Co-Motion introduced a new model, the Klatch, aimed at the emerging gravel-grinder category. This bike paired a Shimano drivetrain with TRP’s cable-actuated, double-cylinder hydraulic disc brakes. The frame easily has clearance enough for 32mm tires.
Co-Motion has had a reputation for excellent finishes dating back to the 1990s. This Macchiato pays homage to the Gulf racing team. It was arguably one of the most beautiful bikes I saw at the show.
It’s vaguely amazing to me that tandem companies have waited so long to do really powerful graphic treatments on their bikes.
Stan’s introduced a new 29z-inch carbon fiber mountain bike wheel that showed impressive strength and stiffness numbers while maintaing weight low enough to make it raceable.
Nalini, the Italian apparel manufacturer that is that seems to make more clothing for companies that it does under its own name, was displaying some impressive wool pieces. The construction techniques weren’t strictly old-school, though. The jersey had a reasonably long zipper—the longest possible given the chest pockets—and a gripper on the hem to keep it in place.
They also showed a matching set of wool bibs that had a Lycra bib sewn into them.
Even the pad looked like an old-school chamois. However, this is a current pad that is simply covered in a microfiber to make it look and feel like chamois.
A few companies have begun to show rain jerseys that offer a bit of insulation and some sort of wind and rain-stopping fabric while sticking with short sleeves.
The Nalini jersey featured grommets to allow water to drain from the pockets in the event of a Southern-style deluge.
This Bianchi celebrates the 80th anniversary of Campagnolo. This is the bike that Bianchi will be presenting to Valentino Campagnolo.
Not only does it sport an 80th-anniversary Super Record group, special decals call out the milestone as well.
The combination of the matte finish on both the frame and the components gave it a very choice look.
Honestly, this thing was so gorgeous, it was hard not to drool on the bike.
The new Infinito CV takes Bianchi toward a much cleaner look with fewer swoopy tubes.
The big news on this bike is the Countervail technology Bianchi is using. They are the only bike company using this vibration canceling technology. Based on a video demonstration they had, the materials are fairly effective at subduing vibration. I’m definitely interested to ride this bike.
Speedplay has been making a special pedal for the cobbled races for some time. It forgoes the plastic body normally found on the company’s road pedals. The idea is that it will shed mud more easily should a rider have to get off and walk through some mud, but it is not meant to be a cyclocross pedal as it still uses the traditional Speedplay cleat.
Scott introduced its first bike in the grand touring category, the Solace. It contains a number of visual cues that its designers aimed to make rider comfort a priority. The down tube is flattened near the bottom bracket and the seatstays join the top tube rather than the seat tube in an effort to make them as compliant as possible by increasing their length.
The fork on the Solace uses a slightly unusual design, sweeping the blades slightly forward of the dropouts. The intent is to provide a bit more flex vertically to increase rider comfort.
So let’s start this off with a correction. This is the image I meant to pull for Day 1′s mention of the BMC TMR01, their new aero road frame. I plead thumbnail size.
The fork design is fascinating for the way it hides the brake cable and as an illustration of the lengths that engineers have to go to avoid violating any of the UCI’s ridiculous rules regarding aerodynamics. In a way the brilliance here is less a demonstration of real creativity than an indictment of the terrible way in which the UCI wields power. Yeah, I bet you were thinking that we’d leave criticism of the UCI just for discussions of doping.
I dropped by Hincapie and saw a number of new designs. Fit seems to continue to improve with them (I’ve got a kit from ’12 that I’ve been meaning to review that is the best-fitting from them I’ve ever worn) and thanks to designs like this one, the look is better than ever.
This big news at Campagnolo is the new Athena 11 with triple. While my personal preference these days is to go compact, I have always supported triples and in the case of Campagnolo and their Ergopower levers, found them easy to set up and shift. Yes, they are heavier and result in a wider Q, but they aren’t the wildebeests that some would have you believe. The combination of a triple and an 11-speed 12-29 cassette will let anyone go almost anywhere paved without having to buy a $7000 (or more) bike.
Among a great many cool things I saw at Ritchey was this display of two mountain bikes, both featuring 650B wheels. The industry seems ready to endorse this wheel size en masse. More nimble than 29-inch-wheeled mountain bikes and better rolling than its 26-inch-wheeled counterarts, everyone’s touting 650B as a great compromise. Shown here are Ritchey’s new P-650b (the red, white and blue bike in back) and a mountain bike that Tom built back in the 1977 (think Debbie Boone and Fleetwood Mac). Yep, both feature 650B wheels. I didn’t even have time to get into where Ritchey found the rims and tires back then, but the bike implicitly begs the question.
And if you’ve never had reason to appreciate just how fine Ritchey’s fillet brazing is, here’s the seat cluster from that 560B mountain bike he built in ’77. This is on my list of the top-five prettiest things I saw at Interbike.
The Legend is the new shoe from Giro that you’ve already been seeing on Taylor Phinney’s rather sizable dogs. Whether you dig the lace-up design or not, one of the notable features—perhaps the most notable feature of the new shoe—is the Teijin upper. Teijin is a microfiber material with greater durability and less stretch than traditional leather (meaning you won’t kill your shoes by going for a ride in the rain), but Giro found a way to make the upper from a single, seamless piece of the material. Crazy.
Giro’s designers decided to do a bunch of one-off exercises on the Legend for its launch. This one, a nod to classic hiking boots from companies like Asolo, re-imagines the Legend with the one-piece Teijin upper made to look like tanned leather. I couldn’t not shoot this. It would totally be the shiz for ‘cross racing. Right?
The Reverb is one of Giro’s many helmets aimed at commuters. What makes the Reverb different (and remember that reverb is a first-cousin to echo) is the way its design calls upon the past in a very specific way. It looks like the old LeMond Air Attack helmet even more than my son looks like me. Last year they offered the Reverb in the same Tequila Sunrise finish they offered circa 1992. This year’s palette includes this nod to LeMond’s Team Z helmet that he wore to victory in 1990.
There was a time when Pearl Izumi was my absolute barometer for great cycling clothing. In the 1990s custom team clothing was a step down from what Pearl offered. I raced in my team kit, but I trained in Pearl. Just how it was. And then something happened—okay, I’ll tell you what happened: custom team clothing, from companies like Voler, improved dramatically, and for a period of time Pearl lost their way, releasing boatloads of clothing that was good, but not amazing. There’s been a shakeup at Pearl and one of their brightest and most insightful designers has returned. The line has received a pretty serious overhaul and I saw piece after piece that I’d put up against the best stuff coming out of Capo or Giordana.
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.
It’s amazing that within 24 hours of announcing the new 9000-series Dura-Ace just how many opinions have been lodged. I mean, nobody who isn’t on the Shimano payroll is riding this stuff. All we have so far are pictures and a few paragraphs noting changes to the group. So how is it the jury has sufficiently deliberated to render a verdict? Well, as it happens, you don’t have to ride a group to tell if it’s expensive. So let’s start with price. The new 9000 mechanical group will carry a suggested retail of $2699 while the 9070 Di2 group will go for a whopping $4139. You can get a pretty good bike for less than the mechanical group costs.
Does it strike you that judging a group on price alone is maybe unfair? There can be little doubt that it is. But I think Shimano didn’t really do itself any favors by releasing pricing before we got to know the group a little better.
