Road Disc Brakes: “Big S” vs. Volagi Edition

Given the early (and continued) attention paid to Volagi here on BB – and given the attention this current story seems to have garnered today – wanted to mention the reports that, to borrow Velonews’ title, Specialized sues Volagi over Liscio road bike. This was also being reported in the San Jose Mercury News, following on the lawsuit moving to trial. Of course, I have no knowledge about the facts/merits of the case, nor anything to add beyond the inevitable troll and flame wars to be found in the papers’ respective comments sections, but this does seem like an overreaction by Specialized. My reaction, in other words, is in the vein of Bike Snob NYC’s, who does a great job skewering Specialized and is worth reading. One interesting tidbit from the Velonews interview with Volagi co-founder, Robert Choi, is the mention that Specialized “were almost bankrupt 7-8 years ago,  and now they’re knocking on Trek’s total sales”. Is that really the case?

If Specialized were smart about this, they would just start from the fantastic looking (and riding as well, according to bikeradar) Crux disc cross bike and build up a line of disc-equipped road bike themselves. Hell, they could market it as a new addition to the Roubaix line (which is kind of what this whole lawsuit is about anyway).

The Crux, by the way:

BikeRumor - Crux Disc

(Source: Bike Rumor’s review of the Crux)

And, if they had just ignored Volagi (rather than draw attention to a pretty small fish), most customers out there would have given Specialized credit for “inventing” a disc-equipped fondo/sportive/comfort bike! Volagi seems to have a lot going for them…but, let’s face it, the primary advantage they will have is that of being “first mover” in this area. If/when SRAM/Shimano pops out an hydraulic road disc, the market will explode and pretty soon, for better or worse, we’ll have the option for a rebranded Asian carbon road frameset with disc brakes, BB30/whatever standard and tapered headtube/steerer offered at $499 from the Sette line at Pricepoint (or some equivalent). Too bad for Volagi that they have likely wasted a year of that precious time dealing with the a-holes at Big S. But I guess that’s the point of the lawsuit in the first place.


Road Bike Disc Brakes: Latest Roundup

The whole “hydraulic disc brakes on a road bikes are inevitable” thing that we have been bumping here on BB for some time now has, it seems, crossed some sort of critical threshold in the past couple of months. As well it should. The tone is shifting from, “here is a crazy idea that might work” to, “this is going to happen, but when will SRAM or Shimano get off their asses and make a hydraulic road lever?!” This was most recently illustrated by Velonews’ general article on road discs, by Caley Fretz. His conclusion:

Without the availability of a hydraulic road disc, this is all conjecture. There are far more hurdles to be overcome, too many for this space.

That said, with every innovation comes the inevitable “my gear is just fine” argument. Friction shifting was satisfactory, as were six-speed indexed downtube shifters. Single-pivot brakes were great in their time. Eight-speed Shimano STI was phenomenal.

We never realize what we have is inferior until its (superior) replacement becomes commonplace. Mountain bikers will never go back to rim brakes, roadies will never go back to downtube shifters. Ten years from now, perhaps we’ll be wondering how anyone rode with those old dual-pivot rim brakes.

Yup, pretty much the BB party line.

Here is a little bit of a link roundup, highlighting a few of the fairly recent contributions to the ongoing discussion:

  • CX Magazine just now put up a little piece on Tim Johnson’s disc-ready Cannondale cross bike. The Cannondale fork is quite nice as well:

  • Last, but most intriguing, is this update to the Volagi from Procyclingnews’ Interbike coverage. I mentioned Volagi quite a while ago as I somewhat randomly came across their site very early on (in the life of the company) – you may recall that they are building a brand entirely around a platform of disc-only, full carbon sportive/gran fondo/”comfort” frames with all mod cons (BB30, tapered steerer maybe?). If anyone had incentive to grab one of these Macgyver-ish cable-to-hydraulic converters (that we’ve linked to here on BB in the past), string it together with some high-end gear and roll out a pro-style hydraulic disc’d road bike, it was Volagi. Looks like they’ve done so, and looks like Pezcyclingnews has it on test. I’ll keep an eye out for the review. In the meantime, here is a pic:


