It used to be that cantilever brakes were the only option for cyclo-cross bikes. A conventional rim brake caliper does not provide enough clearance for wider tyres and muddy conditions, so cyclo-cross bikes would make use of the cantilever’s straddle wire and outward-facing lever arms to provide the necessary space around the tyres.
But since 2010 the UCI has allowed disc brakes to be used in cyclo-cross races. Using a disc rotor and caliper mounted near the wheel axle moves the braking mechanicals well away from the muddy rim and further from sources of contamination, leading to more consistent performance.
In the five years since the UCI’s decision, it’s become increasingly rare to find cyclo-cross bikes sold with cantis.
David Devine, who designs bikes for Cannondale told us that the brand first offered a disc-braked cross bike in 2003 and that from 2013 its entire cross bike range has been equipped with disc-brakes.
He sees the advantages of discs both in terms of better tyre clearance and integration into the bike’s design. He adds that they also offer improved rider confidence, control and modulation out on the course, regardless of weather conditions.
Kinesis Bikes has hedged its bets with its latest CX Race frameset, which has both disc and removable cantilever mounts. But Bruce Dalton, its brand manager, tells us that 80 per cent of the frames are bought with disc brake forks, indicating the scale of the shift away from cantis. So is there a future for rim braking in cyclo-cross?
Highest level still using cantis
Some professional cyclo-cross racers still race using cantis. Sven Nys regularly switched between discs and cantis on his bright yellow Trek.
He rode many of the early-season races on discs including his 50th World Cup win at Koksijde, but has ridden cantis in other races including a more recent World Cup race in Heusden-Zolder, site of the upcoming Cyclo-Cross World Championships.
For many of the professionals, weight is the overriding factor guiding their decision on brake choice. With cantilevers still around half a kilogram lighter than disc brakes, there’s a significant gain, particularly for lighter riders.
On the other hand, a rim without a braking surface can be built significantly lighter and any weight saving in the rim is significant as it improves wheel responsiveness and acceleration — important in the start line sprint.
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The top pros tend to switch back and forth between cantilevers and disc brakes dependent on how technical and undulating the course is and what the weather is like.
On a more technical course the ability to brake later and with more certainty is likely to override the weight penalty of using discs, whereas a faster, flatter course is likely to favour those using cantilevers.
For the amateur rider, disc brakes are easier to set up and maintain than cantis. Poorly set up cantis can be noisy and offer less consistent braking than a disc brake.
This is why Colnago, while still providing pros with the cantilever option, produce all their commercially available cross framesets with disc brake fittings.
“We don’t see cantis being completely replaced,” says sales manager Mauro Mondonico, “But disc brakes are by far the most popular choice now for customers.”
Fully-supported pros with a team of mechanics are likely to continue to switch between canti and disc brakes dependent on course and conditions, but even among the elite, disc brakes are increasingly gaining traction.
For the rest of us, disc brakes are becoming the norm and will continue to take market share from canti-equipped bikes. With disc brake technology becoming more effective and available at lower price points, hydraulics becoming prevalent and their weight penalty reduced by products such as SRAM 1, disc brakes are set to increase their domination of the cyclo-cross bike market.
Is it the end for cantilever brakes?
Yes: Bruce Dalton, Kinesis Bikes brand manager and Team Kinesis rider
This year I’ve switched entirely to riding disc-braked cyclo-cross bikes. Being able to slow down better lets you go faster as you can brake later and harder. Discs provide more predictable braking and require less force to operate than cantis. Although there’s a slight weight penalty the wheel’s rim can be made lighter to compensate for this.
No: Isla Rowntree, founder of Islabikes and three-time UK cyclo-cross champion
Or at least not yet. For lighter riders the weight difference between discs and cantis is significant and the gap in stopping power is not so important. Current hydraulic disc brake levers are also a bit too large to be comfortable for those with smaller hands. Over time disc technology is likely to prevail, but for racing it’s not quite there yet.