When I was in fifth grade, I got the flu the week of my birthday. I missed the party my class would have held for me and only strayed—woozily—from the couch to head to the kitchen for more orange juice. On my birthday, my mom headed out in the morning to do some shopping; little did I know she was shopping for me. She returned home and began presenting me with gifts to open. Perhaps she took the time to wrap them; that part of my memory washed away with the fever.
That song single-handedly delivered me from my malaise. In its opening chords the song’s mood promised much, a triumphal chest-beating celebration. I had no idea who Susan B. Anthony was or the meaning of the term suffragette, but the energy of the song did not escape me. Within a day I was asking myself how I had survived 11 whole years without that song.
The very best things in life have the same quality to make you wonder just how you would manage in their absence. Refrigerators, toilet paper, the quick release, the best inventions have done more than just make life easier, they make us wonder how we’d get by without them.
Ladies and gentlemen, I submit Shimano’s Dura-Ace 9000, a group I do not wish to live without.
Many of your are pausing in the middle of this sentence to go back and re-read my last statement for obvious reasons. I might as well have just switched not just political parties, but from bleeding-heart liberal to sovereign citizen. I am truly a hardened-in-die fan of Campagnolo. I still save my Campy boxes, much to my wife’s chagrin. And I’ve welcomed the incredible work that SRAM has done in re-thinking how road components can function, not to mention starting from scratch in design and manufacturing.
Backpedaling complete, 9000 is the group we have all wanted ever since we started riding. Srsly. It’s got more cogs than your Schwinn Varsity had gears. It’s as easy to shift as it is to flick the turn indicator on your car. Chain movement is as smooth and flawless as the action of a doorknob. There are as many cassette choices as there are flavors of bagel at a Jewish deli. Brake action is light as a page of a book and easier to modulate than the temper of a toddler.
I submit: What’s not to like?
To be sure, this group isn’t new in the sense of heretofore nonexistent features; it’s a refinement of existing ideas, but sometimes that’s the space from which the best products emerge.
Unfortunately, the best way to frame the excellence of this group is by comparing it to its predecessor and competitors. If you rode the previous iteration of Dura-Ace (7900), think of all that you didn’t like about that group. Front derailleur shifts required a concerted effort accompanied by audible grunt. Rear shifts were easier, but still required a bit of forethought if you were going au bloc. Then there was the blocky shape to the levers. They weren’t difficult to grab, but their contours weren’t something you’d want to hold all day. Brake action might have been invented by Bill Gates in its binary, 0 or 1, on or off action. Modulation? What modulation?
The heart of any component group is its shifting. Get the shifting right and many people will overlook other flaws like flexing crank arms or chain rings, weak brakes or short-lived cassettes and chains. 9000 features the lightest shift action of any group I’ve used, including the new Red group and the precision of each shift exceeds that of Campagnolo’s Super Record group. There’s still some play in the lever before you begin up- or down-shifts, but because lever throw has been cut by 30 percent and the action is so light, it no longer bothers me. The 9000 group also sets a new standard for out-of-the-saddle shifts from small chainring to big. Honestly, the only other group that has performed nearly this well on that particular shift is the old 7800 group.
Also worth noting on the front shifting is the return of shifter trim and how it’s executed. The 7900 front shifter lacked trim and I never, ever got it set up perfectly for even one day; I really welcome trim. When downshifting from big ring to small, the shifter returns the front derailleur only part way; this offers two benefits. First is that the gears it makes immediately available without rub are the middle and high cogs of the cassette. It also prevents the chain from being dropped off the small ring without the aid of a chain catcher. I can attest to never having dropped the chain even once while riding this group.
