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Why Disc Brakes will Revolutionize The Bicycle∗

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(∗and it has nothing to do with stopping)

There are a handful of people in cycling that manage to cut through the noise of fads, marketing and herd mentality. They seem to view the sport from 30,000 feet, recognizing things that can seem so obvious, so foundational, you feel as if you’ve known them forever yet had never heard them articulated before.

Words/images: Ben Edwards

Richard Bryne, the founder and owner of Speedplay pedals, is one such man. During a recent chat about what and where we’re each riding—road, dirt, the 3T Exploro, 40mm Panaracer Gravelkings with 650b wheels—and why disc brakes encounter such resistance, he dropped a deceptively simple statement that, upon further discussion, crystallized an entire movement for us.

Bryne: “Disc brakes are the best thing to ever happen to the bike, but it’s not the stopping, stupid.”

Us: “Yeah! Wait, what?”

A typical disc discussion follows a very predictable arc: Look at this beautiful new bike; would be great if it wasn’t for the dumb disc brakes, but they stop better (modulation, power, all-weather, blah, blah, snore); don’t need them; fine, no one’s going to make you buy it. Bored yet?

The way Bryne sees it—and we have become converts—is that the improved stopping performance is a nice benefit of disc brakes, but a sideshow compared to why they really matter. Disc brakes are important not for what they add, but what they remove: rim brakes. Liberated from rim-braking requirements, frame builders have been able to add absurd tire clearance and new wheel sizes, while wheel builders can make wider rims and tire manufacturers can provide rubber that makes the most of both these developments.

The result has been a massive increase in tire-volume options and the surface agnostic “gravel bike”—a term Bryne despises. He sees the bicycle industry trying to pigeonhole this new bike into a tiny sliver of a segment, when what it really does is defy categorization; and that is its magic.

“It would be much better to call these bicycles what they are: the most efficient, most practical, lowest consumption, most sustainable, most socially accountable method of human transportation from point A to point B over the widest range of surfaces ever invented. Of course, this long definition is totally impractical but it does describe what these new bicycles are. I would prefer they be called universal bikes or SUBs, Sport Utility Bikes,” says Bryne.

If you looked at all the people of the world and plotted the bike they need on a bell jar curve, at one extreme end you’d have the roadie category, which has been chopped up into aero, endurance, climbing, and other narrowly defined segments. This is the group the industry is currently trying to convince that the gravel bike is yet another sliver of a segment. At the other end of this bell jar curve is the mountain bike rider—another category the industry is carving into smaller and smaller niches.

“The potential of this bike category cannot be underestimated,” Bryne says. “Its potential market size is enormous compared to road and MTB machines. What makes both the road and MTB categories so limited is their use is surface specific while the new universal bike category is inherently multi-surface capable. Because universal bicycles are not limited by surface they have the potential to dwarf the previous road and MTB categories in scale and relegate them to the margins of the market spectrum.”

Put another way, Bryne likens the road bike to a sports car and the mountain bike to a monster truck. If we want to get more people on bikes, just carving up sports cars and monster trucks into smaller and more refined categories is folly. There is a reason niche-defying SUVs dominate auto sales, and the SUB could do the same in cycling.

“This technology problem has persisted so long historically that people don’t even recognize it as the problem it is. What these universal bikes really are is a missing link that finally bridges the big functionality gap between road and off-road bicycles,” Bryne tells us.

“Its potential market size is enormous compared to road and MT B machines.”

“To reach its full potential, the SU B asks for a sea change in industry marketing strategy.”While it’s the disc brake’s migration to road and ’cross bikes that has made the gravel bike, or SUB, possible—and we can’t go any further without acknowledging how important Gerard Vroomen’s OPEN U.P. and 3T Exploro have been to the movement—Bryne sees other developments as critical components in the SUB’s continued development.

Road bike gearing, while getting wider thanks to developments like SRAM’s WiFLi, is still too limiting for what these bikes are capable of. Much lower than 1:1 is needed if we’re to convince riders and non-riders alike the bike can do more than they imagine. With the right gears on a SUB we may not be grasping at e-bike straws to save the industry.

The other piece of this puzzle is the right pedal. Road pedals are great on asphalt, but fail miserably in the dirt. Mountain pedals may be good in dirt and mud, but why drive power through squishy rubber lugs when hiking rocky sections is not in your future? It’s here that Bryne is making his contribution to the SUB. He sees his new Speedplay SYZR as the pedal that bridges the gap between road and mountain the way the SUB does.

There will be fear and resistance to this concept, especially as the industry seems determined to squeeze more sales from the same pool of riders. Everyone needs a road bike, a gravel bike and a mountain bike, right? You might need an aero road bike too, and maybe a climbing bike to be safe. How about an all-mountain bike and a ’cross bike?

Ask yourself honestly: How many of your rides couldn’t be completed just as easily, maybe more easily, on a bike with 650b wheels and 40 or 47mm tires? Wouldn’t you be more comfortable on a century ride with more tire volume? Do you really need 120mm of travel for those fire-road climbs? A single bike, the SUB, can easily handle all of these rides, which is where the industry fear comes from.

To reach its full potential, the SUB asks for a sea change in industry marketing strategy. Maybe most core riders need just one bike, the SUB, but release the SUB from its contrived “gravel” category and just maybe it can inspire an entirely new group of riders and, as Bryne says, “Dwarf the previous road and MTB categories in scale and relegate them to the two margins of the market spectrum.”

From issue 71. Buy it here.