Switching to Disc Brakes for Cyclocross: Maintenance and Considerations

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TRP Brakes HY-RD cable-actuated hydraulic disc brake. © Cyclocross Magazine

Will switching to the TRP Brakes HY-RD cable-actuated hydraulic disc brake make life easier? © Cyclocross Magazine

One of our readers asked, “If I switch to disc brakes, what’s going to be different in terms of maintenance?”

 One of our trusty mechanical experts, Drew Hager, weighs in:

I think for many cyclocrossers coming from a roadie background the idea of disc brakes is daunting and full of hassle, while those coming from a mountain biking background or having at least ridden a modern mountain bike will realize that there is little to no added maintenance.

In many ways, maintenance is simplified, cleaning is easier and brake pads are removed, installed and adjusted easier. Rim integrity is increased due to brake track wear not being a problem. An out-of-true wheel causes less issues, and won’t cause energy-sapping brake rub. If you are using a cable pull mechanical disc brake system, the adjustments are made similarly, just with a different mechanism.

The main two things I would point out that will need to be routine are pad adjustments. They will need to be made as pads wear and you will need to monitor pad wear.We all heard the stories at Nationals and Worlds this past year, how  pads can wear in the matter of a single muddy race … This is true but most mechanics will use pads of a different compound in wet than in dry conditions (many even mix and match a pair of pads accordingly) and you will always need to have a spare pair and probably a spare set of rotors too.

If you will be upgrading to a hydraulic disc set-up, than your worries will be considerably less. Unlike replacing contaminated cables after the muddy events you will, barring any catastrophe, rarely need to bleed the system if initially done the correct way, and your pads will self-adjust with wear.

Another complication worth considering if you’re looking to move to disc brakes is that buying (or borrowing, or getting a spare wheel at the races) wheels isn’t as straight forward as it is with cantilever brake-equipped bikes. With rim brakes, you can pretty much grab any 700c wheelset and know that besides changing out brake pads (if you have a carbon rim), they’ll work with your bike, and you’re ready to go. With disc brakes, here are variables the Cyclocross Magazine’s team thinks you should be aware of:

    1. Hub spacing and type: Not all 700c/29er disc brake wheels are cyclocross bike compatible. With many mountain bikes going thru axle front and rear, and moving to 142mm rear spacing, you need to make sure the wheels you purchase will fit your bike, which typically is designed for a 100mm wide quick release front hub and 135mm rear quick release hub (although some cyclocross disc brake bikes use 130mm rear spacing). Some wheels, including Ritchey’s Vantage II 29er wheels and Notubes.com’s Iron Cross wheels have caps and adapters that can convert the wheels to thru axle or quick release.
    2. Rotor style and size: You won’t be able to just grab any rotor or your buddy’s spare wheel and expect it to work perfectly on your bike. Rotors come in IS six bolt and Shimano Centerlock attachment styles, and come in a handful of sizes, the most popular being 140mm and 160mm in cyclocross, but mountain bikes also use 185mm and 203mm rotors.    The Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld team runs 140mm front and rear rotors, while many bikes are featuring either a 160mm front and rear rotor or a 160mm front and 140mm rear rotor combination. This dramatically reduces your chances of getting a compatible wheel from neutral support at the races until disc brakes become popular and the industry agrees on one size.
    3. Swapping wheels: While one would hope all hubs and rotors would be built to perfect tolerances, positioning the rotor in the exact same spot on any wheel, manufacturing is never that precise, and because there’s not a ton of room between the brake pads and rotors (especially on single piston mechanical disc brakes, which is pretty much every brake on the market except for the TRP Spyre dual piston mechanical disc brake), swapping wheels means you could end up with rotor rub and need to adjust the pad or caliper position for a free-running wheel.
    4. Rotor and brake pad burn in: Jump on a bike with a never-been-ridden set of brake pads and rotors, hit a steep hill, and you might be scared to death with the lack of braking power. Getting your pads and rotors to work properly requires a bit of “burn in,” often involving a dozen or so short stops, and getting some pad material on the rotors to increase friction. It doesn’t take a ton of time, but means you shouldn’t swap a rotor and expect to ride without a bit of prep.

Despite the above variables, at this point in the game, it seems to me that disc brakes are an impending inevitability and as far as I can see so far, the trade-off of any maintenance seems like a worthy bargain for better, less stressful braking.

What do you think? Have you made the switch already, or are planning to for this season? Let us know in the comments!

 

 

Cyclocross Magazine, Issue 22, Print and digital subscriptionsHave you subscribed yet? You're missing out if not. Get all-original content and your cyclocross fix throughout the year with a subscription and Issue 23 back copy, with features on Lars van der Haar, Jonathan Page, Elle Anderson and more!
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11 comments
JohnLangley
JohnLangley

So it's been a year.  Are rotor sizes standard yet? 

Geoffrey Grosenbach
Geoffrey Grosenbach

I'd like to hear about truing and breaking in disc brake rotors. I rode disc brakes for the last two seasons and could never eliminate the loud screech of the pad on the rotor, usually from the front. I tried organic pads with no improvement.

Allan Varcoe
Allan Varcoe

I just like simple, inexpensive brakes that work and canti's do the job for me. I ride my bike almost every single day and like Sweet Brown said about her bike, "Ain't nobody got time for maintenance."!

shannonlister
shannonlister

In summery. Disc are a big improvement. I'm disappointed hydraulic have taken so long to get up and running. The most notable current concern with mechanical disc is swapping wheels as mentioned above. Is anyone using TRP hy/rd ?

Chad Rector
Chad Rector

I like them for their consistency but not sure they're much of an improvement over canti's for power. modulation has been about the same. I have fun length housing and there's been no upkeep, as opposed to keeping the cables lubed and clean all the time with canti's and adjusting the left/right tension bolts on the canti's to align the brakes to the rim all the time. I haven't had the noise problems others seem to have, especially compared to canti's on wet rims. I ran avid shorty canti's which were known to be noisy often, but they stopped well.

Marc Dettman
Marc Dettman

I think it's great that there is a choice for somebody like you that wants them. Some of my mtb friends love the option. And I'd would rather hear from some one like you about how they work - the manufacturer/pro/journo thing is wearing me out. But at least it's not like the road scene with a doping story at the top of the page practically everyday. It's like "Operation Porto-Jon has uncovered ..." vs. "Do I really want hydraulic disc brakes and electronic shifting on my single speed cross bike, and will it all work with the Bunny Suit I'm going to wear?"

Doug Page
Doug Page

Pain in the butt. Lots of power, not much modulation. Noisy too. :-p

Beth Boston Gearhart
Beth Boston Gearhart

I agree it's kind of overkill but there are going to be questions about new technology. I just put discs on my new build as I know several people who have as well. Love them.

Marc Dettman
Marc Dettman

Is there anything else to report on other than disc brakes for cyclocross? C'mon guys gimme a break, or not a brake. If you want to keep reporting on disc brakes non-stop (pun?) tell me: what percentage of cross bikes with discs are bought and paid for right now? Last I heard it was 6%, including pros. The industry is pushing this on the market, the only market pull I see is from a small percentage of mtbers coming into cross.

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