For those of you who, like me, adjusted the lever throw for non-NBA-player-like hands, you’ll welcome the new design to the lever face which eliminates that slack-jawed look caused by the adjuster screw. It also eliminates the dirt-intake the lever opening created. You’ll notice that the hoods are two different colors; the light gray is a softer durometer material giving you a better grip, especially if you ride with no gloves. Best of all, the ergonomics of the new hood and lever body top anything Shimano previously offered. I’ve often struggled to decide just which previous design was my favorite. The 9-speed Ultegra featured one of my favorite lever bodies, but the 9000 has a smaller hood circumference, making it easier to grip with gloves or without, even if your hands are July-in-New Orleans sweaty.
Shimano claims that with their new polymer-coated cables front shift action is now 43-percent easier and rear shifting action is 47-percent easier, practically half the force required to shift as the previous group. Is that absolutely accurate? I wonder, but only because I suspect that the last 7900 group I rode probably didn’t work even as well as they claim it should have. I possess this generous suspicion that the improvement in shift action is more like 100 percent. Whatever the numbers are, the upshot is how I find myself shifting far more often than I used to.
Shimano is offering five cassette choices: 11-23, 11-25, 11-28, 12-25 and 12-28. That they have resisted the urge to offer nothing but cassettes that begin with an 11t cog had me doing a little happy dance in my garage (cue the Vince Guaraldi). The reality of the strength of the average cyclist is that an 50 x 11 gear is too big to effectively use. A 53 x 11? Yeah, and I play Peter Sagan in my dreams. There’s a comically contradictory effect to giving mortals like us a 50t chainring to create more usable gears while in the big ring, but then sticking an 11 on the end of the cassette. What the maker giveth, he taketh away.
Now, if they’d just offer a 12-23 for all that time spent on the flat lands.
When Oakley introduced the M-Frame and Heater lens in the early ’90s, I recoiled from them the way I do from slugs and flesh-eating bacteria. At some point I realized I couldn’t live without my own pair of slugs, I mean Heaters. I’m not sure what happened. I have this suspicion there will come a day when I have the same affinity for this crank set, but I delight in reporting that day has yet to arrive. I detest the look of those cranks, particularly the asymmetrical spider, which carries all the grace of a boxy pedal stroke.
Toothless hooker looks aside, Shimano deserves credit for offering the cranks in seven (7!) lengths—from 165 to 180mm in 2.5mm increments—and six ring configurations—50/34t, 52/36t, 52/38t, 53/39t, 54/42t and 55-42t. Whew.
It’s worth mentioning that the ginormous parallelogram of the front derailleur demands that the cable be trimmed manscape short, unless of course you want that cable end brushing your calf every time you shift into the big ring. So good is this group that all that’s left to complain about is the look of the crank and how much you trim the cables.
At 1978 grams, this group is heavier than Super Record and Red. That ought to be the sort of third-place finish to make me rethink my interest in the group, but it’s not. The weights are so close that the group’s ease of use is not only enough for me to want this on every bike I own, it’s enough to make wonder why Shimano even bothers with a Di2 version. Yeah, the shifting is that good.
Years from now there will probably come a day of reckoning, a point at which I’ll realize just how much Shimano got wrong in this group. I eventually came to recognize how nearly every song on Band on the Run was just hacked up reggae, but I enjoyed 30 years of adoration for that album until I wised up.
On Friday, I attended an event at Shimano for the introduction of the new Dura-Ace 9000 group. My colleagues and I received an overview of the newest mechanical group from the Osaka behemoth, as well as a look at Shimano’s revised wheels, plus an overview of their new saddles and eyewear. Honestly, I can’t recall the last time I went to a media event held by a single company in which so many new products debuted. It was a bit overwhelming.
Shimano’s Dura-Ace group has been pretty thoroughly overhauled. While the addition of an 11th cog is the most obvious change, the story goes much deeper and the lasting impact of this group won’t be a single cassette cog. Here’s a brief inventory of some of the changes we were walked through: new pivot geometry for the derailleurs to decrease shift force, wider rims for better handling and aerodynamics, new brakes for improved brake force and modulation, a new cleat to offer better engagement while still offering limited float, a 110mm bolt-circle diameter for the crank so that riders can choose from many chainring combinations, vastly improved ergonomics for the control levers, and, yes, that aforementioned 11th cog.
