Twelve years ago the Sea Otter Classic was a collection of bike races with some industry friendliness thrown in. It is an unusual event in that it embraces nearly every discipline of bike racing going. Back then, people hung out to watch the racing and during the road events, Laguna Seca’s famed corkscrew would host dozens of spectators. Mountain bike teams would set up their rigs in the infield and a handful of companies would set up small expo booths.
There’s road racing, cross-country, downhill, dual slalom and more. Throw in a 24-hour event, an alley cat and some track racing and all that would be missing would be the West Coast’s first spring ‘cross race. Yes, Virginia, there is a pump track if air time is more important to you than speed.
Today, the Sea Otter boasts an enormous expo, larger than Mammoth Mountain’s was back in the late ‘90s. Every company that has a serious presence in racing has a rig there to support their race programs and generally provide limited support to their customers. Bike shops sell everything from tires and tubes to helmets and cassettes. Frame builders show off their latest creations.
There’s stuff for kids to do, right down to races of their own. And they can meet the Sea Otter mascot.
Periodically, attendees will see a cordoned-off area with a bunch of (mostly male) journalists taking notes and pictures with impossibly small cameras. The fact is, Sea Otter has becoming the go-to locale for product introductions that weren’t ready for the prime time of Interbike. Truly, unveiling a product at Sea Otter can be advantageous to a company. How many story lines can you really hope for the press to cover at Interbike? For those companies constantly on the move, Sea Otter gives you a way to space out product intros so that a company can get press on a more year-round basis.
SRAM took the opportunity to announce another road group, Apex. So what’s the big deal? Gearing. With Apex, SRAM has slain the triple. Apex does a good deal more, though.
With a possible low gear of 34×32, Apex can get any cyclist up any hill. It carries a suggested retail price of $749, which is impressive given that Apex enjoys a 10-speed cassette and can be used to build up a 16-lb. bike. Theoretically, it will appear on bikes as inexpensive as $1500.
Some years ago I wrote that Shimano’s 9-speed Ultegra group was the best value in road groups ever produced. It was available in both double and triple versions, could easily build a 17-lb. bike and could be purchased at retail for $600. All in all, a fantastic value. I stood by that analysis until Friday. Last Friday.
Apex has the ability to make road cycling friendly to a great many people. I’ve seen plenty of new roadies ride around in a 39×23 and ask me what to do if they encounter a hill. Those days are—once and for all—over.
Apex comes in four
cassette sizes: 11-23, 11-26, 11-28 and 11-32. Walk into any shop in America and you can talk to a salesman who has sold mountain bikes just because the customer was overweight and was concerned about having gears low enough to get up a hill near home. Apex solves that issue—even for San Francisco. SRAM refers to the new system as WiFLi—Wider, Faster and Lighter.
Two different rear derailleurs were designed for Apex. The 11-23 and 11-26 cassettes work with a traditional short-cage derailleur while the 11-28 and 11-32 work with a longer cage version. Price and gearing are the only details that make Apex noteworthy. Everything else about the group is just very … SRAM. By that I mean the levers feel like every other SRAM lever I’ve ever used.
One of my issues with Shimano’s more affordable groups has been the degradation of shifting performance and lever feedback as price drops. In the Sora and Tiagra groups it’s been bad enough that I always steer people away from bikes equipped with those groups. By contrast, the Apex levers feature very firm spring response. There’s no mistaking when or how far you’ve shifted.
I refuse to discuss Campy’s “affordable” groups in this post. I haven’t seen anything less expensive than Chorus on the road in years. For reasons I can’t explain, I’m suddenly reminded of the scene in American Beauty—“It’s all I smoke … It’s $1000 an ounce.”
Similarly, the brakes feel like every other set of SRAM brakes I’ve used. In short, they stop. The constantly shifting sand underlying Shimano brake performance can be a colossal frustration. And since when did a less expensive bike have a reduced need to stop? Does it really make sense than Dura-Ace, Shimano’s most expensive group, would have the greatest stopping power? I’m thinking new riders want to be convinced they’ll stop in plenty of time. After all, a good deal of getting a new rider into roadiedom is reassuring them that they will have sufficient control over their bike.
The cranks come in three versions: 53/39, 50/36 and what is likely to be the most popular, the 50/34. And because we’re talking SRAM, they are available in lengths from 165mm to 180mm.