But that’s not the only criticism Shimano has come in for already. Many people took one look at the new crank and uttered a collective “ew.” You can see noses wrinkling all over the world. I really loved the 7800 crank. The 7900, notsomuch. The 9000 crank, with its four-armed spider might not offend sensibilities so much if the design were symmetric, but that’s the hitch: it’s not, and symmetry has been a big part of crank design since … the discovery of aluminum.
There are two metrics riders always start with—price and weight. So how does 9000 stack up?
Shimano Dura-Ace 7900: 2070 grams, $2328
Campagnolo Super Record: 1950g, $2905
SRAM Red: 1850g, $2555
Dura-Ace 9000: 1978g, $2699
Dura-Ace 9000 represents a loss of almost 100g while adding a cog. That’s no small feat. However, it is still heavier than Red or Super Record. And at $2699, 9000 sits between Red and Super Record on price. The only clear winner in this sort of comparison is Red.
And what of the electronic options? Here’s how they stack up:
Shimano Dura-Ace 7970: 2350g, $3940
Campagnolo Record EPS: 2230g, $4600
Dura-Ace 9070: 2047g, $4139
The new 9070 is the clear weight leader in electronic shifting and given that Record is nearly $600 less than Super Record, it is also the least expensive option. I expect that Di2 bikes will be far more coveted than bikes built with mechanical; were availability equal, I would be willing to bet that Di2 would outsell mechanical four or five to one.
Let’s look at the features Shimano is using to sell the new group:
Better shifting: Shift action is said to be lighter and the shifter throw is said to be shorter. Shimano claims shift effort is cut by half.
Improved hood ergonomics: 7900 lever hoods were often criticized for being blocky and difficult to grip with sweaty hands because of their smooth finish. The lever bodies are smaller now and lever reach can be adjusted by a full centimeter without creating the ugly, slack-jawed look found with the 7900 levers.
Better braking: Shimano’s braking is a bit like Madonna’s style. You never know what it’s going to be from one group to the next. They say modulation will be improved while also offering more power. The new design is supposed to accommodate wider rims, but no word on what the widest tire is it can accommodate.
“Rider Tuned gearing”: Shimano loves a good turn of phrase. There’s not much news here; they will offer five different cassettes. More important, you’ll be able to build any chainring combination you’re looking for without having to worry about if the chainrings use the same bolt-circle diameter as your crank.
New cables: Part of how Shimano has cut shift effort is by using new cables that are coated with a polymer that cuts sliding resistance.
New chain: The new chain received PTFE plating that is supposed to increase chain life by 20 percent.
The real winner in these new groups appears to be the Di2 9070 group. It shaves 300g from the existing Di2 group while adding a cog, giving riders larger buttons that are said to be less prone to phantom shifts and even more options for the wiring harness, not to mention an internal, seatpost-mounted battery.
In my preview piece on 9000 we received a number of comments from readers who noted that they were still riding 7800 and were happy with it. (An aside—this is why joining the conversation is so meaningful.) Looking back at the differences between 7700, 7800 and 7900 might offer a clue to why 9000 isn’t being heralded as the arrival of the greatest group ever in the history of bikedom.
With 7800 cyclists were treated to a group that was unquestionably superior to 7700 in every manner possible. It was lighter. It was stiffer. The levers were more comfortable. It had an extra gear. Braking power and modulation was markedly improved. It also featured one of the first precursors to the new generation of bottom brackets with a large diameter, integrated spindle and external bearings. So stiff were the BB and crank that it changed how I evaluated frame stiffness. I remember getting on a bike at the press launch for the group and thinking, “Whoa, this is a whole new world. I wonder how Campy will respond.”
Shimano had been on a path of introducing a new Dura-Ace group about every six years; 7800 came out in 2003, and 2009 saw the introduction of 7900. Yet here we are, a mere three years later and Shimano is introducing 9000. I can’t help but wonder if this is what they were working toward all along and 7900 was just a place holder because 9000 just wasn’t ready. What’s my point? The difference between going from 7800 directly to 9000 and going from the somewhat lackluster 7900 to 9000 may be the reason why so many riders haven’t been that excited. Had Shimano introduced 9000 as the follow-up to 7800 people might be more excited.
For my part, I am excited. If 9000 really delivers on its promises, people will find plenty to like.
Earlier this week I received an invitation to attend the North American launch of the new Campagnolo EPS system. I doubt Campagnolo has introduced anything that has ever been as eagerly awaited as this group. And with good reason; we’ve known that the heralded component maker has been working on this for ages. The’ve had more than adequate time to build interest.
Now let me say that I first heard about Campagnolo working on electronic shifting back in 2002. By that time, apparently, the prototyping on this group was old news. What I found out during the presentation was that they’ve been working on electronic shifting since the days of the first 8-speed Ergo levers. How was that not more widely known? I’m sure some Campyfiles must have known, but I hadn’t heard a word about it in the ’90s.
So why did it take so incredibly long to bring the group to market? Campagnolo was limited by the electronics technology available at the time. They literally (and I do mean literally) had to wait for the technology to be developed that would allow them to implement a design that was small enough, light enough, robust enough and smart enough to get the job done.
Before I dive too deep, a note on the nomenclature: EPS stands for Electronic Power Shift. Nice and straightforward.
I had the chance to look at it up close and to ride a bike with it on a trainer. My overwhelming reaction to it is one of sophistication. Shimano’s Di2 has not been without its criticisms. The group is heavier than mechanical Dura-Ace and reports circulated the riders using the group at the cobbled classics experienced bump-induced shifting. EPS feels like shifting; there’s actual lever movement and in that I believe Campagnolo got the single most important element of electronic shifting right. You feel like you’re using bike components. Further, the Super Record and Record EPS groups are lighter than Di2. Record weighs in at 2098 grams Super Record tips the scale a bit less at only 1875g.
The touch is light and the speed of the shifts is noticeable, but it’s not blink-your-eye quick. And if you’re anything like me and completely in love with the shape of the current Ergo lever, you’ll appreciate that this is exactly the same as the mechanical levers, though the texture of the hoods is a bit different.
Battery life is impressive. Last year the Movistar team used the groups and we were told they charged the group’s power units only three times through the whole of the season. The case itself is pretty impressive. It’s ultrasonically welded shut to keep the elements out and the electronics are cushioned from road vibration to increase their life span and reduce the chance that impacts will damage a component.
One interesting detail we learned about the group is that while you can downshift three cogs at a time and upshift five cogs at a time with mechanical groups, you can cycle all 11 cogs in either direction with EPS. Cooler still, we were told it takes only 1.5 seconds to shift through all 11 cogs.
When Campagnolo North America’s Tom Kattus invoked the name Syncro during the presentation, I admit I nearly fell out of my chair. For those who don’t recall, Campagnolo’s first effort at indexed shifting required a slight overshift before the lever settled into position. To say it was wonky would be diplomatic. That idea has been revisited with EPS—the front derailleur does an overshift automatically on upshifts. The idea is that if you combine a 40 percent increase in torque with a slight overshift you’ll get perfect shifting every shift, but you’ll also get a speedier shift, too. It makes sense when you think about it. Move the chain over just that much more and it will catch that much sooner.
The EPS Interface mounts easily on the stem, making adjustment easier to do on the fly (should you actually need to make an adjustment while riding) as well as making it easier for you to monitor battery charge from the saddle. It’s unlikely that battery charge will be a big concern when you’re out on rides, but should you start a long ride with a relatively low battery level, you will know where you stand thanks to the LED light on the left of the unit. It features five levels (bright green, blinking green, yellow, red and blinking red with a buzzer) that correspond to relative battery level.
