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.
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.
When I’m out on the bike I get a lot of questions. Mostly they revolve around whatever the newest thing I’m riding, be it bike, clothing or what-have-you. What’s interesting is that the broader, more philosophical questions about equipment come late in a ride. They always have.
After we’ve punched some tickets, gone cross-eyed and been humbled, the late portion of the ride, as we cool down and head for home is when all the most interesting questions come up. They’ve ranged from what my favorite saddle (I’m really partial to the Fi’zi:k Antares) is to whether I’d ride steel on a course with a lot of climbing (um, no).
It was shortly after the Schleck chaingate that a newer rider asked me what group he should buy now that Andy Schleck had demonstrated that the Red drivetrain was defective and in need of an overhaul.
“Easy,” I said. “You should buy the one that never suffers a missed shift.”
Then I gave a hearty laugh.
I hope you’ll pardon me for laughing at my own joke. I laughed long and loud over that. The rider in question didn’t follow me. I left him to ponder what I might have meant.
That belies a common question I get, though: Who makes the best component group?
I’ve got a few thousand miles each on Super Record, Dura-Ace and Red. I can speak to that question. Normally, I don’t like or do shootouts for a simple reason: Someone always loses. That said, there are specific reasons to recommend one group over another depending on your individual needs. For some riders, there may not be a compelling reason to go with one over the others, but for others, there may be a very clear choice.
Needs aside, I believe that each manufacturer is in for some constructive criticism. Each of those groups feature some blemishes that can and should be addressed.
And so, now that RKP’s traffic is big enough that we can’t be ignored, I’m about to embark on a series of posts that could well piss off some really nice people at companies that I previously hoped would advertise. Gulp.
Oh, a brief (but obvious) word on what defines a group. It used to be that a group included shift levers, brake levers, brakes, derailleurs, a bottom bracket, crank set, chain, cables, headset, hubs and pedals. These days integrated headsets are found in most frames, nearly all wheels are sold as complete wheelsets and pedals stopped being sold with groups not long after Look entered the market; a group no longer includes a headset, hubs or pedals.
Like I said, this is going to take a few posts to get through. Keep checking back.