Mavic Zap, in the Wild

Because I have mentioned Mavic’s original electronic shifting setup, ZAP, a few times, figured I should link through to some recent photos I saw of the gear. I’m always brining it up because it demonstrates the flexibility of an e-shifting setup that did not rely on dedicated shift/brake levers for actuation. Instead, one could use the little toggle button controller anywhere on the bars, freeing the rider to pick whichever brake levers they preferred regardless of how they connected to the shifting.

The actuator button:

The rear derailleur (which was powered by the motion of the chain through the pulleys, I believe):

via cycleexif.


Ridiculously Complicated Fixes…: Wireless Electronic Brakes Edition

via BikeRadar.

Yes, it’s the stuff of potential nightmares: a wireless disc brake setup. As noted here on BB before (and many other places), we’ve kind of been down this road before in cycling, with the Mavic Mektronic shifting setup. Which was kind of a disaster/joke. And, no, it wasn’t a disaster because of the wireless shifting alone….but the wireless deal always seemed like a solution to a problem we never had. Shimano seems to agree, given that they have now released two, big dollar (even for Ultegra Di2) electronic shifting setups that use wires for shift “actuation” (and little motors to actually move the derailleurs; which may well be the “real” actuation, now that I think about it).

Electronic shifting seems fairly simple compared to braking. For one thing, the total force and energy needed to complete a shift (which is actually just the force needed to move a derailleur a couple of millimeters at a time) must be lower than pushing the disc pistons with sufficient force, right? So, if the biggest manufacturer of components in the world – with a massive R&D budget and all that – decides to not even bother with wireless shifting, why would anyone bother with wireless braking??

If it did work, though, what are the possible advantages of a wireless braking setup? I think there are two fundamental (and obvious) ones:

  • The simplest (potential) advantage: lack of cables/hoses (and needing to accommodate cabling in/around the frame). With wireless braking, the set-up work would be almost completely centered on the caliper. You would bolt on the caliper, do the adjustments and attach whatever pneumatic source is required for the actuation of the caliper. But, this is probably going to be a hydraulic setup, right? If so, you are not actually removing the hydraulic actuation process from the bike, you are simply moving it from the brake levers on the bars to the caliper area itself. So, running a hydraulic cable from the levers is only really adding the marginal increase in hosing (a couple of feet) and whatever amount of extra hydraulic fluid is in that hose. I can say, having just installed new caliper and levers on my MTB, that there really isn’t much fluid in those hoses (the inside diameter of hydraulic hoses, in other words, is quite small). Thus, I don’t see much advantage to removing the hoses, apart from freeing up one more (albeit fairly minor) parameter for frame designer, who would no longer need to think about internal routing, external hose mounts, etc.
  • The other potential advantage is reducing the complexity of the brake lever/actuator on the bars. If you only really need some kind of electronic device that measures how much a lever is being moved and translates that into an electronic signal sent to the caliper/receiver (which would translate the movement of the actuator into an analogous movement of the “real” brake), you don’t need much up there on the bars. This could very easily (I would assume) fit into the body of even an old-school, simple brake lever. I suppose you could even have multiple actuators (think brake levers on the bar tops of cross bikes, as currently used), allowing the rider to brake from almost any position. This last option is a bit more compelling…but, then again, it’s hard to imagine many more places on the bars from where I’d rather actuate the brakes.

As I think this through here, the wireless braking idea still seems like a big loser. Or, maybe just another ridiculously complicated fix to a non-problem that we didn’t really have. Given that we still don’t have a real road hydraulic disc option yet, let’s hope for the development of one over the next year or two. Once the “traditional” hose/line-actuated hydraulic setup has been refined, then maybe – maybe – the idea of a wireless braking setup would be worth considering.