I’ve been critical in the past of how much carbon fiber Campagnolo uses in its groups. My feeling has been that in some cases while the carbon fiber makes the component lighter, it also makes it unnecessarily fragile. The derailleurs have been my two big criticisms. That said, I’m fascinated with the way carbon fiber has been used in the bodies of these derailleurs and I don’t suppose they’ve gotten any more fragile than they were. I look forward to learning more about their manufacturing. What I really can’t wait for is a chance to ride this stuff.
Comparing anything in the bike industry is a dangerous business. There’s a long history of manufacturers expecting—and getting—reviews of just their equipment without having the results muddled up by any comparison to the work of a competitor. There’s also a history of pissed-off companies withholding ad dollars, not just in the bike industry, but any industry you look at. If you never see an ad from Campagnolo, Shimano or SRAM, this series would probably be why. Most bike companies aren’t wild about reviews that don’t spit-shine their every effort. So I’ll try not to be surprised if none of them ever advertise with me. They’re each accustomed to kid glove treatment, but I can’t in good conscience claim to have written an in-depth appraisal and not note some of the weaker features—some intended, some not—that give these groups their real-world identities.
So which component group is best for you? After all, that’s the question. Judging from the comments these posts have received, very few readers were willing to accept the idea that there was a winner. And that’s okay. What I wanted to make people aware of was that there are objective features found in some of these groups that elevate that group in consideration. When someone tells me, “It’s just a matter of preference.” I bristle in the same way that I do when someone tries to tell me, “How can you say with certainty something is a good piece of writing? It’s all subjective.”
Um, nope. No, it’s not. You see, if I posted a piece of writing riddled with misspelled words, used no capital letters and included no punctuation, you’d stop reading after just a few minutes. I guarantee it. And that’s even if all the verb tenses are correct. No matter how excellent the ideas might be, without a sense of the rhythm and focus of a writer’s ideas, the work becomes just a jungle of words. Similarly, a group is just a bunch of bike parts until they are properly assembled and adjusted to the point of working according to factory spec.
Below are a number of considerations that help illustrate some of the stronger features each of the groups has to offer, while also highlighting some of the weaknesses to be found as well.
Foolproof shifting: Despite the input from some readers that (insert group name here) shifts like crap, my experience is that Dura-Ace and Red have been more foolproof than Campagnolo. Red gets a ding because if the chain is in the largest cog and you try to downshift again because, for instance, you believe the chain’s in the 21 when it’s actually in the 23, unless you’re paying attention and push a bit harder on the lever, you’ll end up upshifting, so you’ll get a higher gear when you were looking for a lower one. I’ve made that mistake, but I’ve also learned that if I go for the downshift and the cog’s not there, all I have to do is push a bit harder and the chain will stay put. Not so bad. Sure, it’s simpler the way Campagnolo and Dura-Ace let you know you’re out of cogs: the lever won’t move, but there’s more to this feature than that.
More impressive is that a Red group built with the included Gore cables I could ride through a hurricane’s storm surge and the shifting would continue to be butter-smooth.
I’ve missed dozens upon dozens of upshifts with Dura-Ace because I needed to rotate my wrist to get that last bit of lever travel and couldn’t because I was mid-sprint. And I’ve overshifted the Super Record thumb buttons just as many times. But I’ve never missed or over-shifted an upshift with Red, in part because I can pull the lever back to the bar, tucked beneath my index finger.
In downshifting, practically speaking, I never downshift more than two cogs at a time. I broke too many Shimano chains in the 1990s because I tried shifting three cogs (or maybe more).
There’s no clear victor, but I give the edge to Red.
Front derailleur trim: That Dura-Ace no longer features any trim is a fail. I don’t know a rider who doesn’t get at least a bit of front derailleur rub in some gear. That’s not to say perfect adjustment isn’t possible; the problem is that so few mechanics (me included) know exactly how to achieve it. Because Red only offers trim in the big chainring isn’t a fail, but it gets a B-. Super Record is the clear winner here because you can trim easily in either the big or little chainring.
Braking performance: With regard to modulation, I give the edge to Super Record. For absolute brake power, Super Record and Red have an edge over Dura-Ace, but not by a lot. That said, swapping out wheels often makes a bigger difference than going to different groups. I’ve ridden each of the groups with wheels that resulted in poorer than expected braking and with wheels that offered braking that was a bit more responsive than I wanted. Ultimately, they all offer terrific modulation. They are so good they beg the question: Who really needs hydraulics?
Sound: A full Red group is the noisiest group I’ve ever encountered. Full stop. Still, it’s not that terrible. Is it one of the group’s worst features? I don’t think so. I seem to have spent so much time on Dura-Ace that I’ve come to accept its noise level as the standard by which to judge. The upshot to that is when I get on Super Record the group is so quiet I relish the cut in noise. Win to Super Record.
Ease of shifting: For riders with small hands or relatively little hand strength it’s fair to note that the shifting systems require differing amounts of force to execute a shift. This difference is more pronounced with the front shifter. Since Dura-Ace changed to running the derailleur cables beneath the bar tape, the force required to execute a shift has gone up, and with the front derailleur it’s noticeably so. Red requires less force to execute a shift, but this is another occasion where the clear edge goes to Super-Record. It’s the system I recommend for women riders.
Crank options: Super Record is off the back on this one. Campagnolo offers the Ultra-Torque crank in either 53/39 or 50/34 configurations and only four lengths: 165, 170, 172.5 and 175mm. Red offers six chainring combinations and six lengths (165 to 177.5mm in 2.5mm increments). Dura-Ace gets the slight edge, for while they offer the same six choices in chainrings, they offer seven lengths, adding a 180mm option to the array.
Gearing choices: If we leave out non-group options such as pairing a Red group with an Apex rear derailleur and cassette and just stick to in-group options, Red doesn’t look so hot with its four choices. Dura-Ace offers more choices with eight different cassette options. However, though Super Record only offers five options, they take the V here because the 11-speed 11-23 offers everything a 10-speed 11-21 offers, plus it adds a little kindness for the odd hill. The 12-25 and 12-27 options make lots of sense where I live and for those folks who need a little extra help on longer climbs, the 12-29 cassette provides something the other groups don’t offer.
Ergonomics: Okay, Dura-Ace just plain loses on this. The current control lever body has all the design sense of a freeway accident. Sure, it’s functional, but looking at it doesn’t invoke any desire to hold it in my hand. The Super Record control lever is its tactile opposite. I can’t not want to touch one, to hold one in my hand when I see it. It simply looks made to fit my hand and if my hand belongs there, then I’m going to put it there. The Super Record brake levers also feel better on my fingers than either the Dura-Ace or Red levers. They aren’t really made for someone with big hands, but the included shims help with that. But as I noted for those of us with smaller hands I wish they offered the ability to adjust the lever throw. That’s a miss.
Red strikes an interesting balance by offering a lever body that is comfortable and natural to hold and giving the user the opportunity to adjust both the brake lever throw and the shifter paddle position. Edge to Red.
Weight: This one goes to Super Record with a weight of 1950 grams (4.3 lbs.). Red is an extra 30 grams, which is pretty darn close. Dura-Ace may be the heaviest of the bunch, but it wasn’t too many years ago that a 2 kilo group would have seemed like the stuff of killer tomato movies.
