Cyclocross Brakes—Disc vs. Canti

The author on his disc bike--sometimes neither bike is fast. Photo by Travis Neumuller

by: @mrbabcock

In 2010, the UCI lifted the long-standing ban on disc brakes in cyclocross. This opened the floodgates for manufacturers to start designing and building disc-specific component groups, frames, and wheels. Three years later, we are seeing the fruits of these labors. With cyclocross-specific disc offerings from SRAM, Shimano, and TRP and disc-ready frames from almost all major manufacturers, cyclocross racers have more options than ever.

Last year, I was fortunate enough to race the season with two bikes—one disc and one canti. Apart from brakes and hubs, they were identical. I feel that this experience has put me in a unique position to comment on the disc vs. canti debate.

The Bikes

Both bikes were Ridley X-Rides with SRAM components. The disc bike had Hayes mechanical brakes, and the canti bike had TRP EuroX brakes. Both bikes were equipped with wheels built by Chris Shadburn of Built to Last Wheels. The disc bike used Velocity Major Toms laced to SRAM X9 mountain bike hubs, while the canti bike used the same rims laced to DT Swiss hubs. Both wheelsets were glued up with Clement PDX tires.

Disc Bike – Pros & Cons

Pros:

  • One-fingered stopping power
  • Ability to brake later than riders on canti bikes. This was especially beneficial on fast courses.
  • Increased confidence on MTB trails and especially technical ‘cross courses.
  • Ability to use 29er MTB wheels.

Cons:

  • Heavy
  • Lots of pad noise in mud or wet sand/gravel. Also pads wore out very quickly in mud.
  • Inability to use standard road wheels.

Canti Bike – Pros & Cons

Pros:

  • Lightweight
  • Great mud clearance/pads lasted much longer in mud
  • Ability to use any road wheel.

Cons:

  • More force required at the brake lever
  • Less confidence on MTB trails or especially technical ‘cross courses.

Conclusions

At the beginning of the season, I expected disc brakes to be a game changer. I thought I would never ride my canti bike again. I was wrong.

Based on my experience, the benefits of disc brakes and the shortcomings of cantilevers—in a race environment–have been greatly overstated. I felt equally capable of success (or failure) on either bike. There were some situations to which I found one bike  better suited than the other, i.e. the cantilever bike in mud and the disc bike in “grass crits,” but most of my races fell right in the middle of these two extremes. That said, I still think that “disc vs. canti” is an important decision. The decision should be made, however, based on how you plan to use your bike outside of racing.

My ‘cross bike doubles as my mountain bike. I love taking it places where it’s not “supposed” to go. Disc brakes greatly extend a cyclocross bike’s ability to manage on technical MTB trails.

My other ‘cross bike doubles as my road bike. Come February, I throw on a 53/39 and some 25c tires and take to the road. For this bike, rim brakes make more sense. I can use any standard road wheel (a huge benefit where neutral wheels are concerned), and I can use the bike in UCI road races that still don’t allow disc brakes. Also, those TRPs are pretty dang light!

For me, the answer to “disc vs. canti” is both. But I’m willing to bet that I’m the exception. What are you going to ride this year?

 

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