6 ROAD BIKES WITH DISC BRAKES TO CONSIDER BUYING THIS YEAR
I’ve updated and extended the review below with a post entitled:
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In this post, I evaluate the design, products and performance of road bikes equipped with disc brakes for both endurance riding and road racing.
If 2014 was the season most bike manufacturers dipped their toes in the road disc bike waters, 2015 looks to be the year many are in up to their waist. And once you are in that far, it’s more likely you’ll continue all the way in than head back to shore.
In my earlier post, Why and When to buy a Road Disc Bike, I described the braking, speed and versatility benefits that convinced me to recommend that road cycling enthusiasts get or build a bike with disc brake components and wheels when they buy their next bike. In this post, I’ll tell you which road bikes with disc brakes and frames built for disc brakes to consider buying this year. You can also read my posts about the disc brake components and wheelsets.
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While some companies have given their road disc bikes distinct model names, most are adding the word ‘disc’ to bikes in their well established lines. This suggests to me they are making a major commitment to road disc bikes, associating them with their most valued and highest volume brands and categories.
Where companies position their road disc bikes tell you a lot about the central role they are playing in their product line. Bianchi, for example, makes both disc and rim versions of its Infintio CV bikes, models that are promoted for club level racing and endurance riding and sell for $5K and up with Ultegra and Ultegra Di2 groupsets. The Infinito line sits, in performance, component and price terms, between Bianchi’s Oltre racing and Intenso endurance bikes, neither of which has disc versions.
Cannondale takes a somewhat similar approach to Bianchi. Their top of the racing line SuperSix EVO carbon bikes do not have road disc models but their CAAD10 aluminum racing bikes and entire line of Synapse endurance bikes come in both disc and rim brake versions. Cannondale’s road disc bikes sell in the $2.5K to $9K range equipped with groupsets ranging from the third tier SRAM Rival to first tier Shimano Dura-Ace Di2.
Colnago sells its premier racing bike, the C60 as well as its top end endurance bike, the CX Zero EVO in disc versions. Likewise, Specialized sells many models of its top race and endurance bikes, the S-Works Tarmac and S-Works Roubaix respectively, in disc models. Pinarello sells its top of the line race bike, the Dogma 65.1 in a “Hydro” disc brake version. The bikes in Giant’s top end endurance line, the Defy Advanced SL, Pro and 1 are only sold as road disc bikes. Same with BMC’s top GranFondo endurance line. Trek sells its top endurance bikes, the Domane 6.9 and 6.2, as well as others in disc versions. Wilier sells its Cento1SR race bike in a disc version. Storck sells its Aernario aero race bike in mechanical or electronic shifting, hydraulic-disc braking combinations.
And so it goes. Orbea, Ridley, Scott, Parlee, LaPierre, Merida, Focus and Felt all have endurance road disc bikes with hydraulic-disc brakesets in this season’s lines, some with Shimano 105 or SRAM Rival levers and groupset components, others running all the way up to Shimano electronic Di2.
Below, you can see the road disc bike line ups of the leading bike companies. I’ll say more about a half-dozen of these I think are worth considering in more detail later in this section
Not everyone has come to the road disc bike party yet. Most notably Cervello, Time, Canyon, Cube, Look and Fuji don’t yet have an enthusiast level road disc bike. But most of those companies that have come, arrived at the party on road disc bikes central to their current endurance lines and some on road disc bikes ready to race at the pro level as soon as the UCI gives its go-ahead.
To be clear, the models I mention above and have evaluated are full on road bikes and not cyclocross, gravel or ‘alternative’ or crossover bikes. You can use tubeless and wider tires (up to 25mm or in some cases 28mm) on these road disc bikes for some limited and dry rough road or grass surface riding the same way you would your rim road bike, but none are designed as bikes that you should use for the occasional cyclocross race or regular gravel riding.
Why not? Cyclocross and gravel bikes frames are designed with higher bottom brackets than road bikes and enough room or clearance between the front forks and rear stays to allow for tires up 38mm. While some people will ride their cyclocross or gravel bikes on the road with these additional clearances, their aerodynamics are compromised for road riding.
When comparing a road disc and road rim brake bike, the major design differences are in the rear chain and seat stays and front fork. These are built a bit sturdier on road disc frames by using modified carbon lay-ups to support the added brake loads that are applied by the disc to the frames vs. rim calipers to the wheels. The extra material adds a combined 40g to 150g more for disc brake frames and forks over the rim brake ones I’ve compared. Most are in the 50-75g range, an amount equal to the weight of an extra snack you might put in one of your back pockets like the Cliff bar in this photo.
