Is Specialized pressuring riders to use disc brakes? Yes and no

The war of words surrounding the use of disc brakes in the pro peloton continued over the weekend, with Lotto-Soudal rider Adam Hansen claiming that American bike brand Specialized is forcing its sponsored riders — Tom Boonen, in particular — to publicly throw their support behind the technology, despite opposing…

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The war of words surrounding the use of disc brakes in the pro peloton continued over the weekend, with Lotto-Soudal rider Adam Hansen claiming that American bike brand Specialized is forcing its sponsored riders — Tom Boonen, in particular — to publicly throw their support behind the technology, despite opposing them personally.

“Tom Boonen was against disc brakes last year,” Hansen said in an interview with Australian network SBS. “Now he’s retiring this year and loves them.”

A quick look back at Boonen’s own words, howeveras, suggests that’s not quite accurate.

Back when he was with VeloNews, CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers asked Boonen directly about his thoughts on what was then a forbidden tool in the professional arsenal.

“I’ve never used [discs] before, except on a mountain bike,” Boonen said in 2014. “I’d love to try it in training, and in a race. I think it has its advantages — you see how scary it is to go downhill in a race with no brakes or almost no brakes. The problem now with carbon rims is 50 percent of your brake power is gone when it starts raining, so it’s maybe a good thing that they will allow it, or should allow it.

“The brakes are only for safety, and I don’t really get the point when they say you can’t really have any better brakes,” he continued. “Any other sport that has to go fast and depends on speed, like motorsport, they all depend on brakes. Brakes allow you to go faster. And much safer. And we can’t use those brakes.”

Interestingly, Specialized doesn’t dispute Hansen’s assertion that it is pushing its riders to adopt disc brakes. In fact, global PR manager Sean Estes openly admits it.

“Yeah, we’re pushing it, because we’re making [disc-equipped bikes] and we believe in them,” he said. “But the implication in this most recent article that ‘pushing something’ is a bad idea is totally ridiculous. We pay teams and athletes to endorse our products, just like everyone does. That is literally how this sport works. Of course we’re pushing it. But we’re not pushing anything that’s dangerous or anything that we don’t believe in or that we don’t think they shouldn’t believe in. We’re attempting to guide them to what we believe is the right way. There’s nothing malicious whatsoever.”

Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors) used disc brakes over the weekend at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Photo: Cor Vos.

According to Estes, Specialized is merely trying to provide its teams and riders with every technological advantage possible in order to improve their results on the road, and discs are just one part of the equation. That said, he also stresses that no advantage would be promoted if it wasn’t safe to use.

“Discs may not be perfect yet, but they’re getting pretty close,” he said. “In regards to safety, I think they’re perfectly fine from everything we’ve seen, empirically and anecdotally. I don’t mean to delegitimize people’s fears, but there is no empirical data. Every crash with an injury that someone has blamed on a disc has been more or less been proven that it wasn’t that.”

Hansen’s assertion is that it is Specialized-sponsored riders who are leading the push in the peloton to embrace a technology many riders feel are unsafe and unnecessary.

“The other teams, they all have the option to use them but no one is,” Hansen said. “I don’t want to be picking on sponsors or anything, but this is Specialized riders that are using them… From the industry side, I do think the bike manufacturers are pushing for it. They have brought it out. I know the fans they want to ride what the pros are riding, we’re not riding disc brakes and all the top line bikes [are] now with disc brakes, so in that sense I do know the manufacturers do want the riders to use disc brakes.”

Yet if Specialized is, indeed, pushing discs on its sponsored teams, it doesn’t seem to be pushing especially hard. They’ve only been associated with three marquee riders — Boonen, and Quick-Step teammate Marcel Kittel, and world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) — since the UCI restarted the trial period at the beginning of this season.

Boonen became the first pro to win a UCI race on a disc-brake equipped bike when he took Stage 2 at the Vuelta a San Juan; more recently, the Belgian ran disc brakes at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Kittel chose to use discs at Dubai Tour, where he won two stages, and, more recently, at Abu Dhabi Tour, where Sky rider Owain Doull said he believed his left shoe was sliced by rotors on Kittel’s bike during a pileup.

And though he hasn’t run them yet, Sagan is considering using disc brakes during the spring classics, though he has not committed and was running rim brakes when he finished second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

Estes said that he feels that a small percentage of pro riders are pushing back against disc brakes without evidence to back up their claims, while many in the pro peloton are fully supportive. As an example, he pointed out that five Specialized-sponsored riders have requested disc frames for the upcoming Tirreno-Adriatico stage race.

“If anyone is guilty of anything, it’s not the UCI or the industry to try to push the technology; it’s the riders,” said Estes. “There almost seems to be a collusion on behalf of some riders, on their own, to create this illusion that discs are these fiery hot razor blades out to decapitate people. That’s simply not true. There’s a lot of alleged sensationalism on both sides, and I think it’s silly. Since the rounded rotors, there has yet to be a single injury attributed to discs. I would argue that they actually improve safety, as they allow for more reliable and powerful braking across all conditions.”

Estes also strongly disputed the allegation that Specialized is pressuring its riders to adopt disc-brake technology.

“While we definitely do encourage our riders to use specific products that we believe provide a performance edge, we absolutely do not make our teams and riders use anything they don’t want to use, or don’t feel comfortable using,” he said. “We have been working on disc brakes for two years with our teams, providing information, working with the riders to show the true benefits. So to be clear — and this may sound like semantics, but I believe it’s an important distinction — we are not pushing the riders to do anything, in the sense of making them do specific things, rather we are working with the riders, the teams, the UCI, etc, to help drive technology forward. Innovation was a founding principle at Specialized over 40 years ago, and it still drives us today.”

As for Boonen, he stands by disc brakes. Before Omloop, he told Belgian news outlet Het Nieuwsblad that he believes disc-brake rotors are not dangerous after conducting his own test  which, admittedly, was not representative of a real-life crash situation. “I’ve dared to stop a wheel at 60 kilometres an hour with my hand,” he said. “It’s absurd; disc brakes seem at the moment to be the biggest problem in the world. I can’t understand the fuss. A crash involving 30 riders with broken legs and arms isn’t news. But one abrasion, allegedly caused by a disc brake, is worldwide news.”

Note: This article has been updated with additional quotes from Specialized global PR manager Sean Estes.

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