want here?" That's a very imperfect way of stating it, but it's the best I can do for now. 

Setting the bike up after a plane trip, I had to adjust the front brake mounting slightly. This takes all of 30 seconds but it does require a Torx screwdriver. My mini tool has the right one, and my mini tool is pretty basic. Yours probably has the right one. 

Until it rained, the brakes were silent. The closest I came to actual noise was on my second trip down Mt. Lemmon, which was done at absolute warp speed. I rode down with the gentleman who placed second in Ironman Hawaii last year, and we were HAULING. Approaching one sweeper bend, we caught up to three cars (went from 200 yards behind them to ON THEM in about .01 seconds) and I had to scrub a bunch of speed quickly. There was a bit of resonant hum at the very end of that, but not as much as the noise coming from my counterpart's carbon clinchers (which weren't very loud, either).

In rainy conditions, they're loud. Loud. A rainy trip down Kitt Peak (steeper, less regular, and more technical than the Lemmon descent) had them screaming a few times. It can be a bit disconcerting. There are those who will say "Shimano brakes wouldn't have made noise" and to them I say you are wrong - I've ridden with plenty of people on Shimano brakes and wet rotors and fouled pads are wet rotors and fouled pads, no matter who made them. On my CX bike, I use plate rotors (no holes at all) in muddy conditions, which ameliorates this to a huge degree. We are also talking about pretty nasty conditions here, with many deep puddles and an absolute metric ton of silt and sand and general yuck getting smashed into the pads. Lightly sanding the pads (remove wheel, fold piece of sandpaper and place between pads, lightly pull brake leer, rub sandpaper back and forth - takes two minutes and you'd want to do the same routine with rim brakes after a ride like this) after riding and cleaning the rotors with an alcohol swipe silenced the brakes, at least until the next deep puddle and general ingress of road skank. Two days of persistent rain, and Tucson is a wet wet wet place. Inadvertent rivers all up in the place. 

So, are disc brakes the next big thing?  Should you throw out your current bike to get some? 

Here's my take: for the road bike riding that I do, which general falls under the auspices of racing and training for racing, without a whole lot of "this isn't the right place for a road bike but let's do it anyway" type of stuff (I have a cx bike and a mtb for that, and I'm not being judgmental but I'm just not into that stuff as a regular part of my diet), and with the occasional gran fondo, but with most of my huge hilly rides either during races or with small to medium groups of well-ish matched riders, I'd just go for rim brakes. I'm fairly light (low 160s), and as a descender I would call myself highly skilled and confident, although I am a chicken and a half when descending in rain. 

The aftermath of torrential rain. This is a once in a lifetime event on Mt Lemmon. Lucky to have seen it.

If, on the other hand, I was super into the "adventure" stuff, or was 25 pounds heavier and had a calendar full of hilly gran fondos and centuries, or did a lot of touring, or did a lot of commuting in the Pacific Northwest, I would go for discs. To be honest, if that was my gig, I'd also just use a cx bike and not a road bike, but that's just me. Also, having experienced both mechanical and hydro discs, I can't wait to put hydros on the cx bike. There's absolutely no comparison. You might as well be talking about the difference between 1960's era rim brakes and the latest dual pivot caliper brakes. It's night and day. 

Do I think road racing needs discs? Absolutely not. They're nice, but like anything else in the world they have their plusses and minuses, and they're no magic bullet.  And I ran this one really long. Sorry.