Ridiculously Complicated Fixes to Non-Problems: Integrated Braking Edition

This here is one of those posts I started to draft during the past summer – during the 2011 Tour de France, to be more precise – but then put aside.

One of the more notable trends in bike design at this summer’s Tour de France (2011) has been the proliferation of intensively engineered time trial/chrono bikes. With Evans winning aboard a BMC, that bike clearly got a lot of attention….but BMC was not the only manufacturer rolling out totally “bespoke” chrono machines. Custom chrono machines is, of course, not a new trend. What distinguishes this batch from prior years is the attention going in to integrated braking solutions. Google Evans’ BMC chrono bike and you will see: they’ve been working to integrate traditional calipers into the fork and seat/chain stays such that the brakes are almost invisible, save for the arms and brake pads.

Now, it appears that this approach is shifting over (at least for a couple of manufacturers) to traditional road frames as well, of which the Ridley shown below is a prime illustration:

via Velonews.

Now, don’t get me wrong here: this is an amazing piece of engineering and problem solving, in my view.

But, mark my words here: in only just a few years (2015?), this bike will be viewed as a joke, a kind of last gasp of an earlier paradigm that is now completely outmoded. This bike, in other words, will be regarded in 5-6 years as Lance Armstrong’s ’99 TdF winning Trek was regarded by the time of his last TdF (2010) entry: an odd bird and kind of joke. [Armstrong’s ’99 bike, you might recall, was a Trek carbon frame, but with a 1″ threaded headset and a massive (albeit pretty) Cinelli quill stem. This was essentially a cutting-edge carbon frame, brought down by a sizing standard that had prevailed for decades; Trek probably managed to shave close to a pound from the bike in the next two years simply by shifting the headtube size and moving to a threadless setup]

These integrated braking solutions are the sine qua non that the limitations of the rim brake model have been reached (or even exceeded). Rim brakes must die, in other words, because the “best minds in bike engineering” are having to spend their time on stuff like this in order to keep rim brakes alive. Designers and engineers are turning themselves inside out to find a way to disguise and deal with rim brakes….all while the totally obvious solution is right in front of their eyes. Dump the rim brakes, dump the cables, mount a tiny hydraulic disc back there in the junction between the seat and chain stays, run some internal hydraulic lines that need no service, and you are done. Same with the front.

If I had any insider connections to “the biz” I’d make some ambitious prediction: 2012 will see the first TdF chrono bike with hydraulic discs. But, I don’t have any idea what goes on inside the biz, so I won’t be so bold. However, in subsequent posts – on Eurobike and Interbike 2011 – I’ll harp on this “so obvious the manufacturers can’t even see it” argument a bit more.


Hydraulic Road Disc Brakes: Shifting Update!

Following up on my post on Di2 shifting options and the Fair Wheel Bikes Di2 hack, I’ve looked a bit longer at the Calfee Design Di2 battery modifications displayed on a titanium frame from Vuelo Velo. Looks like Calfee has actually been doing this for a few months now and can also retrofit other carbon frames for the internal Di2 option. Here is the core of their kit:

Calfee Di2 Retrofit

photo via Calfee Design.

Also turns out that my old buddy Mike is now working on promotional type stuff for Calfee…and his brother and other buddy, Ian, owns a shop in Waco, Texas that is taking delivery of some really nice Calfee rigs. Ian’s own personal bike is simply incredible – not to mention WHITE! – and employs the internal Di2 setup. Apparently Ian will also be on Calfee’s new “Adventure” frame for gravel road riding as well. Take the following as a teaser; he’s got gobs more photos on his shop’s site…but that white Specialized crank setup (on a PressFit 30 bottom bracket, I would assume) definitely warrants a picture here on BB:


Hydraulic Road Disc Brakes: Braking Update!

Sure enough, no sooner had I written more about braking options and ideas, I came across a few more choice tidbits.

