There’s been talk that an amnesty for past doping offenders is the path to a new era in clean cycling. But it’s not that easy to disperse years of pollution from a sport that is, more than ever, haunted by ghosts of doping past. An amnesty may be one step toward the goal of putting the dirty decades behind us, but it’s going to be far more difficult to purge professional cycling of its systemic sins.
We hope that the latest round of riders coming out or being outed is the start of a final phase in the cleansing process; but for it to be a truly effective process it has to be extended to the other tainted players, including team owners, directeurs sportifs, soigneurs, coaches, team doctors, rider agents, event promoters, the sport’s administrators, race officials and, yes, journalists.
When I first became immersed in the European racing scene almost 50 years ago, there were no rules against using drugs in cycling (or any other sport). I raced for an amateur team in France and was aware that some teammates popped amphetamines to help them win lap primes in circuit races. I was offered the same drugs but knew that no amount of performance-enhancement would turn me into a Tour de France rider. I also knew that ex-pros with a dicey reputation worked as a mini-mafia in the same amateur races I competed in, and that top British riders I trained with were reluctant to sign for continental pro teams because of those teams’ doping cultures.
The cycling authorities didn’t legislate against performance-enhancing drugs until 1965. The very first tests were carried out at the amateurs-only Tour of Britain Milk Race, and the country was shocked when it was announced before the final stage that race leader Luis Santamarina of Spain and two others had tested positive for amphetamines and were being thrown out of the race. That shock was somewhat tempered when Britain’s Les West won the last stage by a couple of minutes and took the overall title. The fight against doping had begun….
The British public was even more shocked two years later when their former Sportsman of the Year, Tom Simpson, died at the Tour de France on the climb of Mont Ventoux. The coroner said that the amphetamine pills discovered in his racing jersey pockets were only part of the reason he died from heat exhaustion. Simpson was my cycling hero. I met him and saw him race many times, including at the foot of the Ventoux on that tragic day at the 1967 Tour. It was hard to accept that he’d doped and died.
Simpson’s death forced the Tour organizers to introduce daily drug tests, and the 1968 edition was dubbed the “Good Health Tour” by J.B. Wadley, my editor at International Cycle Sport, the magazine where I began my first full-time journalism job. Everyone was hoping that the new testing program would end doping practices, but all it did was make the riders and their teams more secretive as they found ways to elude positive tests. That was confirmed a decade later when Tour leader Michel Pollentier was disqualified from the 1978 race at L’Alpe d’Huez. The anti-doping inspector discovered under Pollentier’s shorts a rubber bulb containing clean urine, with which he’d intended to fill the test tubes at the post-stage medical control.
I was one of a half-dozen journalists who visited with Pollentier the next morning on the balcony of his hotel room. We learned that his actions weren’t much different from what many (most?) riders had been doing for years to avoid testing positive. That candid conversation on doping with the disgraced yellow jersey was the basis of a 2,000-word news story I wrote that week in 1978 for The Sunday Times of London, one of the first mainstream articles to look at the underbelly of pro cycling.
Pollentier’s transgression led to more stringent anti-doping rules, but another 10 years on, at the 1988 Tour, another race leader, Pedro Delgado, tested positive for a steroid-masking agent. He wasn’t sanctioned because the incriminating product (already banned by the International Olympic Committee) had yet to be added to the UCI’s list of proscribed drugs. We again wrote our stories about the hidden depth of cycling’s drugs problems—but when no one would talk to the press about what was actually going on inside the peloton, it was impossible to give details or to know the full extent of doping in cycling.
Yellow jersey Delgado’s escape from disqualification was the highest-profile “doping” incident in the ’80s, when the punishment for testing positive at the Tour was a cash fine plus a 10-minute time penalty. As a result, not much was made of the slap-on-the-wrists doping violations of top Dutch pros Steven Rooks, Gert-Jan Theunisse, Johan Van der Velde and Joop Zoetemelk. It was only years later that they and other Tour riders admitted to their abuse of amphetamines, steroids or testosterone.