Cost: Recently, I was talking Campagnolo’s general manager for North America, Tom Kattus. We were talking about how people choose groups and he noted that Super Record isn’t a fair comparison to Dura-Ace or Red because it’s so much more expensive. The fair comparison is Chorus, he says. That’s a helpful consideration if your primary motivator is price. But I think anytime someone looks at Super Record they do it for a simple reason: They want their conception of what is best. People may shop for the best price on Super Record, but by the time they do that they’ve already decided that’s what they are buying. Super Record buyers don’t want better—they want best. The 7-series Beamer is an amazing sedan. However, the Maserati Quattroporte can reasonably be called the best four-door sedan on the market. Some people will argue Jaguar or Porsche, but you can’t count the Maserati out, and that’s the point. The best deals I see are for Red, so again, it takes the win.
Ease of repair: There are three criteria for this section. First is how quick is it to work on or replace a part. Little touches like the clearly marked and easy to reach derailleur set screws plus the easily accessible lever adjustment screws control lever nuts make Red my favorite to work on. Should I want a component worked on and some small part replaced, such as a component within a control lever, Super Record is the ticket. Just take it to an authorized Campagnolo service center. But if I’m away from home and need a replacement part due to a crash or other need (this happens), I’d rather have Dura-Ace. It’s better stocked, both here and abroad. Regardless, if I walk into my garage to work on a bike I’d rather work on Red than Super Record or Dura-Ace. I have the highest level of confidence that I’ll make the adjustment I need in the least amount of time if I’m working on Red.
Crash sensitivity: If you go down, it’s handy to be able to ride home. Super Record’s more liberal use of carbon fiber puts them at a distinct disadvantage here. Any time a friend who owns a Campagnolo Record or Super Record group has gone down we know to call for a pick-up. The components remind me of what a mentor from Arkansas once said of chickens: “They just look for reasons to die.” Unfortunately, Red levers seem to be rather susceptible to death by impact and abrasion as well. Even after going to carbon fiber brake levers I have to admit that Dura-Ace seems more likely to survive a misadventure.
Cool factor: Ah cool. What’s cool is (of course!) entirely in the eye of the beholder. I’ve got plenty of friends for whom cool can only be bestowed by something Italian. Other friends believe that if you’ve spent a dime more than necessary your purchase wasn’t cool. They go for Red. And there are plenty of folks for whom cool only comes by sticking close to the mainstream. No winner; this is a draw.
Overall appearance: The effect graphics can have on a part is easy to underestimate until you see something amazing. One of my favorite features about Red is its bold use of graphics and color. It makes a statement. And while I really like the overall look of Super Record, there are places where the look is more industrial than stylish. Maybe I’d like the look more if I didn’t expect so much from them. For God’s sake, they’re Italian. Their stuff ought, by right, to look so good that I should fantasize pretty girls will blow kisses to me when I ride by on Super Record. As to Dura-Ace, 7800 was a better looking group; 7900 recalls Apple products in the 1990s after Steve Jobs was forced out. I recall seeing one Apple computer and thinking, “They what?” The difference between average industrial design and great industrial design is the difference between Hyundai and Aston Martin. There’s so much I like about Super Record, but Red takes this by a wheel.
Ideal users: The best answer for one user is not the best answer for all users. I tend to steer women to Campagnolo groups for the ease of shifting if they don’t have great hand strength. I’ll recommend Red if it seems like they will have trouble with the reach to Campagnolo brake levers. For newbie racers or those who race ultra-technical courses where you might be hard on the brakes for a tight corner and then sprinting back up to speed, I think Dura-Ace is better than Mexican Coke, because you can brake and downshift at the same time. If you’ve got big hands, also Dura-Ace; the lever bodies are bigger and you’ll be less likely to notice the increased force required to shift to the big chainring. Like to maintain your equipment yourself? Red is the easiest to work on and achieve the desired result in my experience. And for you sprinters, it’s Red. Red Red Red Red Red. And everyone knows that if you hang your identity on Euro cool your bike will feature Campagnolo.
And the winner is …
As I tallied up the various considerations above, I suspected that what I was going to find was that I’d given more points to Red than the other groups. I was surprised to find that it was essentially a tie between Super Record and Red. When I think about the bikes I’ve had at my disposal recently, I realized that I chose which bike to ride according to the following criteria:
- If the bike absolutely had to work correctly at all times and I knew I couldn’t afford a missed shift due to drivetrain vagaries, I chose Red.
- If I wanted the perfect gearing for a hilly day and light shifting plus terrific progressive brake power for descending, I chose Super Record.
- I seem to wind up on Dura-Ace only when it’s the equipment on the bike that I want to ride.
My Super Record drivetrain has been so fussy that there have been rides where I’ve made a conscious choice not to take it. The more I think about it the more I realize that if the drivetrain had worked flawlessly all the time—instead of only recently—I probably wouldn’t be as enamored with Red as I am. All of the groups have issues that bug me. I’d like the Super Record brake lever throw to be adjustable. I hate the Super Record brake quick release. I’d like more cassette choices in Red. I’d like lighter shift action with Dura-Ace. All that said, that 11-speed 12-27 cassette paired with a compact crank will get me through any terrain when I’m fit. And if I’m not fit (which would include all of 2011 and every bit of 2012 so far), well maybe Fatty will let me contribute to Fat Cyclist again. In the meantime, I think I’m going to go lube my Campy chain; I’m riding it tomorrow. And the next day.
Had it not been for the entry of SRAM into the world of road component groups there would likely never have been a reason for me to do this series of posts. It’s their presence that makes this question interesting. How SRAM even came to offer a road group makes this conversation all the more interesting. After all, if you were a cyclist in the late 1980s and ran across the early Gripshift units you can be forgiven for having concluded that SRAM would never make anything you’d willingly purchase. The shifters were wonky and bulky, and had to be positioned in a relatively inconvenient position. Even with a Shimano drivetrain the shifters required some fiddling.
Somehow, SRAM survived this first questionable product. They made acquisitions. Among their many acquisitions (which included Rock Shox and Truvativ among others) they picked up Sachs. You may recall that back in the 1990s Sachs licensed Campagnolo’s Ergo control lever design and put out an 8-speed group of their own.
Had SRAM been run by some MBA with a background in accounting and no history in cycling, I can guarantee you that SRAM’s first component group would simply have re-badged the old Sachs designs after the company’s lawyers negotiated an ad-infinitum agreement with Campagnolo for its existing lever design. But that wasn’t the case. SRAM, like a great many bike companies, has the good fortune to be run by a bunch of minds at their best when discussing bicycles. Even though the Sachs name no longer appears in SRAM’s family of brands, the acquisition was it’s first genius stroke. It gave the small company a portfolio of existing designs and the opportunity to build a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Schweinfurt, Germany. It was all the leg up they needed.
When word began to circulate that SRAM would come out with its first full road group, we all wondered just how it would shift. Early reports were that they hadn’t licensed a design from either Shimano or Campagnolo, which meant they had a genius team of patent attorneys, less for what they filed than what they avoided. They’d danced through a minefield and arrived at the other side, feet intact. Certainly there was going to be ample time for Shimano to disassemble a shifter and file a suit, but by the time you’ve gone into full-scale production on an integrated control lever you’ve vetted the design pretty carefully.
