Disc brakes: Safe or not?

With the Abu Dhabi Tour just wrapping up, and a new world tour team and young Aussie sprinter, there was plenty to talk about, but one thing is now hogging all the headlines.  At the tail end of the first stage, Marcel Kittel and Owain Doull crashed, leaving the Team Sky rider, Doull, with a transected shoe and injured foot.  Kittel is the only pro peloton rider running disc brakes, and Doull claims that his injury was a direct result of the contact with Kittel’s disc rotor, reigniting debate over whether disc brakes should be banned from the pro peloton.  So how reliable is Doull’s claim?

In the wake of the crash, there was a knee-jerk reaction, as expected with any social media thread concerning a cycling debate between two equally adamant camps.  Most of Team Sky and the more conservative riders state disc brakes should be banned immediately, stating they’re like adding circular saws to the side of your bikes.  The contrary opinion, the side favouring disc brakes, states they aren’t dangerous and should be embraced without delay, attempting to discredit Doull’s dubious claim by saying it’s far more likely that the shoe was cut by a rusted barrier than a disc brake.

In this recent video by VeloNews, it was shown that disc brakes can indeed cut through a shoe, but it takes considerable effort and time, things that weren’t in abundance in the split second that the crash took place.  

The video casts some doubt on the ability of a disc to cause any significant damage to a rider, but it does have its flaws.  They didn’t take into account the temperature of the rotor or weight of the rider, and whilst these are important factors to point out, variables such as temperature probably didn’t come into play in this particular crash.  

Stage 1 of the Abu Dhabi tour was a pan flat sprinters stage with no descent; discs heat up on sustained descents in periods of heavy braking, so it’s unlikely that the temperature of the discs was so high that it had any significant impact. Additionally, if you watch the footage of the crash, it was over in a split second, a far shorter time span than it took for the disc to be able to cut through the shoe in the filmed test.

The investigation conducted by the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry found that the crash in the 2016 Paris-Roubaix was more likely caused by a chain ring, rather than a disc brake.

This debacle conjures up memories of the Paris-Roubaix in 2016, when an unfortunately-timed coincidence between the the newly allowed disc brakes and a rather suspect injury to Fran Ventoso resulted in disc brakes being banned for six months.  However, as any statistician will tell you, correlation does not imply causation, and the UCI commissioned an investigation into disc brakes.  The investigation conducted by the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry found that the crash in the 2016 Paris-Roubaix was most likely caused by a chain ring, rather than a disc brake.

Personally, I will be quite surprised if it’s proven that the ‘circular saws’ are a real danger, but we should wait for the official investigation into the Abu Dhabi crash before taking any definite sides about whether disc brakes should be allowed.  We’re all staying tuned to discover the outcome of the investigation and its potential effect on the pro peloton.  

About Tim_Davis@Pushys

I'm a Science Graduate and Medical student at the University of Queensland, specialising in anatomy and physiology. More importantly, I'm all for any type of riding; road, mountain, dirt jumping, I love it all! Let me know if there is anything you want to know about nutrition and health, and I'll do my best to help you out!

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