Over the course of the SRAM 22 launch, we went for three rides. Because the product intro was being held in Westlake Village, just north of the eastern-most portion of the Santa Monica Mountains, I’d either know the roads we were riding intimately, or at least be familiar with them. While I was pleased not to be terribly far from my family, I was trying to figure out if the marketing team were geniuses or gamblers for picking this location. That I had that reaction surprised me; I’ve written on several occasions that if you really want to prove that a road product works, you ought to spend some time testing it in the Santa Monicas. I have been serious about that. However, there’s a big difference between doing testing and having the worldwide launch for your product over those roads.
On our first ride, I rode a Specialized S-Words Roubaix SL4 equipped with Red 22 and mechanical brakes. What I’ve noticed about 11-speed groups is that you lose track of just how many cogs you have; you lose track of your place in the cassette. Why 11 cogs is harder to keep track of than 10, I can’t say, but I’ve noticed for myself that there’s rarely an occasion when I don’t have at least one more cog in either direction. There is nothing else to report about this group. Doing the ride was, for me, simply an opportunity to have an immediate reminder of what braking is like with the mechanical Red brakes. The reminder was mostly superfluous for me; I’d ridden the group (with 10 speeds, mind you) just the day before.
On our second ride I had the opportunity to ride the Cannondale SuperSix EVO with the Hydro R—hydraulic rim brakes. I expect you’ll see steel builders making bikes to accommodate this before the week is out. The brake has gobs of clearance (that’s a technical term meaning so much more than your typical dual-pivot caliper that it’s visually noticeable); think ‘cross tire clearance. It’s worth mentioning that the bike was equipped with Zipp 202 Firecrest Carbon Clinchers. Anyone who has ever held the sweeping belief that you can’t achieve enough braking force with carbon wheels will be amazed by what’s possible with these brakes and carbon wheels. Rolling around the parking lot to make sure my saddle height and reach were more or less correct, I hit the brakes a few times just to get a feel for how quickly the power ramped up and how the bike would react to a panic-y grab. With my hands only on the hoods, I felt more power than on any other road bike I’d ever ridden.
I actually said, “Wow.”
As company for our rides SRAM brought in Tim Johnson and Allison Tetrick as ride leaders. Tim was terrific at keeping the group orderly—unsurprising given his work in advocacy, while Allison proved to be even funnier in person than she was on the Road I.D. commercials with cycling’s favorite buffoon, Bob Roll. Having them along for our rides was a nice touch.
Out on the road, in braking for stop signs and lights, I noticed nothing unusual. The experience of the new brake wasn’t so startling that I needed to recalibrate my grip. Honestly, that was my biggest concern, that all braking on this bike would be like trying to slice an apple with a meat cleaver. That delicate ability to scrub speed to maintain a two- or three-foot distance from the rider in front of me remained intact.
There’s a descent into Westlake Village that is among the diciest in the Santa Monicas. It’s called Westlake Road and to my knowledge it has the single steepest pitch in all of the Santa Monicas. The road pitches downward at an incredible 20 percent. But because the road in that spot twists like some ridiculous gag in a Road Runner cartoon, riders don’t have a chance to build up lethal speed like you can on, say, Tuna Canyon. Our return for the second and third rides was down that road.
Here’s where I need to admit that my descending skills are still in reboot. I’m pretty much back to normal on the easy stuff, stuff in Palos Verdes I know well. But I still wear a skirt to all the descents in the Santa Monicas. I’d been down Westlake a couple of times in the past. Due to its location and the fact that I generally ride from the South Bay, descending that road puts the Santa Monicas between me and 50-some miles to home. All this is to say that I knew the road just well enough to know it required caution. Hell, the first time I ever descended it I managed to brake just hard enough to cause my rear wheel slide a bit. And so when I dropped into that descent, I did so with nearly all the trepidation of someone with a shellfish allergy about to chow down on a bucket of shrimp. That I was on a bike with even more powerful brakes than the one I was on during my first trip down that road was like adding interest to my tax bill.
Insert giant, sarcastic, “Hooray!”
Nothing against the folks at SRAM, mind you. I felt I had an obligation to show up with my faculties new-pencil sharp, and I was embarrassed not to be there yet. There was an upshot, though; my reticence to dive into each turn meant that I was braking with the deliberate “Whoa!” of a camper emerging from a tent who sees a bear. And that is kinda what this product was all about—the whoa.
There’s no denying that the Hydro rim brake had more power than any brake on a road bike I’d ever encountered. While I was diving into turns with thrill-inducing speed, I still tried to wait as late as possible to do my braking and then brake with a brief, firm arrest. Never once did I break a tire free.
For our final ride I moved to the new Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL4 with the Hyrdo disc brakes. This was the bike of which I was most skeptical, because it was the bike that had required more re-engineering than just a new routing of a rear brake line. The Roubaix featured an all-new fork and rear triangle in order to accommodate the disc clearance and the change in the distribution of braking forces. Rolling those discs was a pair of the new Zipp 303 Firecrest Carbon Clinchers and they were shod with some 25mm-wide Continentals. On the already wide rims of the 303s, the tires looked like they were 28mm wide.
My first concern when I climbed on was pad retraction. There was no rubbing of pads. My next concern as I rolled around the parking lot was whether I would be able to brake lightly enough to scrub speed the way I sometimes need to in the pack without applying too much power. With a feathery touch of the levers, I was able to take the sharp edge off any velocity. And the rest of those concerns?
“Oh, the hell with them,” I thought. “Let’s just go ride the damn thing.”
