Riding the New SRAM Red

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

IMG_0018This 18-wheeler bottomed-out on the asphalt in Potrero Canyon.

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.

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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.

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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.

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26 comments

  1. Zosim

    Is there any fade over long descents or did you not test quite that much. The perennial concern with MTB discs is fade over a long downhill so road is quite an interesting use case here as a lot of people feather constantly.

  2. dave

    >> 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 <<

    Huh?

    The paragraph is very unclear.

    All properly installed rim brakes have power sufficient to endo the bike and skid the rear.

    I can see these brakes being useful when braking from the hoods, in that they give you more power for a given lever pull force than do rim brakes.

    Though that raises the ticklish issue of technique, since the more skilled the descender, the less time spent on the hoods. Which is why it makes no sense to me to introduce these brakes on a racing component group.

  3. Matt Novak

    Thank you for the excellent and informative write-up of SRAM’s new hydraulic brake options. It seems like the road discs are getting most of the attention, so I appreciate the time you dedicated to your experience with the rim hydros.

    However, I was disappointed to see your sexist and derogatory use of the word “skirt”–”But I still wear a skirt to all the descents in the Santa Monicas.” There’s no place for using what I understand as a feminine-gendered term–”skirt”–as synonymous for “cautious” or “hesitant,” and it takes away from the otherwise fine and professional writing found on this site.

    –Matt

  4. Tim

    I have read many blog posts regarding the new SRAM 22 with my attention focused towards the hydro side and I found your report the best. I enjoy the technical side, but your report explain how it “feels” to use them with great detail. Thank you for taking this perspective.

  5. MCH

    Nice initial review! As usual, you provided significantly more depth and insight than I’ve seen else where. I’m intrigued and want more!

    You mention that you didn’t like the shape of the lever with the Hydro Ds. Does this mean that a different lever is used with the Hydro Rs? Are the hydro Rs cable actuated?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Sorry; I missed responding to a couple of points aside from my unprofessional lack of political correctness.

      MCH: The Hydro R and the Hydro D use the same lever, so they are both completely hydraulic. No cable actuation at all.

      Tiny Tim: Without having had the opportunity to try the Hydro D brakes with narrower tires, I can’t say that the fatter Conti’s didn’t contribute to the braking. Common sense dictates that a wider tire with a bigger footprint combined with a wider rim for an even larger footprint will offer better grip for improved braking. But I don’t yet have a basis of comparison. Also, I should mention that the bike we were riding had just been through three days of riding with the foreign press. They hadn’t been through much mileage, but they’d been through some. I looked at the calipers and could see a good gap between the pads and the rotors, more than I ever see with other disc brakes. I’m not willing to assume the brake performance will degrade that much after a month of riding.

  6. tinytim

    I bet the ride and braking quality of the last bike, the Roubaix with the extra wide conti’s, was influenced and complimented by the large tire volume and concurrent use of the disc brakes. What were the tire sizes for the two other bikes ridden? In my experience brake power and modulation are directly correlated to tire size. The more rubber on contact with the ground surface enables on the have a greater modulation period, in which a rider can cut scrub speed before the tire loses purchase with the ground. The lack of the disc brake retraction and consequent pad rub will most likely show up after numerous dirty and wet rides. It always works well the first couple times.

  7. Zosim

    tinytim – hydro brakes well maintained are trouble free. Pretty sure my MTBs get far worse conditions than the average road bike and they never rub

  8. LesB

    “The only times my hands have gotten tired from braking I was on a mountain bike”

    Have you ever descended Fernwood Pacific Dr. into Topanga?

    If so, all I can say is your hands are heckuva lot stronger than mine!

  9. tinytim

    Zossim- Based on what I’ve seen and read, the new hydro disc brakes don’t have the pad retraction system that modern mtn brakes use. The new hydro discs function much like the bb5/bb7 cable actuated brakes, in that only 1 or 2 pistons is dynamic and the other is static.

  10. Dustin

    @Zosim – clearly you don’t MTB. SRAM/Avid brakes are some of the most problematic hydro disc brakes on the market. Tons of noise, vibration, and they require a bleed every 6-9 months. They feel FANTASTIC when new, but after a few months, each lever feels different, and the noise usually starts after just a few rides. I am on my third pair of Avid brakes on one bike, the last two were both freebies given to me by friends. That’s how much they suck…people just give them away.

