First Ride: SRAM Red
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.
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:
- Lever body was too big for someone with small hands.
- Lever hoods were too smooth for sweaty hands.
- The front shifting was wimpy due to the titanium cage on the front derailleur.
- It was hard to drop a rear wheel out because the derailleur sat too far forward.
- 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.