There are some design changes on road disc bikes where the major equipment makers haven’t come out at the same place, principally around the disc brake rotor size (140mm vs. 160mm, discussed in the disc brakes design section in my post here), disc hub axle choice (12mm and 15mm diameter thru-axles vs. 10mm quick release ones) and the way the rotor attaches to the hub (ISO or 6-bolt vs. CenterLock).
As with the broader bike component market, you’ll find Shimano’s disc brake components on the lion’s share of model year 2015 road disc bikes. With this, their quick release drop-outs and 140mm, CenterLock rotor design preferences predominate across the bikes offered by the leading companies.
On bikes using quick releases (QR), you slide your wheels into the drop-outs on the frame and fork. With thru-axles (TA), you spring load or thread the axle through holes at the ends of the forks where the wheels attach.
Amongst the big three bike makers, Giant and Specialized are building their road disc frames for QR disc wheels while Trek has gone with TA. While mountain bikes adopted the TA design, cyclocross and gravel bikes predominantly use QR wheels now. With their competing approaches, bike manufacturers are essentially debating whether or not road disc bike stiffness targets require a TA design.
There are many more QR disc wheels to choose from now and likely to be for the next several years until the UCI or professional bike racing governing body selects one or the other.
Ben Delaney interviewed a dozen industry representatives on this topic for a story in BikeRadar and concluded: “One, there will not be a single standard. And two, wheel companies are eager to make compatible and even convertible solutions, so you likely won’t be ‘stuck’ with an abandoned format in a few years.” For example, wheel companies including Roval and Reynolds offer disc brake wheels with different hub end cap and axle options to make them compatible with whatever frame design you own.
We’ve long had different Shimano/SRAM and Campagnolo ‘standards’ when it comes to 9- and 10-speed wheel free hubs and cassettes, though both will now work on 11-speed drive trains from either Shimano, SRAM or Campagnolo. There are also no standards when it comes to bottom brackets, cog and ring ratios, or clincher and tubeless wheels and tires. There are just different approaches that mostly work, but work differently. Same will probably go for quick release and thru-axle frames for the near term. I think we’ll get along just fine.
I don’t mean to be glib. I just don’t want anyone to obsess over ‘distinctions without differences.’ QR vs. TA and CenterLock vs. 6-bolt are such distinctions while 140mm vs. 160mm rotor size are true differences.
More important to selecting a road disc bike, the frame geometry – the lengths, angles, and tube shapes that make up the bike triangles – are the same on most rim and disc versions of endurance models. Chain stay lengths are longer on some race bikes but it’s debatable how much difference it makes. This should give you a good point of reference in moving from road bikes with rim brakes that you know or may have test ridden to disc bikes of the same brand or model.
By keeping geometries much the same, companies have tried to give you the same ride feel, handling and other characteristics (except of course for the braking) between rim and disc brake versions. Some have done this better than others.
Most notably, some of the strengthening in the front fork and rear stays have made the road disc bikes “unbalanced” in the opinion of road testers – bikes have a stiffer front end and relatively softer back-end. The practical effect is that the handling is still crisp and the back-end is still stiff and efficient (as the rear stays have been strengthened) but the bike’s stiffness doesn’t quite feel like it is synced front and back. I’ll only suggest bikes below that have been evaluated to be well-balanced.
An early fear mentioned by some was that road disc bikes would not be as aerodynamic as their rim brake brethren. With some test results now published, it looks like this should no longer be a concern for the road cycling enthusiast.
Specialized, who sell both rim and disc brake bikes, produced the video below as part of their “win tunnel” series. It showed that a Tarmac equipped with disc brakes might add a negligible 8 seconds over a 40km ride versus one set up with rim brakes. Being able to confidently go faster on a road disc bike should more than make up that difference.
Velo magazine published the results of a more extensive road disc vs. rim brake wind tunnel test. The differences were a bit bigger, but for me and I’ll bet most road cycling enthusiasts, the small and likely imperceptible aero penalty of 1-3 watts should not put you off of getting the braking, speed and versatility benefits that discs bring.
‘Endurance’ and ‘race’ are two categories often used to give you an idea of how comfortable or aggressive a bike is. Endurance bikes tend to be designed for long distance riding on centuries, sportives, grand fondos and general weekend group riding. As such, they have a more ‘relaxed’ geometry – longer wheelbase, shorter top tube and taller head tube – than a race bike. These and other design aspects that make endurance bikes more comfortable to ride.