Let me back up a second. It used to be that the rear derailleur was the lead guitar of any component group. Why? It was the crux move, the soufflé a l’orange that makes the meal. If your soufflé falls, the meal is a miss. The rear derailleur was the engineering triumph of a group. Designed well the slant parallelogram would require the same amount of lever throw as well as an equal amount of overshift to execute a shift from one cog to the next. Done poorly, your shift from the 13t cog to the 15 was different than your shift from the 21t cog to the 23. With the rear derailleur very well understood at this point, the challenge has shifted to the integrated control lever. Witness Vision Components. While I love the work of the folks at FSA, the fact that their one full component group is triathlon-based and uses bar cons is all the evidence we need to prove the argument. Until you have introduced an integrated control lever claiming you produce a road group is a bit like saying you can see Russia from Alaska. It’s a stretch.
Even if you’ve tried a SRAM road group and didn’t like the company’s work, they deserve a measure of respect just because of the challenge the company had to meet to deliver a fresh shifting system to market. And that tag line, “Will you make the leap?” It wasn’t just some cutesy line. At the heart of that question is actual technology. Double-Tap shifting relies on an innovative (pronounced patent pending) ratchet system that causes one pawl to float over the other depending on how far the lever is depressed.
Best Features: My first, favorite feature of Red, indeed of any SRAM road group, is the engineering that goes into their components. In any engineering problem you always begin with your givens, that is, your lines in the sand. Ride any SRAM group and brake response remains incredibly consistent, more consistent than Campagnolo, which is far more consistent than Shimano. Switch Shimano groups and you might as well relearn cycling. God forbid you should mix Dura-Ace levers with Ultegra brakes. The differing mechanical advantages of the two levers result in vastly sub-par brake performance. Red brake performance is like Force brake performance is like Rival is like Apex. While this is a bit off the track of an evaluation of Red as a group, give this another line or two. The point here is that SRAM established what they believed brake performance should be. It’s a firm line in the sand. No matter who you are, no matter what you spend, you deserve a certain level of brake performance, and it’s not inferior to what the pros get. Contrast that with Shimano. Ultegra is grabbier than Dura-Ace. How come? Better yet, why has brake performance for Sora and Tiagra always been so inferior to Dura-Ace? Do people on a budget have a reduced need to stop?
I really like that what you get with Apex is the same braking experience as Red; it’s just heavier.
SRAM shifters also benefit from two unique-to-SRAM design concepts. The shifters employ a technology called Exact Actuation. That means that there is no multiplier on cable travel. In broad strokes it means that if you move the shifter enough to move the cable 1mm, the derailleur moves 1mm as well. It makes drivetrain setup quick and easy and results in a less finicky drivetrain overall. And while I know plenty of riders who will swear there is nothing ever finicky about Shimano drivetrains, I’ve experienced it first-hand.
The next unique-to-SRAM design concept that I like is its ZeroLoss shifting. That we tolerate shift levers that can move a centimeter or more without accomplishing a shift boggles my mind. ZeroLoss means that if the shift lever is moving then the cable is moving, and if the cable is moving, then the derailleur is moving—you’re shifting. The kicker here is that it’s really not a particularly innovative concept. We would never, ever tolerate play in our brake levers. Extra throw? Sure, but you pull on the brake lever and that brake is moving. So why do we put up with lever movement that does less to move a shifter cable than turning the pedals? SRAM shouldn’t be occupying this territory alone, but they are, so they deserve some credit. Compare: A SRAM upshift requires less than 1cm of lever movement to execute; a downshift requires 2.5cm of lever movement to execute. Bear in mind, that’s a completed shift. A Campagnolo rear downshift lever moves 2cm before you engage the cable. The buttons move 1cm. A Shimano rear downshift lever moves 1.5cm, the rear upshift lever moves 2.5cm.
Practically speaking, what this means is that you’ve executed an upshift with any of SRAM’s levers by the time you’ve even begun a downshift with a competing system. You’ve executed a downshift with SRAM before you can execute an upshift with Shimano. There’s no adequate defense for that design flaw, weirder still that neither Shimano nor Campagnolo has addressed it so far.
I get a lot of questions about whether DoubleTap levers are confusing to operate. My answer has always been no. The reason why has to do with the play in Shimano and Campagnolo shift levers. The upshift with SRAM requires so little lever movement that a downshift never feels unnatural. You can execute a downshift with SRAM in less throw than you can complete any shift with Shimano. Only upshifts with Campagnolo come close to matching the efficiency of SRAM shifters.
Generally speaking, I don’t consider DoubleTap a selling point; it’s just not a liability. However, the fact that you can tuck the shift lever beneath your index finger and execute an upshift with far greater ease than you can with Shimano and to a more foolproof degree than you can with Campagnolo does make it a terrific system for someone with a long sprint.
You want to know what I just love? How the brake lever throw can be adjusted with just a 3mm Allen and by peeling back the lever hoods. That it doesn’t require the removal of the lever face plate nor result in that slack-jawed appearance you get with Dura-Ace demonstrates just how forward-thinking SRAM’s engineers are.
My other favorite feature of SRAM component groups (because it’s true of them all) is the PowerLock chain connector. It’s easy to connect and surprisingly easy to take apart, making chain cleaning something you can do with a minimum of fuss.
Worst Features: That aforementioned PowerLock chain connector? It’s strictly single-serve. Not wild about that. Maybe I’d feel different if I had a dozen of them tucked in a spare parts bin, but I don’t.
For a company that seems to take input from almost any source, I’m stunned and disappointed that SRAM only offers four cassettes for Red. Four. Hell, they offer six different chainring combinations for the Red crankset—12 if you count the two different spindles. Worse, all of the cassettes begin with an 11t cog. They do offer a greater array of choices at the Force level, but it seems to me that very few Red users will ever need an 11. I really hate that I can’t get a Red cassette that begins with a 12. Hate hate hate.
The shape of the SRAM lever body isn’t terrific. It’s not the end of the world as some users have complained, but the shifter body is a bit wide and a touch tall. I’ve not had a problem with the meek bump at the end of the lever, but I often hear riders complain that they fear their hands will run off the end of the lever. Just what event might cause that worries me more than the lever does, though.
The other aspect of the Red group that doesn’t pass muster is the titanium-caged front derailleur. I still like it better than Campagnolo’s carbon fiber outer plate front unit, but that’s a bit like saying you prefer malaria to meningitis.
Assembly and Maintenance: The first time I assembled a SRAM group from scratch I was amazed at how easy it was to do. That first group was mostly Red with an Apex rear derailleur and cassette so I could run some really low gearing in the Alps, so technically, it wasn’t a full Red group, but my sense of working on other SRAM components is that a Red rear derailleur and cassette wouldn’t have altered the assembly in any appreciable way.
The one knock I have against maintenance is that if you need to replace a derailleur cable you absolutely must use a brand new cable with a soldered end. Better if you use a new Gore cable, of course. And it helps to put a slight bend in the cable about an inch from the end.
Once together it won’t need anything other than chain lube for at least 1000 miles. The only reason I know about the challenge of replacing a cable is because I moved the group between bikes. I’ve put 2000 miles on a chain and not found any appreciable chain wear.
Group Weight: 4.37 lbs. (1980g)
Best Internet Pricing: $1499
The years went by, I kept riding my bike, but I still have no hoverboard. Corporations: If the hoverboard is real, please don’t release it. I have kids now, I understand.
