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Irizar tests disc brakes in Vuelta, but some pros wary of danger

Markel Irizar (Trek Factory Racing) served as a test pilot Thursday at the Vuelta a España when he rode Shimano’s prototype disc-brake system through the heat and hills of southern Spain.

The veteran Spanish rider said he was impressed with the braking consistency, but echoed concerns among many top pros that the exposed disc plate could present a danger in the peloton’s inevitable high-speed crashes.

“The fear is that they will be like knives, and no one wants knives in the peloton,” Irizar told TVE after stage 6. “If we can cover the disc, and avoid this worry of cuts and burns when the brake heats up, I think people will really like it.”

Earlier this year, the UCI green-lit plans to test disc brakes during competition in August and September, with testing continuing through next season, with the idea that they could be introduced into the elite peloton by 2017. Shimano road-tested the brakes at the Eneco Tour earlier this month, but Thursday marked the first time they were used in a grand tour.

Disc brakes are commonplace in mountain biking and cyclocross, but the road scene has been slower to adapt them for several reasons, including weight (they can be up to 400 grams heavier) and speed of wheel change.

Irizar said the brakes would be ideal for the spring classics, when mud and rain often clog the roadways across France and Belgium.

“It will really help on rainy days,” Irizar said. “Maybe they’re not ideal for every stage, but in the classics, when there is a lot of mud and rain, and when braking is very important, but maybe not on a stage in the Tour de France, when weight really matters.”

Among the pros, however, their biggest concern seems to be that the metal braking plates could prove dangerous, causing burns or even cuts in crashes and pileups. Former world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) echoed those concerns earlier this season.

“If you land on a disc brake, it’s warm, it can open you up. If you get it on a vein … boof,” Gilbert said. “I am worried about the security. It’s not the same as a chainring. I would be more scared about a disc brake.”

Some argue that danger is exaggerated, and that chainrings present an equal or perhaps larger risk than disc brakes would in crashes.

Another worry Gilbert raised is braking distance between disc brakes and existing brakes, and that two braking systems within the bunch could be a recipe for disaster as the peloton winds through narrow roads at 55kph.

“You need to have everyone ready at the same time, because you could not have some on disc brakes and others not,” Gilbert said during a team camp ahead of the 2015 season. “The braking distance on a disc brake might be 10 meters, and on other brakes, 20 meters. With 17 WorldTour teams, and the Professional Continental teams, do you think everyone could be ready at the same time?”

Shimano has been testing its road disc braking system since August, but Thursday marked the first time they were tested in a grand tour. Frank Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) also rode the disc brake during Thursday’s stage, and they will be tested again in Saturday’s hilly eighth stage into Murcia.

Irizar seemed impressed, and believes disc brakes will be the preferred system within the peloton.

“It’s the same thing when the electronic shifting came out. There were a lot of detractors, but now everyone loves it,” he said. “I think after solving these little details, disc brakes will be the future.

“I already tried it in the Eneco Tour, but with cooler temperatures on a flat stage, and Shimano wanted to test it during a hot day, with a stage with some descents,” he explained. “The truth is the braking is a lot better. You can brake all the way. The worry was that it would freeze up, but it’s very progressive. With the data we have from [Thursday] and from the next stage, we’ll start working on it for the future. The idea is that Trek will build a bike especially for the disc brake.”