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David Millar talks disc brakes and technological advances modernising cycling racing

After 17 years as a professional racing cyclist, David Millar retired at the end of last season after a career which saw him win stages in the Tour de France, Vuelta a España and Giro d'Italia and wear the leader's jersey in all three - the first British rider to do so. He was also British national road race and time trial champion. Far from slipping quietly into retirement, Millar is remaining involved in cycling and will participate in this weekend’s inaugural Maserati Tour de Yorkshire sportive in his new role as a cycling ambassador for luxury car brand Maserati.

road.cc caught up with him at a recent press event to launch Maserati’s new involvement in cycling, a sign of how mainstream cycling has become in recent years, and sat down with him for an alloted ten minute interview to talk about the technological changes in cycling spanning his 17 year career and how bikes, equipment, training and coaching have played a part in modernising the sport.

road.cc: You were a pro for 17 years and have seen the sport change significantly, what have been the biggest technological changes in your opinion?

David Millar: Electric gears and carbon fibre. Those are the two things that had the biggest effect.

What impact did they have on the sport?

It’s hard to tell the performance impact they had, but I think the technology now has levelled the playing field. Whereas before, when I started, it was only the big teams that could get the most amazing time trial bikes or super light climbing bikes, they’re now available to everyone and even neo pros can come onto a WorldTour team with essentially the same time trial bike and skin suit that the Tour de France winner is going to get, which was never going to happen ten years ago. So it’s democratised the sport, the prevalence of technology, the advance of it, and mass manufacturing .

Is there equipment you had at the end of your career that you wish you had when you started out?

Nice time trial bikes. I used to find it hard to get good time trial bikes, to get all the right stuff, and the skin suits, those are the two things that I always fought so hard for, yet never really got, so those two I would have killed for.

You mention skin suits, there have been big advances in clothing now as well?

Oh yes, that’s the biggest. That’s been quite a recent development though, it’s been quite a gradual process with the actual hardware, we can see that, the curve, it’s quite a linear line going up diagonally as the advancements get better. But I think wirth clothing, it’s only been the the last three or four years, primarily with Castelli. They’ve been pushing it along so much.

You say technology has levelled the playing field, is this really the case?

With Garmin-Sharp, that was our mission objective at the beginning, that was our edge if you like. It was a passion, a drive we had to get the best equipment, and the science, and I think we led the field in that, it was always our mission statement. If we were going to do this clean, and say we were clean, we were going to give our riders other advantages, so they could really buy into what they were doing. So the best hardware, the best clothing, the best nutritional support, science and coaching. I think we dipped off a bit in recent years and everyone else caught up.

Do you think the UCI have held technology back too much?

Yes, I don’t think they’ve kept up with the times. The 6.8kg weight limit definitely had a time and a place, because I mean I was a pro when bikes were breaking because they were too light, but carbon fibre technology has caught up and now you can easily do it under 6.8kg. So yes, I think they’ve been a bit off the back on that one. But I think with everything else, they handled it very well. Last year with the time trial bikes, finally they modified the positioning, that’s something that had been a battle for years and had to be understood. I do see and understand what the UCI are doing, it’s having to have perimeters otherwise it would go apeshit, then you would end up with what’s happened on the track.

There’s new technology on the brink of entering the pro peloton, namely disc brakes. What’s your view on disc brakes?

You don’t need them. It’s a stupid thing, it doesn’t matter about the performance because the tyres can’t handle them. So you’ve got a disc brake and you're going down a wet descent, you’ve only got maximum four square inches of rubber on the floor, with the disc brake the tyre can’t handle it. Already the brakes are too good on a normal bike when it’s wet, for the tyre and the amount of surface area you have. You’ve got about 80-85 kg with the bike with four squares inches of rubber, you’ve to brake gently in the wet. That’s what everyone forgets, you’ve got to brake gently, very gradually when it’s wet. With a disc brake, you're down. I think disc brakes have a place in the sport, but it’s not in the pro peloton. The Shimano caliper brakes are incredible now, they’re bonkers, they’re far too strong. If we have disc brakes, maybe we think about having aluminium rims in the wet or getting better carbon braking surface.