First off, on the Fair Wheel Bikes blog, I saw this write-up of a newer hydraulic disc option – intended for MTB, but seems like it could be germane to the road situation as well. Rather than use tiny pistons (like current hydraulic calipers) this uses a system more akin to “bladders” or membranes to push the pads toward the rotor. The little red anodized line there keeps the two sides in balance with fluid, and the caliper body itself is apparently a single piece design. I feel like I saw another such system at some point, but can’t find it in my bookmarks file (by the way, I highly recommend Pinboard for bookmarking!). Anyway, the Fair Wheel guys note a more nuanced and modulated brake feel with these, even if they don’t provide the full-bore power of something like XTR Trail calipers.

photo via Fair Wheel Bikes.

These could be interesting, particularly for those who (wrongly, in my view) claim that hydraulic calipers are “too powerful” for the road context.

Secondly, I also came across a cool Canyon project bike from a couple of years ago….built around, you guessed it, hydraulic discs. Canyon’s approach was interesting, particularly for dealing with fork torsion loads. You’ll have to take a look at their site directly to see the one picture they’ve got up, but it’s worth the click. Canyon opted to go with a 2-rotor system up front. Yes, that means 2 calipers as well! This way rotors are very small and braking loads somewhat cancel each other out, it seems. Pretty impressive piece of engineering, although I’d like to see an update now that fork sizes have increased so much. Canyon came up with some kind of a shifting option integrated with the hydraulic levers, although it’s not clear from the picture what exactly their “fix” was; looks like extra levers of some sort.

Taking that Canyon Project bike from 2006 and adding the Fair Wheel Di2 hack…you’d basically be at the point of having a viable hydraulic disc road bike. Or, better yet, take the Volagi frame, add the Canyon dual-caliper fork, run Fair Wheel’s Di2 system, and you are there.

In the next installment, I’ll focus on fork design options…and eventually get to the ultimate goal: internal shifting.


Hydraulic Road Disc Brakes: Shifting

As noted in the last post on this topic, hydraulic road disc brakes are foundational to the BB Road Bike of the Future. While no mainstream hydraulic road brifter has been brought to market (or any hydraulic road levers for that matter), I believe this hydraulic option can only be made more effective and useful if we also restructure the current shifting paradigm as well.


Electronic. Fo’ shizzle. All the way. So, Shimano’s electronic Dura-Ace, Di2, kicks ass. This I’ve even tried out myself! One revelation about Di2, for me at least (but I actually heard the same from the guys at Above Category) is that the Di2 levers are by far the most comfortable and well-shaped of any levers currently out there. Some of that is probably chance, and your mileage may vary, of course. The revelatory aspect of this, however, is that electronic shifting removes one of the major design problems for current, all-mechanical shift/brake combo levers – no worries about shifting mechanicals! This is HUGE. No shifter guts in there (and the need to access them to change cables and housing) gives you a blank canvas for hydraulic actuation as well as ergonomic shaping of every sort.

Let me begin with an anecdote here, one that will demonstrate not only the clarity of my Future Vision, but also my hard-hitting journalistic chops. At the North American Handmade Bike Show in Richmond, VA last year, Shimano had brought Di2 test bikes mounted on wind trainers. They also had Shimano USA long-time tech honcho, Wayne Stetina, on hand to answer questions and pitch the product (and hand out Shimano word fridge magnets – 2 sets, new-in-bag – holla!). These satellite, button shifters had just been released:

With a relatively large crowd around, I asked Mr. Stetina:

“Could you use two pairs of these satellite buttons on their own, without the Di2 brifters?”

His reply, while almost laughing at me:

“Why would you want to do that?!”

Let me think. One reason might be that the Di2 brifters cost like ONE THOUSAND FUCKING DOLLARS and, like all brake/shift levers, are just waiting in one of the most vulnerable places on the bike to get either chewed up or completely busted any time you take a tumble. Moving to a button system – in which the button actuators aren’t particularly complicated or expensive – opens up many more options for shifter placement. For those of us who were around for Mavic’s first foray into the electronic shifting world, the Zap system worked in this basic way. You got a couple of shift buttons (and Chris Boardman later got a tiny little toggle switch for his chrono bikes) and nothing more. This also meant you could run Zap with whichever brake levers you wanted; in that sense, I always thought Zap had a really cool retro-tech duality as it allowed for old school brake levers and even a downtube front shift lever, if you wanted.

