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Should I Use Disc or Cantilever Brakes for Cyclocross?

Liam Hallam is a sports science graduate. He is also a keen cyclist and a lover of the Derbyshire Dales and Peak District.

Disc or cantilever brakes for cyclocross? This is a question asked by many riders considering buying a new cx bike.

Disc or cantilever brakes for cyclocross? This is a question asked by many riders considering buying a new cx bike.

Choosing the Right Brakes for Your Cyclocross Bike

As cyclocross as a sport gets bigger and bigger each year, manufacturers are now becoming infinitely more aware of the demands of the sport as well as its competitors.

Increased manufacturer involvement and performance progression has led toward cyclocross-specific disc brake systems slowly making their way onto the marketplace.

Many Pro cyclocross riders are still riding traditional brakes, although the Cannondale Cyclocrossworld Team was quick to take up the new brake set, so at present, there's a large amount of indecision over what to ride—cantilever or disc brakes for cyclocross?

The UCI relaxed its rules on using disc brakes for elite level cyclocross racing in 2010. While there wasn't a flood of disc brake equipped bikes coming onto the market, there's been a slow but steady integration from the big manufacturers, though many still offer cyclocross bikes with cantilever brakes or additional mounts to fit disc brakes. It's a big decision to consider when choosing a new frameset for cyclocross racing.

Key Advantages of Using Disc Brakes for Cyclocross

There are a number of key advantages of using disc brakes in comparison with cantilever brakes and they're mentioned below.

Pro Riders currently racing using disc brakes for cyclocross include: Tim Johnson, Ryan Trebon and Ben Berden.

Increased Braking Power From Disc Brakes

Cantilevers and V-Brakes struggle in terms of brake lineage when combined with a set of standard STI road bike shifters. These struggle to provide the leverage to really pull into a rim surface.

Mud and water can severely affect braking with rim brakes. Disc brakes can lead to improved braking performance by moving the brake surface away from the rim.

Mud and water can severely affect braking with rim brakes. Disc brakes can lead to improved braking performance by moving the brake surface away from the rim.

TRP's Parabox Disc Brake System

Decreased Braking Interference From Mud and Water

In wet and muddy conditions, a bicycle tire has to shed mud outwards to clear for traction, which works well for grip. However, this can lead to the rim surface becoming covered in water, or worse, mud.

A disc brake rotor placed more central to the wheel axel moves the braking surface further away from the areas most likely to be affected by mud and water, which tend to be abundant for winter cyclocross races.

Disc Brakes Mean Increased Rim Life

Rim brakes, when combined with mud, sand, gravel and wood chippings, can lead to a quick rate of rim surface degeneration in terms of braking surface and functional strength. By removing this stressor, you can hope to expect a significantly longer rim lifespan. This also creates the potential for manufacturers to make more cyclocross-specific tubular disc wheel rims. This would negate the braking surface and have the potential for improved strength to weight ratios or more radical designs to fit the purpose.

Lower Levels of Rider Muscle Tiredness at the End of Races and Sportives

Cyclocross races often involve significant braking, which can be hard on your hands over a long period of time. The increased strength of braking from disc brakes vs cantis means that there is the potential for a rider to speed less time during a race—thus leading to decreased tiredness.

However, this may not seem an issue to many over the course of a 50-60 minute cx race. It becomes more interesting when you consider the increasing popularity of cyclocross events or if a rider considers using their cyclocross bike for long training rides.

Potential for Increased Speed and Faster Racing

We would alll like to go a little faster whilst we're racing and finish a few more places higher in the field. Using disc brakes for cyclocross when compared to cantilevers has potential performance implications by allowing a rider to stay on the gass for longer and brake later knowing that their braking system has the capacity to deal with such a demand. This means that a rider can carry additional speed up to a corner saving themselves vital fractions of a second for each corner. It may seem a small amount but it all adds up over the course of a race event.

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Read More From Skyaboveus

Cantilever brakes are still very popular for cyclocross racing. From Elites downwards canti's get the job done.

Cantilever brakes are still very popular for cyclocross racing. From Elites downwards canti's get the job done.

Grab Some Awesome 4ZA Cantilevers For Cyclocross

Why Ride Canti’s for CX? Many Pro Cyclocross Riders Are Still Riding Cantilever Brakes

If you look at photos of events like the Cyclocross World Championships and big European events like Belgium's bpost Trophy, you'll see that the gross majority of Pro riders are still riding cantilever brake sets for cyclocross racing.

Pro cyclocross riders still using canti's include: Sven Nijs, Kevin Pauwels, Enrico Franzoi, Niels Albert and Helen Wyman.

Sven Nijs Isn’t Riding Disc’s for Cyclocross Yet

If Cyclocross god Sven Nys isn't riding disc's yet, should we be riding them?