You say technology has levelled the sport, but do you think there’s still an unfair advantage for the bigger and better funded teams?

I don’t know if it’s so much about the money, it’s desire, you choose the right sponsors, have the right contracts. It’s lazy, uneducated team bosses that haven’t understood that. You can’t just blame it on Team Sky as it’s not a budget thing, that’s just a will to have the best equipment and make sure the sponsors supply it, which is their right, and if they’re sponsors, they’re stupid if they don’t do that anyway, that’s what they’re there for. I’ve seen it happen so many times where team bosses just don’t care enough.

Do we risk all this new technology overshadowing the purity of the sport and the simplicity of racing?

I don’t think so, I think there’s so much going on with training methods, the sport's changing, all sports are, it’s just the way it is. The whole world is changing, the whole sport is evolving, it’s going to be completely different in 10 years to what it is now.  It’s completely different now to how it was 10 years ago. It’s always like that.

Nutrition is an area that has expanded quickly, it seems unimaginable now that I did a tour without a team chef. To not have control of the diet, what were we thinking? Now every team has a team chef. That’s a good thing to come out of the anti-doping culture, people had to take control of everything else. Having a no needle policy meant that you now care more about nutrition.

WIth so many changes in the technology in the sport in the past 10 years, what do you see changing in the next 10 years?

I think it it’s just going to refine. It has to reach a ceiling, and it’s getting pretty close now I think, which in a way is good, it just means more people will be doing what Team Sky are doing, and I think the top guys are already doing what is cutting-edge and it works. The guys are going almost faster now clean than guys that were doping 15 years ago, and that’s because the sport had modernised, with training methods and nutrition. Probably the next big step will be body analysis, actually being able to tell what is going on with athletes, Star Trek-like technology to find out if an athlete is tired and see where they are, and what is going on with their body.


David Millar will be taking part in the Maserati Tour de Yorkshire ride alongside his father this weekend. If you're taking part in the sportive, David has produced the route preview video below highlighting some of the key parts of the ride. 

http://letour.yorkshire.com/tour-de-yorkshire/sportive

David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.

62 comments

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BrokenBootneck [285 posts] 4 years ago
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Did anyone proof read this article?

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bendertherobot [1543 posts] 4 years ago
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Does David realise that, with disc brakes, in the wet, you can stay upright by PRESSING LESS HARD.

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ddraver [10 posts] 4 years ago
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bender - I suspect he has never ridden a bike with them (in fairness, why would he have?)

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ddraver [10 posts] 4 years ago
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bender - I suspect he has never ridden a bike with them (in fairness, why would he have?)

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Brian Steele [10 posts] 4 years ago
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What's clear is that the entire peloton needs to be on the same level of brakes to avoid mishaps. I agree that brakes are very strong already, I wonder if the real benefit is going to be in wheel design? For example can they be made lighter as there is no braking surface.... or does the strength of the braking require stiffer heavier spokes and wheels? Ouch!

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bendertherobot [1543 posts] 4 years ago
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ddraver wrote:

bender - I suspect he has never ridden a bike with them (in fairness, why would he have?)

Because he has a viewpoint. If he has not he would be better saying that he has no idea.

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rogermerriman [164 posts] 4 years ago
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ddraver wrote:

bender - I suspect he has never ridden a bike with them (in fairness, why would he have?)

quite. if disk brakes where so off/on they would be useless MTBing where traction can often be marginal at best.

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CXR94Di2 [2764 posts] 4 years ago
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That the premis of brakes they must be able to override the mechanical grip of the tyres whether car, truck, motorcycle or cycle!

The advantage is consistency of braking regardless of weather and finer control of modulation.

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joules1975 [610 posts] 4 years ago
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I really like David Millar and agree with him on a lot of stuff, but he seems to have missed the point about disc brakes (like so many others).

Disc brakes are not about the power, they are about the modulation - the fact that they allow you to get closer to the braking limit (i.e. closer to the tyre skidding without it skidding), and it is this that allows you to brake harder and later.