Racing bikes, on the other hand, are stiffer, more compact, and react very quickly when you tell them to do something. They transmit more of the road feel to the rider, which is what a racer wants, and put an emphasis on light weight components and aerodynamic tube shapes. They aren’t nearly as comfortable as endurance bikes on long rides.
These categories work pretty well but aren’t absolute. There are many so-called endurance bikes that fall somewhere between endurance and race in their design and performance. These bikes work well for the club level racer who also wants to do comfortable and competitive long rides. Likewise, while most road race bikes are designed for varied terrain, some are made very light for climbing and others are designed with more aerodynamic tube shapes for time-trialing or triathlons. And, some people race very successfully on endurance bikes while others like the aggressiveness and fit of a race bike for enthusiast riding (and, shhh, never ride them across a starting or finish line).
Recognizing the limitations of putting 2015 model year road disc bikes in one of these two categories, I’ve identified about 50 road disc endurance bikes available this season from 17 companies who make production level volumes and 12 road disc race bikes from 7 of those companies. And, if you want to build up your own road disc bike, 5 road disc endurance frames and 6 race frames are available to add your own components to. These are listed in the charts above.
Note that I am only including road disc bikes with hydraulic-disc brakesets. There are lower priced bikes being sold with cable-disc brakesets. As I wrote in my evaluation of road disc brakes, I believe a bike with a cable-disc brakeset (as well as putting a hydraulic-rim brakeset on your road rim frame) falls short of the benefits of what you will get when you make your next bike purchase a full on hydraulic-disc road bike to the point that it doesn’t justify the cost. I realize these hydraulic-disc road bikes are expensive, but I would save for them or maintain or upgrade your rim brake bike until you have the dinero to go hydraulic-disc rather than go for a ‘half-a-loaf’ cable-disc or hydraulic-rim bike.
For those of you who follow the UCI pro race circuit, it’s interesting to note that 5 of this year’s 17 World Tour teams including some of the best performing ones – Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo, Etixx-Quick Step, Astana, and Cannondale-Garmin – have frame sponsors who are now making road disc racing bikes (Pinarello, Specialized, Cannondale). All the other teams, save for the two riding Canyon, have frame sponsors who are now making road disc endurance frames and, I would think, have developed the design expertise to quickly apply that to road disc race frames.
Most of the 2015 road disc bikes are being equipped with tier two Ultegra level or better groupsets and many with Di2 electronic versions. There are, however a handful equipped with less costly, tier three Shimano 105 or SRAM Rival groupsets too.
For disc and rim bikes of the same models with the same groupsets, the average disc bike runs about $400 to $600 more, essentially the cost of the disc levers and brakes. Also, like most new rim bikes, entry-level or stock wheels come on just about all but the top-end Di2 versions of these disc bikes. I talk more about the disc rim wheelsets on these bikes and your upgrade options in my post on road disc wheelsets. But, safe to say, most of you will want to change out the stock wheels to realize the full performance potential built into these bikes.
All of this adds up to a pretty tidy sum to become a disc bike roadie. Contrary to the old saying, the best things in life aren’t free, at least when it comes to cycling life. With that in mind, buying a frame and building it with your preferred components and wheels is a good, usually less costly option to consider.
Here are a few bikes and frames that my research suggests are worth a close look based on their performance, value and how well they’ve executed the road disc design and adopted or extended it toward the objectives and characteristics of the original bike model. I’ve included the MSRP/RRP and links to the manufacturer listing, recommended stores who carry these bikes and some other reviews should you might want to explore further. Note that you can order some bikes online and have them shipped to you, with others you can ‘click and collect’ (order online and pick it up at the store), and still others brands or stores require that you shop, order and pick up the bike at the LBS or local bike shop. All store, price and stock information is as of October 9, 2015.
Bianchi Infinito CV Disc frameset – $3500, €3151 (US/AU Competitive Cyclist, UK/EU Bike24) – This bike accelerates and handles like a race bike but is dampened in a way that makes it feel as comfortable as an endurance one. The frame is only 40g heavier than its rim brake sibling and its top and head tubes are only 10mm longer and 20mm taller, respectively, than Bianchi’s Oltre racing frame. The rim version Infinito CV is the bike that the pro team races over the cobbles and rough roads of the Paris-Roubaix. Testers at Bicycling Magazine and BikeRadar really liked this bike. I’d recommend you start with the frameset and add the components separately; you pay a hefty premium to buy the store assembled 2015 model year Ultegra or Ultegra Di2 options with disc components over what you could buy it and build it for separately. The stock wheels that come with the assembled versions aren’t ones that leverage the potential of this steed, another reason to build it yourself.