For the few English-speaking cycling journalists who traveled to Europe in the ’80s, those were heady times. We wrote about the break-through successes of Sean Kelly, Steve Bauer and Phil Anderson in the classics, Greg LeMond’s and Stephen Roche’s victories at the worlds and Tour, and Roche’s and Andy Hampsten’s wins at the Giro d’Italia. Some skeptics said they couldn’t have achieved those successes without doping, but we never saw anything suspicious in that pre-team-bus era, even though we’d chat with the riders in the showers at Paris-Roubaix, interview them during massage sessions at the Tour, and do extensive one-on-ones at their homes.
The amazing performances of Kelly and Roche in that period made them Ireland’s biggest sporting stars, a fact that encouraged Irish sportswriter David Walsh to move to Paris with his young family to cover their stories. We became friends and followed many Tours together over the following decade or so. Walsh also made friends with journeyman Irish pro Paul Kimmage, who was then racing for a French team and shared some of the doping stories with Walsh that became the basis of Kimmage’s 1990 book, “Rough Ride.”
After that whistle-blowing book was published, Kimmage became a pariah in the European peloton, which remained highly secretive about its use of drugs. But it was clear that athletes and sports doctors had moved on from the haphazard use of amphetamines and other stimulants. I wrote an editorial in VeloNews in 1989 titled “EPO: The scourge of the 1990s?” that pointed out the dangers of the new blood-boosting hormone, which had just been approved for use with cancer patients by the Food and Drug Administration.
The speculation, unfortunately, became a fact. An early, but unconfirmed, indication of EPO use came at the 1991 Tour when, one by one, the high-profile PDM team fell sick and dropped out. The last man standing was Kelly, who a few of us, including Aussie colleague Rupert Guinness, chatted with the morning before stage 11 when he and the rest of the team flew home. Kelly said that they’d all been sick, as if they had food poisoning, though it was later confirmed it was due to injections of a badly stored nutritional supplement, Intralipid, used for recovery … though doping was still suspected.
The wheels started to come off the EPO wagon in 1998, when Belgian soigneur Willy Voet was caught with a station wagon packed with EPO, human growth hormone, artificial testosterone and amphetamines that was destined for the world No 1-ranked Festina team at the Tour. The race took a back seat as revelation after revelation emerged from the Festina camp, and when the French police intervened to arrest team officials, race director Jean-Marie Leblanc held his infamous late-night press conference in Brive to exclude the whole Festina team from the Tour.
I sat up all night to write another doping story for The Sunday Times, this one based around Festina’s Aussie team member Neil Stephens, after he spoke with companion Rupert Guinness about his criminal-like treatment at an overnight questioning session in a French jail. The subsequent riders’ strike, further police raids and a second strike, followed by mass team withdrawals almost ended the Tour—and drowned out a dramatic comeback by eventual winner Marco Pantani to beat defending champion Jan Ullrich.
The Festina Affair began a new wave on the battle against doping, a story that I’ll continue next Tuesday.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When I read Rik Vanwalleghen’s biography of Eddy Merckx following its translation into English in 1996, my reaction split between simultaneous disappointment and relief. I felt relief to have finally enjoyed a book-length examination of the greatest cyclist the world will ever know. It was a study containing considerable insight into a man who was enigmatic even at his best. But the book was no chronologic biography, it undertook no traditional survey of the man’s career, life. It may be that the book’s particular genius was to leave much unsaid, unplumbed. Vanwalleghem undertook an impressionistic form of reportage, painting portrait after portrait of Merckx, none of them more powerful than his account of the Cannibal’s assault on the hour record in 1972. What stayed with me from that account was less the ride than what Vanwalleghem shared of the events subsequent to it.
Merckx, he wrote, suffered terrible saddle sores from the hour ride, sores that were so bad he laid in bed for days following the record. Merckx is said never to have complained.
Vanwalleghem’s “Eddy Merckx” left me wanting. Wanting more, wanting different, wanting. In that, he did me a service.
