First Ride: SRAM Red

SRAM’s Bill Keith discusses New Red with Slowtwitch meister Dan Empfield.

Back in January I was charged with writing peloton magazine’s look at SRAM’s new Red group. To do my job I was equipped with six or seven images and a bunch of copy. Then I went to work, connecting dots, describing features and noting differences. I was forced to stick with the objective. Some things were easy to discern: the new crank arm and its hollow construction, the re-shaped control levers and the elastomer bands encircling the cassette body. Other details were more circumspect: would the difficult and complicated construction of the chainrings really result in stiffer rings that provided better shifting? And just how did the new brake work? I had a photo and a description, but I was still clueless.

Gary Boulanger, freelancer to the stars, checks out his first Tarmac SL4, equipped with the New Red.

Well I had a chance to ride the new SRAM Red group at last weekend’s Sea Otter Classic. As is typical of SRAM’s visit to Laguna Seca, there was a ride Friday morning on new gear followed by a tech presentation on the parts before lunch. The loop took 1.5 hrs. and gave us a chance to do some climbing and descending along with a bit of flat-pounding.

I rode a Trek Madone 6.9 SSL equipped with the new parts. While I didn’t have a chance to weight the bike, I’ve picked up enough bikes in the low-14 lb. range to know this bike was light. Bantam-ish, even. The moment we pulled out the first thing I did was shift a few cogs up and down the cassette. I was curious to know if that stuff really made the group quieter.

Holy sheep stuffing, Batman, it works.

Instantly, Red went from the noisiest group I’d ever ridden to the quietest. Neat trick. I bet there’s a rabbit in that hat. The other thing I noticed almost as instantly was that, well yes, the levers did have a new shape that did make them easier to grip. The larger bump at the end of the lever body was welcome. But in that same flash I realized that the force required to execute a shift was much lower than it had been. There was a distinct improvement in rear shifting relative to my experience with Dura-Ace 7900, but the biggest improvement was in front shifting. But not only had the return springs been softened, the larger shift paddles on new Red made it easier to get two fingers on the lever to make that shift.

The new brakes were a surprise. I’ve preferred SRAM and Campagnolo brakes to the 7900 brakes. My problem with the Dura-Ace stoppers is that they are rather grabby. It’s hard to touch those brakes to the rim with so little force as to scrub just a single mile per hour from your speed unless you’re at very high speed. Also, the response has seemed very linear. By contrast, Skeleton and (old) Red brakes have offered terrifically progressive braking that starts at almost nothing and goes all the way to full lock-up. The new brakes offer an even more progressive response thanks to that little linkage in the lower arm. I watched it work on and off the bike and still can’t describe how it works without pointing to the post on which the two arms swivel. It’s a truly fresh piece of thinking.

My experience was less than two hours. Hardly enough to get to know an entire groupset. Yet my experience was so notable all I wanted to do was keep riding it.

I’ll do a more in-depth review of the new Red soon; we have a group on the way I’m told. Here’s what I’ll leave you with: I know a number of who tried Red and decided it wasn’t for them. They have been more than willing to let me know why they didn’t like it. The complaints I heard at least three times are as follows:

  1. Lever body was too big for someone with small hands.
  2. Lever hoods were too smooth for sweaty hands.
  3. The front shifting was wimpy due to the titanium cage on the front derailleur.
  4. It was hard to drop a rear wheel out because the derailleur sat too far forward.
  5. The shifting is confusing.

Except for that last (which is easy enough to sort out if you just spend a day on a bike with Red), all those items have been sorted out.

I spent some time on the ride thinking back on when the last time was I rode a group that changed that much from one generation to the next. Now, to be fair, Campagnolo isn’t really part of this discussion because they prefer to do a few incremental changes every year. But given Shimano’s history, the jump from eight to nine speeds in both the Dura-Ace and Ultegra groups in ’97 and ’98, respectively, was the last time I was a wowed by the overhauling of a group. The folks at SRAM like to refer to this as a new group, not just an improved one. This may seem a semantic point, but if you have experience on the current Red parts, once you get on this new group, you’ll understand what they mean. They’ve earned the distinction.