So after sitting through the dog and pony show, I headed back to the booth the next day for a test ride of the group. We’d do a 1.5-hr. loop culminating in the climb back into Laguna Seca. For those who have never visited the race track, the access road is a roughly 1-mile climb that reaches grades of 16 percent. Armed with a 34×32 low gear, we were assured we could remain seated for the whole of the climb.
Our guide for the ride was Michael Zellman (above), the PR manager for road products at SRAM. One of the features of Apex is its compatibility with other SRAM groups. To prove the point, Michael substituted the rear derailleur on his Red group for Apex and replaced his Red cassette with an Apex 11-32 cassette (probably added a longer chain, too). Boom. Mountain climbing machine.
Of course, the big question regarding the cassette is the spacing. Little known secret: You are most apt to notice a problem with spacing when you’re at or above threshold. If the jump is too big, you’re heart rate will go up just out of sheer frustration. I tend to notice this when I’m upshifting to find a bit more meat and my concern was that jump from 32 to 28. It wasn’t a problem. The biggest jumps come elsewhere in the cassette.
While I’d like to have a chance to get 1000 or so miles on the group, what I can say for now is this: In a pinch, you could easily do a fast group ride with the 11-32 cassette. It’s true that a triple would offer smaller jumps between gears; however, most triples will replicate roughly six gears and weigh an extra 10-15 percent more than the Apex solution. And Apex gives you more low-end and more high-end gearing than the average triple would.
This is, in all likelihood, the best value in road groups we’ll see for years to come.
Cutting the chase: the image above, which I snapped on the way back into Laguna Seca and right about where you’re certain that a 16-percent grade can only be attributed to engineering compromised by methamphetamine is, I believe, the lasting image that SRAM would like to convey. On the right, the past. On the left, the present.
Stay tuned for a more in-depth review.
The wheel market has exploded with the vengeance of the mosquito population at a stagnant pond in the Deep South during a drought-plagued summer. We’ve been overrun with wheels, much the way I just overran my good sense and your patience in that last sentence.
Doubt that? Nearly every company that used to offer wheel components—DT, Campagnolo, Mavic, Shimano, American Classic, Chris King and Ambrosio for starters—now offers complete wheels. There are some notable exceptions, such as Wheelsmith and Sapim, who have elected to stick with spokes and nipples, and Phil Wood (hubs), but the vast majority of companies that produced components that I used to build wheels from now offer complete wheelsets.
By a certain sort of math, you could make an argument that expansion brought about a tripling of the wheel market. The result has changed what it means to purchase a high-end wheelset. Given the incredible number of poorly built handmade wheels I saw over the years (How many racers did I see not finish a race because their wheels didn’t hold up?), this isn’t a bad thing … on one level. On another, it can be terrible at times.
Gone is the conversation between the budding racer and the sage mechanic. I’ve been on both sides of that conversation and the chance to learn about or to teach lacing patterns or the value of equal spoke tension is a chance for someone to become a more knowledgeable, more engaged cyclist. Those conversations and choices were substantive. Clydesdales need to be steered away from alloy nipples just as bantam weight climbers ought to be steered to butted spokes. On group rides these days, so often I hear guys discussing wheel choices based on color.
Recently overheard: “I went with the American Classics because the white matched my frame.”
I’ve tried a number of aftermarket wheelsets with Campy freehubs. In both 10- and 11-speed configurations a great many of them have a problem that I consider colossal, but I rarely hear anyone complain.
That problem? Rear derailleur spoke clearance.
If I hear the rear derailleur cage tick, tick, ticking against the spokes when I’m climbing, I’m concerned. It is the bicycle equivalent of driving to Dubuque with the idiot light on. And the people who do complain about this? They are the ones who had exactly this problem—undiagnosed by their shop mechanic—stood up and flexed the wheel enough to catch the cage, sheer the carbon fiber scissors through wrapping paper and destroy the rear derailleur, the wheel and the derailleur hanger, if not the frame along the way.
I’ve encountered this problem on more wheels than I ought. A healthy supply of 1mm spacers hasn’t corrected the problem for most of the wheels, either. One can ask the question of whether the problem is with the wheels or the derailleur, but because Campagnolo and Fulcrum wheels never have this problem—proving that it is possible to make wheels that don’t suffer this incompatibility—I lay the blame with the wheel makers.