Over the years, I’ve followed a number of the technological advances that were supposed to be just around the corner for bikes that excited me almost as much. One of the biggies was electronic shifting. Electronic shifting, from Mavic, really never felt like it was going to take off. Finicky, prone to malfunctions, expensive—when it worked, it was great. When it didn’t, it was a mess. I figured electronic shifting would never hit the mainstream.
Then Shimano Di2 came out. Campagnolo EPS, 10 plus years in the making, was available. With the release of Ultegra Di2, its safe to say electronic shifting has left the realm of just around the corner, and hit mainstream. Sometimes, the advances we think will never come really do become reality.
The other big item I’ve been waiting for is disc brakes on road bikes. You’d think, being a well understood technology, we’d have them by now. With them now legal for cyclocross, it may just be a matter of time—mechanical discs are already making inroads, and while solutions for using hydraulics are a little hokey now, we’ll probably see something available sooner or later. If I keep saying any day now, sooner or later I’ll be right.
One thing I never saw coming was hydraulic rim brakes. I’m trying to decide if they are a technological advance, or just a Mektronic on the path to disc brake Di2. Or EPS—no allegiances here.
Magura’s announcement as a sponsor for Garmin-Barracuda started the rumors flying. Magura confirmed their re-entry in to the road hydraulic market with a hydraulic rim brake, the RT8, initially available as a time-trial only version (RT8TT) mated to the Cervélo P5 time trial frame. In a few months, we’re told, it’ll be available without the Cervélo for both road and TT use. How that’ll work in a world where most people use integrated brake/shift levers remains to be seen. Details are just around the corner, I’m sure.
Before we discuss the merits of Magura’s offering, it’s worth understanding a little about hydraulic brakes. For the dirt-phobic, this may be the closest you’ve come to them, and while it’s unlikely you’ll be seeing Magura’s offering on your group ride any time soon, you’ll probably hear discussion about it.
Hydraulics are pretty simple. A typical hydraulics system of any form is composed of a master cylinder, one or more slave cylinders, incompressible fluid like mineral oil or DOT, and hydraulic cable to connect them. Each cylinder contains a piston. Press the piston in the master cylinder in, the incompressible fluid moves out of the master and in to the slave, and the slave piston extends. Simple. Attach a brake lever to the master cylinder piston, and use the slave cylinder to actuate a brake pad, and you have the makings of a hydraulic brake.
There are two different kinds of hydraulic systems employed in bikes. Most hydraulic discs use the “open” system, where there’s a reservoir attached to the master cylinder to manage fluid fill levels in the system itself. Lots of braking can heat the fluid, causing it to expand and overfill the system. The same excess braking also contributes to pad wear, requiring more fluid in the system. The reservoir takes care of managing these levels.
In a closed system, there’s no reservoir. Just the master cylinder and slave cylinders, and a fixed volume of fluid.
Left by itself, pressing the master cylinder piston in moves the slave piston out, where it will happily stay. The “normal” solution involves using specially shaped gaskets, designed to “twist” along with the piston. When there’s nothing pushing on the master cylinder piston, both pistons will want to retract to their normal positions, giving the behavior you expect from brakes. Springs occasionally augment this sort of system.
The upsides to hydraulic brakes are numerous: low friction, one-finger braking. Great modulation and control. Consistent performance, devoid of changes due to cable stretch or wear. Most of all, they’re powerful—by tweaking the ratios of width and height between the cylinders, a mechanical advantage is achieved—1 pound of pressure at the master cylinder can exert many multiples with a proper design.
The new RT8 brakes are a somewhat unorthodox brake design, if we confine ourselves to the notion of how disc hydraulic brakes work.
Magura has had a rim brake product line for years, targeted at the tandem market. These offerings, and it appears the new RT8 as well, utilize a “closed” hydraulics system. The master cylinder has no reservoir. This isn’t necessarily a problem, assuming environmental conditions stay pretty constant; heat generated by braking shouldn’t feed back in to the slave cylinder the way it might in a disc system, which directly actuates the pad. Pad wear is still something of an unanswered question in the RT8—this could very well be handled at the brake lever by adjusting the travel of the lever blade, or limiting the retraction of the piston.
So is it better?
Magura’s brake should offer stronger, quicker actuation with less effort than a typical brake. Depending on the terrain you ride, this may be a major advantage, or make no difference at all. For the cyclist who finds them selves climbing—and therefore descending—major heights, hand fatigue may be a serious problem. We haven’t seen a road brake lever yet from Magura, however. At the moment, unless you find yourself regularly descending on your time trial bike, this likely isn’t a major problem.
Power isn’t a major issue with modern road brakes. Enhanced modulation may allow a lighter touch ducking in to corners, and that could possibly lead to some speed advantages for the racers among us. Possibly. With situations where the brake selection itself is causing braking problems, then the RT8 might be a major advantage—with some time trial bikes utilizing low-travel lever blades connected to center pull and single pivot designs to smooth cable routing and reduce frontal profile, the uncompromising power of the RT8TT will be a welcome change.
Aerodynamics have been heavily touted for the RT8′s, with Cervélo playing a role in their design. It’s not an advantage afforded to it by being hydraulic, but may shave precious microseconds off times. We’ll have to wait for some testing to confirm this.
The Magura design may have one neat side effect. It hasn’t been discussed, but the closed hydraulic design of the RT8 may allow for multiple master cylinders. In an open system, where the master cylinders have reservoir, having a one master cylinder compress will cause the other’s reservoir to, over time, soak up the excess fluid in the system. In a closed system, so long as there’s no air in the system, there’s no place for the fluid to escape. Bleeding the system would bring new levels of pain to an at times trying process, but in theory, once its set up, it would work fine. I’m certainly curious to see if anyone is going to try mounting brakes on both their base and extension bars in a time trial. The ability to brake from the extensions and maintain an aero position could be an genuine advantage.
It’s less clear if the Magura brake will help with are the major issues big descenders have: rim sidewall damage, wearing out pads, and blowing out tires. Discs, by relocating the braking surface away from the tire, are the best hope we have for solving that issue once and for all. That and better technique.
Under certain conditions I can see some potential upsides to Magura’s RT8 brake. Quicker actuation, more power and better modulation with less fatigue sounds like a win, if these are problems that plague you. Improved aerodynamics don’t do much for the recreational cyclist, but may be a win for those at the point where fractions of seconds matter. The multiple lever concept sounds cool, but whether anyone cares remains to be seen. We’re still left using the rim for a braking surface, though the enhanced modulation the Magura should offer might compensate a little for those with marginal descending technique.
It’s an interesting product, and one I’m curious to hear more about as details emerge. It’s unlikely, however, to satiate my desire for discs—or hoverboards.
Photos courtesy of Magura
Campagnolo wins. There, that’s one of the two acceptable conclusions it would seem most readers will accept as just. I’m willing to bet that for most readers the sentimental favorite, the group of components that if—for any reason, any reason at all—I fail to find Campagnolo’s Super Record group the absolute winner of this little comparison, this subset of readers will feel justified in coming to the conclusion that I simply don’t know what I’m talking about.
I understand that sentiment, I really do.