It is into this hunger that “Merckx 525″ arrived. Published, like Vanwalleghem’s Eddy Merckx” by VeloPress, this 224-page Belgian tome was written by Frederik Backelandt and translated by the ever-skilled Ted Costantino (the original editor of Bicycle Guide). For those who sneeze at relatively high prices, the $60 price tag for a coffee-table volume will elicit outraged cries—why it’s 50 percent higher than my Graham Watson book! But as a memento to a career we won’t see again, it’s worth every stinkin’ penny. For those of you among our readers who are American (it’s a sizable majority, but by no means everyone), we deserve to be reminded that we frequently miss out on the best images shot in cycling because they are only printed in European magazines. For this book, the editors drew upon images from Het Laatste Nieuws,Olycom, Photonews, Omega, Presse Sports (from which the bulk are drawn) and the private collections of several other photographers. Merckx 525 undertakes to share with us the best of those photos, and it should, for this work is nothing so much as a picture book.
However, the book is not only a collection of images. There are brief portraits in text as well, here the 1966 Milan-San Remo, the event that set the world on notice, there the 1970 Paris-Roubaix, and near the end, the 1976 Milan-San Remo. Each of the portraits are written present-tense, still harboring the wonder bound up in the world’s curiosity of whether He could do it yet again. Arranged chronologically, one can imagine the book as the ultimate family photo album of the star-shined favorite son.
For my part, the real joy of this book was a chance to feast on images from the early part of Merckx’ career. There are roughly a dozen images of Merckx that I’ve seen over and over and over. This was a chance to break the die and see the Belgian not as the Cannibal, but the man who would become the Cannibal, a young rider whose greatest ambitions were not only unrealized, but as yet unknown, even to him.
This isn’t the be-all-end-all book that will slake a thirst for Merckx’ life on the bike. In that regard, we are still waiting for the definitive study of his career. This is the palate-cleansing sorbet that is its own delight.
I don’t really want to talk about doping in the way that we normally do, debating the merits of lifetime bans or declaring open season for all illicit products, slicing and dicing the moral code riders ought to ascribe to. We’ve done that.
I don’t have the answer to the problem anymore than anyone else does, not Paul Kimmage or Michael Ashenden or Anne Gripper or Andrea Schenk. We, most of us, feel passionately about clean sport, and those who don’t mostly cast themselves of too practical a mindset. Humans will cheat, they argue, and may well be correct.
All of that aside, I have found it interesting over the last few weeks to see dominoes begin to fall across the top level of the sport. Yes, USADA sanctioned Lance Armstrong after he chose not to defend himself against their allegations. The UCI struggled to strike the right tone in response. The whole structure of the sport began to shift.
Tyler Hamilton has a book coming out, which details much of what happened in his own somewhat tragic career, and that implicates himself, many former teammates and major players in the management of the sport at both team level and within the UCI.
One event that shocked me this week was Jonathan Vaughters going on the Cycling News forums and outing some of his riders as former dopers, including Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising, given his own recent confession in the New York Times, but the timing and venue seemed suspect. Were the riders aware he was going to spill the beans?
Is this just where we are in the process of truth telling? Suddenly everyone is talking.
You expect this from characters like Jorg Jaksche, Christophe Bassons and Filippo Simeoni, but we’ve moved into some new territory with recent statements from Johann Museeuw and Sylvia Schenk. Given all the recent information flooding into the open, journalists are turning up the heat on figures like Bjarne Riis, who has confessed his own transgressions as a rider, but has left, perhaps, too much still unsaid.
People are speaking out. More people are asking hard questions like, is the UCI even capable of cleaning up the sport? It is one thing for fans and marginalized journalists to say these things. It is another entirely for people like Schenk, once a member of the UCI management committee and Museeuw, a respected rider from the EPO era, to say them. Now the questions and confessions are coming from the inside. People are emboldened. The calculus is changing. But is it changing enough?
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: Have we finally reached the watershed moment in confronting cycling’s doping history? Or is this just a strange conflagration of events, more stumbles down the wrong path, toward the status quo?