A good review of a set of wheels really ought to be based on qualities of superior distinction, such as multiplying your power output or a freehub that dispenses cash when you hit 500 watts. Congratulating a set of wheels for competency is a bit like giving a kid AP credit for reading Harry Potter.
Regardless, the starting point for this review is the fact that the spokes of the Torelli Bormio Ceramic Ultra-Lites don’t rub on a Campy rear derailleur cage. This one feature makes them worth considering if you’re looking for a set of Campy-compatible wheels. Is that enough to warrant purchasing them? Not by a long shot.
In fact, my biggest single wheel pet peeve is trueness—actually lack thereof. I monitor wheels as I review them to see how they are holding up. Within the first 200 miles of riding these wheels I had to perform a slight truing of the rear wheel, tightening two spokes that had de-tensioned slightly. I’ve done nothing since.
Last fall I rode Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo. For those of you who recall my ride report of the event, you may recall some grumbling about a record number of flats I experienced that day. These were the wheels I was using. The reason for the trouble was a rim strip issue.
When I returned from the ride I e-mailed Todd, the owner at Torelli, and told him about the trouble. He was on the phone to me within the minute I hit the ‘send’ button. When I saw the “Torelli” on the caller ID, I thought it was just a weird coincidence.
He asked me what color the rim strips were. When I told him they were yellow, he told me to throw them in the trash, that those were early production and had caused problems and had been since replaced with different rim strips that wouldn’t move. I’d have some new ones the next day. And I did.
Every dealer that received wheels with the yellow rim strips have been shipped the red rim strips I received.
Since receiving the new rim strips, I haven’t had a single flat and that’s even while running the paper-thin Specialized open tubulars (whose ride continues to grow on me). I remain deeply suspicious of mylar, plastic and all manner of rim strips that are anything other than Velox for one simple reason: Velox rim strips have adhesive on the bottom. Granted, it doesn’t have the sticky factor of Chinese rice, but it really doesn’t need much to just not move.
Okay, so lets move on to the bullet points featured in the marketing literature. The rims have a claimed weight of 380 grams. The front wheel has 20 spokes, the rear 24 spokes. The front is radially laced, the rear features radial lacing on the non-drive side and two-cross on the drive side. The stainless steel J-bend Sandvik spokes are bladed (0.9mm x 2.2mm) for increased aerodynamic efficiency and easy replacement.
Torelli claims they weigh 1380g for the pair—that’s with rim strips and a Shimano freehub. I have yet to review a set of wheels that weighs within 10g of the advertised weight, but these were pretty close; they came in at 1412g. I attribute the difference to the Campy freehub, but that’s just a wild assertion of the same general vicinity as most stories in the National Enquirer. I haven’t weighed the two freehub bodies. I really don’t know. At all.
The rear wheel contains six ceramic bearings and inside the freehub is a needle bearing to reduce freehub drag while descending, of which, it does an admirable job. Spin the rear wheel up with the bike in the stand and once you let go of the pedal it moves no further. It’s also remarkably quiet when freewheeling, which is a quality I associate with low drag and stealthy approaches, both of which I find handy.
Compared to many wheels in this weight range the Bormio Ceramic Ultra-Lites are surprisingly stiff laterally. Certainly there are stiffer wheels out there, but stiff isn’t really the selling point on these wheels. Their weight, incredibly low rolling resistance due to the ceramic bearings and machined aluminum braking surfaces, all for a suggested retail of $650 is why you buy these wheels.
Who doesn’t want raceable weight and low-drag bearings in an everyday wheelset?
Torelli does suggest a 180-lb. weight limit for users, but I suspect that at that weight (or more) you would be inclined to seek out a stiffer wheel regardless.
A great set of wheels really isn’t about the graphics (which on these aren’t exactly going to win any design awards—but can’t anyone get graphics right on a set of wheels anymore without sacrificing function?); it ought to be about bringing the various elements together to make a wheel set perfectly suited to its intended purpose.
In the last year I’ve tried six different aftermarket (non-Campy/Fulcrum) wheel sets meant to work with Campy. Considering functionality, weight and price, these are the best of the bunch.
One of the greatest adventures of my newly minted career as a bicycle mechanic was when I was walked through my first overhaul. One Saturday just before New Year’s Eve, after we closed the shop up, the manager and I stayed behind, cranked up The Who and he began disassembling his Nuovo Record-equipped Cïocc.