I did my best to forget about the bike and just ride it. Admittedly, that wasn’t exactly easy to do. The control lever has an oddly square shape to the bottom of the body; it’s not as comfortable to hold as the lever hoods on the mechanical Red and, worse in my mind, there’s no adjustment for lever throw, so I had to adjust to reaching a bit further to the brake levers. Not my fave. These are two features that need improving in the future, but are by no means deal-breakers.
Our first real descent was down Potrero Canyon. I braked a bit at the top to let the group go. That gave me a chance to read the road better and not feel like my uncertainty with the bike was going to mess with anyone else’s ride. The more I concentrated on the terrain and my line, the better able I was to forget about the brakes, but there were any number of turns (I’m guessing we’re talking at least a dozen) where the brake power was just too conspicuous to Ninja past. These are the most powerful brakes I’ve ever encountered on a road bike. No contest. Period. Full stop. End of discussion.
By the time I’d reached the bottom of the descent, the question on my mind wasn’t whether or not this stuff worked, it was how much re-learning was going to be required to make optimal use of the brakes. My concern for more braking power than is necessary was dismissed with the flip of a hand you reserve for a bad waiter. The guys at SRAM tried to sell me on the idea that my hands wouldn’t fatigue as much on descents. That didn’t sell me. The only times my hands have gotten tired from braking I was on a mountain bike. That said, I can recall occasions on certain descents in the Santa Monicas where I had had concerns for being able to sufficiently slow the bike from 40+ miles per hour to make it through the next turn. But that memory and how these brakes would affect that situation didn’t come to me until after I’d finished the ride on the Roubaix and made it down the intestinal Westlake where I would brake once with the determined grip required to squeeze a lime over an al pastor taco. Mmm. Where were we?
It was after I was down Westlake and back to the hotel that I began to appreciate just what’s possible with those brakes. I never once broke a tire loose and believe me, I was often braking harder than was necessary. The lesson here for me is that there is a wide delta between how much braking power our bikes have and what is truly required to break a tire loose—provided your bike is under proper control. There’s a fair learning curve between my brief experience with these brakes and really making optimal use of them. And anyone who purchases a bike with these brakes will need two skill sets, the first being how to make full use of their remarkable abilities and the second being understanding how to apply them as if they were using mechanical brakes so that when they are riding in a group they don’t wear another rider like a cape because they over-braked in a turn. A half-dozen of these in a group of 30 riders could spell mayhem.
I don’t see the need for these brakes for anyone who lives someplace flat and never takes in dirt roads. There’s just no need. But for anyone in the mountains, I have to admit these brakes will increase a rider’s control. I’m not yet sure how hard it will be to transition from a bike with mechanical brakes to hydraulic discs and back again, but I suspect it won’t be as simple as moving from SRAM shifting to Dura-Ace and back again, but that’s a skill set anyone with multiple bikes would need to work on.
I didn’t expect to say this, but I want more time on a Roubaix with Hydro D. A lot more time.
It had to happen.
Not that the 2013 Boston Marathon had to be ruined by the acts of one or more sociopaths who do qualify for George W. Bush’s term “evildoers,” but an act of this genus and species was inevitable. Attacking a sporting event in the United States was—to use a cliche—bound to happen sometime. Let’s be honest, the idea had been out there since 1977 when the Robert Shaw and Bruce Dern thriller “Black Sunday” opened in theaters. In the film, Dern, a blimp pilot aids a terrorist group (back when they were disaffected Europeans) by constructing an explosive device that attaches to the bottom of his blimp, which is scheduled for camera work at the Super Bowl.
For aspiring terrorists with a short memory, the idea got a reboot in 1991 with the Tom Clancy novel “The Sum of All Fears” in which a dirty bomb—a nuclear weapon that doesn’t go critical and instead sprays radioactive material over a few square miles—is detonated at (you guessed it) the Super Bowl.
The business of terrorism has been something like a game of chess. Someone attacks a Federal building in Oklahoma City. We surround all Federal buildings with bollards. Several someones fly planes into buildings. We up security at airports. Someone sets their shoe on fire on a plane. We all take our shoes off at the security checkpoint in the airport. They move a pawn, we move a pawn. The important lesson is, they never move the same pawn to the same square twice.
What it suggests is that whoever these people are, what they don’t lack (we can debate why they lack a moral compass and empathy until the next election) is creativity. That’s what makes them so dangerous.
When I was in high school I worked as a concessioner, selling hot dogs from an aluminum box with Sterno in it. I did this at the Liberty Bowl, the football stadium in Memphis, Tennessee. One night, as a game drew to a close, I found myself standing just outside the press box, next to a paramedic who was on duty for the football game. One of the sportswriters heading out got to talking with him and when the paramedic told him there’d been two heart attacks and one knife fight, the journalist responded with surprise. That’s when the paramedic said something I’ll never forget. He said, “Think about it; you put 60,000 people together and these things are bound to happen.”
I think the Super Bowl has never been attacked because at this point fights at lesser events have been too prevalent. The Super Bowl is too obvious a target; security is too high to be worth the trouble.
But what of events that are run over open roads?
The Boston Marathon is arguably the closest thing the U.S. has to the Tour de France. Even so, it’s broadcast to a fraction of the households that the Tour de France or even Paris-Roubaix is.
To be sure, France’s national pastime has seen its share of disruptions. From farmers protesting to Basque bombs—hell, the riders themselves!—the Tour has seen a variety of pissed-off people use its spectacle to garner attention for their causes. And that’s the important distinction—those people wanted to be heard, they wanted a place at the table, had something to negotiate. However, those behind the biggest acts of terrorism here in the U.S. weren’t looking for a dialog. They were simply acts to hurt others and inspire fear. Because initially we didn’t know who was responsible for any of the incidents and as a result didn’t know either if they were more acts to come or what the motivation was, the acts—the explosions, the murders, the families torn apart, the destruction—accomplished boatloads of both hurt and fear.