  11. Zosim

    Dustin – I’m on my 3rd set of Avids (been through 3, 5 and 7) in 6 years. I’ve never sold a set because they were crap, I’ve sold the bikes they were on. Never once bled them, never once had a single problem in general. My Formula brakes make more noise than the Avids although to be fair, that’s only on long DH runs which the avids never get. Plenty of people run avid brakes without problems. Plenty don’t.

  12. ken

    I for one am looking forward to discs on road bikes. I probably won’t be an early adopter, but in a couple of years or sooner they should have the bugs worked out. The main reason I’m looking forward to them is that it does away with carbon braking surfaces. I haven’t ridden one carbon wheel that has the same braking performance as aluminum. Even the ones that are set up “correctly” don’t stay that way long. They chew up brake pads, squeal, grab etc. In short they just blow and this is the latest variety of carbon tubulars. For carbon clinchers it should be a bigger improvement, no more blown tires? I’m looking forward to less braking effort too, maybe it’s because I brake way more than I used to, and I way more than I used to. Either way I’m in.


  13. Author
    Padraig

    Zosim: There were no fade issues. I did manage to get the disc to sing a bit late on the final descent, but I didn’t experience any fall-off in performance.

    Dave: The statement is pretty clear. While I’m aware that it is possible to endo a bike with the front brake, it’s not easy by any means. The experience I had while braking with Hydro R and Hydro D can only be described in terms of increased power. I wouldn’t have believed it had I not ridden the bikes. Doubt all you want; that’s fine. But the increased power of the brakes resulted in better braking performance. It’s not what I wanted to write, but it’s true.

    Tim: Thanks!

    Gilbert: Aargh. I really like Red. I mean, I love that group. But Dura-Ace 9000 is better. The shifting is just that much better.

    Dustin: You’re free to disagree with other readers, but don’t put them down. That’s not how we play here.

    Ken: I don’ think there are any bugs in the Hydro R or Hydro D brakes. They are likely to refine the lever shape some, but this stuff works, full stop (literally and figuratively).

    Carlos: It’s Decker south of Mulholland, but Westlake Village north of Mulholland, but I’m aware that some folks still refer to it as Decker. I went with what’s easiest to find on a map.

    KP: Actually, it was a tutu.

  14. MCH

    Thanks Padraig. No Hydro Rs for me, ’cause I ain’t giving up the DA 9000. That said, it’ll be really interesting to see how/when Shimano and Campy choose to respond.

  15. ken

    Padrig, not worried about the SRAM brakes being sorted, just want to wait a couple or years for Specialized and others to sort out cable routing, etc. Don’t want to be the first kid on the block with the stuff.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Ken: To Specialized’s credit, they had the cable routing sorted very well. The rear hydraulic line was internally routed and had a very clean exit from the chainstay. I can’t speak for other companies working on this, but the big red S has this thing ready for prime time. I have asked to hold off on reviewing the new S-Works Roubaix SL4 until I can ride one with the hydraulic discs.

  16. Fuzznsmoo

    I wondered for years why I could stop so much faster in the dirt with discs, since my old V-brakes appeared to have enough power to toss me over the bars. What I read recently is that the closer the braking point is to the axle, the better the modulation and sensitivity, which means increased braking is possible without skidding the tire. Of course the downside is increased heating in a smaller surface area.

  17. Mike

    Padraig: you say “I looked at the calipers and could see a good gap between the pads and the rotors, more than I ever see with other disc brakes.” Do you know if the pad clearance spec is higher on these than on the MTB version of avid brakes? I’ve had pretty tight spacing on each of Avid Juicy, Avid Elixir, and Formula R1s. I’m wondering if the longer brake lever throw on a road bike allows for a bigger gap? I’m guessing roadies will flip out with any brake rub before a MTBer would.

    Also, anyone ask Tim Johnson his CX vs. road view of hydro discs? I believe he beta tested these last CX season.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Mike: SRAM’s road product manager said they new that these brakes would need greater pad retraction than you get with their mountain bike brakes for the simple reason that they new roadies wouldn’t put up with any brake rub. We of the ceramic bearings and aerodynamic wheels are a known quantity (by this I mean roadie attitudes), so the Red HDD brakes retract more than you’ll see with anything from Avid.

  18. Mike

    Padraig: Ha ha, thx. I figured SRAM would be sensitive to that issue. I’m one of these guys who flips the brake release on climbs despite the risk of fingers-in-spokes, so that should tell you something about my paranoia for rub.

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