Disc brakes have a bright future in cyclocross

Why pass up on a competitive advantage?

It's odd when so-called 'racers’ pooh-pooh a technology that has the potential to make them faster, but they’ve done it before and they’re doing it again. The current subject? Disc brakes for cyclocross. Make no mistake, the technology is coming. So if your intended goal is to have the fastest bike, get ready to accept it.

The main charge laid against disc brakes is their weight. Mountain bikes went through this very same shift early last decade and now you won’t find a weight weenie willing to ride without discs. Give ’cross a couple years – or one, after a major manufacturer makes a road hydraulic system – and it’ll be the same punchline: why were we ever even debating the change?

'Cross/road disc systems are heavier than cantilevers or linear-pull brakes but that's mainly because they’ve seen little development since Avid (pre-acquisition by SRAM) developed the BB7 in 1999.

When the Cannondale-cyclocrossworld.com team show up in Boulder, Colorado today for the Colorado ’Cross Cup and Boulder Cup UCI races they'll be equipped with prototypes that the press – including us at BikeRadar – will clamor to photograph and write about. It's amusing to think that all this fuss is about a product that’s essentially been around for a dozen years.

Avid's BB7 has been around for more than a decade, for good reason it gets the job done pretty darn well

I'm a little bit embarrassed to divulge that only now am I taking a serious crack at racing 'cross on disc brakes. Of course, while I could have had them back in ’99, they weren’t UCI-legal then. If the sport’s international governing body hadn’t lifted their ban last year, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, let alone be on the cusp of some exciting changes. By changing the rules, the UCI have spurred, or at least accelerated, disc brake development for uses other than mountain biking.

Cost/benefit: Weight is still the main concern

If Cannondale-cyclocrossworld.com's racers line up with disc brakes at tomorrow's UCI event in Boulder, Colorado, I estimate they’ll be paying a weight penalty of about 800g/1.76lb. The team's Avid BB7s weigh 799g a set (434g for calipers plus 165g for cable outer, discs and hardware), compared to 230g for Avid's Shorty Ultimate rim brakes.

These weights are for production stock, however, and I expect to see a full complement of titanium bolts and alloy backed brake pads used to further shave weight. The extra weight of disc-specific wheels also has to be factored in: 1,531g (actual) for the outfit's Zipp 303 Firecrest disc wheels with White Industry MI6 hubs, compared to 1,200g (claimed) for the standard 303 Firecrest.

Something special: Zipp have set me up with the same wheels they're providing to their sponsored teams: 303 Firecrest tubular rims laced to White Industries MI6 disc hubs

So the weight penalty is significant –1.8lb at the tippy-top of the professional peloton likely feels, mentally, like 180lb – but if it’s wet and muddy, I believe the team would still have an advantage. What do they gain? Control, plain and simple. They'll have more braking power and modulation, which on a dry day may not make much of a difference; on a wet day, however, it could mean having brakes versus no brakes. I’ll take the bike with brakes, thanks.

Riding disc brakes on those special – meaning muddy – days also gives greater mud clearance, which means less packing out on course and easier and more complete cleaning in the pits. I’d pay 1.8lb for that, for sure.

Do it now: Advantage to the early adopters

There’s huge potential here, and the biggest payoffs will go to those who strike first, before the technology proliferates. Can you imagine riding a good tubeless system while others are on tubes? Huge advantage. Suspension versus hardtail? No brainer. Who uses linear-pull brakes on their mountain bike any more?

TRP struck first with their Parabox hydraulic conversion system. Our test sample has worked very well so far

Now is the time. Any cyclo-crosser knows that on bad days having brakes can give the ability to go 5-10 percent faster, even on the sharp end of the peloton. Who wouldn’t want that advantage, especially when the alternative can feel like a struggle against all odds? While better technology is on the horizon, the advantage discs have only lasts as long as your competitors choose not to adopt them.

You better believe Tim Johnson would take a five percent advantage over his #CXCLASH rival Jeremy Powers; then again, wouldn’t Powers want five percent over Ryan Trebon, or better yet the Euros? I'm excited to see it all play out… Anyone want to buy some lightly used carbon tubular wheels – for use with rim brakes?

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