I can’t help but think about Lance Armstrong and the force field of body guards he used to travel with when he was King of le Tour. He claimed to have received threats. Because Armstrong’s life has been built on so many fictions, we can’t know if that was true or just part of the myth that was constructed. However, it doesn’t matter. Would I have been disappointed had religious extremists made Armstrong the target of an attack? Of course. Would I have been surprised? Given the way he embodies a particular image of America, not in the least.
It may be that the Tour and other races have so far escaped these most random of terrorist acts for the simple reason that it is not an American event. But that doesn’t mean that we should expect it will always escape the gaze of those who look to disrupt our lives. At a certain point the ease of access, the size of the crowds and the TV viewership make the Tour de France a more than obvious target. I’m reminded of that Far Side cartoon that goes “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal.” This is no laughing matter, of course. As much as I’m concerned for the welfare of the riders, my greater concern is for those who wish to witness the spectacle. I’ve been to a great many sporting events in my life, but I’ve not witnessed anything that left me feeling as simultaneously breathless and alive as the Tour de France. It’s something every cyclist should see, the absolute #1 bucket-list item for anyone who has ever been inspired by anyone who went fast on two wheels.
Now, I have to be concerned about taking my boys to the Tour. Well doesn’t that just suck large-scale ass.
Boston is a city that has seen share of dark days. It has all the ills of any big city and while only one war was ever fought in its streets, the sons of Boston have fought in every war Americans have waged: 1812, Civil, WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Iraq again and Afghanistan.
But Boston has never been a symbol loss or the problems of society. When we utter the word Boston, what comes to mind for most people is the birthplace of democracy, a place where I new idea about what freedom really meant, how society could be re-imagined. Name another place on earth where a notion of hope did more to rebut tyranny than in Boston. It has a history marked by attracting greatness, as exemplified by serving as the home to one of the greatest centers of learning, Harvard University. And because Merlin Metalworks, Fat City Cycles, Independent Fabrication, Seven Cycles (just to name a few) have all called Boston home, it is the de facto spiritual center of cycling not just for New England, but all of the East Coast.
Boston will heal.
But where will they strike next?
Sometimes we ride for community. Sometimes we ride to escape.
Our kids ride out of love and wonder.
After a day spent cheering the Boston Marathon’s athletes at mile 16 with friends, we returned home to our quiet street in our neighborhood well outside the city.
“Ride bikes?” said my three-year-old daughter, hopped up on enough orange slices, potato chips and fruit juice to tackle the Cauberg.
What kind of cycling parent can say no, particularly to a girl who the day before began riding a bike without training wheels? I’ve stood watch over her older sister riding in front of our house during the middle of winter, harping about slippery ice and slippery road grit. And still she would ride until her fingers ached and turned red.
“Of course!” I said.
The car wasn’t even unloaded before she was being launched down the road. One moment my hand was firmly on the cheap white vinyl of her princess bike’s seat. The next I feel that distinct loss of contact as she is on her own.
This was one of the best weekends of my life. It was also one of the worst.
A few minutes later our neighbor across the street quietly mentioned there were two explosions downtown near the marathon’s finish line.
My thoughts raced to our friends who should be finishing right at that moment. I contrived to dash inside to check in with my wife, and then helped my 3-year old get back on her bike.
Up and down the street she rode, me a step behind. The steady tattoo of my footfalls betrayed my anxiety. I ran ready to pounce in order to protect her from her own inattention or a careless driver or a curb. I know there is so much I can’t protect either of my girls from, no matter how well they learn to ride their bikes. We can’t protect our friends either.
My oldest daughter and I spent the weekend practicing leaving skid marks on the dirt path along the Charles River. She can handle her bike. But can I handle her world?
There is a particular nausea when listening to your first-grade daughter recount her first lockdown drill at grade school. Legs pressed to her chest, nose buried between her knees, all on display at the dining room table as she unconsciously recreated the posture that I know could be a final position.
She recounts the boys who didn’t listen and the teacher who secured the classroom door while the local police involved in the drill rattled the handle to see if it could offer protection against the unspeakable.
In the coming days many of us will turn to our bikes for solace, for comfort and for strength. Ride together. Ride with your kids and let their joy, as they bat away stray hair with one hand and confidently hold the handlebar with the other, steel your nerves and warm your heart.
This past weekend I joined a number of my colleagues in Westlake Village, California, for the introduction of a number of new products from SRAM. There was a lot on offer, more than they could cover in a two-hour presentation at Sea Otter, hence the get-together. We got to ride much of the new stuff hitting the market and in an environment suited to the mission. I’ll get to the riding in a minute; first, a list.
So SRAM introduced the following:
- An upgrade of the popular Red group to 11-speed
- A revamped Force group with hoods shaped like those in Red and an 11-speed cassette
- Hydraulic rim brakes
- Zipp 303s with discs
- Hydraulic disc brakes for Red
While I did pick up the new Force parts to check them out, I didn’t have the chance to ride them, so all I really feel qualified to do—other than regurgitate the press release—is to tell you that group will hit the market soon and the suggested retail on the group will be $1358, about half of Red 22′s $2618 price tag. According to the company’s scales, the refined group will come in at 2150 grams, putting it in the neighborhood, weight-wise, with Chorus and Dura-Ace 7900, making the Force group a notable value, at least on paper.
