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.