There are those words that are their own definition, that beg understanding as they roll off the tongue. Haleakala is a word of binary importance. Either it means nothing to you because you’ve never heard the word, or it conjures that great volcano on the Hawaiian island of Maui. It is either gibberish or a sacred place, nothing or a home to a particular quest.
I first visited Haleakala in 1993. Almost exactly 19 years ago. The meeting occurred during a week of blissed-out love, the rising soufflé that arrives immediately following a wedding. My first wife and I signed up for a tour with Chris’ Bike Adventures, an outfit I’d sourced through our hotel because they allowed clients to descend at their own pace on mountain bikes, rather than while wearing hideous yellow jumpsuits and ridiculous motorcycle helmets and riding one-speed cruisers equipped with drum brakes. Our guides were more priests of empowerment than traffic cops to liability. Chris’ operation was different in another important regard: To allow his clients the freedom I found so attractive, we had start further down the volcano, outside the national park.
Today, following a succession of crashes, all tour companies begin their rides outside the national park. But solo riders, well, solo riders still have unrestricted access to the park’s complement of roads. If you want to descend those whole enchilada, by yourself is the way to do it.
Haleakala is a climb like no other. It is a whopping 36 miles, almost perfect in its unremitting elevation gain, perfect and pure in the way that Great White Sharks are perfect and pure: They eat, swim and make baby sharks. Nothing else. Haleakala goes up and up and up. Nothing else. If you climb Haleakala from Paia (pah-ee-uh), you will ascend some 10,200 feet, starting at sea level. The 8,300-foot Col du Galibier is an also-ran by comparison. Suck it, bitches.
I’ve wanted this day for a very, very long time. And I can say it has satisfied me in a way that very few things have the power to do. It was a kiss to the most existential of joys.
This day is destined to become a feature for peloton magazine. We’re not sure when it will run, but it will run, absolutely. To get a look at just how hard the day is, or if you’d like to judge just how slow I climb (about 40 minutes for every 1000 feet), you can check out my Strava file here. I’ll admit, while I’m almost never in need of a gear bigger than a 50×12, this was a day where I could easily have put a 50×11 to use … maybe even a 53×11, especially if I’d ridden it with a set of Zipp 404s or Enve 67s. And yes, that means I want to come back and do it yet again.
For many things in this world, there’s a bottom line: This one is simple. If ever you have enjoyed riding a bicycle either up or down a hill, Haleakala is an altar to altitude. It is, in my estimation, as imperative on a cyclist’s bucket list as l’Alpe d’Huez or RAGBRAI.
Put another way: GO.
You are moving, but not without pain. Where is this pain coming from? Your back? Your legs? Your mind? You are ashen, gray. This would be apparent if there was a mirror handy, but there is actually nothing handy. You are upright and moving forward and that is all. This is survival mode.
There are many ways to enter survival mode, most of them a result of your own naivete, poor planning or naked hubris. How far is 100 miles? How many is 10,000 climbing feet? How many bottles do I need for this ride? Where will we get food? Did anyone check the weather? These are all questions that presage survival mode.
Sometimes circumstances contrive to take you there. The weather man has a jour sans. Mechanical forces array against you. Road construction disturbs your route.
Uttering the phrase, “I’ll probably be fine,” is what passes for an express ticket to survival mode. You can get there via bonking or crashing, or by simply failing to train up to the level of your aspirations. Here a foolish pride bleeds you dry as your friends chat amiably and you die inside.
In the Spring, on an unseasonably hot day, I showed up for a 70-mile cross “race” on a borrowed bike with one water bottle. Quite what I was thinking, I could not explain to you. It was laughable.
There was nowhere on the course to refill my one bottle. To add to the mirth, I crashed in the first twenty miles, and though it wasn’t a serious spill, the ensuing 50 miles of pounding turned my spine into a length of barbed wire. There was no comfortable position, no possibility of relief out of the saddle, no power to be derived from the muscles of my lower back. As the rest of my team settled into their groove and hammered through the final climbs and trails of the day, I dehydrated, too.