Over the years, Sven has been known for pushing the boundaries when it comes to his equipment for cyclocross racing. He's been known to arrive at race venues in the past with a truck full of wheels alone to make sure he has exactly the right equipment for his cyclocross racing needs.

Despite using disc brakes for cyclocross, Sven has yet to be seen sporting a race bike with disc brakes. He's sponsored by Shimano, who produce a cyclocross specific disc brake and bike manufacturer Colnago who also produce their own Colnago disc-equipped performance cyclocross bikes.

Sven Nys is still riding cantilever brakes to some awesome race performances.

Cantilever Brakes Make for Easy Wheel Changes When Racing

Not everyone can justify the cost of or have the room for a second bike for cyclocross racing. Therefore some riders may take a second pair of wheels with them to races to ensure they can continue in cases where they have a puncture, mechanical issue, or simply feel that their tires aren't up to the course and need to swap over fast.

Cantilever brake sets provide advantages over disc brakes by offering ease of swapping out wheelsets mid race. Disc brake calipers need to be inserted specifically and therefore can take additional time in the pit area where speed is key.

Cantilever Brakes Have Worked for Cyclocross for Years

Cantilever brakes have been around for cyclocross and touring bikes for years. They have also be popular for mountain bikes over the years too. They do the job they're intended to do and do it relatively well.

The main argument many people have used in the past with cantilever brakes for cyclocross is their ability to brake from a wide axis due the the need for clearance when it gets muddy. The right wiode angle cantilever brakes are able to achieve this and have been doing so for a large number of years.

Race Using Cantilevers With an Out of True Rim, Not a Damaged Disc Rotor

The close clearance nature of a disc brake caliper and rotor can potentially cause problems in crashes or accidents.

When you're pushing the pace, there's always an element that the unknown could happen. This is particularly true in muddy cyclocross races—the course itself is a living organism and is constantly changing. The right line on the first lap isn't always the same on the following lap after 150 riders have ridden it and therefore the chances of a 'racing incident' can increase.

If a disc brake rotor gets damaged either in transit or as a result of a racing incident, there's a high likelihood that you're not going to be able to continue racing. Damage to an aluminium wheel rim while using cantilever brakes for cyclocross on many occasions will mean that you can at least roll back to the pit area or in many cases, you may still be able to ride. (Unless you 'write-off' the rim completely)

Please note that damage to carbon rims is more likely to mean you have to mount the bike on your shoulders and run around to the pit area, assuming you have spare wheels or a spare race bike available there. Carbon's function is only maintained when it is in its original moulded form, and structural strength decreases significantly once damaged, so continuation of riding will be deeply unsafe.

Carl Dyson of Clay Cross RT riding cantlevers on his cyclocross bike.

Carl Dyson of Clay Cross RT riding cantlevers on his cyclocross bike.

Cantilever Brakes Are Lighter Than Disc Brakes

When you're racing cyclocross weight matters.

A typical set of cantilever brakes will weigh around 120g (including pads)

Bike Rumor weighed the disc brake caliper and rotors from a set of Hayes CX5 Mechanical Disc Brakes and achieved a total weight of 300-315 grammes dependant on rotor size.

Cyclocross Is About Maintaining Speed

Cyclocross as a sport is all about maintaining speed whilst riding. A quick touch on a disc break is always going to scrub off a lot of speed. Cyclocross is all about maintaining speed so the need for excessive braking is negated.

Cyclocrossers learn to dismount their bike at speed. Take away too much of that speed by dabbing at your brakes and you're going to be at a disadvantage.

Do Your Really Need a Cyclocross Bike With Disc Brakes?

As cyclocross has gained in popularity, more and more of the big name bike manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon by adding CX bikes to their ranges. Maybe to stay with the game,. or simply to not miss out.

Many cyclocrossers have ridden the same bikes and frames for years. Empella framesets are still awesome over ten years after they came onto the market. Many riders still lust over their performance orientated geometry and distinctly Belgian styling. They're effective and efficient for cyclocross, made from sturdy yet lightweight aluminium and get the job done in the mud. You don't necessarily need a five grand carbon frameset for cyclocross unless you're a sponsored athlete.

In many cases it's the newcomers to the sport who seem to want to push things further. Mountain bikers have seen the benefits of disc brakes to their riding. Therefore disc brakes will certainly appeal to an mtber looking to ride cx during the winter months.

The fact that many Pro's who get a choice on what they ride haven't switched to disc brakes has to be noted. Disc's have become a big thing in America and that may lead to changes across the Atlantic too.

For now I'm riding Cantilevers, at least whilst Sven Nys is riding them too. If they're good enough for a god, they're good enough for me.

Where Do You Stand On Disc Or Cantilever Brakes For Cyclocross?

We'd love to hear your feedback on this article in the comments box below.

  • Have you converted to disc brakes and have they led to your best ever racing results?
  • Are you vehemently sticking with canti's?
  • Do you think it's just an attempt by manufacturers to make us part with more cash long term?

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