Reminder: singlepurpose components. Why – apart from the ergonomics of the whole thing – should your brake levers also be shift levers (or, more precisely, your ONLY shift levers)? Why can’t you shift with buttons that you place anywhere you like, including your brake levers, if you so please? Why does the “brain” for the shifting unit have to be located in the brake/shift lever as well?

Take out the shifter internals – in this case, the Di2 brain – and you should have plenty of space for hydraulic innards…and whatever shaping you want for ergonomics. Shimano has to “get” this, as they have already released another “satellite” shifting option for Di2, this one the so-called “sprinter” levers:

Clearly I am not the only one thinking along these lines, for the folks at FairWheel Bikes have brought a couple of show bikes out in the last year that leverage Di2 but, literally, hack the system in the service of some far-sighted ideas about the future of shifting. Reading their full documentation in their own words over on their own blog is a necessity, but I’ll emphasize some of the key points here.

The heart of Fairwheel’s project is a hacked and rebuilt Di2 controller module (brain). Here is the brain built-in to an Enve carbon stem:

photo via FairWheelBikes

This custom-built brain apparently allows for virtually any shifting patterns and rules to be sent to the derailleurs. In the case of these 29er MTBs, Fairwheel created a custom pattern that moves through the full range of the 2×10 drivetrain using only a SINGLE shift actuator. It does not do this merely by moving in a linear path from smallest to biggest – rather, it calculates a smooth progression of gear-inch shifts while avoiding cross-chaining as well as unnecessary front-ring shifts. Fairwheel says that it moves from smallest to largest available gears with only a single big-ring shift in there. Alternatively, the brain can be run in “manual” mode with the shift buttons running the rear derailleur; pushing both buttons moves the front derailleur using the logic of “other chainring”…which is fine, given that there are only two. The system can also “dump” gears (rather than moving gear by gear) – moving from highest to lowest in about 1 second!

The implications of this hacked Di2 brain are enormous…and get bigger the more you think it all through. Not only have you now removed the need for the brain to be housed in the levers, you have also opened up total flexibility in determining where you located shift actuators, how many you have, and how they work. If all you need is a simple actuator button to initiate shifts, why can’t you have little stick-on “buttons” or pressure points anywhere you want on your brake levers? Why not a fully enclosed, rubberized strip running the full length of the bars? Anywhere you would push would give you gear control (think of the yellow “next stop” strips running along the sides of busses).

In their own Di2 project bikes, Cannondale was already onto this idea, this time with the actuator buttons underneath some thin grips:

photo via

Cannondale also got smart about repositioning the brain – even if they didn’t hack it to change the shifting operation:

photo via

Finally, on the subject of cleaning up and integrating the guts of the electronic shifting system, Cyclingnews just today profiled a Vuelo Velo road machine that manages the Di2 battery by placing it on the end of the seatpost, using a system they say was created by CraigCalfee. This system is really cool and, presumably, makes it easy to run the power lines from the battery to the Di2 mechanisms in a fully integrated fashion:

So, there we’ve got the shifting taken care of…at least for now. As we will see, in the longer run I see electronic actuation being the norm – but without “external” gearing and derailleurs actually making the shifts. That, however, can wait for a future episode! And, before dealing with alternative gearing/shifting arrangements, let’s spend some time talking about fork and frame design – both of which are opened up to further system integration by hydraulic discs and electronic shifting. See you next time…


Hydraulic Road Disc Brakes: Braking

First off, the keywords for the BB Bike o’ the Future: integration; single-purpose components.