Cannondale Synapse Carbon Ultegra Disc – $3790, £2500, €3125 (US Cannondale dealers, UK/EU Evans, Cyclestore) – Both road.cc and BikeRadar gave the 2014 Synapse rim brake version its bike of the year award in the endurance/sportive category and liked this 2015 disc version just as much. The bike is comfortable, smooth, speedy, well-balanced front and back and all at decent price point. The bike comes with the mechanical shifting Ultegra 6800 groupset with Shimano ST-RS685 shifters and BR-RS785 brakes. The Mavic Aksium One disc wheels are stock, but a decent pair to have around for bad and winter weather riding, especially with its 28mm width tires. The bike weighs about 8.4kg (18.5 lbs), average for road disc bikes but about 700g more than the rim version. Half of that extra weight or more can be eliminated by replacing the nearly 2000g stock Mavics with a good set of carbon disc wheels.
Ridley Fenix C30 Disc – $2500, £1980 (US/AU Competitive Cyclist, UK/EU Slane) – This is a pure endurance bike, comfortable over long distances and rough or cobbled roads. Ridely designed the Fenix with enough clearance to comfortably put on a 28mm wide tire, consistent with endurance/comfort design goals. It’s probably the best value in the endurance road disc range as it comes with the Shimano 105 11 speed groupset (also with Shimano ST-RS685 hydraulic shifters and BR-RS785 disc brakes). The Fulcrum Racing Sport disc wheelset are nothing special, but you haven’t spent so much on the overall bike to worry about putting some extra aside for a better set of wheels. Ridley also has a cool feature that allows you pick out the colors you want your bike painted, albeit for an extra $500. Road.cc has a first look here.
With just a handful of road race disc bikes to choose from and likely many more to come, I’m hesitant to recommend any for risk of you getting buyer’s remorse once a bunch more comes out. There are a few that are distinctive and worth a look for reasons which I’ll explain below. As mentioned early, you won’t be able to actually race a road disc bike in sanctioned races for another season or two so only get one if you like the feel and fit of a race bike for your enthusiast riding or if you want to be the first one on your block to have one.
Specialized Tarmac Pro Disc Race Ultegra Di2 – $7600, £4800, €6000 (US/AU LBS, UK/EU Evans, Cyclestore) – This bike has received the highest raves compared to all of the early road disc race bikes. Speed, stiffness, ride, handling, acceleration, braking all rated top shelf by the likes of BikeRadar, road.cc and others for both the disc and rim versions of this new bike. But, and it’s a big booty but, you can only use Specialized house brand Roval Rapide SLX 40mm SCS disc carbon wheelset that come with the bike for now. Specialized designed a unique rear hub to avoid having to lengthen the chain stays to prevent the chain rubbing against them when in big/big or small/small front ring and rear cog combinations. If you prefer another wheelset you are out of luck unless or until Specialized allows others willing to make rear wheels with ‘SCS’ hub. If you are a Specialized fan and like the Tarmac, the wheels complement the bike nicely and there is no reason to hold back.
Pinarello Dogma Hydro 65.1 Think 2 Bike-$11,000; Frameset – $4600 (US/AU – Competitive Cyclist, UK/EU LBS) – If you have the means, this is the ‘dream machine’ to get. It’s a Pinarello race bike fitted out with a Dura-Ace Di2 groupset, RS785 brakeset, and Zipp 303 clincher wheelset. Drooling yet? Oh yeah, this bike rides like the Tour de France champ its rim sibling has won thrice under the legs of Team Sky – crisp and sure handling, stiff and balanced frame, fast in and out of corners, etc. Who knows, riding one of these might get you confused for Wiggins or Froome doing some road disc bike testing, that is if your arms are really skinny. You can also buy just the frameset and build it up yourself with your choice of components and wheels.
Cannondale CAAD10 Rival Disc – $1700, £1100, €1850 (US – REI , UK/EU- Hargrove) – Here’s a solid, low entry price racing frame whose rim brake brother has had a lot of admirers over the years. And if you prefer SRAM groupsets, this model comes with the 11-speed, hydraulic-disc Rival 22 HydroR kit. A higher priced model comes with the Red 22 on the same frame. While the initial introduction of the bike showed its dimensions much the same for the disc and rim bikes, I’m not aware of any who have had it out for ride and reviewed it yet and have characterized its ride. So if this is a model you are interested in, check back. I’ll update when I know more.
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