Disc brakes will also allow other advances - predominantly rims but also a bit with frames.

And disc brakes should eliminate tyre and rim blow out due to overheating and/or rim wear.

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crikey [1251 posts] 4 years ago
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Hurrah!
Yet another thread for the disc brakes advocates to tell us all how great they are, while everyone else gets on with riding bikes...
Like 'em, have 'em, don't like 'em, don't.

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bendertherobot [1543 posts] 4 years ago
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crikey wrote:

Hurrah!
Yet another thread for the disc brakes advocates to tell us all how great they are, while everyone else gets on with riding bikes...
Like 'em, have 'em, don't like 'em, don't.

Which one are you referring to as great? The disc brakes or the advocates? Or both? The latter is, of course, correct.

I assume, when you typed that response, you weren't cycling  3

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Must be Mad [652 posts] 4 years ago
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When I squeeze my (rim) breaks in the wet... usually nothing happens.
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for quite some time
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until they slowly clear the muck of the rim
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and start to bite
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and very gently slow me down, while the pads do their best to grind the rim to powder.

And I understand carbon rims are even worse.

I'm not completely sold on the look of disk breaks - or the weight/aero penalties - but for me the ability to stop in the wet is a big draw.

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ianrobo [1214 posts] 4 years ago
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no one noticed this comment from an ex doper ?

"The guys are going almost faster now clean than guys that were doping 15 years ago, and that’s because the sport had modernised, with training methods and nutrition."

When he was doping the same was said then and how wrong people were, why is someone I do admire for his doping stance actually burying his head in the sand ?

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bendertherobot [1543 posts] 4 years ago
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Tell you what's fascinating mind. For years we've been buying (by and large) what the manufacturers deem is worthy of the pro peleton.

Now, the pro peleton is getting what, for the last couple of years at least, the manufacturers have already been selling to us. It's an interesting reversal.

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Notsofast [138 posts] 4 years ago
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Not forgetting that replacing a worn rotor is less faff and far cheaper than rims.

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robthehungrymonkey [182 posts] 4 years ago
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bendertherobot wrote:

Tell you what's fascinating mind. For years we've been buying (by and large) what the manufacturers deem is worthy of the pro peloton.

Now, the pro peloton is getting what, for the last couple of years at least, the manufacturers have already been selling to us. It's an interesting reversal.

Good comment. I've had mechanical discs on my touring bike for years i'm always surprised how good they are (though, I still can't adjust them without rubbing). Although there is more difference between my single speed with basic tektro brakes and my roady with ultegra direct mount callipers.

When you think my tourer is a 2010 model, and my road bike is a 2013 madone, it's strange how it's still behind on the brake front. A new bike would have discs, but i'm in no rush. And I do still like the simplicity of rim brakes.

To the people complaining about the opinion being given on discs or not. Why are they reading a website which is basically a forum for debate??

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wingsofspeed68 [65 posts] 4 years ago
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Current calliper brakes are absolutely top notch and we don't need disc brakes. They're ugly and should be kept where they have benefits in cross or mountain biking.

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AJ101 [281 posts] 4 years ago
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Notsofast wrote:

Not forgetting that replacing a worn rotor is less faff and far cheaper than rims.

And when you've had a rim blow out at high speed because there was a scoring mark in the rim from a stone in a brake block I can assure you disc brakes suddenly look a whole lot more attractive!

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bendertherobot [1543 posts] 4 years ago
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wingsofspeed68 wrote:

Current calliper brakes are absolutely top notch and we don't need disc brakes. They're ugly and should be kept where they have benefits in cross or mountain biking.

They have benefits in road cycling, full stop. What we have to remember is that 99% of the time most road cyclists aren't emulating the pro peleton. They are, even as disc advocates, getting out on their bikes and riding.

I have 3 bikes now. All disc. In fact I rode my best bike in today, despite it being showery and a bit damp. The rims, of course, are still mint today because no road debris has been scored against them. So they'll last years.