For mechanical Red, the only significant change is the addition of an 11th cog. So why is SRAM making a big deal about calling this group 22-speed? It goes to their assertion that users will have a true 22 speeds even without the presence of a trimable front derailleur. Shimano went in the other direction with their new 9000-series Dura Ace. The wide spread on an 11-speed cassette is going to demand a very carefully adjusted front derailleur to avoid chain rub in the big and small cogs, no matter which chainring the chain is on.
As a more practical matter, because SRAM continues to start every flippin’ Red cassette with an 11t cog, the addition of another cog means that all the cassettes (save the 11-32 WiFLi) now sport a 16t cog. It’s nice having that 16, but if they’d offer a 12-26 and a 12-28, you’d then have the 16 and an 18. I’m willing to wager all the beer in Yankee Stadium that nine out of 10 cyclists would use an 18t cog far more than they use an 11. As to the 11-32 WiFLi cassette, an 11th cog there gives the the very noticeable addition of a 14t cog. In the past, when I rode the 10-speed Red with an Apex rear derailleur and the 11-32 cassette, I can tell you that the jump from the 15 to the 13 felt like I’d over-shifted with an Ergo lever. It was a big jump.
Mechanical Red remains the lightest complete group on the market, at a claimed weight of 1747g.
When I first arrived at our host location, I wasn’t sure just what I would see, other than 11 cogs. So I walked over to the NRS tents to see what the mechanics were up to. It was there that I noticed one of the mechanics bleeding a hydraulic brake system. From a road lever.
This would be the spot in the program where it’s a good idea for me to back up and remind everyone that I have written previously about just how skeptical I am of the need and utility of hydraulic brakes, particularly hydraulic discs, on road bikes. Honestly, I when I noticed what was afoot, I was a bit surprised that Michael Zellmann, the head of road PR for SRAM, had invited me. I mean, this was like pitching Dura-Ace to a guy who’d inherited his love of Campy from his dad. I do my best to be open-minded, but at every turn I had questions about just what sort of solution hydraulic discs offered.
Let’s recap those concerns, shall we?
- If you boil your brake fluid on a descent, your brakes can fail.
- Generally, you want the bike to offer some vertical flex at the dropouts; disc brakes would demand beefing up the fork and stays.
- Many mountain bike disc brake system offer poor modulation. Road bike brakes need to offer great modulation.
- Pad retraction is an issue on many mountain bike brake systems. Roadies won’t put up with rubbing brakes.
- Disc brakes won’t improve a bike’s aerodynamics.
- The hydraulic lines will require working hand-in-glove with manufacturers to offer suitable frames.
- There isn’t enough room in control levers to add a master cylinder.
- It’ll make the bike heavier. Roadies are allergic to heavier.
Last summer, I went for a ride with Brent Graves, the head of road product for Specialized. We discussed disc brakes quite a bit. It was hard not to detect his enthusiasm. So I posed each of my concerns to him. Damn that guy, he came back with the same answer each time.
“It’s an engineering issue,” he’d say with the confidence of a pilot who’s flown to Tokyo once a week for 10 years. “It’s just engineering.”
At that point I realized I should probably just shut up and wait to see what happens. What I didn’t know (because he didn’t tell me) was that he was already riding a disc-brake-equipped prototype of the Specialized Roubaix. What he did tell me was that I could expect to see hydraulic discs on road bikes at a variety of price points perhaps as early as 2015, but certainly by 2016.
Then it was me again with the skepticism. And then, damn his intelligence, he noted that every time there had been a significant shift in the market, it had begun with the curiosity of innovators and early adopters—the bleeding edge—and then as the idea caught on, refinement of the technology to make it both affordable and palatable to the masses.
Did someone just say iPhone?
Because not all bike companies will begin developing a frame to accept the disc brakes immediately and also because even by their own admission hydraulic discs won’t be right for all applications, SRAM is offering a hydraulic rim brake. Terminology-wise, they are referring to the class of products as “Hydro R” to denote hydraulic road. The disc brake is HRD, while the rim brake is HRR. As you can tell from the photos, the master cylinder is located in the inflamed thyroid of the lever bump. Let it be said that no one will ever be able to complain about the bump on SRAM road levers being too small any more.
Specialized is actively spec’ing a Roubaix with the discs and Cannondale has a version of the SuperSix EVO with the hydraulic calipers. This is no longer bleeding edge, this is leading edge.
So that’s the what. In my next post I’ll cover my experience of actually riding each of the options with Red 22: mechanical, HRR and then HRD.
I had the good fortune to meet Carlton Reid last summer at the industry event Press Camp. Carlton is the executive editor of the English trade publication Bike Biz and the editor for BikeHub.co.uk. Bike Biz is a terrific publication that features more Euro-centric bike industry news, making it a great alternative to Bicycle Retailer and Industry News. For those who really want to know what’s going on inside the bike biz, they are indispensable reading. His other publication, BikeHub is aimed at newer riders; as someone who has written extensively for beginning cyclists, I really appreciate what he does with the site.
Carlton has a Kickstarter campaign for a cycling history book, called “Roads Were Not Build for Cars.” While I can’t offer a review as I haven’t read the book yet, I can say that I was intrigued enough that I decided to pledge my support for it. What I know of it is that Carlton examines the history of roads and cycling’s contribution to road building and automotive history. And it’s not just a U.K.-centric book. He examines the early roads built by Romans as well as American roads and the influence of automotive titans like Henry Ford.
Carlton has a light and witty style of writing, which I’m sure will make this a pleasant read. And next time you’re in polite company discussing what a nuisance bikes are to traffic and the proper movement of people, this will surely give you some fun talking points, though it seems cyclists never win these debates.
