When Padraig asked me if I wanted to attend a small SRAM event during the first weekend of my trip to Flanders and Roubaix last month, I needed no time to think about my answer. After all, I was heading over anyway (to ride the Flanders Sportive and watch the both races)—why not spend a few days with other media types getting to know the latest innovations from SRAM, Zipp, and Quarq?
I landed on a cold, grey Friday morning a few weeks later and headed straight for our hotel. After some introductions and a quick lunch, we piled into vans for a field trip hosted by Jason Phillips and Ben Raby, two of SRAM’s European Sponsorship liaisons. Our first stop was Liquigas-Cannondale, a team who switched to SRAM at the beginning of the 2011 season. Interestingly, none of the Liquigas bikes we saw were running the new Red. Distribution is still taking its time to catch-up with demand, and only a handful of riders in the professional peloton had it on their bikes. Instead, Liquigas was running the “old” Red, albeit one with custom graphics to match the bright green of the riders’ bikes and kits.
Parked to the side was the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team car that brought Sylvain Chavanel to a press conference being held in the hotel’s conference room. Luckily for us, the team was kind enough to bring along one of Chavanel’s race bikes—with the number from his victory in the Three Days of DePanne still attached. Omega Pharma-Quick Step uses its service course as a base of operations throughout most of the spring classics (meaning less casual access for journalists and fans), so I was excited to have a chance to see Chavanel’s bike up close.
As the French Champion and a favorite for Flanders Sunday, Chavanel was, along with teammate Tom Boonen, one of the few riders lucky enough to have the new Red 2012 groupset. Jason pulled the bike down from its rack and began walking us through each component. The Omega Pharma-Quick Step deal was a major coup for SRAM as the team agreed to ride Red components and Zipp wheels, but Zipp bars, stems, and seat posts and Quarq power meters as well. The team’s decision to ride Specialized bicycles certainly helped matters, but this is one of the first instances where SRAM has been able to provide a team with just everything it has available.
But while pro bikes are always nice to see, I was here to experience Flanders—and SRAM Red 2012—for myself. Saturday offered me more than my fair share of both.
Each year, more than 15,000 people tackle the Ronde van Vlaanderen voor Wielertouristen one day before the professionals. There is a reason why you might not be able to imagine what it is like to ride with 14,999 other people: because it’s insane. At the start, people and bikes were everywhere and came in all shapes and sizes: young and old; men, women, and children; road, mountain, and hybrid bikes—even a few tandems! Some people wore sneakers—others had backpacks. Of course, this being Belgium, there were several hundred Omega Pharma-Quick Step jerseys as well.
On the road, I immediately noticed the relative silence of the new drivetrain—a big effort went into creating an altogether quieter experience. To achieve this, SRAM replaced the original Red cassette with the new Powerdome X cassette, a lighter, drilled-out cassette cluster similar to what SRAM uses for its XX mountain bike groupset. StealthRing elastomers have also been added between cogs, dampening vibration and reducing noise even more.
Shift lever ergonomics are vastly improved as well. On the “old” Red, it took a while for my hands to get used to feeling the shift and brake cable housing enter the level underneath the hoods. SRAM redesigned this transition with the new Red, making a smoother, more fluid interface between the housing, the bars, and levers. This offers a pleasant place on the hoods to rest your hands while improving the shifting even more (derailleur cables now have a more direct route to the shifter, meaning less drag and cleaner shifts). SRAM also provides a newly textured hood for extra grip on gloveless days. Lastly, the levers are fully customizable thanks to SRAM’s Independent Reach Adjust mechanism—folks with small hands will certainly appreciate that!
On smooth roads bike was incredible. I found Cannondale’s SuperSix EVO to be one of the lightest and stiffest bikes I’ve ever ridden with what I have come to consider a “World Tour” ride quality that begged me to get out of the saddle and accelerate. I especially appreciated this at the end of the day, on the wide, flat roads from the top of the Paterberg (the final climb) to the finish back in Oudenaarde. As the wind picked-up and echelons began forming, I found the bike gave me an extra gear, responding quickly as I jumped from echelon to echelon, pretending I was fighting my way back up to the leading group on my way to “winning” my first Ronde.
Riding an event like the Tour of Flanders is one of those “once in a lifetime” experiences that subjects you to a whole slew of conflicting emotions: you love it, you hate it; you’re exhilarated, you’re exhausted; you’re optimistic, you have no idea why you signed up for an 85-mile event in mid-April with only 6 weeks of solid riding in your legs.