  1. paul

    Did the “yaw” front derailleur make any impression?

    From what I’ve read Sram has done a great job with the technical improvements of this group, as well as addressing feedback from users. However, I’ve not warmed up to the aesthetics of the new gen; the shifter graphics, crankset, and the brakes are the worst offenders. Shimano DA 9000 looks great on the other hand, but NFW am I switching to 11 speed. Sram wins for compatibility.

    1. Author

      Paul: Yes, it’s evident that it does make a difference, but my ride didn’t allow me to get through 100% of the cassette; it’s a feature I’ll feel more comfortable discussing once I’ve had more time on the group. Why it’s taken anyone this long to dream up is beguiling.

  2. Janders

    I have been running a 2010 SRAM group. Basically Force throughout, except Red shifters. BB30 compact cranks. I liked this group a lot. I liked how it fit, I liked the shifting, without the Red cassette it wasn’t too loud… and the price was right.

    However, I never love the front shifting. Despite frequent adjustments, I could never get it “just right”. A bit too much rub here, a bit to easy to drop a chain there; it wasn’t BAD it just wasn’t GREAT.

    About a week ago I put a new 2012 Red FD on this bike. Night-and-day improvement! Even without the other components of the system, I find shifts are now crisp, rub is nearly non-existant, and with the chain catcher I can’t MAKE it drop the chain (I’ve been trying). Best $120 I’ve spent since my first pair of solid bibs.

  3. Walt S

    I can appreciate the technical improvements, but to my sensibilities, it is butt ugly. To me, the aesthetics are over hyped, gaudy, and clunky looking. I have been a Campy fan forever because they seem to get it right in making gorgeous equipment. Wow, instead of designing and engineering the shifting to be quiet AND efficient, let’s put rubber bands, Oh, I’m sorry, elastomer bands, on the cassette to make it quieter. And it will probably outsell Campy 2 to 1.

  4. Ransom

    @Walt, a couple of [rubber/elastomer/whatever] bands is a terrifically small amount of weight, cost, and complexity. If there is any conflict between efficiency and noise in the design of the parts involved, solving it with less than a gram of damping medium on the resonating item strikes me as some fairly clever engineering.

  5. Troutdreams

    I have to agree with some of the comments regarding the aesthetics. In particular the decals on the shifters. Less is more. Same with the crank. I have to say Campy does this well, meaning their stuff just looks classy.
    I understand that when you’re rolling something out as “new” rather than “improved” a different look may be required to help sell the upgrade to your buyers, but in this case I think they took a step back in the looks department.
    The good news for SRAM is my opinion won’t cost them a sale. I’m in the Rival/Force budget. I do like their components and certainly wouldn’t turn my nose up at a chance to ride any of their lineup .

  6. Alex T.

    I´ve been using RED for over 3 yrs now and I can´t love it any more. It´s light, precise and durable. Always smooth, though never too quiet. And in all honesty, save from the items “2” and “4” on Padraig´s list above I´ve never suffered from any other malady. I prefer Dura-Ace 10spd cassetes to RED´s but that´s it. I even use the front TI derailleur without a single issue (I was once a bike mechanic and perform my own maintenance).

    I was once a Shimano fan too. Though I´ve used Campy here and there throughout the years, I never fell in love with it. Not even the top Record got me. OK, it´s class and design, we´re road riders with a knack for anything italian etc. but it´s too fussy and way “too italian” (with the good and the bad of it) for me.

    I´m really looking forward to the new RED, pretty sure it´ll live up to my high expectations. Just when I thought their top group couldn´t get any lighter they rip 200-some grams off of it, now that´s serious design and engineering in my book. I like the way SRAM approaches solutions and thinks small details. They´ve always been very fresh and outside the box IMHO.

    Thanks for the review Padraig.

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