Pledge amounts have been strong enough to allow the project to hit some stretch goals. He recently commissioned a graphic for his play on a Monty Python bit, “The Motorist’s Front of Judea.” The joke might require a brief refresher on the Pythons’ “Life of Brian.”
My gut says this book isn’t for every cyclist, but I bet it’s right up the alley of RKP readers. If you’re interested, act quickly, the campaign only has five days to go.
When I was in fifth grade, I got the flu the week of my birthday. I missed the party my class would have held for me and only strayed—woozily—from the couch to head to the kitchen for more orange juice. On my birthday, my mom headed out in the morning to do some shopping; little did I know she was shopping for me. She returned home and began presenting me with gifts to open. Perhaps she took the time to wrap them; that part of my memory washed away with the fever.
That song single-handedly delivered me from my malaise. In its opening chords the song’s mood promised much, a triumphal chest-beating celebration. I had no idea who Susan B. Anthony was or the meaning of the term suffragette, but the energy of the song did not escape me. Within a day I was asking myself how I had survived 11 whole years without that song.
The very best things in life have the same quality to make you wonder just how you would manage in their absence. Refrigerators, toilet paper, the quick release, the best inventions have done more than just make life easier, they make us wonder how we’d get by without them.
Ladies and gentlemen, I submit Shimano’s Dura-Ace 9000, a group I do not wish to live without.
Many of your are pausing in the middle of this sentence to go back and re-read my last statement for obvious reasons. I might as well have just switched not just political parties, but from bleeding-heart liberal to sovereign citizen. I am truly a hardened-in-die fan of Campagnolo. I still save my Campy boxes, much to my wife’s chagrin. And I’ve welcomed the incredible work that SRAM has done in re-thinking how road components can function, not to mention starting from scratch in design and manufacturing.
Backpedaling complete, 9000 is the group we have all wanted ever since we started riding. Srsly. It’s got more cogs than your Schwinn Varsity had gears. It’s as easy to shift as it is to flick the turn indicator on your car. Chain movement is as smooth and flawless as the action of a doorknob. There are as many cassette choices as there are flavors of bagel at a Jewish deli. Brake action is light as a page of a book and easier to modulate than the temper of a toddler.
I submit: What’s not to like?
To be sure, this group isn’t new in the sense of heretofore nonexistent features; it’s a refinement of existing ideas, but sometimes that’s the space from which the best products emerge.
Unfortunately, the best way to frame the excellence of this group is by comparing it to its predecessor and competitors. If you rode the previous iteration of Dura-Ace (7900), think of all that you didn’t like about that group. Front derailleur shifts required a concerted effort accompanied by audible grunt. Rear shifts were easier, but still required a bit of forethought if you were going au bloc. Then there was the blocky shape to the levers. They weren’t difficult to grab, but their contours weren’t something you’d want to hold all day. Brake action might have been invented by Bill Gates in its binary, 0 or 1, on or off action. Modulation? What modulation?
The heart of any component group is its shifting. Get the shifting right and many people will overlook other flaws like flexing crank arms or chain rings, weak brakes or short-lived cassettes and chains. 9000 features the lightest shift action of any group I’ve used, including the new Red group and the precision of each shift exceeds that of Campagnolo’s Super Record group. There’s still some play in the lever before you begin up- or down-shifts, but because lever throw has been cut by 30 percent and the action is so light, it no longer bothers me. The 9000 group also sets a new standard for out-of-the-saddle shifts from small chainring to big. Honestly, the only other group that has performed nearly this well on that particular shift is the old 7800 group.
Also worth noting on the front shifting is the return of shifter trim and how it’s executed. The 7900 front shifter lacked trim and I never, ever got it set up perfectly for even one day; I really welcome trim. When downshifting from big ring to small, the shifter returns the front derailleur only part way; this offers two benefits. First is that the gears it makes immediately available without rub are the middle and high cogs of the cassette. It also prevents the chain from being dropped off the small ring without the aid of a chain catcher. I can attest to never having dropped the chain even once while riding this group.
For those of you who, like me, adjusted the lever throw for non-NBA-player-like hands, you’ll welcome the new design to the lever face which eliminates that slack-jawed look caused by the adjuster screw. It also eliminates the dirt-intake the lever opening created. You’ll notice that the hoods are two different colors; the light gray is a softer durometer material giving you a better grip, especially if you ride with no gloves. Best of all, the ergonomics of the new hood and lever body top anything Shimano previously offered. I’ve often struggled to decide just which previous design was my favorite. The 9-speed Ultegra featured one of my favorite lever bodies, but the 9000 has a smaller hood circumference, making it easier to grip with gloves or without, even if your hands are July-in-New Orleans sweaty.
Shimano claims that with their new polymer-coated cables front shift action is now 43-percent easier and rear shifting action is 47-percent easier, practically half the force required to shift as the previous group. Is that absolutely accurate? I wonder, but only because I suspect that the last 7900 group I rode probably didn’t work even as well as they claim it should have. I possess this generous suspicion that the improvement in shift action is more like 100 percent. Whatever the numbers are, the upshot is how I find myself shifting far more often than I used to.
Shimano is offering five cassette choices: 11-23, 11-25, 11-28, 12-25 and 12-28. That they have resisted the urge to offer nothing but cassettes that begin with an 11t cog had me doing a little happy dance in my garage (cue the Vince Guaraldi). The reality of the strength of the average cyclist is that an 50 x 11 gear is too big to effectively use. A 53 x 11? Yeah, and I play Peter Sagan in my dreams. There’s a comically contradictory effect to giving mortals like us a 50t chainring to create more usable gears while in the big ring, but then sticking an 11 on the end of the cassette. What the maker giveth, he taketh away.
