Cyclocross Traditions, Part 3: Cantilevers

I don’t get angry much. Yeah, I can get frustrated with my kids. Driving in big cities can be pretty annoying. Being late can put me on edge.  But really angry? That doesn’t happen much.  But in the wake of major UCI rule changes for cyclocross last year, Cyclocross Magazine posted an interview with Adam Myerson regarding his feelings on the rule changes. When I was done reading it, I was incensed. I think that’s the best term for it.

For one, I found Myerson’s responses to be internally inconsistent.  Moving to disc brakes is terrible because (among other reasons) it will be expensive, but a narrower tire regulation that drives people from clinchers to tubulars is okay?  ‘Cause I love spending $80-100 on each tubular instead of $50 per clincher. And the price of a disc wheel is really not that much more than a rim brake because you don’t need a machined braking surface.  The other thing that irritated me so much about his answers was his veneration of tradition for tradition’s sake.  Here’s Myerson’s direct quote:

It comes down to tradition, and cantilever brakes are a part of the tradition of the way cyclocross bikes work.

One of the things about road cycling that baffles newcomers, especially American newcomers, is the strategy and tradition of the peloton. Even there, we have seen innovation in frame materials, brakes, shifting and practically every other aspect of the bike.  Mountain biking, on the other hand, has always been a sport of innovation.  Better technology lets you go faster. Why does cyclocross need to the bastion of tradition in cycling?

Myerson is very explicit (yet contradictory) about brakes.  Referring to disc brakes, he says:

There’s no question that they work better in terms of stopping a wheel, and they work better in bad conditions.

Yet he also quips:

I’ve never had a complaint with my brakes, I’ve never had braking be a limiter in cyclocross.

So discs work better, especially in traditional cyclocross conditions, but he’s never wanted something better or felt that if he had better brakes, he could perform better?

Let me come back to that later.

When I bought my Tricross, I was initially hugely disappointed in the brakes. I took it out on my local trails and almost crashed into trees over and over again because I was going into corners with mountain bike speed and ridiculous cantilever brakes. I couldn’t stop.  Eventually, I learned what the cantis were capable of and adapted.  I dialed back my speed and I started braking earlier.  I also came to a conclusion about brakes in cyclocross: it’s not about stopping, it’s about slowing down.  That difference is considerable.  Suddenly cantis were a reasonable option.  The longer I’ve had them, the more I get used to them, but the more I feel disc brakes would be a superior option.  Especially as I’ve struggled with squealing, fork chatter, finding the perfect pads and the vast difference in rim width between my Rovals and my Neuvations, I long for the simplicity of dropping in a wheel and having it just work. People occasionally grump that discs are more picky than cantis in terms of wheel changes, but I think that’s an outdated perception.  I can change wheels on my mountain bike faster and with less thought than my Tricross.

Let’s go back to the performance of the rider with respect to brakes.  What I hear Myerson saying is that he doesn’t want equipment to trump the rider. I also don’t want cycling to be a sport where you can “buy speed”. But I can easily reflect back to the Planet Bike Cup last weekend too.  It’s clear to me that if I could actually slow down before a corner, I could have used my fitness to get ahead of other riders and then used my technical skill to stay ahead. So the brakes were clearly a “limiter” for me. The equipment was standing in the way of the rider. That, I think, is a tragedy.

I have lusted after the Ibis Hakkalugi for a few years now. My LBS owner is buying a Kona Major Jake that he will ride for exactly two ‘cross races and then look to sell.  Knowing my affinity for ‘cross, he’s already trying to pawn it off on me (even though he hasn’t taken delivery of the thing yet!). In both cases, I look at hugely desirable bikes that are still running these awful brakes.  I look at the Specialized Crux and Felt F65X that come with disc brakes and see that as the real future of ‘cross.

So to all those folks who declare that cantis are part of the great tradition of cyclocross, I say I totally understand.  I also totally disagree.

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