Off came the wheels, then each of the cables and housing. Then he removed the brakes, the derailleurs, the cranks, and then the stem, headset and fork. Finally he disassembled the bottom bracket. As he removed each of the parts they went in the Safety-Kleen bath. He flicked a switch and left them to marinate. He coiled the cables before tossing them in the trash and he folded the chain on an old rag.
He showed me how to position the crank-bolt wrench so that you squeeze the wrench and crank arm toward each other to remove the crank bolts. But when he took the Park crank puller off the wall, a tool I had previously seen, but never used, the bicycle became as complicated as a Chinese puzzle, but with an entirely more thrilling solution.
He demonstrated how to hold the drive-side crank arm and use a Park Y-Allen to loosen the crank bolts. One sudden, firm twist broke the bolts free. I quickly learned the chainrings were tough to scrub clean.
With the frame stripped of everything save the headset cups, he washed down the frame and cleaned around the chainstay bridge, around the seatstays at the seat binder, at the head tube/down tube joint and behind the front derailleur braze-on.
We scrubbed the brakes and derailleurs down and used a rat-tail file to remove enough brake shoe material to remove any aluminum embedded in the brake shoes. They were placed on a clean rag to dry.
The quick releases received their own bath and then the non-drive-side locknut and cone were removed from each wheel’s axle. The ball bearings for the headset, each hub and the bottom bracket were placed in glass bowls, one for each size of bearing. After making sure the bearings were clean, we inspected them for scoring or any other sign of wear. Next, he took a rag, dipped it in the Safety-Kleen and then wiped shiny each of the bearing races and cones.
It was painstaking work, work for which only clear forethought and practiced technique could add speed. Satisfaction was proportional to effort.
We reassembled the wheels first; truing would happen the next weekend when he planned to glue on a new set tires. One finger-scoop-worth of Campy’s white lithium grease was applied to each race and then each bearing was placed like so many cherries into whipped cream.
When we spun the freewheel back on he showed me how to use the freewheel tool to tighten the freewheel onto the hub threads so that the rear derailleur adjustment wouldn’t be thrown off by trying to adjust the set screws relative to a not-yet fully tightened freewheel. It was fun to put my full weight into turning the wheel on the vise.
With the frame spun upside-down in the work stand, we finished off the headset and then re-inserted the fork and spun on the headset’s adjustable cup.
We reattached the derailleurs and brakes, and made sure to remount the front derailleur exactly where the clamp had made indentations on the braze-on. New cables ran from each lever. We cut new housing to match the lengths of the old spans. We only needed 4 and 5mm Allen wrenches and an 8mm box wrench. A quick stretch of the cables and then we tightened them once again.
A week later I decided I would overhaul my touring bike. When I realized that the hubs and bottom bracket used sealed bearings (which were pretty exotic for those days), I felt cheated; the experience was less thorough than I’d anticipated. It’s a bit like traveling to Paris with the expectation that you’ll get to speak French, only to have everyone there look at your shoes and speak to you in English.
A few months later I purchased a used Super Record-equipped Miele. The first thing I did was overhaul the bike and replace the brinelled headset with a Chris King—kind of ironic given my previous experience, but my time in shops had taught me that no headset was longer-lasting and less likely to brinell than the King.
As the years passed, overhauling my bike between Christmas and New Year’s became a tradition for me, much like the annual company New Year’s Eve party is for some folks, only this was a good deal more contemplative and peaceful.
These days I’ve see the overhaul as a metaphor for many aspects of my cycling life. Every year I break out the tape measure and goniometer and go over my fit with the help of friend who does fittings for a local shop. We break it down beginning with an examination of my flexibility and ending with a thorough examination of me on my bikes.
Last year, I overhauled my workspace in the garage, tossing out old crap, filling a box with stuff to sell on Craigslist and sorting the stuff I planned to keep. It was a catharsis, and because the adventure was novel as my first shave, it was exhilarating as well.
This winter I’m in the process of overhauling my fitness. An injury last year followed by the birth of my son left me adrift of my usual mileage; I was as unacquainted with my usual fitness as the incarcerated are with take-out. Getting me in my jeans was as difficult as passing a rich man through the eye of a needle.