Now, if they’d just offer a 12-23 for all that time spent on the flat lands.
When Oakley introduced the M-Frame and Heater lens in the early ’90s, I recoiled from them the way I do from slugs and flesh-eating bacteria. At some point I realized I couldn’t live without my own pair of slugs, I mean Heaters. I’m not sure what happened. I have this suspicion there will come a day when I have the same affinity for this crank set, but I delight in reporting that day has yet to arrive. I detest the look of those cranks, particularly the asymmetrical spider, which carries all the grace of a boxy pedal stroke.
Toothless hooker looks aside, Shimano deserves credit for offering the cranks in seven (7!) lengths—from 165 to 180mm in 2.5mm increments—and six ring configurations—50/34t, 52/36t, 52/38t, 53/39t, 54/42t and 55-42t. Whew.
It’s worth mentioning that the ginormous parallelogram of the front derailleur demands that the cable be trimmed manscape short, unless of course you want that cable end brushing your calf every time you shift into the big ring. So good is this group that all that’s left to complain about is the look of the crank and how much you trim the cables.
At 1978 grams, this group is heavier than Super Record and Red. That ought to be the sort of third-place finish to make me rethink my interest in the group, but it’s not. The weights are so close that the group’s ease of use is not only enough for me to want this on every bike I own, it’s enough to make wonder why Shimano even bothers with a Di2 version. Yeah, the shifting is that good.
Years from now there will probably come a day of reckoning, a point at which I’ll realize just how much Shimano got wrong in this group. I eventually came to recognize how nearly every song on Band on the Run was just hacked up reggae, but I enjoyed 30 years of adoration for that album until I wised up.
On October 10, 2012, I went for a bike ride. Nothing in that is unusual. Most days of each week I go for a bike ride. This particular ride wouldn’t really be worth noting at all were it not for the memorable feeling I had as I dropped down the south face of the Santa Monica Mountains. I felt the greatest sense of my and my bike’s limits, though that’s not what I was thinking about as I dove past some friends and held my braking fingers at bay.
The populace usually refer to the practitioners of any sport where agility—that curious combination of physical skill and crystalline judgment—is all that prevents raw velocity from ending in a sudden, careening explosion—think windmill in a tornado—adrenaline junkies. I can say from considerable experience that phrase is only half wrong, but the half that is wrong misses like getting on the Chicago train when your destination is New Orleans. I’ve had something of an addiction to dropping down mountains as if I was water in a river rushing out of the mountains. Nothing else in my life matches that sense of grace that washes over me, and that has to do with how the “adrenaline” part of adrenaline junkie is so wrong.
Adrenaline isn’t something you want to feel.
That’s the fight or flight response. It’s the taste of a 9-volt battery in your mouth, a sensation that every time encountered has been accompanied by fear. It is absolutely the physical presence of fear itself. Only a masochist would go in search of it.
What was washing over me as swung through turns tight enough to slow a good-sized sedan to idle was a soup of neurochemicals that kill pain, convince us we’re in love and turn the world brighter and more beautiful for as long as we concentrate. That sense of joy tempered by calm, a place for which I can conjure no image to remind us.
And then, in a turn in which I thought I would deliver the correct answer finally—for the first time ever—a place where my knowledge of the road, my control and the limits of the tires’ adhesion came together in what was to be a flourish at the end of a signature, well …
I rolled over some paint and my rear tire did a little mambo.
I have, on some occasions, permitted myself to play back the way things went wrong at that moment, how I steered into the turn and regained control of the bike to keep it upright but misjudged my ability to go off-road at that speed and thus flyswattered my face into loose dirt and gravel. On a very few occasions I’ve allowed myself to try to play out how things might have gone had I taken any action other than what I did. Of course, it’s all guesswork; cyclists fall and break shoulders when they figure it could have been a collarbone, they pick up a couple of gashes and no road rash in a slide, or as I did, tenderize and remove my chin when I thought I’d send a bowling ball through a styrofoam cooler. Still, in my imagination, all the other options, all the other ways I imagine that event could have played out end with me either spinning or sliding on the asphalt at 30 mph. My gut says I got off easy.
By easy, I mean that to everyone who isn’t me, all that was required to set me right was the skill (and thread) of one very artful plastic surgeon, a guy better known for making lips bigger not smaller, as he did in my case.
I’d trade one good Harrison Ford-like scar if he could have repaired the stuff on the inside as well.
Weeks later, my stepfather, Bryon, died. My mom had been married to him for 23 years, but my relationship to him stretched back more than 30 years, to when I was 14. Now, I should add here that my father is still alive and he and I have a great relationship. Losing my stepfather was not a matter of losing the only paternal figure in my life. And it’s not like my father was a felon and incapable of providing a healthy model for what an adult male might aspire to be. I’ve got a great dad, period. Losing Byron still represented a huge loss because of his unique qualities.
Byron was a passionate supporter of mine. He wanted to see me happy and successful. Fulfilled. Yet he never provided any input about courses of action except when morality or ethical considerations were at stake. Despite caring deeply for me, he was cautiously detached from the outcomes of my actions. He allowed me the freedom to do what I chose, and yet would talk to me at every turn, less guiding me than helping me to see what I might achieve on my own abilities.
I wasn’t supposed to reveal this, but he was so impressed by my standing up for Charles Pelkey and taking on what was a monumental expense for this blog—just because I thought it was the right thing to do—that he talked with my mom and offered me the money to bring John Wilcockson on board. You might say the first five months of John’s work here was an advance on my inheritance. Byron saw it as just giving me wood to fuel a fire I’d done a nice job of lighting. My job was to secure enough advertising in that period to afford John’s work going forward. And while we got through the summer and early fall well enough, advertiser drop-off in the winter (and getting stiffed by a few advertisers) put him back out of reach. I’m still paying him for last fall’s work.
