As product tests go this was not the case-study people had planned. When it was announced that disc brakes could be allowed on a trial basis it looked like an open door for the product to become established: a courtesy before a formality. Then Francisco Ventoso crashed in Paris-Roubaix, slammed into a disc and sliced his leg. He typed an open letter, used words like “machete” and within hours the trial was ended and disc brakes are banned.
The lobby group for manufacturers, the WFSGI, accepts the ban but is calling for an investigation into Ventoso’s accident. There are reports that Etixx-Quickstep’s Nicolas Maes was also injured by a disc in the same race too but this morning’s L’Equipe says that team’s sponsors helped quieten Maes’s story. If true then it shows how commercial interests are at work here as they want to quieten inconvenient stories. Equally it shows that a trial stops on the basis of one or two accidents and there’s a strand of logic which, if we pull at it, says chainrings are dangerous too. Of course though chainrings are not part of a voluntary trial and getting that “shark bite” injury from a chainring is deemed inevitable from time to time. But back to discs and in theory a trial would probably go on and then a comparison made after time to see if the prevalence of injuries was higher only when you’re dealing with riders doing their job few want to be guinea pigs and crash dummies.
Billed as The Next Big Thing it turns out that given a choice most pros prefer ordinary calliper brakes for now. A lot of sports marketing is based on endorsement and the idea of Product X being “the choice of the pros”. If it turns out that even people who are paid to use kit would prefer to avoid it then it’s a major marketing mishap.
As said on here before discs have their uses but there needs to be a whole redesign of the bike, not just the braze-on fittings. Pros pumping out big watts find disc rub in a flexing frame is a penalty so you need frames designed for discs and more rigid thru-axles only now it’s goodbye to speedy wheel changes. Pros starving themselves to slim down don’t want the extra weight penalty, said to be 500g-800g. As such few have used them in races and we end up with the likes of Lampre-Merida using them in the Tour of Flanders, a team that had no chance in the race and managed to finish only one rider: “Lampre to ride disc brakes in Flanders” was the talking point because nobody had much to say about the team. Not the shop window manufacturers wanted.
It’s illustrative of how the UCI governs the sport too. Whenever something goes wrong reflex comments appear: “Brian Cookson must do this“; “the UCI has to do that“. It’s normal, we expect the authorities to act however these cries assume the sport’s governing body has the authority. Only the UCI has never been all-powerful. It governs by consensus. This means it can rarely impose decisions on the sport, they have to be agreed by all and then the UCI goes and drafts the relevant rule. So when the UCI decides to allow a trial of disc brakes it’s really because teams, manufacturers and their representative lobby groups have asked for it and the time is right so the UCI works out the terms, agrees a trial and so on. When there’s an incident and teams and riders and their various representative lobby groups ask for the trial to stop the UCI follows suit. This happens elsewhere:
- race vehicles – the UCI has been working on revised rules for many months but struggles to find agreement and cannot impose anything
- calendar reform issues and the mess that results once the UCI decides to go ahead with plans that the largest race organiser has rejected: the World Tour is in jeopardy
- see how the UCI tried but could not ban race radios, annual extending the moratorium to allow their use in World Tour races until finally giving up and letting all pros use them this year
- look back the UCI tried to impose helmets on riders from the 1990s but met with rebellion until the peloton, or at least a share of it, decided to adopt them following the death of Andrei Kivilev during the 2003 Paris-Nice.
There’s also the role of social media in this. You’ll know the thought asking “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”. Nowadays the tree felling gets tweeted, GIF’d, Periscoped, Instagramed and posted to Facebook within seconds. Not long ago it might have taken days for Ventoso’s injuries to emerge beyond Spain and his open letter would not have been so openly visible around the world thanks to the web and translation engines. We might even have seen the manufacturers dampen down the story via their PR contacts and get control of the story. Instead graphic and gory images spread around the world on a Sunday night long before the cycle trade PR people can get into work on a Monday morning and start working the phones and email to contain the story.
- Case study: see the live story about the Corriere/Stade 2 report about motors on bikes. In no time the thermal image of a rider with a glowing seat tube was doing the rounds and people asking if it was a motor, could it be just a Campagnolo battery and headlines about the Strade Bianche race. The story spreads virally and, like a virus, it mutates as it replicates. For example Popular Mechanics, a website, reports “damning evidence” only the picture in question came when the report filmed a 60 year old man riding a demo bike fitted with a motor as part of the process to prove a thermal camera can detect the heat of a motor. Here’s a sceengrab of the moment, note the grey hair and no number on the rider. For all we know motors could be used in a race but this is not the proof in a picture, it just shows how far a photo can spread and the story gets out of control.
Is there a way back?
If the trial has halted it doesn’t mean discs are gone for good. The trial could be resumed, perhaps at certain races that are less accident prone. There could be safety modifications like disc covers, as seen on many motorbikes although with each solution comes more weight and complexity to a system that’s heavier and more complex.
One other way could be for the marketing element to change. Instead of pro cyclists the manufacturers could back the kind of riders who would really benefit from them: heavier riders doing gran fondo type events. That said the French cycling federation has banned disc brakes from their mass participation events too for the same reasons as the UCI.
Disc brakes seem to get people hot under the collar. Yet this piece isn’t really about their danger, nor technicalities like frame designs, axles or rotors or whether we should or should not use them whether in the pro peloton or a Sunday ride. Instead it’s a way to examine how the sport is run. Hold up the disc brake story and you see how the UCI and the sport in general is run, the governing body is not some supra-administration but instead works in collaboration with others, it co-ordinates rather than governs. That’s not necessarily a weakness, exploring and achieving a consensus is a good thing. It’s also a way to see how a story spreads on social media when it could perhaps have been contained before. Perhaps it still can happen, certainly Ventoso’s case has got more publicity than Maes’s injury. If the peloton never really wanted disc brakes then all that was needed was an accident and social media outpouring for the trial to be halted, there wasn’t even an investigation. The future of road bike design and several marketing campaigns have been put on hold. Now that’s what you call stopping power.