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  • Hans on

    This is a great post. There aren't many people who have spent significant time on both rim and (road) disc-brakes and then written up their thoughts, so I think this is valuable to the community. I guess at the end, I'm wondering whether the only practical "minus" here is the noise? I agree that disc brakes aren't a requirement for the road — but none of the recent advances really fall into that category from my perspective (e.g. electronic shifting seems like a comparable improvement). I do, however, think that the writing is on the wall that they're gonna replace rim brakes, so I'm reading this from the perspective of "why wouldn't I want disc brakes on my next bike?" rather than "why would I replace my thousands of dollars of rim-brake bike with a disc-brake bike?". I agree that the answer to the second question is going to be typically "don't; unless you want to throw away money".Obviously if you are doing races that adhere to UCI equipment restrictions then disc brakes on road bikes are still out, but luckily us non-elite state-side racers don't have that problem. I really like my disc-brake road bike. I'm using mechanical discs (TRP Spyre w/ Avid HSX rotors) and while I know hydros would be nicer, these are really nice compared to any rim brakes I have used. Especially rim brakes on carbon wheels (in my experience). I agree that noise in wet conditions is one downside; my brakes are loud in those conditions too, though I'd happily trade the loud brakes in rain for inferior stopping [of rim brakes].Anyway, great writeup. It's great to be on the sidelines watching these new cycling technologies taking off.

  • Rico on

    Must completely agree with your assessment of the viability of disc brakes. As an Oregonian and year-round bike commuter, I've used disc brakes since 2006, and they've proven their worth. My 'dry road only' bike uses rim brakes, and I see no need to change (I'm a light guy). We ride tons of dirt and gravel routes out here, in all weather…discs on my 'gravel' bike.One bike solution? Tucson native = rim brakes. Oregon duck-Head = discs. Not that I'd ever perscribe to a one bike quiver…..

  • T. Guy on

    Right on, Mike M. There's no way to make a quick roadside wheel change with disc brakes as currently designed and built today. In addition to the various (sloppy) dimensional standards for rotor and caliper mounting positions, it's cumbersome and awkward to make a wheel swap even when you have the luxury of the workstand and the most carefully preset rotor spacing at the hub of your replacement wheel. I always get at least a little bit of brake rub at the caliper and have to reset the caliper for perfection.I've now spent many hours of road cycling on disc brakes and the comparison is black and white. Disc brakes are far superior to rim brakes in every way, better modulation, better control, better, better, better…… until you need to repair a flat tire, or swap a wheel. Then you can count on some frustration and imperfection. It will not be a simple, "wham, bam, thank you ma'am" from neutral support.My solution? I don't race. I use road tubeless and I never get flats anymore. Knocking on wood!Your solution? Race only on rim brakes until they design a disc system to accommodate quick roadside wheel changes. And start saving now to replace all your wheels because discs are so much better. And minimize your potential flats with road tubeless.

  • MikeM on

    The area where these will be least practical is in professional road racing. I was pretty impressed with a demonstration video Shimano posted, where they went out of their way in their editing to show an Astana rider getting service first. The motorcycle had 3 wheels on it; a generic front wheel, and a Campy and a Shimano/SRAM rear wheel. I don't think that can cover them 100% of the time, but I'd bet it's well over 90%.With disks, though, you'll have some straight Shimano wheel going onto a Shimano bike, and it won't work because the disk will be to the right or left by .5mm, unless all the wheel and frame builders get together and decide on some fixed point for the disk to be. That might be hard to pull off.Since it was Shimano outfitting the neutral support motorcycles, you'd think they'd eventually get tired of three wheels no longer being enough. I remember 15 years ago, when at the TdF, you had 9 speed teams, 10 speed teams, Shimano teams and Campy teams, and then you get into neutral support motorcycles needing to carry 4 rear wheels. Disk brakes would make that even worse.Oh, and this doesn't cover the attachment method for the front wheels. Until there's universal agreement for all these variables, I'd almost think Shimano would argue against disks for the pros.

  • Hans on

    I am going to try the brake compound. It sounds like that might help, though reading mtbr forums it sounds like it might very well not solve the problem of braking noise on bicycles. I guess it depends on where the vigrations/resonance is happening? Anyway, certainly worth a shot. Wasn't clear to me whether I could use copper-based anti-seize (is that equivalent?) or if this is a special compound [that I don't already own]. Certainly worth a try, though honestly I'm not riding that often in group rides in the rain (group rides being the only case where I might prefer the bike be a little quieter).



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