The other alternative, of course, is that I’m supposed to come to the conclusion that these three groups and our love for them are as beyond question as religion. If you’ve had the impossibly good fortune to have had a love of Campagnolo passed down to you by your father, conceivably even a grandfather, you, sir, are lucky beyond measure and are thusly awarded a dispensation from this discussion. In your case, Campagnolo, by virtue of the fact that it was as inherited by you as your actual religion, is beyond question the winner.
But most of us made a choice. Maybe it wasn’t all that conscious, but we had to make a choice, so for most of us, it’s not like religion.
It’s a helluva prelude, but I had to do it. And here’s why: When I bought my first racing bike in the 1980s, it was both used and equipped with Campagnolo Super Record. I had a sense that what I purchased was an investment in my future. That my bicycle was without an expiration date. It was not, however, impervious to ham-fisted wrenching. The headset had been brinnelled, “indexed,” as we joked. When I replaced the headset (with a Chris King), I took the opportunity to overhaul the entire bike. I recall my shop’s manager turning the brake’s quick release and saying, “This works so well … why would Shimano want to go and change that?”
That was a direct quote recalled verbatim more than 20 years later.
Campagnolo’s Record group carries with it an air of elegance. Record has the enviable distinction of combining components of obvious function with a wash of art that rises above good industrial design. It reminds me of the work you find in a great guitar, fine silver or some of the best German sedans.
It seems unlikely that either Dura-Ace or Red will ever be as pretty as Record. This is a level of unlikely akin to me winning a Pulitzer or peace breaking out in the Middle East, although I’d welcome either or both. Campagnolo’s sense of the interplay of artful design and function are readily apparent at almost every turn, to be found in the use of carbon fiber in the front and rear derailleurs. Even better are the flowing contours of the Ergo levers. There’s something Eames-like in the way the lever bodies curve inward at the rise and the brake levers flatten and wrap outward at the hook.
Out of the box, the skeleton brakes remind me of some German shower fixture: minimal, functional and almost endlessly adjustable. On the road, however, they accumulate more dirt, sand and assorted road grime than any other brake I’ve encountered. Not surprising, I suppose, they’ve got surface area like Norway has coastline. And getting in there to clean them has forced me to amass a set of brushes I didn’t previously need.
Best Features: Their creativity. They were the first to add 10 speeds and then 11. They added carbon fiber to components like shift levers and derailleurs before anyone else did. They embraced both triples and compact cranks before Shimano did. They’ve offered a greater array of cassettes for their top group than Shimano has for some years. It’s a fact that Campagnolo has done more to meet the needs of the everyman than Shimano has by virtue of its willingness to offer smaller chainrings and bigger rear cogs on its cassettes. For an executive with taste and too few hours to ride, there isn’t a better choice than Campy with a compact crank and a 13-29 cassette, that is unless he lives some place relatively flat where he can get by with the compact and a 12-23.
I appreciate that Campagnolo offers cassettes with a 12t small cog. I don’t climb as fast as I did when I was racing, so I like having a 27t large cog. My unabashed love of climbing combined with my even greater love of technical descents (where my speed rarely hits 50 mph) makes my absolute favorite cassette the 11-speed 12-27. It has worked for me in the canyons above Malibu and makes great sense in the Alps as well. I can’t defend this preference in any remotely objective way; it suits my fitness and the terrain I prefer.
One great feature of Campagnolo’s Ergo shifter is your ability to dump the chain down the cassette after getting over the top of a climb. Where I live I rarely need this feature, but I have ridden loads of hills in New England that had a sharp finish to them and being able to drop three or four cogs instantly was pretty handy. Even better than this is the mechanical advantage of their shifters. It requires less force to execute a shift with Campagnolo shifters than either of their competitors’ shifters. And then there’s trim. Whether you’re in the small or large chainring, you get trim and I’ve yet to ride a Dura-Ace bike adjusted so perfectly as to prevent me from desiring at least a touch of trim.
Campagnolo has also endorsed the concept of running changes in a way Shimano doesn’t appreciate. If you didn’t like a feature of 7800, too bad; it stayed until the release of 7900. With Campagnolo, every year there are a few tweaks. The downside is that sometimes the new group isn’t all that new, but that process of tweaking has meant that the pressure required to shift the thumb button has decreased but the chance of overshifting has dropped as well. It used to be that in a sprint, by the time you generated enough pressure to execute a shift, you were well on your way to yet another shift. I was careful about the smallest cog I’d run on my cassette when I raced to make sure I didn’t risk overshifting. Running changes also means that each year Super Record gets a bit lighter; no matter what Shimano is doing, the fact that each year Super record gets lighter will keep the group competitive and push Shimano to catch up.
Worst Features: Their creativity. Let’s face it, three of the biggest game changers in component design—integrated control levers, large diameter BB spindles and dual-pivot brakes—all came from Shimano. It pains me to write that. Five or six years ago a friend summed up the reason he thought Campagnolo was OTB in component design with this: “Two words dude, square taper.” He was referring to the Italian company’s ongoing use of the square taper BB spindle, something they did finally abandon.
It’s not that Campagnolo isn’t creative. God knows. The problem is that the company used to lose the plot line periodically. Two more words: Delta brakes. I covered this ground adequately in peloton‘s issue 8, but I’ll remind you that the Delta brake, while as gorgeous as Riedel crystal, worked only as well as something spec’d by Huffy and was even harder to adjust. Imagine something as pretty as an iPod but with circa 1990s system software by Microsoft.
As much as I love the shape of the Ergo body and brake lever, I’m dismayed that Campagnolo has yet to offer the ability to adjust the reach on the brake lever. This is never more frustrating than when I move back to my Super Record-equipped bike from either a Dura-Ace or Red-equipped bike. It seems to me that ideal ergonomics would mean that lever reach would be adjustable so that any rider could open their hands while in the drops and their fingers would immediately reach the levers. It’s not a huge reach, but it’s a reach, nonetheless, that many of us are forced to make. That the quick release for the brake is on the lever is a feature I’ve never liked. A broken spoke will result in a brake lever that can only be reached from the hood.
Campagnolo’s extensive use of carbon fiber has a downside. Lay a Campy-equipped bike down and you’d better sharpen up your American Express card. I once had one of their chains blow apart at the shop-installed with the $100 tool masterlink (an abandoned design) and the broken link caught in the rear derailleur pulleys as I pedaled. The carbon parallelogram snapped like dried pasta. I still find the fact that their chains are non-repairable and require a $100 chain tool irksome. And that’s putting it mildly.
Assembly and Maintenance: The last iteration of Campagnolo 10-speed Record set a new standard in functionality for the Italian manufacturer’s top group. It was by far the quickest to set up and adjust, save the chain, but we’ve covered that. Unfortunately, Super Record 11 has proven to be fussier to set up. If the front derailleur set up isn’t perfect a dropped chain can result in chewed up carbon fiber, either in the front derailleur (no bueno) or perhaps at the frame (really no bueno).
Worse is the company’s decision to use aluminum Torx fittings to secure the levers and brake pads. Gone are the days of slipping a 5mm driver below the hood and giving a firm twist. Now you have to peel the hood back to a crazy degree and try to shove a Torx driver in there squarely enough that you don’t end up with aluminum shavings all over the lever. Your results may vary. To get the lever clamp tight enough I had to snug a crescent wrench on the driver’s handle. To see a picture of me doing this you can check out the Wikipedia entry for “awkward.” Not publicized by the company was the release of some alternative cassette spacers some months after the introduction of Super Record. There was an acknowledgement that some users might not be getting the best possible shifting performance. I was Googling for information on optimal adjustment of Super Record drivetrains when I happened to run across info about the ever-so-slightly thicker spacers.
