Re-Thinking Travel With Bike, Part II

SRAM Apex might just be the most reliable and versatile drivetrain on the market

Securing a frame I could pack and travel with easily was only half of the solution to the problem before me. I know from experience that I wouldn’t have been one of those riders to get stronger while racing a Grand Tour. I needed to build the Seven up with a component selection that would permit me to ride through fatigued legs in the second week.

Due to some availability issues and a hold-up in customs, I had to start the trip with a Campy Record 10 group with a 34×25 low gear. However, following a frenzied cab ride in which I learned the average European mortgage term is 50 years and the winter fare for a cab traveling from Albertville to Geneva was triple what I paid, I gained possession of the group of parts and was able to install them just in time for the climb up the Col du Galibier.

A brief note on installation of Red and Apex parts: This was the first time I had ever worked on SRAM components. While I’ve had the opportunity to ride them some, I’d never installed any previously. I know from talking to shop mechanics that there is a love for SRAM based on how easy their stuff is to work on, but I’d never experienced it for myself. Let me just say, ‘I get it.’ I honestly don’t think the installation could have been smoother. The point where it was most noticeable was in running the cables through the levers. With every lever from Shimano and Campagnolo through which I’ve ever run a cable, there has always been a bit of fiddling to get the cable to run through the guide hole. I’ve never gotten it on the first try. With SRAM, all four cables went through on the very first try. I couldn’t help but take note.

In three hours I had all the Campy parts removed and the SRAM parts installed and adjusted. To me, that’s shop mechanic speed, not fatigued guy working in the rec room of a hotel.

The linchpin in this operation involved the removal of the Campy freehub body from the Easton EA90 SLX rear wheel and the installation of the SRAM-compatible Shimano freehub. I’d never done it before and wasn’t convinced I had all the right tools. The operation proved to be quicker and easier than instant coffee—not to mention more satisfying—in part because it required little more than two 5mm Allen wrenches.

Let’s back up a second. Triples have been the stock-in-trade for non-PROs riding in big mountains for years. There are some features to like, such as pairing a 12-25 cassette with 53/39/ 30-tooth chainrings. In that setting you always have a familiar gear and the jumps between cogs once you’re into the third ring are tiny. However, most people I talk with believe triples have serious shifting issues (I didn’t experience that in years of using a triple with Campy). You also hear complaints about extra weight, wider Q-factor, too many duplicated gears and cost. To switch a Shimano bike over to a triple requires you to purchase a crank set, bottom bracket, a front derailleur, a long-cage rear derailleur, chain and, usually, a shift lever and cassette.

Adding an Apex rear derailleur, cassette and a new chain to as SRAM-equipped bike simplifies the solution in terms of cost, familiarity and labor.

That’s one big pie-plate of a cassette

By the time I switched out the parts on my Seven, I was in need of some lower gears. I had suffered through two days of shockingly steep grades, and while I would probably have been okay if the road had never tipped steeper than 7 percent, it had. A lot. Hell, the shallow pitches on the Col de Pré had been 7 percent. And while I needed something lower than a 34×25, I wasn’t so sure I needed a 34×32. But the folks at SRAM were confident (if not downright adamant) that I’d put the 32 to use if it were there.

My fear was that I’d end up with a nine-speed cassette as I’d never use anything lower than the 28. Well that concern was laid to rest the first time the Col du Galibier hit 10 percent. How many times have you known you were in your lowest gear and yet reached down to try and downshift out of some Hail Mary hope? Well, I did just that and—lo!—the derailleur gave me another gear. With the fatigue I was experiencing it was hard to turn the gear over as quickly as I would have liked, but the 32 became an integral part of my riding for the rest of the trip.

My concern that I’d end up with a nine-speed cassette was realized, however. I almost never used the 11. The nature of the descents I was riding included switchbacks the way sharks have teeth. After braking for a switchback, the gears I found myself most often using to sprint back up to speed were the 13 and 15. Long straits that give you a chance to wind out a 50×11 were as rare as fans of offshore oil drilling.

My preference would be that they ditch the 11 and add a 14, which is a cog I’d use a great deal more. Jumping from the 15 to the 13 when upshifting was large enough to be frustrating; I’m accustomed to the presence of a 14. Similarly, the jump from the 19 to the 22 took some getting used to, as did the 22 to 25 jump; you notice that bigger jump when upshifting, though under downshifting it didn’t bother me too much. In the cassette’s favor is the 25 to 28 jump, as is the 28 to 32, which might appear large on paper but were utterly welcome out on the road.

