After a faltering start, it looks like disc brake race bikes are here to stay with ever more manufacturers bringing out new models for 2020.
If you can control your speed better, you can go faster, which can make disc brakes a racing advantage
Separating braking from rim integrity means you can carry on riding with some forms of rim damage
The weight disadvantage comes down every year as manufacturers slim down disc calipers and mounts
Bike makers also claim they're solving any aerodynamic issues disc brakes pose
Why would you want disc brakes on a road race bike at all? The promised benefits are greater modulation and more power, especially in wet conditions, no fade on long descents, rims that don’t wear out, less maintenance and longer lasting brake pads.
On the other hand, disc brakes are currently heavier than rim brakes and there are some concerns about their impact on aerodynamics, although Giant, for example, claims that its new Propel Disc has less drag than its rim brake predecessor.
Toward the end of June 2018, the UCI (cycle sport’s world governing body) announced that disc brakes would be allowed in road races, after a lengthy trial period that was marked by occasionally acrimonious debate about the safety of discs.
The UCI first introduced a trial period for using disc brake race bikes in the pro peloton at the end of the 2015 season, but suspended it following injuries to riders in the 2016 Paris-Roubaix that were alleged to have resulted from disc rotors.
Read our story from last year: Have disc brakes really led to injuries in peloton?
The trial was later resumed with slight modifications to disc rotors demanded, and riders such as sprinter Marcel Kittel competed on disc brake race bikes throughout the 2017 season.
Here's a roundup of some of the coolest disc brake race bikes.
Tester Stu loved this bike, writing in his review: "Orro has quite simply nailed it with the Venturi Ultegra Di2 Wind 400. Comfort, speed, handling, feedback and stiffness – you can have it all. And the icing on the cake? It's a looker too!
"I've ridden a lot of bikes over the last 20 years, especially in the 10 that I've been with road.cc (41 in 2019 alone), and while a lot of them have been very good, there are probably ten or so that really stand out as brilliant – and the Venturi is one of those.
"I like a stiff bike. I want that feeling of performance, and if that sacrifices comfort, I can deal with it. I like a frame that feels alive, a bit on the edge, I want to feel everything that is going on from that tiny rubber footprint on the ground, and if I need to take a little bit of a battering to get that then so be it.
"The Venturi delivers that in spades, but the carbon lay-up used means it manages to do that while being very comfortable too, without taking anything away."
Ernesto Colnago's been an advocate of disc brakes on road bikes almost since the idea was first suggested, so a disc-braked Colnago at a (fairly) sensible price is something to get at least a bit excited about.
The CLX Evo boasts modern Colnago details such as the 82.5mm ThreadFit bottom bracket that Colnago says solves the creaking and annoyance problems of pressfit brackets while keeping the width and stiffness of those designs.
The groupset is Shimano's high-performance Ultegra with hydraulic disc brakes, and the frame is ready to handle electronic cables if you want to upgrade to Di2 down the line.
The Vitus Vitesse Evo Disc offers a helluva lot for your money. It’s a carbon fibre, disc brake-equipped road bike built around a race-focused geometry and it offers superb performance.
And this latest incarnation boasts SRAM's 12-speed wireless Force eTap AXS shifting, Wiggle/CRC's own Prime Black Edition 38 Tubeless carbon fibre wheels and Hutchinson Fusion 5 Performance tyres.
The Vitesse Evo Disc offers quick steering and unexpected speed. It's a thrilling and rewarding ride, backed up by decent equipment choices.
The carbon frame has been designed to be stiff through the use of oversized tube profiles and bottom bracket, and a tapered head tube. And it's a success. Stomp on the pedals and there's an intoxicating immediacy to the way it transfers your power that will have you attacking every rise and crest in the pursuit of more speed.
Canyon's ultra-lightweight Ultimate Evo bike is dressed here with SRAM's 12-speed Red eTap AXS components and DT Swiss ARC 1100 Dicut wheels. Although it's undeniably a big ticket item, comparatively you're getting a lot for your money here and the bike comes fully ready to race. It's stiff, fast and impressively light for a disc brake bike. A Canyon Ultimate Evo paired with any high-end groupset and race wheels would be right near the top of our wishlist for an all-round race bike.
The Tarmac SL6 was the big noise for 2018, and shortly after the rim-braked version debuted a disc-braked bike was introduced, first with an S-Works only version but very soon more affordable models followed.
The range is spearheaded by the S-Works Tarmac Disc Sagan Collection LTD, just the thing for the Peter Sagan fan who wants a fast bike with modern brakes and who has ten grand burning a hole in their pocket. Just below in the range are two new models, the S-Works Tarmac SRAM Red eTap AXS (£9,500) and Tarmac Disc Pro SRAM Force eTap AXS (£6,000, above) with SRAM's latest 12-speed wireless elctronc groupsets.
Those of more modest means should check out the the Tarmac Disc Comp (£2,899). The most affordable model is the Tarmac Disc Sport (£2,349), sporting a Shimano 105 groupset.