Fortunately, I had been in survival mode before, so when, suddenly, I became enraged about being dropped on an unremarkable hill in the last 15 miles, I knew where I was. Because you get used to pain on the bike, because you become inured to suffering, you sometimes don’t know how badly off you are until you lose control of your emotions.
The best rule for surviving survival mode, if indeed you feel compelled to finish whatever ride you’ve started rather than packing it in as a sane person might, is only to speak when spoken to, and to limit your answers to the barest minimum. In this way, you can keep your pain to yourself and not get it all over your companions.
A few weeks back, a friend of mine found himself in this particular spot of bother at D2R2. An early crash shook him up. Then he had double leg cramps. With over 10,000 feet of vertical gain, this is not a ride you want to cramp on. We spent probably the last 25 miles with him just doing the best we could, hanging back, taking our time. I was impressed with the way he continued to push on each climb. He dug down into some deep reserve, the reserve we all have but seldom are brave enough to access, and he finished.
We often say, here at RKP, that “to suffer is to learn,” but if you’re not careful you can turn that into a pseudo-tough-guy cliche. It’s all well and good to push at your limits, but you’ve also got to pay attention. You have to take the time to learn.
In the most practical sense, you can learn not to make so many stupid mistakes. You can learn to show up on the right bike with the right supplies. You can also learn not to overestimate your abilities. In this way, the more you suffer now, the less you suffer later.
But then, there are other lessons available. I believe there is value in learning to sit with pain, both physical and emotional. Low-blood sugar and dehydration will put you off emotional kilter. They will introduce you to chemically-inspired, irrational rage. The bonk is sometimes called “going to meet the man with the hammer,” but you can also become the man with the hammer, hammering yourself, hammering friends.
There are also the ego-crumpling effects of being the weak link. You feel you’ve let your friends down. Disappointment mingles with shame and anger. It’s a party you’d rather not be on the guest-list for.
A bike ride, though, is logistically insignificant compared to everyday life. Naivete, poor planning and naked hubris don’t confine themselves to in-saddle time. You get stuck in traffic. You pay attention to politics. Someone says something to you that rubs you the wrong way. You get ill. Your kids get ill. Your parents age. Your parents die. You lose friends. So much of it is beyond your control, and so little of it goes to plan. Big events and small distractions. Life on life’s terms. Just like on the bike, you find yourself, occasionally and unforeseeably, in survival mode.
And hopefully, just hopefully, something triggers in your animal brain. You have been here before. You know how to do this. This is practical reality, where riding and life merge and become the same. What you do is no longer an activity, a hobby. It’s a tool for living a better, calmer, more peaceful life. It is a proxy and a simulator, and all you have to do, in survival mode, is just keep rolling.
Follow me on Twitter: @thebicyclerobot
Image: © Matt O’Keefe
I’ve been riding SRAM’s new Red group since mid-May. During that time I’ve had the ability to switch between it and Dura-Ace 7900 and Campagnolo Super Record on a regular basis. I’ve even taken a ride on my ‘cross bike to be reminded of how the previous iteration of Red worked.
In broad strokes, 2012 Red features some noticeable improvements over its predecessor, and I write that as a fan of the original Red group. And when compared to the other mechanical groups, it fares very well. I’m not going to engage in a comparison of Red to either EPS or Di2 because relating mechanical groups to electronic ones makes as much sense as comparing a kiss from Angelina Jolie to one from Jennifer Anniston. I’m sure either will be fine.
A word on weight: I’m not going to dwell on this topic as there is really no need. The new Red group is lighter than the old Red group when taken as a whole; it is also lighter than every other group on the market. Boom. They win. If you buy parts strictly on weight, you needn’t waste your time with reading more of this review. The interesting thing about this Red group is that its weight isn’t the best argument for why to purchase it.
I’ll go component by component and then wrap the review up with my views of it as a whole.