If I’d had two full weeks in the Alps on this group, by the end the only shifts I would have noticed would have been between the 13/15 and the 19/22. If they’d offer a 12-32 that included a 14, I promised I’d shut up.

Karma dictates that someday I’ll go ride in the Rockies at 11,000 feet without proper acclimatization and due to the combination of zero oxygen and screaming fast descents I’ll be grateful for both the 11 and the 32 in the same cassette. Once that happens, I’ll come back and delete the above two paragraphs.

The Apex crank was surprisingly lightweight and plenty stiff

Naturally, the question of weight is going to arise. I have yet to reassemble the bike and weigh it in its current configuration, but I’m guessing it’ll be about 18 to 18.5 lbs. The big gain in weight compared to its last build (when it was 17.0 lbs.) comes from the S&S couplers, which added just less than 10 oz. to the frame’s overall weight. The rear derailleurs weigh nearly the same, though the cassette increased in weight by about 100g, though I suspect it will have a much longer life. SRAM sent me the Apex crank and bottom bracket, so that increased the bike’s weight by roughly 250g.

I’m not sure everyone will do the math the way I did, but in my view this bike gives me a truly versatile travel bike solution. What it comes down to is this: I’ve got a bike that will be convenient to fly with no matter where I go. It will be inexpensive to fly with as well as the most I’ll be charged is just $25 per flight. Thanks to the titanium frame and largely aluminum components (the only carbon fiber is the fork, bar and shift levers), even if the case takes some serious hits, it’s unlikely any damage rendering the bike unusable will occur. It’s still light enough that I should survive any group ride I hook up with. With 700C wheels I don’t have to deal with the odd handling inherent in a bike using 20” or 24” wheels. And because it’s a bike I’ve owned for years, the handling and fit are utterly familiar—which is handy both on long climbs and fast descents.

In order to stretch my back when out of the saddle on the long climbs, I turned the bar up more than usual

S&S couplers have been on the market for a good 15 years. When they first came out, I was suspicious of their function and safety. They are more time-tested than our love for the Internet. And while they’ve had devotees for years, they were never a super-popular solution to travel. Today’s travel costs have finally made their value readily apparent.

Is this a permanent solution? Probably not, but I believe this should cover my travel needs for at least the next five to seven years.

Is it the perfect solution? Also, probably not, but airlines seem to be increasing both their charges for bicycles and their hostility to anything requiring care. Traveling to far-flung lands without a bicycle is like going to a great restaurant that omits the salad and the dessert. I want the whole meal.

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  1. JohnB

    I’m very glad to hear that Apex cuts the mustard. I’m also glad to hear your endorsement of my comment/suggestion following your original mention of Apex (, to offer a 12-32 or 13-32 Apex cassette. I too find far more use for those mid-range sprockets that I ever do or will for an 11T. Please don’t ever delete the two paragraphs above. 😛

    Thanks too for the great trip report.

  2. Mark S.

    I’ve also used Apex to overhaul a travel bike – in my case, a 13 year old S&S-coupled Co-Motion. I’m using the 11-32 with a single 44 tooth chainring and a bashguard. The small overall chainring diameter and lack of exposed teeth make the bike fit in its case much more easily.

    Padraig doesn’t make much mention of it, but the Apex gruppo is an incredible value. It works very well and its compatibility with SRAM’s entire line is a customer-friendly policy that shames SRAM’s competitors. I highly recommend Apex-enabled bikehacking.

  3. amityskinnyguy

    If you are running 9 speed Shimano, you can create the same thing by swapping a low normal mountain bike rear derailleur and an 11-32 cassette. This way all you need to buy is a derailler (which you may already have), a cassette and a chain. I did this on my monstercross bike with a derailleur that I had and my net expense was around $50. Well worth it. Great post, thanks!

    1. Author

      Mark S: Sounds like you’ve got a neat bike there.

      Amityskinnyguy: There was a couple on our trip who had done the same thing with their bikes (very cool older Ti Ibises). I’m a big fan of creative, inexpensive solutions. It’s a great argument for not always selling off every spare part you have.

      Waffles & Steel: It seems like sacrilege to recommend Apex over Campy Record, but the group is stunningly good. You might also check out my post from my first ride on the stuff:

  4. bwebel

    I set up a similar bike for ride in the Pyrenees this past summer. I definitely agree with you thoughts regarding the 11t cog. I would be very happy with a 12×32 rather than 11×32, or a 12×28 if I weren’t doing multiple days of hard climbing would likely be enough.