So, in Part I of the Bliggity Blog Road Bike of the Future series, I pointed to the upcoming/already released Volagi carbon frames as, to my knowledge, the first instance of a production line of racing and/or sportive-oriented road bikes designed around disc brakes. Just going by what you can see online (I have not touched nor seen a Volagi in person), these seem like about the best option going – at least given the current design and technology constraints. However, I would expect that, once the disc brakes on road bikes ball gets rolling, the Volagi design will quickly be seen as a v. 1.0 attempt at truly leveraging the potential strengths of the disc brake paradigm.


Right now you pretty much have to use cable-actuated mechanical calipers – probably either Avid or Shimano. Again, I have not used either of these, but I know from endless online debates in the MTB world that mechanical brakes have their proponents. However, mechanical discs are just plain stupid. For one, you still have to monkey around with adjustments, cable stretch and cable degradation over time. Secondly, they just do not seem to offer the power of hydraulics (at least when each is set up to the best of its abilities). Finally, they are clunky…and, overall, likely to be heavier after a few more rounds of hydraulic revision in the next couple of years.

So, what if you wanted hydraulics on your (drop bar) road bike, right now? You are pretty much out of luck. One option is to rely on the the previously discussed mechanical-to-hydraulic converter, which appeared at Eurobike 2010. Although it brings a weight penalty, this would allow for any shifters/brifters you would like. Another minus: it’s ugly. I will say, though, that this is pretty elegant given the fundamentally kludgy nature of what it is doing. I suppose this thing could be further refined, and it is somewhat neat to think it would allow you to swap “brifters” over time, without touching the braking system.

It isn’t hard to imagine how a nice, super lean hydraulic road caliper could look – just think of the new Shimano XTR race calipers with maybe even a bit more taken off. And, how long would it be before some crazy cool composite rotors started to appear for the road market. Like this:

Still, what is really needed is a true, purpose-built hydraulic disc shift/brake option. I would bet good money that Shimano has one or more of these mules buried somewhere on a test bike in Japan or Irvine, probably machined from Alu with Sharpie notations all over it. For now, though, this is vaporware. Why would it be Shimano (apart from deep pockets)? Because, in my view, you cannot address the hydro disc issue without addressing the shifting issue…and Shimano, more than anyone else, has dealt with the shifting issue. Which leads us to….the next episode, which is forthcoming!


Hydraulic Road Disc Brakes: Interbike 2010 Edition

Sorting through the Interbike 2010 coverage (and post coverage), one can pull a few different threads together to weave a more complete vision of the Bliggity Blog ROAD BIKE OF THE FUTURE. In any event, a couple of interesting “proof of concept” type things popped up…as well as the first, full-fledged, market-ready framesets it would seem.

Let’s start with the disc-ready framesets, because that is probably the most exciting – or certainly the most important in terms of reasonable disc-ready bikes getting to market. There are now two bikes out by the Volagi company, which it appears was started by two engineer types who left Specialized. I assume they are in Northern CA as the pictures on their site are straight out of Sonoma County – Geysers and Pine Flat would be my best guess. Volagi seems to be aiming for the high-end endurance/Gran Fondo market opened by Specialized’s Roubaix and Cannondale’s Synapse lines a few years back. Here is the Venga SL model, shown at Interbike:


There are many great things about these bikes even apart from the disc brakes; the quick rundown would be:

– full carbon construction

– taller headtubes for comfort and position, without having to resort to crazy high post or a riser stem

– BB30 bottom bracket

– cool looking cantilevered seat mast design that probably offers a supple ride

– integrated fender mounts

– ability to run most any size tires without worrying about clearance

In short, you’ve got all of the features that are becoming standard for high-end carbon frames (and presumably this could quickly include a tapered steerer setup as well).

Then, of course, you’ve got the disc brakes:

That fork in particular seems really nice. Would love to know about how it works in practice, as the road disc skeptics usually argue that standard forks can’t handle the torque from braking down at the tips. More on this to follow…

So, what else do you need?

  • hydraulic discs
  • shifting options that work with hydraulic
  • fork (and frame) redesign that can take advantage of the options opened by hydraulic discs

I’ll take each in turn in the posts to come!