Cycling enthusiasts love talking about innovative features even when the gains from the new technology are questionable.
For that reason, many are surprised to learn that some cyclo-cross bikes continue to rely on cantilever brakes (a system predating V-brakes) even though the sport requires aggressive riding on muddy terrain.
There’s a logical explanation behind this phenomenon:
Cantilever brakes have been an integral part of cyclo-cross because they’re UCI approved, compatible with drop bar brake shifters, lighter than disc brakes – all while offering greater tire clearance than all other forms of rim brakes.
The width of cyclo-cross tires in competitions regulated by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) is between 28 and 33mm. However, in non-sectioned events, cyclists are running 35+mm tires.
Meanwhile, the average width of road bike tires is 23-28mm. The difference between 28 and 33mm tires is 15%.
When you add in the mud factor (cyclo-cross tires accumulate a great deal of mud during racing), the caliper brakes found on road bikes become completely unusable on cyclo-cross machines.
Cantilever brakes solve this problem. They offer the greatest tire clearance out of all rim brakes, including V-brakes, thanks to the transverse cable connecting the brake arms. This peculiarity reduces the accumulation of dirt near the brake bridge.
Another benefit of cantilever brakes is that they come with a lot of room for adjustment – an advantage in the hands of experienced mechanics and cyclists.
Drop Bar Compatibility
Cyclo-cross bikes use drop bars (click here to learn why). Consequently, the brakes of choice have to be compatible with drop bar brake-shifters.
Cantilever brakes fit the bill because they have a smaller mechanical advantage than V-brakes and require a shorter cable pull.
(To learn more about the differences between cantilever and V-brakes, consider reading this post.)
Mini V-brakes (a small form factor V-brakes) can also work with drop bar brake shifters, but they are not as popular due to their poor tire clearance prohibiting the use of extra-wide tires.
There are also drop bar brake levers designed specifically for regular V-brakes. However, those models do not have a shifting function and necessitate the use of a separate shifter (e.g., bar-end shifters).
This is a problem because cyclo-cross races are too dynamic to rely on shifters requiring you to frequently move your hands away from the hoods.
V-brakes can become compatible with brake-shifters via adaptors known as Travel Agents which increase the cable pulled by the lever.
This system isn’t popular because the extra adaptors are considered unnecessary complications. Besides, the pros don’t like “patches” and prefer their machines to be as streamlined as possible.
Why no disc brakes?
Even cycling purists admit that disc brakes offer better performance than rim brakes.
The main benefits of disc brakes are as follows:
- Good performance regardless of the weather
The rotor of a disc brake doesn’t get nearly as contaminated as a rim. In consequence, disc brakes provide greater stopping power in wet and dirty conditions. This characteristic is highly beneficial to cyclo-cross racing.
- Lower dependence on the rim
In order for a rim brake to perform at its best, the rim has to be as straight as possible. Disc brakes do not care nearly as much how true the wheel is. For that reason, the braking performance does not drop when the rim gets out of tune.
- Less rim wear
Rim brakes rub against the rim and wear it down over time. The end result is a decreased lifespan of the wheel. Disc brakes fix that too.
- Greatest tire clearance
Disc brakes do not limit the width of the wheel and tire.
- Easier to trigger
Hydraulic disc brakes require significantly less finger strength. In consequence, one could brake by using a single finger. Some riders like that a lot.
- The best modulation
A brake’s modulation describes the relation between the lever’s input (pressing the brake) and the output (slowing down or stopping).
A brake with zero modulation is either “on” or “off”. In other words, you’re either not braking or completely locking the wheel the second you press the lever.
Low modulation is bad because it gives you less control. However, high modulation has a downside too – the brake lever may bottom out (reach its maximum travel) before fully locking the wheel.
Medium modulation is the best case scenario.
Disc brakes have the best modulation out of all brakes because they operate on a smaller surface and therefore have to squeeze the rotor significantly harder than a rim brake grabs the wheel.
According to Wayne Lumpkin, founder of Avid Brakes, disc brakes have to squeeze the rotor with 1000 pounds of force to almost lock the wheel whereas rim brakes exert only 200 pounds to do the same.
Thе extra squeeze required by disc brakes works in favor of modulation because it offers more intermediate phases before lockup (1000>200).
The number of benefits offered by disc brakes leads to a very logical question: why didn’t disc brakes become the cyclo-cross standard a long time ago?
The main reasons why disc brakes took so long to flood the cyclo-cross market are:
There are three main types of cycling traditionalists.
The first one constitutes of people who recognize the benefits of modern cycling technology but stick with the old stuff for the romance. Those people believe that the modern cycling tech is overengineered and kills the classic lines of the bicycle and subsequently its soul.
The second type includes individuals who consider cycling innovations a well-elaborated scam encouraging people to buy new unnecessary products offering marginal gains.
The third type is a mix of 1 and 2.
Disc brakes are notably heavier than rim brakes. Some people classify the extra weight as a serious problem and choose to exchange the braking power of disc brakes for the weight savings of rim brakes.