    While I’ve started riding SRAM, and generally like it, I think the main advantage SRAM has over Campy for such a bike is the 10% lower gear that a 32t gets you vs. a 29t (the lower cost is nice, too). I like the Campy shifting much more, particularly for a compact. The ratcheting front Campy is less likely to drop a chain and the multiple rear cog downshifting on Campy is a lot nicer than clicking the doubletap several times. I have access to a screaming year end deal on Record 11spd and am really torn over whether to get it with the 12×29 cassette or not.

  5. wvcycling

    For as many years that freewheel cassettes started off with a 14t first gear, I also see very few reasons for an 11t, unless you are cat 2/3 or above; and even then, it could depend on your geographic location.

    Here in WV, I am happy all of my cassettes start off with a 12t, but I honestly wouldn’t mind the cassette tooth-ramping options that would come starting off with a 14…. Could you imagine a 14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,23,25? It would be a recreational rider’s dream!

    I think we’re on to something…

  6. Hans

    Thanks for the Apex review. This is certainly one of the most exciting developments from a major component manufacturer in a long time. Of course it basically just mimics what a lot of people run on home-brew set ups (on my monster cross I run 8sp 11-32 matched to 34-48, with an EDCO/New Success rear derailleur), just like “compact” cranksets before it, but it will be refreshing to see it as an option on bikes from manufacturers, and will hopefully help spark a resurgence in real-life road bikes.

    I do fear the Fred label getting smacked on that enormous cassette cog, unfortunately. In my recent trip to the Alps I put a 12-28 XTR cassette on my Breakaway, and got lots of comments about that big cog. Often I’d be spinning along in my 24, with a gear to go, and my comrade on the road would already be in his 25. I switched over to the 13-26 and the comments stopped.

    Anyway, I’m curious why this concept doesn’t get taken further, to Compact-Apex. Remember 94mm BCD cranks? Run a 44-30 (admittedly somewhat oddball-tiny), and mate it to an 11-28, and you could run a normal-looking rear derailleur, an almost-normal cassette, and have the same low gear as Apex with a top end matching a 52-13.

  7. CCH

    Ego is a funny thing.

    I have been running 11-28 cassettes for a couple of years with compact cranks since I started riding seriously again a couple of years ago. I endured endless comments about my “dinner plate” on the rear, with more laughter when they realized I was running 34×50 on the front.

    Over that span, I have dropped 40 pounds, started racing, and gone from off the back to off the front on club rides. I originally got the big cassette because that was the only way I could get up the hill. Yet even now, much lighter and much fitter, I still use that 34×28 when the grade is steeper than 7%, which happens frequently in Marin. I use the 28 a lot more often than the 11. I do miss a couple of the ratios in the middle, but I can live with that until the day when we are all on CVT (continuously variable transmission–think NuVinci) setups, or the Campy/Shimano/SRAM arms race has gotten to 14 cogs at the back.

    And, I still endure comments about how big my cogs are. The difference is now I only get them in the early part of the climb, because I drop the commenters as I spin 90rpm+ up the hill. Most of us are sadly no longer in our 20s, and we just don’t have the legs we used to. If I hammer out of the saddle at 80 rpm for 5 minutes, I will have to turn around and go home.

    When you look at some of the big rides that we enjoy, easy gearing a la Apex seems to be a no-brainer. For example, Levi’s Gran Fondo is coming up. Last year I watched people struggle up steep climbs in their 39x25s as I spun by. Three of the long climbs had sections with gradients in the teens. On the last climb, Coleman Valley, we were catching up to riders doing the shorter routes. Riders were zig-zagging up the steep sections–a few even walking. Isn’t a big cog easier on the ego than the walk of shame? And these are just local tiny mountains on a single day’s ride (I think the Fondo is 8k of climbing for the full 100mi route). If you had to get up and do it again, that 32 is going to look very sexy.

    Golfers are not made fun of when they show up at the driving range with a driver head the size of a dinner plate. I, for one, am proud of my dinner plate cog

  8. amityskinnyguy

    The laughter is dying down now that the peloton isn’t doping and has had to resort to “dinner plate” gears like us mere mortals. Evidence: most teams/riders in this years Giro were running 11-29/29 cassettes and compact cranks. Take that gear ratio snobs!

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