A big key to a snappy front shift is a stiff big chainring. I don’t think I’d understand just how important that is had I not had the occasion to put a chainring made from especially soft aluminum on a crank. The shifting was a disaster. Not only did the teeth bend, but even the ring itself bent. I can say from some experience that the rings on this new, ultra-light crank are distinctly stiffer than its predecessor. Hollow is a serious byword with this crank; both the crank arms are hollow all the way to the spindle and the rings themselves are hollow; that the crank and rings are stiffer than before is counterintuitive. Hiding one of the chainring bolts in the crank arm, a trick Campy has long employed, didn’t hurt any.
The bearings that the spindle rolls on are smoother than a granite countertop; indeed, they are the most freely spinning BB bearings I’ve encountered. Smooth spin aside, I pronate a fair amount and have on occasion rubbed the heels of my shoes on the bolts (or their covers) of a crank; this is a very slim design that leaves plenty of room for shoes to pass.
I had the opportunity to play around with a friend’s bike with 8-speed Dura-Ace recently. Of all the integrated brake/shift levers, I believe it was not only the heaviest, but it placed more mass out ahead of the bar than any other control lever. To switch to the old Dura-Ace and be reminded of just how much the mass of the control levers could affect handling was startling. Red levers, at 280 grams, do more to minimize the amount of mass ahead of the bar than any other control lever. The point here is not that they weigh less, it’s that they affect handling less. With less mass forward of the bar, the bike reacts a bit quicker to steering input and you’re less apt to oversteer.
The four biggest changes to the control lever, at least, in terms of my experience (I accept that SRAM’s engineers may think other changes were bigger/more important) were the size and shape of the lever bump, the circumference of the lever body, the size and position of the shifter paddle and the texturing of the lever hoods.
Making the bump bigger is really only an issue of consequence should you hit a bump or other rough road. With the old levers it was easier to get your hand bounced forward and risk losing any grip on the lever whatsoever; for most of my miles, its size and shape were of no import. However, the decreased circumference of the lever body addressed an issue that many riders with small hands registered some dissatisfaction. The old Red lever body was big, bigger than any of its competitors, though the 7900 Dura-Ace lever body is a good deal larger than its predecessors. I don’t think the previous lever body’s size affected my grip, but the decreased size of the new Red lever body leaves me with the feeling that I’ve got a more secure grip on the lever. Ergonomically, it’s just more comfortable. Adding to my sense of a secure purchase are the new lever hoods with with their newly textured surface are especially helpful on hot days when a sweaty hand needs all the help it can get, and for those who ride with no gloves, this can be a pretty big deal.
Retained from the previous design is the three-position shifter lever adjustment as well as the brake lever throw adjustment. It’s important to adjust the shift lever before you adjust the brake lever, but I really love this feature; it’s nice when I’m in the drops to be able to keep a finger on the brake levers without having to reach. When I think back on how difficult the reach was to my ’80s-era Super Record brake levers, I wonder now how I ever avoided some crashes. There’s no question in my mind that SRAM Red are the best levers for people with small(ish) hands.
The changes to the shift lever are notable because the bigger lever is easier to find at crunch time. No matter how many years I spend on Campy, there are times when I’ve buried the needle and reach for a shift and more than one finger reaches out. On Campy, that’s flat-out not helpful. But the beauty of Red is that the shift action is light enough that you never really need more than one finger. The same rule generally applies to whisky. And it’s worth noting that I haven’t missed a shift (upshifting when I meant to downshift) with this new group. And even though the shifter paddle is larger, the fact that it is positioned further from the shifter body than with the first Red group gives your hands more room when operating the brakes from the hoods; I noticed that with the first Red group I couldn’t keep my pinky and ring finger wrapped around the lever body while braking without the shifter paddle making contact with my fingers; not so bueno. Thankfully, that’s been fixed.
Another feature I like about this lever that was carried over from its predecessor is the small hollow in the lever body beneath the hood where your thumb usually sits when your hands are on the hoods. It provides a little give that increases your comfort whether you’re in or out of the saddle. It doesn’t seem like it should be that big a deal, but the sensation is oddly reassuring.