The Rose X-Lite 6 Disc Ultegra Di2 is a quick, sharp-handling disc brake race bike that can thrill and excite as well as the best of them. And with Rose's custom direct-to-consumer business model, it's also excellent value.
Riding the X-Lite 6 Disc there's an immediate sense of sharpness right from the first pedal stroke. Instantly, you know that you're riding a precision tool. Steering is super-quick and direct, with only the lightest touch or lean required to influence the direction of travel. In fact, it takes a little getting used to if you're not accustomed to such quick responses.
It's lost none of the razor-sharp handling of the old X-Lite, yet there's definitely an added layer of composure at its core. Settle down on a climb and spin away, and the directness transforms into a stable platform. It's an incredibly involving ride on descents too. Leaving aside the proven excellence of disc brakes for a moment (the usual superlatives around power, modulation and all-weather performance apply), the frame responds instantly as you lean, carving a very direct line as you aim for your chosen apex.
We try not to focus too much on bike weight around these parts because it's really not as important as some people would have you believe, but it would be nuts to ignore it in this case. Lightweight claims a frameset weight of 1,175g and our built-up Urgestalt Disc weighed 6.7kg (14.7lb) without pedals. Stick some on and you're good to go and race up the Tourmalet in the Tour de France. We're pretty confident that makes the Urgestalt Disc the lightest disc brake-equipped bike we've ever reviewed on road.cc.
In use, the Lightweight Urgestalt Disc feels super-responsive when you put in extra effort, joining in energetically when you ask for a burst of speed to get away from the group or chase down someone with escape on their mind. The sharper the acceleration, the more you notice the lack of ballast.
The other time you notice it is on the steeper climbs. The Urgestalt Disc feels like it's working with you on the hills rather than reluctantly dragging itself up with an if-I-must attitude. Some bikes seem to be asking why we couldn't have gone around the side rather than going over the top, whereas this bike just gets cracking.
Trek added disc brake models to its lightweight Emonda lineup in 2018, the top level Emonda SLR Disc frame coming in at an astonishing claimed weight of just 665g. That’s still the lightest disc brake frame that we know of. The Emonda SLR Disc fork is 350g. For 2020 the range is significantly wider.
Complete bikes come stock with wide 28mm tyres although Trek says that you can fit wider tyres for gravel and even adventure riding.
The Emonda SLR Disc is available in eight models from the Emonda SLR Disc eTap at £9,300 (above) to the SLR 6 Disc (Shimano Ultegra, £4,800).
The Emonda SL Disc frame is heavier at 1,149g. The SL 7 Disc eTap, built up with a SRAM Force eTap AXS groupset, is £4,300 while the SL 6 Disc with the mechanical version of Shimano Ultegra is £2,400.
Giant added disc brakes to its Propel aero road bikes for 2018, and claimed that the flagship model, the Propel Advanced SL Disc, had the highest stiffness-to-weight ratio of any bike in its class and a lower drag coefficient at a wider range of yaw angles than its non-disc-brake predecessor.
“This is because the location of traditional callipers (either in front or behind the fork crown/ legs) creates 'dirty' air,” says Giant. “Opening up the fork crown area (by placing the disc-brake callipers down at the hub) means that the air hitting the new disc-brake calliper has already been disrupted by the leading edge of the tyre/wheel. This effect is further enhanced by an asymmetric fork that helps smooth out airflow over the calliper.”
The 2020 range includes the Propel Advanced 2 Disc at a very reasonable £2,399 and the latest version of the flagship Propel Advanced SL 0 Disc, with the top-end groupset du jour SRAM Red AXS, at a rather steeper £9,999.
Giant says that the Propel Disc had a three year development phase involving its engineers, Team Sunweb pro racers and aerodynamics experts at the Aero Concept Engineering facility in Magny-Cours, France.
The range features aero wheelsets with different rim depths front and rear, the idea being to reduce drag without compromising control or power transmission; updated frame profiles; and a new combined aero handlebar and stem with internal cable routing.
3T’s Strada is a disc brake race bike that’s built around wide tyres and a 1x (single chainring, no front derailleur) groupset. It has been developed by Cervelo founder Gerard Vroomen
The Strada uses tubes that are shaped to minimise drag, the down tube being designed to push air around a low-mounted bottle. The transitions at the key junctions (front wheel to down tube and from seat tube to rear wheel) have been reduced as much as possible, which is claimed to further reduce drag.
3T says that going with disc brakes allows it to make its Fundi fork stiffer and provide improved aerodynamics because the crown is closer to the front wheel.
Perhaps the biggest deviation from tradition with the new Strada is the elimination of the front derailleur. 3T reckons that a 1x system gives you all the gears you need with fewer components, lower weight and less drag. The pro teams 3T sponsors don't seems to be 100% convinced, though, so there's now a Strada Due with a front derailleur mount too.
Merida’s updated Reacto aero road bike is available in both disc brake and rim brake models.
Merida has slimmed down the Reacto’s tubes to improve aero efficiency, introduced a lower seatstay connection with the seat tube and added a one piece cockpit.