So this winter I overhauled my riding routines. I’ve sworn off the fastest group rides that are a normal part of my riding week. I’m riding on my own more, and I’m wearing a heart rate monitor—not for the hard efforts; rather, to remind me just how easy easy is these days. It’s kind of a will-governor, if you will.
I always derived immense satisfaction from running through the gears one last time while the bike was still in the stand, checking the throw on the brake levers and then removing the bike to pump up the tires before a quick inspection spin. I’m not sure what this personal overhaul will yield, and it will be hard to say just what finished is as our lives are unfinished until departure. Until then, I will stick to the process. I know the process results in satisfaction.
On behalf of everyone at RKP, we wish you and your family a wonderful holiday season. And if Santa left a Pinarello Dogma equipped with Super Record under your tree, then so much the better.
When I was initiated into proper roadiedom, I was taught that if you were serious about doing things the right way, the Euro way, then you did things a certain way. The quickest way to show others you knew what you were doing was to show up on a Campagnolo-equipped bike with a Cinelli bar, stem and seatpost. Your saddle was Italian and your tape was the same color as your decals or the accent color in the windows of your lugs.
That mindset, though it created some gorgeous bikes that served well for tens of thousands of miles, squashed some great ideas over the years. I’m reminded of a Pasadena company, Sweet Parts, that made cranks and stems from steel of surprising stiffness and low weight. Alas, in the mid-1990s it was hard to get a rider to break rank with those suites of parts used in the gruppo or other componentry. After all, if your bar, stem and seatpost were supposed to match, what did you pair an oddball stem to?
Times change, and so do bikes. And while sometimes too much emphasis is placed on weight, it is tough to argue that today’s bikes aren’t noticeably superior in almost every performance aspect: Lower weight makes them easier to accelerate and speeds climbing; increased frame stiffness improves power transmission and more sophisticated componentry has improved shifting, given us more gears and increased brake modulation.
The proliferation of aftermarket components—everything from bars to brakes—means that we’re more accustomed to seeing bikes with parts that may not match. Zipp helped lead the way into this fray some years back. In fact, carbon fiber has been the company’s bread and butter for close to 15 years. Fortunately, the 3k weave used in many carbon fiber parts makes them more similar than not, even if the decals don’t match.
Zipp’s latest crankset for road (as opposed to TT/Tri) use is the VumaQuad. It uses a four-arm spider (the crankarm is one of the four arms of the spider) and is available in two different chainring configurations, either 53/39t or 50/34t; interestingly, both configurations use a 110mm bolt-circle diameter, so you can change chainrings out depending on the conditions or your fitness. The crankset is available in four lengths: 170, 172.5, 175 or 180mm. The spindle is oversized and machined from aluminum to the new BB30 standard; it is integrated into the non-drive arm and secures to the drive-side arm with a self-extracting bolt. And because Zipp is predicated on making you faster, the bottom bracket is offered with ceramic bearings (as well as precision steel); the cups are available in either English or Italian threads. All this in a sub-600g package.
My review setup was 50/34 rings with 175mm arms and ceramic bearings. I tried the cranks first on a bike that previously had a set of carbon fiber cranks that had some detectable flex. I immediately noticed the increased stiffness as well as a weight reduction. The easier spin of the bearings was noticeable (if not hugely apparent) when I sat down and shifted to a small gear for a hill; I felt like I was turning out an extra 10 watts or so.
Next, I swapped the crank over to my preferred ride. This frame is stiffer at the bottom bracket and I was curious to see how much of an improvement I’d feel over the Super Record Ultra-Torque crankset (a review of the Super Record will be coming). The change I felt was comparable to my first ride on the Dura-Ace 7800 crankset—I was stunned by the seamless transmission of power. I had the sense that the bike itself was stiffer at the bottom bracket, even though I knew that wasn’t the case.
Ten years ago I had concerns about parts not matching on my bike. Five years ago I had concerns about the durability of carbon fiber cranks. Last year I started wondering if you could even tell whether your bike had ceramic bearings anywhere other than the wheels. The VumaQuad has super-hero-like powers to alleviate me of anxiety and improve my performance. Of course, all this performance will cost you; $1250 (with ceramic bearings) is a weekend getaway at a swanky resort, but there’s no question in my mind this crankset is superior to every crank I have tried from Campagnolo, Shimano, Specialized and FSA. Honestly though, for that kind of money, you shouldn’t be left wondering if it was worth it.