Up until now, there has always been one safe haven for rim brake bikes...hill climbing, but has Andrew Feather's win at the 2023 National Hill Climb on his new disc brake bike put an end to this? We've asked him the big questions and drilled down into his component choices to find out!
Over the past decade or so, many road bikes have gone from externally cabled, lightweight, round-tubed designs to much bulkier, aero steeds which now nearly always have disc brakes. Whether you love them, hate them, or have no real strong opinion on disc brakes, it is undeniably getting rather tricky to buy a new bike with rim brakes, because a number of the top bike brands no longer offer them.
However, as cyclocross bikes, gravel bikes, the aforementioned road bikes and even time trial bikes have turned their back on the trusty rim brake, there has, up until now at least, always been one genre of cycling where rim brakes have continued to rule supreme - hill climbing!
We were slightly surprised, then, when four-time British National Hill Climb champ Andrew Feather rocked up on his new disc brake bike which he has since ridden to victory at this year's event.
Feather completed the Struggle in an impressive 11 minutes and 48 seconds, outriding Ed Laverack in second place by a notable 18-second margin and leaving Paddy Clark in third a full 1 minute and 17 seconds behind.
In a hill climb - the quintessentially British racing format which sees competitors aim to get from the bottom to the top of a hill in as little time as possible - it's incredibly rare that you would ever need to even touch your brakes, and it’s fair to say that they’re only on hill climb bikes to satisfy the regulations and keep the commissaires happy.
Therefore, when competitive hill climbers build custom light road bikes to drop grams and give themselves every advantage, they tend to always go for the most gravity-defying option. Up until now, common knowledge was that such a gravity-defying machine would have to be built around rim brakes to keep things as light as possible.
The last time we caught up with the very appropriately-named hill climb expert, Feather had just won the 2022 hill climb champs aboard a custom Cannondale SuperSix Evo Hi Mod weighing in at just 5.39kg. This year, he's (arguably) upgraded to the newer generation SuperSix Evo LAB71, which has disc brakes.
While this new build is still super light at under 6kg, why would you want to add weight when the aim of the game is getting up a hill as quickly as possible?
"Disc brake bikes in general are becoming lighter and lighter", says Feather.
"The frame is generally more aero than the previous iterations... there are often certain parts of a climb where you are going downhill or it's flat, so those advantages will come into play."
That's not to say Feather hasn't attempted to get the bike as featherweight as possible, adorning it with components from lightweight carbon specialists Schmolke. The saddle, stem and handlebars are made by the Germans, and that saddle isn't as rough as it looks, so we're told: "I actually find the harder saddles are more comfortable. Yes it looks very hard, but it's fine if you've got in the right position and are used to riding like that."
Although some hill climbers go the extreme length of cutting the drops off their handlebars to cut even more weight, Feather says he isn't a fan: "There just such nice bars! I'm using the bike as an ordinary bike as well, so I don't really fancy riding around with bars cut off. It would just look really ugly."
Things get more technical with Feather's 3D-printed out-front computer mount, that was specially made by a Swedish farmer (who happens to also be a 3D-printing expert) to fit the Schmolke stem and bar combo.
While he doesn't tend to look at power for most of his effort, Feather also opts to run a Rotor INspider power meter during races despite the slight weight penalty: "I tend to do my best rides when I'm not looking at my power, but it's always handy, particularly at the start, to have a quick glance at power to make sure you're not setting off at 600 watts for a ten-minute effort," says Feather.
"It's still 150g, but I'd rather have that on and be able to assess the data than not have it on."
British wheel brand Hunt has done Feather a favour this year by launching some disc brake versions of its Hill Climb SL wheels. They weigh in at just 963g and "ride really nice" according to Feather.
While Hunt was still able to make the wheels super light for disc brakes, incorporating more popular tubeless tyre compatibility without adding significant weight wasn't so easy, so the wheels take tubular tyres.
Even though the disc brake switch has added some weight, that's not to say Feather hasn't tried his hardest to reduce it as much as possible. The rotors front and rear are 140mm, rather than the more common 160mm front/140mm rear combination. Although the rotors on Feather's built bike are Shimano Dura-Ace, he's planning to replace them with some titanium ones from US specialists Carver Bikes that weigh just 49g.
"I haven't used them yet, but I'm really interested to see what they're like," he says.
So, back to our original musings: what's the explanation for the switch, especially since this bike is around half a kilogram heavier than Feather's national title-winning steed we saw last year? Are rim brakes truly dead?
"I think [rim brakes aren't dead] at the moment, there are still rim brake bikes around, but if you look at the latest technology it is all disc really", says Feather.
"The weights are coming down and the margins are pretty small", says Feather.
So, there you have it. Even the best hill climber in the country has made the switch to disc brakes.
Now that discs have infiltrated the top of the hill climbing scene, do you see any way back for road bikes with rim brakes? Let us know in the comments as always...
Arriving at road.cc in 2017 via 220 Triathlon Magazine, Jack dipped his toe in most jobs on the site and over at eBikeTips before being named the new editor of road.cc in 2020, much to his surprise. His cycling life began during his students days, when he cobbled together a few hundred quid off the back of a hard winter selling hats (long story) and bought his first road bike - a Trek 1.1 that was quickly relegated to winter steed, before it was sadly pinched a few years later. Creatively replacing it with a Trek 1.2, Jack mostly rides this bike around local cycle paths nowadays, but when he wants to get the racer out and be competitive his preferred events are time trials, sportives, triathlons and pogo sticking - the latter being another long story.