It is my sincere hope that what I’m about to write I will never find occasion to type a second time: This front derailleur is the single best thing about this group. Getting excited about a front derailleur is okay for a 10-year-old, but as an adult, and one who ought to be at least a bit jaded, this front derailleur isn’t just an improvement over its predecessor, it’s a marked improvement over everything else on the market.
Sheesh. Where to begin? Hold on while I turn up the Lounge Lizards.
Okay, there are three details that make this front derailleur truly superb. First is the fact that it is the first front derailleur I’ve used since the old Dura-Ace 7800 that allows flawless shifts into the big ring during out-of-the-saddle efforts without me steering weird due to the amount of force necessary to execute said shift. On the flip side, I don’t have to ease up on my pedal stroke out of a sense of concern that I might damage the front derailleur or overshift beyond the big chainring. Dura-Ace 7800 was truly the first group that allowed this level of performance and I remember the first time I tried it during the press intro in Switzerland; I immediately realized this was a game changer. But in my experience, Campy front derailleurs from Record and Super Record, with their carbon cages simply haven’t ever achieved this level of consistent performance. I keep hoping, though. And it’s worth taking another look at the crank above. I shot that image this week; you won’t find a single scratch from shifting the chain beyond the big chainring.
Riding on my own, I’d never feel the need to stand up near the top of a hill and drill it, then shift into the big ring while still standing. But it’s just the sort of move I need at least once on every fast group ride I do, this morning being no exception. And while this move works with Dura-Ace 7900, the force required to execute the shift means the shift is never as fast as necessary to make it really smooth, so I always just sit down. Bah.
Let me begin my comments about the Yaw feature of the front derailleur by saying that I’ve never gotten the 7900 front derailleur to allow me to shift into all 10 cogs without some chain drag either in the biggest or smallest cog. I’ve been wrenching on bikes a long damn time and flat-out can’t make it work. I was a bit skeptical that I could do it with the Red derailleur, but the Yaw feature—that is, the fact that the front derailleur twists slightly when it shifts from the little ring to the big ring, optimizing chain line—is what allows this front derailleur to have a relatively slim cage and yet have drag-free operation in all 10 cogs. I won’t lie; it took a lot of fiddling even beyond the instructions, but it does work.
The third feature of this derailleur that I love (aside from the fact that the set screws accept 2.5mm Allen wrenches—why is no one else doing this?) is the integrated chain keeper. The fact that you install it after you have set the derailleur up is terrific and it can be set up in less than a minute is terrific. I checked the other day and it may be essentially unnecessary on the standard crank, though. There isn’t a single scratch from scraping the chain along its polished aluminum surface.
At first look the most noticeable feature of the rear derailleur is how freely the jockey wheels spin thanks to the ceramic bearings in them. It’s hardly the derailleur’s best feature, though it is good. The cable routing is ultra-clean and has been designed in a way that even a ham- or pastrami-fisted mechanic can’t get it wrong. And as you’ll notice from this image (click on it if you want to see it even larger), you can trim the cable so that there’s no excess sticking out. Like the front derailleur, the set screws accept 2.5mm Allen keys and the set screws are on the face of the derailleur so they are easy to access.
I’ve appreciated just how little cable tension is necessary for SRAM drivetrains to achieve proper adjustment. They seem far less finicky than some of the other drivetrains I’ve worked on over the years. That said, this rear derailleur works better with the Red cassette than it does with a Dura-Ace one; for reasons I never could figure out, I had to increase the cable tension by more than a full turn to get a Dura-Ace cassette to work with this group. In the end, it just never performed as well as the Red cassette.
Between the control lever, this derailleur and the (soon to be discontinued) Gore cables that come standard with this drivetrain, shift force is lighter than the facts found in most political speeches. And I write that having used this drivetrain with a Specialized Tarmac SL4, a bike that features internal cable routing, routing that has proven not to be as smooth in operation as that of its predecessor, the Tarmac SL3.