Below is a table comparing the weight of popular cantilever and disc brakes used for cyclo-cross:
|Cantilever brakes||Weight |
|Disc brakes||Weight (Caliper only)|
|Avid Shorty Ultimate||129g||Hayes CX Expert Disc Brake||192g|
|TRP RevoX Carbon||130g||TRP Spyre Mechanical Disc Brake||154g|
|Tektro CR710||144g||TRP HYRD||205g|
|Shimano BR-CX70||165g||Avid BB7 SL Road Mechanical||170g|
|FSA SL-K CX||136g||Hayes CX Pro||159g|
On average, disc brakes’ calipers alone are 20% heavier than a cantilever brake. When you add the rotor, which is at least 100 grams, the weight difference amplifies greatly. And as we all know, competitive cyclists do not like extra grams on their machines.
The UCI Has Banned Disc Brakes Multiple Times
In 2003, the UCI banned disc brakes from UCI-sanctioned cyclo-cross events.
In 2010, the ban was lifted. However, the downtime had a negative effect because it removed all incentive to work on disc brakes designed specifically for professional cyclo-cross races.
Later, disc brakes were removed from road competitions for safety reasons.
In 2016, Francisco Ventoso suffered a painful injury – the disc rotor of another rider cut his leg to the bone. Due to the accident, disc brakes were banned from high-level road cycling.
The ban indirectly hurt cyclo-cross racing too because it reduced the financial incentive to invest in the production of disc brakes for bicycles with drop bars.
According, to the latest UCI regulations that I could find, disc brakes are now allowed in both cyclo-cross and road racing.
Unless disc brakes are banned again, they will more than likely become the standard for cyclo-cross and shrink the market of cantilevers.
However, I don’t think that disc brakes will capture the world of road cycling because they’re heavier and not as needed due to smooth terrain.
Also, many road cyclists are strongly against disc brakes. Some say that the greater stopping power of disc brakes will encourage people to take more risks and thus cause even harsher peloton crashes.
FAQ: How can disc brakes hurt a rider?
The main source of danger is the rotor. It’s a thin piece of metal that has the potential to penetrate and cut skin, especially during high-speed collisions.
To minimize the chances of this outcome, manufacturers round the rotors’ edges as much as possible.
Furthermore, the rotor gets really hot during long descents and can easily burn the leg of a cyclist.
Another possible injury would be exposure to hydraulic fluid during a crash.
Do Cantilever Brakes Hinder Performance in Cyclo-cross?
The superior braking power of disc brakes allows cyclists to brake further down a corner and over a shorter distance. The minimized braking time results in greater average speed and more aggression.
Nonetheless, it would be inaccurate to conclude that amazing cyclocross performance cannot be achieved with cantilever brakes. It’s quite possible to perform on the highest level while still using cantilever brakes.
After all, cyclo-cross isn’t downhill mountain biking. The tracks may include off-road sections, but the terrain isn’t as hostile and demanding as what mountain bikers have to deal with. For that reason, disc brakes aren’t mandatory to be at the highest level.
Jonathan Page, one of the most popular American cyclo-cross riders, has competed on cantilever brakes and holds a multitude of high-level achievements. He is a great example that peak CX performance can become a reality without disc brakes.
Having said that, the braking boost and reliability that disc brakes offer cannot be ignored.
Disc brakes’ popularity will continue to increase because at the end of the day they’re simply better technology.
Skills vs. Components?
Disc brakes offer an undeniable advantage once you get used to them. That said, cantilevers are unlikely to hold back recreational and amateur cyclists.
The quality of the bicycle and its features are important, but past a certain basis, they cannot compensate for non-developed skills.
New riders have some growing to do before concluding that cantilever brakes are preventing them from reaching the throne.
Retro vs. Modern Cantilevers
The cantilevers that you see on up-to-date cyclo-cross bikes offer the following improvements over the 20-year-old models found on retro touring and mountain bikes:
1. Carrier + Straddle Cable Instead of a Link Wire
Old cantilever brakes use a link wire as a connection to the brake arms whereas the newer models come with a straddle cable and a carrier.
2. Spring Tension Adjustment
Some modern models allow individual adjustment of the brake arms’ springs.
3. Vertical Adjustment of The Pads
Modern models provide the option of moving the pads up and down. This makes the brakes compatible with a greater number of frames and forks because not all brake bosses are at the exact same position.
4. Straddle Wire Adjuster
Some modern cantilevers come with a barrel adjuster that pulls or releases the straddle wire. This feature alone is considered a significant improvement over primitive cantilever models.
5. Wider profile
Some cantilever models designed specifically for cyclo-cross have a very wide profile for greater “mud clearance”.
Wide profile cantilever tires aren’t a novelty, however. They go back a long time. One example would be the MAFAC cantilever brakes.
Ultimately, the strongest point of modern cantilever brakes is that they’re more comfortable to adjust and offer a greater number of spare parts because the production process is still going.
Will cantilever brakes become extinct in the future?
The current top lines of cyclo-cross bikes are all equipped with disc brakes.
This is a clear sign that the sport is slowly but surely moving away from cantilever brakes for good.
Nonetheless, cantilever brakes will continue to be seen on cyclo-cross bikes because:
- They work sufficiently well for most people’s needs when tuned properly.
- There’s a great number of cyclo-cross bicycles on the second-hand market that use cantilever brakes.
- Cantilever brakes will continue to be produced because there’s a market for them. The top pros may have moved to disc brakes, but touring cyclists, recreational cyclo-cross riders, and traditionalists will keep the demand for cantilevers alive to some extent.
The main reasons why cantilever brakes have remained a part of cyclo-cross racing are:
- Compatibility with brake-shifters
- Greatest tire and “mud” clearance out of all rim brakes
- Multiple bans of disc brakes from cyclo-cross and road races