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mrmo [2097 posts] 4 years ago
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Notsofast wrote:

Not forgetting that replacing a worn rotor is less faff and far cheaper than rims.

Until you discover the bolt holding the rotor on was made of cheese/corroded into the hub or you discover the thread in the hub has been stripped.

(just pointing out shit happens, so don't expect perfection!)

Discs do have benefits, next bike will have them, but I wouldn't buy a bike to just to get discs, MTB and Road differ in that MTB the rims will get covered in crap they will get destroyed, 9 months is my personal record to wear through the sidewalls.

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BigAl68 [72 posts] 4 years ago
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what is with the bender comment? Is casual homophobia now OK at road.cc?

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mrmo [2097 posts] 4 years ago
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bendertherobot wrote:

I have 3 bikes now. All disc. In fact I rode my best bike in today, despite it being showery and a bit damp. The rims, of course, are still mint today because no road debris has been scored against them. So they'll last years.

Until the spoke bed fails through fatigue...

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mooseman [87 posts] 4 years ago
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BigAl68 wrote:

what is with the bender comment? Is casual homophobia now OK at road.cc?

Quite probably a casual shortening of the previous posters on-line name - 'bendertherobot'?

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cat1commuter [1421 posts] 4 years ago
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BigAl68 wrote:

what is with the bender comment? Is casual homophobia now OK at road.cc?

No, that was a reply to @bendertherobot, which is a reference to the character Bender from Futurama.

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BigAl68 [72 posts] 4 years ago
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cheers for sorting that out.

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bendertherobot [1543 posts] 4 years ago
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mrmo wrote:
bendertherobot wrote:

I have 3 bikes now. All disc. In fact I rode my best bike in today, despite it being showery and a bit damp. The rims, of course, are still mint today because no road debris has been scored against them. So they'll last years.

Until the spoke bed fails through fatigue...

I hope not. They're tubeless and weren't cheap.  3

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WobblySL4 [8 posts] 4 years ago
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I ride up to three times a week in all weathers and can honestly say I would never go back to normal caliper brakes. All through wet weather rides, I use my disc brakes knowing they will give exactly the same performance every time, whilst my fellow club riders can be heard braking early to ensure they actually have some braking force by the time they reach junctions etc..... and the noise of grinding rims is not a good sound!!

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notfastenough [3734 posts] 4 years ago
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ianrobo wrote:

no one noticed this comment from an ex doper ?

"The guys are going almost faster now clean than guys that were doping 15 years ago, and that’s because the sport had modernised, with training methods and nutrition."

When he was doping the same was said then and how wrong people were, why is someone I do admire for his doping stance actually burying his head in the sand ?

Possibly because he's one of those to benefit from that increased performance, while knowing in his own head that he was riding clean...?

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Canyon48 [1147 posts] 4 years ago
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I have discs on my commuter and rim (brakes) on my road bike. I went out cycling in the rain on my road bike... once. During an extremely heavy downpour I decided to take cover under a tree, so I pulled my brakes on, nothing, pulled as hard as I could, barely any use at all...

On my hybrid however, huge amounts of braking, we or dry and also very easy to modulate. My disc brakes do occasionally make a bloody racket though and they are a real faff to set up perfectly. Rim brakes never make any noise and are always set up right.

Pretty sure my next road bike will have rim brakes (I only ride it when the weather isn't too wet)... Plus I just prefer the look and the ease of servicing rim brakes. Disc brakes any day for my commuter/foul weather trainer though!

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hsiaolc [369 posts] 4 years ago
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The best and newest of any components should be on the pro first and then trickle it down to the consumers, not the other way around. Shows UCI is way backward. Racing is about going as fast as possible testing out the most innovative components.
Anyway I am disappointed with his comment about disc brakes because again its not about power. You not supposed to press it so hard that you fly over the bar. Just like driving a car you gently press on the brake for control and not step on it as hard as you can.
I feel a lot more confident on my road bike with disc brakes commuting to work than my old caliper brakes.
Every time I brake it brings smile to my face unlike before it causes my heart racing because in the wet it just wouldn't stop unless I squeeze the brake lever really hard.

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