I’ve heard a few derisive cracks about the rubber bands in the Red cassette. Yeah, whatever. I can say that this is the quietest mechanical group I’ve ever used, thanks in no small part to the elastomers that ring the cassette body. That’s notable considering that previously the Red group was the noisiest group on the planet due to the cassette, which rang like a church bell with each shift. What I’ve found particularly intriguing about the elastomers and the new teeth shapes was SRAM’s claim that the chain now has a smoother movement between cogs, the upshot being that less lube gets slung off the chain with each shift. I wondered about this claim until I had a chance to check it out. It’s pretty sandy where I live and ride, even if you’re not on the beach bike path. If my bike’s chain dries out during a ride and I forget to lube it before my next ride what usually happens is this: I’ll begin the ride with only a bit of chain noise, but by the end of the ride, the chain will be squeaking like door hinges. For three days running I’ve been too tapped on time to lube the chain on the Tarmac and the chain has kept up a steady but meek squeak. It has yet to get louder; maybe there’s another reason why—I’ve yet to do a double-blind study—but my forgetfulness should have resulted in a much more unpleasant screech by now. I think they may be onto something with this new cassette design.
Currently, the new cassette is available in four ranges: 11-23, 11-25, 11-26 and 11-28.
The new Red brakes remind me of Shimano’s first dual-pivot calipers from the 8-speed Dura-Ace group (7600), back in the early ’90s. Until I actually saw them move, I really couldn’t imagine how they operated. That little black arm with the cable anchor bolt looks like it’s part of the front caliper arm, but it’s not. It’s a separate arm that moves on its own pivot in order to articulate the movement of the right arm. As the calipers close, it swings toward the arm holding the barrel adjuster on a tighter radius than it would were it just part of the front caliper arm. And while I’ve done my best to try to describe its operation, I respect even that might not help someone visualize just how this brake works.
Even if you can’t quite picture it, here’s what’s important: Brake response with these calipers is very progressive. Touch the brakes to scrub a little speed when you’re in the group and that’s all that happens; it’s not a particularly grabby brake at first. But get into a descent and you can go whoa to dime without feeling like you’re going to break the levers off.
Let me add that the pad holders you see on these brakes are not the standard Red brake block holders. These are holding a set of Zipp pads and I use holders because they are pretty easy to both install and remove pads. They ain’t pretty, but they work well.
I really love this group. And while I grant that the head-turning speed of an electronic group has an undeniable attraction, a kind of ethereal beauty like a rainbow seen during a shower, there’s a simplicity to making a mechanical group work that never gets old for me. From the ergonomics of the levers to the industrial design that sees little cues show up in the art for each of the components, to the incredible polish put on parts like the derailleurs and even the plating on those metal parts that aren’t polished (and haven’t rusted in the salt air where I live), this group was incredibly well-thought-out. Heck, it took a lot of thought and creativity to remove so much weight from this group and yield a collection of parts that not only weigh less but work better.
Do I have any criticisms? Yes, but there are only two: I’d love an 11th cog, but I respect that making a mechanical group shift well with 130mm spacing and 11 cogs is nearly as difficult as climbing l’Alpe d’Huez in 40 minutes. My other criticism also regards the cassette: Why can’t SRAM offer a cassette that begins with a 12t cog? Selling a group with a 50×11 high gear sends a funny message to a great many riders who have neither big mountains nearby nor the ability to crank out a sprint at 40 mph. What gives? A 12-28 cassette is a fantastically handy device. And what if your drivetrain included 53 and 39 chainrings? How many of us who aren’t carrying a Cat. 1 or 2 license can make use of a 53×11 gear? The only time I use it is on a handful of descents; even then, only briefly. With the riding I most like to do, a 12-28 cassette would be a very welcome addition; as a result, I choose a different bike for my hilliest rides.
It’s funny, in many ways the 2012 Red group is my favorite group on the market, but that lack of more cassette selection plays a real role in how I choose what bike to ride on a day-to-day basis. I wish it weren’t so. A great many riders won’t experience the issues I face, but many, many others are going to purchase a bike with a top gear that—while they’ll be more than happy to shift into any time they’re going relatively fast—they really won’t be able wind that gear out to make the best use of it.
Maybe one day they’ll add a few more cassettes. Once they do, this will be without reservation the best group on the market.