You get the idea.
My first moment of apprehension arrived with the day’s first cobbled sector. A long, flat stretch of about two kilometers, the gutters were littered with water bottles, wrenched from their cages by riders too lactic to have noticed they were gone. Here, the stiffness of the bike (and its saddle) became more of a detriment. I remember wondering, “Are pros just more accustomed to how bikes like this feel on cobblestones?” And then it hit me. I stopped and examined my tires; the pressure was too high. Burping some air helped, but the harshness was something I would be forced to deal with several more times throughout the day.
But the bike made up for it on the climbs. First up was the Molenberg. Picking my way through several hundred riders—all climbing at different speeds—I realized that the day’s biggest challenge would be making it up each climb with my feet still clicked into the pedals. Luckily, the new Red handles shifting under load beautifully—I slipped the chain into the cassette’s biggest cog and picked my way through the mayhem. The new Red levers also felt as if they have been tightened-up on the inside. Shifts were crisp and gave positive feedback. Each shift was distinct and clear, even on rough, cobbled roads.
At the top of the Molenberg, it was time for me to reassess what I hoped to get out of this experience. I started the day with two goals: First, I wanted to survive it without bonking, blowing-up completely, or embarrassing myself. Second, I wanted to document as much of it as possible, even if that meant stopping frequently for photos. But the Molenberg showed me that making it over every climb without having to put a foot down would be an achievement in and of itself; I added that to the list.
From there I decided to treat each climb as its own finish line of sorts, mentally preparing myself for each and counting them down to mark my progress. The 22% beast of the Koppenberg came soon after the day’s first feed zone. Everyone was fresh, fueled, and feeling heroic. Sure enough, the crowds were dense, and I sat at the bottom, propped on a barricade, waiting for a lull between waves of riders making their way up the steep cobbled slope. Again, the new Red worked like a charm. Hands on the tops of the bars, I relied on my easiest gear. Keeping my ass on the seat and legs spinning at a high cadence enabled me to maneuver as if I were on a mountain bike and I made it to the top cleanly. I was finally starting to get the hang of this again, 15 years after mastering it for the first time.
Success on the Koppenberg buoyed my spirits for the next two hours, but I knew that two of the day’s toughest climbs awaited at the end: the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg. Since I knew it was not as steep as the others, I started the Kwaremont a bit over-geared. But as soon as the cobbles began I regretted this decision and—promising to return another day to tackle it at speed—I upshifted to snake my way through walkers and slow-moving cyclists as I passed earlier. Success!
The Kwaremont dumps you onto a two-lane national road with a smooth surface and a wide bike lane. A left turn and a nasty false flat then take you to the top of the descent that ends at the foot of the Paterberg, a short, but steep cobbled climb that maxes-out at 20%. It’s also the last climb of the day.
The descent to the bottom of the Paterberg was narrow, technical, and fast. Imagining how fast the pros would tackle it the next day, I made my own bid for glory. There were few riders on the road at this point, and I was able to push the bike as far as I was willing to take it, braking late and carving the corners. Braking was even more powerful and smooth than the original Red—even with carbon-specific brake pads.
The Paterberg’s difficulty is exacerbated by the run into it. You scream down the descent into a tight right-hand corner that immediately sends you up the Paterberg’s steep, cobbled grade. Braking, downshifting (front), and upshifting (rear) simultaneously, I expected to drop my chain and prepared myself for the unenviable task of beginning the climb from a dead stop. But despite breaking every rule in the book, the bike shifted, the chain stayed engaged, and I attacked the last climb in the Tour of Flanders.
Back at the hotel, SRAM’s Michael Zellmann asked me what I thought. Struggling to come up with something eloquent or “techie” say, all I could manage was, “Well, it’s just better”.
“That’s exactly the reaction we’re hoping for.” He continued:
“You see, while everyone else is trying to reinvent the groupset [by going electronic or hydraulic], we felt traditional mechanical groupsets had yet to be perfected. Based on feedback we received about the original Red and our own research and testing, we knew there was still room to improve. With Red 2012, we feel we’ve created the best mechanical groupset in the world.”
Granted, I only spent a day on it, but after what the Ronde put us both through, I’m inclined to agree.