Merida also says that it has improved comfort through the redesigned seatstays and given its S-Flex seatpost a slimmer cross section and a bigger ‘window’ – the notch that’s cutaway to add more downward movement.
The disc brake Reactos come with cooler technology like Merida uses on its Sculturas. There’s a forged aluminium component between the brake and the frame/fork that’s designed to allow heat to dissipate through CNC-milled cooling fins. The idea is that this reduces the amount of heat that gets transferred to the carbon-fibre on long descents.
The CF4 version of the disc brake frame uses the RAT (Rapid Axle Technology) first introduced by Focus for quick wheel changes in race situations, while the CF2 version has threaded 12mm thru axles.
BMC claims a weight of just 815g for the Teammachine's carbon fibre disc brake frame, versus 790g for the rim brake version. The disc frameset has an asymmetric fork to cope with the braking forces.
BMC says that the Teammachine is stiffer, lighter and more compliant than before, but you’d probably have guessed that.
While the new frame bears a resemblance to the previous version, BMC has refined all the tube profiles to balance the stiffness and compliance. It says the bottom bracket area provides more stiffness while the compliance has also been improved for increased seated comfort, thanks in part to newly shaped seat stays creating a compact rear triangle.
The disc-braked range starts with an aluminium-framed bike, the Teammachine ALR Disc Two with Shimano's 105 R7000 components for £1,999.
Scott’s Foil Disc has a very similar frame to the existing rim brake model but the fork has been completely redesigned to manage the asymmetrical forces of disc brakes and to control the airflow around the front brake. Most notably, the lower sections of the fork come with aero tabs to smooth airflow over the calliper.
That fork comes with internal cable routing and enough clearance for 30mm wide tyres.
The Foil Disc uses 12mm thru axles front and rear. The front axle’s head is 25mm in diameter, the idea being that this larger than normal contact surface between the fork and axle is better able to handle the load coming from the front brake.
Unveiled in 2019, the successor to the Dogma F10 is claimed to reduce drag by 7.3%, equating to an 8 watt saving at 40kph (25mph) and has been designed from the outset with disc brakes, alongside a regular rim brake version, thus keeping both camps happy.
Pinarello has offered disc-equipped Dogmas in the past but they’ve merely been an afterthought, disc brakes tacked onto a frame originally conceived for rim brakes. With the Dogma F12 the Italian company has developed both a rim and disc brake version on two development paths, with fundamental technology shared across both but different approaches where required, such as the new 40% stiffer fork on the disc bike. The rim brake model also moves to direct mount brakes years after they were first introduced by Shimano.
The CAAD13 is the latest in a long series of well-received aluminium bikes from Cannondale, with a more refined ride than the CAAD12 and available with or without disc brakes.
Ask most cyclists about aluminium and they’ll probably tell you it’s stiff, and if they’re being really unfair they’ll say it’s harsh. But advances made by companies still willing to invest in aluminium like Cannondale have produced aluminium bikes that are anything but, and instead offer genuinely smooth and compliant rides.
The new CAAD13 is on another level though. Our one criticism of the CAAD12 Disc was that the front-end felt too firm. There was too much feedback coming through the handlebars and it wasn’t matching the smoothness present at the back of the bike. Cannondale has remedied that criticism and in the CAAD13 produced a bike that is wonderfully smooth all-round.
Bianchi offers both rim brake and disc brake versions of its Aria aero road bike. The Italian brand already has the Oltre aero road bikes in its range and has only recently launched the Oltre XR3, but the Aria represents a trickle down of Aquila time trial/ triathlon design in a much more affordable, and broader, application.
You get many tried and tested aero features including a seat tube that’s cutaway around the leading edge of the rear wheel, a deeply profiled down tube and a skinny head tube.
The latest version of Cervelo’s R5 is available in a disc brake format.
The R5 has been the brand’s lightest race-ready bike since it was launched in 2013. Where the S-series is focused on aerodynamics and the newer C-series on endurance comfort, the R-series has always been about being the light. Oh, and stiff. Cervelo says that the new R5 is considerably stiffer than the previous version at both the bottom bracket and head tube.
Cervélo has evolved its Squoval tube shapes (rounded square tube profiles) here with Squoval Max, essentially refining each tube profile and to improve stiffness and aero efficiency.
Interestingly, the disc brake frame is actually a little lighter than the rim brake version – 831g versus 850g.
Cervélo has adopted the excellent RAT thru-axles from sister company Focus, allowing for quick wheel changes, and you get enough clearance for 28mm wide tyres.
Explore the complete archive of reviews of road bikes on road.cc
The aim of road.cc buyer's guides is to give you the most, authoritative, objective and up-to-date buying advice. We continuously update and republish our guides, checking prices, availability and looking for the best deals.
Our guides include links to websites where you can buy the featured products. Like most sites we make a small amount of money if you buy something after clicking on one of those links. We want you to be happy with what you buy, so we only include a product in a if we think it's one of the best of its kind.
As far as possible that means recommending equipment that we have actually reviewed, but we also include products that are popular, highly-regarded benchmarks in their categories.
Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been road.cc technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now pushing 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.