I’m incredibly fortunate to still have both my parents. From sharing the latest photos to commiserating over the challenges of the American health care system, we enjoy being in touch, and I’m grateful that I can still turn to them with whatever financial hurdles I face—in only with the intent of asking for advice. But talking with Byron was different. His detachment meant that his guidance was couched as if through my own eyes, given with an understanding of what I wanted for myself. The loss of that voice in my life is something I haven’t adjusted to.
Seeing what his absence has done to my mother’s world has made me ache for all that we have the potential to offer each other. His was an example that showed how being mindful of our actions and moving gently, with kindness, can profoundly alter the quality of another person’s life. I don’t think I’m a bad guy, but I’m aware that if I could achieve what he did, my wife and children would have better lives than they already do.
In those weeks I spent in Memphis, just trying to be present with my mother as she grieved, I rode hundreds of miles, and none of it at a pace that would impress anyone. Byron was with me on those rides, his example ringing in my ears, his voice no closer than that last, saved, voicemail.
When we found out that the Deuce had an abnormality during what was to be a final, routine, visit to the OB/GYN, I knew I needed to call my parents to tell them. I did my best to reassure them that this would be a minor issue and we’d be sending baby photos and telling stories any day. How wrong I was. Because of the need I felt to set my parents at ease, the person I really wanted to talk to, the person to whom I felt I could have been 100 percent honest about my concerns was Byron. What would he have said to me?
It’s been a long time since I felt like I lived in the shadow cast by my parents, that I needed to distinguish myself as a person. It’s been even longer since I was naive enough to believe that their counsel was as outdated as a Corvair. I now understand that this phase of adulthood is one where we learn to live without the voices of our parents. It’s an absence distinct from the loss of them physically, it’s that ability to reach out to the people in whom you entrust those most important decisions, asking for the feedback that can only be given by someone who knows you as well as you do.
One morning, as I pedaled through the hills of Palos Verdes and wondering how to confront the issue of surgery for the Deuce, I caused myself to chuckle when I came up with the acronym WWBS—what would Byron say? I realized he’d tell me I was doing all right. He’d probably ask me if I was still riding. Even though he wasn’t a cyclist himself, he understood its more medicinal quality in my life. And he’d ask if Shana and I were talking. Then he’d ask me what my gut told me and what my fears were. Once I’d poured everything out to him, he’d invariably mirror back to me all that he’d heard, but in an especially concise reduction sauce. I can imagine he would have said something like, “I hear you saying you don’t like the surgery one damn bit, but that you trust the doctors and you don’t see any way around it. I’d be scared, too.”
I miss that voice.
I can’t shake the feeling that my family has experienced a zero-sum event, that in losing Byron and gaining Matthew, we have reluctantly struck a new equilibrium where the burden of wisdom has shifted from Tennessee to California. I try to convince myself that the physical manifestation of that sense is what I felt when I first climbed on a full-suspension 29er. It felt big, really big while the suspension punished sloppy actions and rewarded grace, but it was still a bike, so on that first big descent, all I needed to do was convince myself I knew what to do.
Over the last six months, there have been little glimmers of my old self on the bike, but far more episodes where one sketchy moment shows me just how gun-shy I still am. Not just of crashing, but of anything that induces stress. Rather than being a way to discharge, cycling has mostly only been a way to recharge, to help sustain me through today’s crisis, or maybe whatever comes next.
The reason I’ve stuck with cycling no matter whatever else has been going on in my life has been that the sport has been a way to ask questions, a way to answer them and even a way to answer bigger questions, ones where the only wheels are metaphoric.
Of this much I’m certain: I’ve got two healthy, growing sons and bikes in the garage. Like knowing what was around that turn, the rest, I accept, is up for grabs.
Some months ago I made plans to join my friends for a little ride down in North County San Diego, the SPY Belgian Waffle Ride. SPY’s CEO, Michael Marckx is both someone I’ve been able to count as a friend and a certifiable creative type. I began hearing his vision for the ride a couple of years ago, shortly after he joined the company. He’d spitball ideas at me and I’d drool, if only on the inside.
I needn’t go into the reasons why a few days ago I sent MMX, as he’s known to friends, an email with the subject line, “Regrets.” But I did; pardon me while I use the passive construction and say, it had to be done.
In place of doing the Belgian Waffle Ride, I’ve had a pretty stellar day. I got a ride in, came home and hung out with the Deuce and watched Paris-Roubaix. Once Philip came back from a trip to the park with his mom, he curled up on the couch with me to play games on our iPad as the Deuce napped nearby. A terrific day, full stop.
The thing is, I missed something special today and that’s gnawing at me.
If I may be so bold, the BWR is a case study for everything wrong with bike events. Mind you, I’m not saying that the folks at SPY got it wrong; I’m saying that compared to the BWR, nearly everyone else is getting it wrong.
I gave up doing industrial park criteriums years ago. At a certain point I realized that I needed more out of a bike event than just proving I was faster than some other guy I’d probably enjoy riding with if the entire raison d’être for the event wasn’t predicated on proving who was fastest. And because those events were tucked into the disused weekend corners of communities as if they were an embarrassment to proper athletic endeavors, they seemed a disservice to actually promoting cycling as a sport worthy of watching. Nevermind the real-world challenges of securing a course, industrial parks aren’t so much low-hanging fruit as fallen fruit. Picking ripe fruit is worth the effort.
