No Red Flags for Disc Brakes

In contrast to the weather pounding the east coast, we’ve been experiencing unseasonably warm weather in Salt Lake reaching 60 degrees mid-day for the past week.  These recent weather patterns illustrate how unpredictable our weather can be in many parts of the U.S. has become.   In Utah one common adage is if you don’t like the current weather conditions wait an hour and the weather will change.

Winter Storm PAX that pounded the east coast with ice and snow in February 2014.

Winter Storm PAX that pounded the east coast with ice and snow in February 2014.

A recent ride last week was the perfect example of a trip that might convince any rider disc brake equipped road bikes are the future for the bicycle industry.

I’ve been housebound this winter for many more days than I’m used to and on Thursday last week I decided it was time to make a break for the hills on two-wheels so bolted from work at 1:00 p.m. driving home under sunny skies intent on getting on the bike for a nice long Emigration Canyon ride.

Sunny skies over Salt Lake City on 13 February 2014, 1:00 p.m. From historical maps.

Sunny skies over Salt Lake City on 13 February 2014, 1:00 p.m. From historical maps.

Puffy white clouds dotted the horizon over the mountains signaling prime weather for pulling out my bib-shorts.  But I hadn’t shaved my legs since early January so I ended up wearing a pair of long-leg tights instead.  I wasn’t about to be seen with hairy legs sticking out of my shorts and as it turned out wearing long tights turned out to be a fortuitous decision.

I was the happy recipient of a Pearl Izumi P.R.O. Barrier WxB Jacket  for Christmas that I’ve been wearing with one or two layers of Lycra base layers all winter.  The jacket is so warm I’ve ridden with both front vents open for ventilation in temperatures below 30 degrees.  This jacket is probably not the best choice for winter riding since it holds most of the moisture a rider generates during heavy exertion inside the jacket, but I noticed the vents help push most of the moisture out keeping me warmer than I expected from what appears to be a thin single layer jacket.  The P.R.O. Barrier WxB Jacket is designed for wet riding conditions with the added advantage of a Pearl Izumi Minerale™ technology, a waterproofing and heat retention coating that happened to come in handy on my canyon trip.   The jacket has become my go-to winter top layer.

The 30-minute ascent up my chosen ride for the day, Emigration Canyon, is followed by a 17-minute high-speed descent back into the valley.  A fit rider can average  30+ mph all the way down the canyon.  On cool days the descent can be miserable if you’re sweaty from the trip up.  Since the temperature in the valley was almost 60 degrees I figured a single layer Lycra base layer would be sufficient underneath.   The combination of the Lycra and the P.R.O. Barrier WxB Jacket were just right for the long climb up the mountain.

Sunny skies over Salt Lake City on 13 February 2014, 2:00 p.m. From historical maps.

Sunny skies over Salt Lake City on 13 February 2014, 2:00 p.m. From historical maps.

I was on the road by 2 p.m. with slightly cloudy skies overhead.   I rode with an easy pace up the canyon while the temperatures were cool enough that I didn’t break a sweat.  For part of the ride I kept pace with a trio of local racers but lost them as the slope of the road increased nearing the hair-pin turns to the summit.  And as I reached the top of Little Mountain summit I lost all sight of them.  I usually ride a few miles down the other side of the mountain past the reservoir so that I get a solid 30-mile ride out of my Emigration Canyon trips; which I also did on this trip.   And as I turned around to head home I noticed a few drops of rain hitting my sleeves which by the time I was almost to the top of Little Mountain Summit the drops turned to a steady drizzle.

Sunny skies over Salt Lake City on 13 February 2014, 4:00 p.m. From historical maps.

Sunny skies over Salt Lake City on 13 February 2014, 4:00 p.m. From historical maps.

And finally as I reached Little Mountain Summit for my ride down the canyon and home, the drizzle had turned to a shower so I stopped to change into a set of warmer gloves, a pair if Assos FuguGloves, and put on a Pearl Izumi Barrier WxB hood under my helmet.  I’d brought the hood “just in case” and was glad I had as the weather was getting worse by the second.   After changing my gloves, tightening the hood over my head, and closing the jacket vents I started down the mountain.  The first flash of lightning lit over my head as I clipped in and that was followed quickly by a loud crack of thunder and the rain became a deluge turning to a mix of hard rain and hail that pelted my face.  My lips were burning from the sting of the hail as I gingerly sailed around the first two hairpin turns down the canyon.  Every few hundred feet I pulled the brakes lightly to keep my speed down afraid the road would be slippery with the icy rain.

Not long into the descent I was soaked through my tights and could feel my shoes getting wet while my head and upper body so far seemed dry.   The lightning, thunder, rain and hail continued for about half the trip down. By then my gloves as well as my feet were waterlogged.   All the way down the mountain I kept pulling lightly on the brakes to keep my speed around 20 mph; a safe speed in the driving rain and fast enough to get me home so I could warm up and dry off.  If the rain wasn’t seeded with hail I would have been moving faster but my face felt like I’d been sunburned from the sting of the icy pellets.  When the discs are wet the brakes will squeal as the water dries but as soon as they are sufficiently warm to stay dry they are quiet; even in the driving rain that was beating on me soaking my legs, feet and hands, down the mountain I was confident the bike would stop on a dime if I needed it to do so.    Finally, as I passed Hogle Zoo the rain was gone and the sun was shining through the clouds in the valley.

When I arrived home and finally stripped out of my clothes I noticed my head and upper body, protected by the WxB Barrier Jacket and hood, were dry.   The Pearl Izumi P.R.O. Barrier WxB Jacket had done a great job of keeping me dry in rain conditions most riders don’t often experience.  It’s nice to be certain your gear will protect you when the conditions turn from bad to worse.

I know from experience riding in similar conditions with clincher brakes on my CAAD9 that I’ve wondered if the bike would stop as I was descending a hill.   I clearly recall pulling as hard as I could on the brakes hoping they would dry off and stop the bike.   I can only imagine how I would have felt if I had a pair of carbon clincher wheels on my bike in the conditions I experienced on this recent ride.

True, the first iterations of road bike disc brakes affect the aerodynamics of the bike, but few of the millions of riders who buy road bikes for pleasure and even for racing will ever notice the slight difference in wind resistance.  But what these riders will get from disc brakes is the security that if they’re riding in wet conditions there’s no question the bike will get them home as safely as possible.

Though many writers are loathe to join the disc brake bandwagon by continuing to question the need for this technology, there simply is little evidence that disc brakes are a vast improvement over clincher rim brake technology that was invented in the 1880’s.   After over a hundred years of innovation there’s just not much more that can be done to improve them.   Disc brakes move the braking surface away from the rim giving wheel designers and manufacturers an open field to design wheels they’ve only dreamed of.   The introduction of an innovative product often means changes we don’t comprehend when it first appears but as time moves forward we look back in wonder asking, “How did we live without this?”  I have to run now, my iWatch is ringing.


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About OneOffTwoWheels

Being on a bicycle is my escape from all the things that make life interesting. My partner Greg and I have a shared interest in staying healthy and enjoying life together and the bicycle makes everything a little more fun.

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