Running new cables in a lever is less fun than changing a diaper. By a long shot. Those little white cable guides may give you choice, and they pop out to aid installation, but getting them back in is a bit like trying to replace a AA battery with a D cell.
The good news is that once it’s working properly all it needs is the occasional wash and chain lube.
Group Weight: 4.3 lbs. (1950g)
Best Internet Pricing: $2199
Let’s start with the 800-lb. gorilla: Dura-Ace. Shimano usurped Campagnolo’s position is the top dog in the OEM category on bikes even before Bill Clinton became a household name. The combination of smooth and simple operation plus high value made the Japanese manufacturer’s parts not just acceptable, but sought after.
With the introduction of Hyperglide (which was the first system to add individually contoured cog teeth to aid shifting) back in 1989, Shimano drivetrains took a noticeable step ahead of its competition; that technology was added to the redesign of Dura-Ace that was introduced in 1991. That iteration of Dura-Ace gave us eight speeds and—more important—the first integrated control lever. I assembled a Schwinn Paramount (“One of the Waterford bikes!” I exclaimed when I opened the frame box) with the new Dura-Ace and I was just enough of a Campy grouch to proclaim (largely because Campy’s Ergo lever had yet to be introduced) that the integrated control lever was “unnecessary.”
It is, perhaps, fortuitous that I turned down a lucrative career in crystal ball reading.
Had Shimano not introduced that revision of the group, I shudder to think what Campagnolo would have dreamt up as a follow-up to C-Record. My fear is that it would have been prettier than the Taj Mahal, sported seven speeds and weighed 15 pounds. Eight-speed Dura-Ace turned the tables on Campagnolo and the venerable Italian manufacturer spent a good six years rocked back on its heels—until 9-speed Record went into production. In the 20 years since the introduction of STI in Dura-Ace, the group has lost nearly two pounds, gained two gears, offers wider gearing options for us mortals and improved brake modulation to allow you to choose between scrubbing a tiny bit of speed or making an emergency stop, plus everything in between. Shifting performance has continued to increase as well.
The trouble with Shimano is that it has become the de facto standard and due to the company’s patent attorneys, their voluminous filings have done more to stifle innovation than give the company a competitive edge. For as much as I love their innovation, I despise the work of their legal team. But that dominance owes to their sales team. Shimano figured out the OEM game in a way that Campagnolo still fails to replicate. Shimano gives great pricing to bike manufacturers and they produce their parts very near where most bikes are made and assembled. It’s easy to do business with Shimano, so for that reason many product managers go with them. You get a great bike at a good price.
Best Features: So let’s start with what there is to recommend Dura-Ace 7900. First is the operation of its levers. The two-lever operation of the shifting and the fact that the brake lever doubles as one of the shift levers makes the shifting on Dura-Ace fairly intuitive. The genius part of the shifting system is the fact that you can brake and downshift at the same time. It’s a feature that I used in crits to my advantage and one that continues to serve me well on group rides. It’s rare that I’m braking with any real force and not downshifting at the same time.
Am I out of gears? A quick push on the lever gives instant feedback to whether or not you’re in your biggest cog. That the front derailleur has enough mechanical advantage and stiffness to shift from the little ring to the big one even while you are out of the saddle and pedaling hard is pretty impressive.
Durability is another real selling point for Dura-Ace. With no carbon fiber to be found in the crank, the rear derailleur or even the front derailleur, a Dura-Ace bike is likely to fair a little better in a crash than a Campagnolo Record or Super Record-equipped bike.
The shape of the 7900 control lever is good in that it offers multiple hand positions. I frequently find myself riding with my hands resting half on the bar and half on the lever, as opposed to wrapping my hands fully around the lever body, a position I seem to save for getting out of the saddle. That the 7900 lever now offers brake lever reach adjustment is terrific. I don’t have big hands and I like to run the levers as close to the bar as possible. Another nice feature of the brakes is the quick release lever that allows you to open the brake for wide tires, or in the event of a wheel knocked out of true, the ability to open the brake on the fly and ride home without it rubbing.
Worst Features: Unfortunately, the shape of the 7900 control lever is as attractive as a Ford Pinto. Where the 7800 lever had a slightly sci-fi-edged ergonomicity to it, this new one is blocky and the plus that both cables are run under tape can’t overcome the fact that the lever has all the style of a banquet table. Even worse is how if you remove the faceplate off the lever and turn in the screw to adjust the reach on the brake lever you are left with this open-maw appearance that gives the lever a look that is simultaneously not aero and oddly hungry. Slack-jawed is synonymous with vacant.
What I can’t wrap my head around is how after 20 years of STI you can still move either shift lever a full centimeter and not execute a shift. What’s with all that wasted lever throw? I’ve asked in the past and I’ve gotten answers, but the answers never made enough sense for me to memorize or even believe. Lever play seems to be a vestige of an era when we didn’t know how to maximize ergonomics and performance in the pursuit of all-out excellence. It reminds me of the criticism that the Ford Mustang is deficient because while it has a V8 engine, Ford coaxed less than 400 horsepower from it. Porsche does better than that with only six cylinders. And those aforementioned lever faceplates? They corrode. Shimano has trouble with plating periodically. Those of us who live near the ocean can tell stories of corroded chainrings and crank arms through various iterations of Dura-Ace. The finish seems to be good on all the other parts, though.
It used to be really easy to slide a 5mm Allen key beneath the hood and loosen the lever clamp to adjust lever position. It’s a pain in the ass, now. It’s difficult to roll the lever hood up enough to get a 5mm ball driver in there. Do not like. Another feature I’m less than enthused about is the half polished/half matte finish on the brakes, derailleurs and crank. I suppose that there are lots of people out there who like this, but 7800 was a much more attractive group.
On the cassette front, Dura-Ace gives you eight different options, three of which begin with a 12t cog. I’m sorry, but most of us don’t live in a place where the descents are long enough and fast enough to make use of a 53×11 or even a 50×11, nor are we strong enough to sprint at better than 40 mph—a 50×11 spun at 120 rpm works out to 42.6 mph; I never sprinted that fast.
Assembly and Maintenance: For the most part, installation of a new group is fast and easy. That’s good from a labor rate standpoint if you’re paying your local shop to work on your bike. Replacing a cable, however, is a real frustration. It used to be that you could feed a new cable in and the internals would guide the cable into the existing brake housing pretty effectively; with gear cables it was easy enough to pull the housing out of the lever while you ran the new cable. Running a new cable in a 7900 lever takes some time. On more than one occasion I’ve had to cut the electrical tape holding the housing to the bar before running the cable through and then sliding the housing onto the cable. Again, the upshot here is that if you do your own maintenance, it’s a time suck and if you’re paying someone else to do it, you’re spending more on labor.
I hear lots of people say they always replace their chain and cassette together. I replace my chain about every 2000 miles. When I was racing and my jumps had more spice (and torque), I replaced them every 1000 miles. Consequently, I don’t wear out cassettes. If you replace the chain often enough, the cassette cogs will last a long time.
Chainring wear has been very good with this group. I can recall friends eating through 7700-series chainrings in just a season.
Group Weight: 4.57 lbs. (2070g)
Best Internet Pricing: $1549