With the BWR, SPY has created an event meant to reward the fastest, so in that regards it does settle a question that never gets old, while re-imagining just what an experience can be. Thankfully, they dispensed with calling it a gran fondo. While a gran fondo is a special sort of event, and something I love doing, here in the U.S. the term has come to be applied to every century that was having trouble drawing a crowd before. Blech.
Promoters ought to take a close look at these flyers that SPY sent out counting down the days to the event. They are genius because they serve so many purposes. First, they build excitement for the event, and being excited about an event is key to having a special experience. They do the entrants a service because they offer insight into course challenges—a handy thing given the enormity of the undertaking. Finally, they pimp sponsors, something most race promoters devote too little effort to.
Abraham Maslow wrote about the ingredients that go into a peak experience. Anticipation and expectation offset by preparation. With the exception of the guys at Bike Monkey, who put on Levi’s Gran Fondo, I’ve never seen another outfit put half this much effort into ratcheting up excitement for an event in the run-up.
Perhaps there’s no truer measure of their success than the ache I feel for not having been there.
And if my own sense of missing out isn’t enough, I can tell you that several dozen riders from the Southbay drove down for the event. In all my years of riding with my peeps, not another ride has done more to unite to the locals’ ambition (and carpool skills) as the BWR.
The question I’d like to put to event promoters is: Why bother, if your aim isn’t to give everyone who enters a memorable experience? What have you given to anyone who is not the winner? SPY has created something memorable, even in the missing. Hell, they even got local TV coverage the other day. When was the last time a non-big-time bike event managed that?
Perhaps the best way to frame their achievement is with my favorite quote by Teddy Roosevelt: “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checked by failure … than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
And here those poor spirits to which I refer are not athletes, but event promoters. I challenge you: Dream large.
I don’t live in the world of my parents. Yes, the house I grew up in still stands. Yes, the schools I went to still educate young people. Yes, the bike shop I first worked at still sells, fixes and fits bicycles to an ever-growing community of cyclists. But beyond those rudimentary similarities, my life has none of the surety, consistency or security their lives have enjoyed (and just to be clear, both of my parents are still with us). While there are plenty of people who still enjoy jobs that will pay pensions in their leisure years, I’ve occasionally had to engage each of my parents in conversations about how radically my life doesn’t resemble theirs. This is usually in response to me sharing some sort of garden-variety challenge of daily life. People who care about you never let these moments slide without a, “Well did you consider…?”
And that’s when I mention just how different my life is from what theirs was when they were my age.
I attempted to follow a career track similar to that of my father. I moved to California to go to work for a big publishing company, a place where a great many people spent entire careers writing for the same magazine. Within 90 days of my arrival—I’m not kidding—the publishing world began to implode. All the old rules about magazine publishing were incinerated along with a great many magazines. For the record, the magazine industry dove over the event horizon of former business models years before the music industry got sucker-punched by Sean Parker.
The one important lesson that stayed with me from that time was that your average enthusiast magazine was disinclined to celebrate the truly inventive, what management types love to call “out of the box thinking.” I don’t mind reporting that my most creative ideas were all shot down because I couldn’t justify the “user service.”
It’s easy to rail about the evils in today’s world—Monsanto, Wall Street, the U.S. health care system and … well, there’s plenty we can complain about without ever bringing up the UCI. If you’re a cynical type, the inevitable conclusion is that the world (or at least the U.S.) is going to a land of eternal fire by shopping cart. The reality is more complex. The world is just different.
To wit, I submit Facebook. Forgetting their nearly disastrous IPO, Facebook has had a profound effect on society. It has allowed us to connect more broadly than at any point in history. Sure, much of that connection lacks the depth of a one-on-one conversation with a trusted friend, but the benefit I derived from Facebook during the Deuce’s NICU stay was sustaining. Actually spending time in-person with friends was nearly impossible. Our schedule was too hectic, and the NICU rules regarding visitors ruled out everyone except us and grandparents. Facebook kept us in touch with people we simply couldn’t catch up with otherwise. Facebook takes a lot of knocks. In my view, it’s just a hammer. What you do with it is up to you. You can be a pinhead and break a bunch of windows with a hammer, or you can build a house with one. It’s up to you. Thanks to Facebook, metaphorically speaking, I’ve added an addition to my home.
Which brings me to Kickstarter. When I first heard about it last year, I must admit I didn’t really understand it. The concept seemed only slightly removed from gambling, and as I’ve got as much interest in gambling as I do intravenous drug use, I tuned out more or less instantly. Then I started reading about it. Here’s where I have to admit my initial reaction was as ill-considered as Kin Jung Un’s latest rhetoric.
Kickstarter, if I may say, is genius. If this had existed when I was trying to launch Asphalt I might have managed to publish a dozen or more issues before it got swallowed by its own gravity.
Over the last month or so I’ve become something of a student of Kickstarter. While it is the obvious repository for nearly every ill-conceived get-rich-quick scheme by a dilettante with no experise, it is more properly known as the ultimate expression of the crowd-sourced effort.
Kickstarter is the ultimate elevator pitch. It’s up to you to convince people you’ve got the goods to make cool things happen. It’s not a place that will reward the mundane. You’ve designed the next $39 toaster that might outsell the Sunbeam unit at Walmart? No one cares. Commodities are destined for grave stones in Kickstarter.
How cool is that?
I offer this as a prelude to a coming Kickstarter project of my own. I don’t mind saying it’s one of the more audacious efforts I’ve undertaken, just the sort of thing that would have been shot down—with prejudice—at my former employer.
If there’s one thing we can say about this new world that we live in is that it tends to reward more creative, more inventive ideas. Hey, I gotta celebrate what I can, when I can.