I’m going to need some time to ride this new group before I do a full review, but thinking back on my introductions to the 7700 (9-speed) and 7800 groups, I have to say that 9000 is the group we all expected when 7900 was introduced. Not only is it the sort of quantum improvement over 7900 that 7800 was over 7700, it is also a pretty firm rebuke of 7900, in that so many features of that group lost ground to its predecessor. It’s such an improvement over its predecessors and such a competitive step back into the game that it prevents me from being anything other than agnostic about component groups. Let me clarify that last comment a bit: With 7900, it was easy to reject it as a sub-par group, opening the door for anyone to pick either Campagnolo or SRAM as their preferred components. This new group is so good, the only reasonable response to its introduction is to give it a test ride.
If I were forced to pick a single feature of the new group as emblematic of the whole, I’d have to point to the front derailleur and how the change in parallelogram geometry (plus the use of new cables) has changed the force required to execute the shift from small ring to big. The touch is so light I shift far more frequently that I have been with either 7900 or Campagnolo.
One detail we learned from one of the Shimano tech was that achieving 9000′s improved front shift action depends on cable actuation, that is, the point from which the cable pulls makes a difference in shift performance. As a result, the front derailleur is designed with two possible anchor points for the cable depending on the angle of the cable. The handy-dandy guide shown above helps techs determine just which anchor point to use. We are told that on many bikes either anchor point will work fine, but on those bikes with internal cable routing, on some occasions the cable exits the frame at an odd angle and under those circumstances which anchor point is used will determine how effective the shifting is.
In response to requests from fitters, The 9000-series pedal will offer an optional 4mm-wider pedal spindle to help riders whose feet feature exaggerated pronation. And the new blue cleat allows for +/- 1-degree of heel swing while moving the pivot point to the front of the cleat for a more positive, less sloppy sense of engagement and float.
We took a break in our presentation to attend a groundbreaking ceremony. Shimano is in the process of building three new facilities. There’s a new distribution facility being built in South Carolina, another facility being built in Colorado for Pearl Izumi (which Shimano also owns) and then the new building in Irvine, which will help with distribution and more.
In an unusual and forward-thinking move, Shimano had editors from a few different media outlets submit a frame set ahead of the introduction for Shimano’s techs to build with a new group. I reached out to my friends at Seven Cycles to see if they might be able to help. We’ve been discussing a review of the 622 frame for most of this year; I’ve been slow to get them my measurements for a custom frame. Fortunately for me, they had this particular 622 built for stock for Ride Studio Café, the studio/café operation Seven owns in Lexington, Mass.
It’s conceivable that a custom frame will fit me better than this, but I’m so accustomed to making stock stuff work, I have no complaints with this so far.
The new Dura-Ace crank is unlikely to stop looking freaky any time soon. It reminds me of the early Oakley M-series Heater lens. When I first saw it in the early 1990s, it looked distinctly insect-like. But then it grew on me. I suspect there will come a point when I love this look, but I still don’t see how I’m going to make the transition. The front derailleur looks strange with the arm for the cable anchor sticking up like a mechanical antenna, but that’s part of how the easy shift actuation occurs. A word to the wise, though: Trim that cable short!
Everything you ever thought you knew about precise, quick and quiet rear shifting is incomplete if you aren’t including this derailleur in your calculations. That it shifts as smoothly in the big cogs as it does in the small ones is just another instance of how good Shimano’s engineering can be.
I was not a fan of the 7900 brakes. In my experience, while they offered terrific power, they featured terrible modulation. They were just too grabby. I was a much bigger fan of the 7800 stoppers. The new 9000 units show incredible stopping power while still offering a broad modulation range.
Following lunch and a quick change into Lycra, we dialed in our bikes and then met for a shortish ride.
My Seven Cycles 622 was the subject of a great many ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, but I need to be honest and say that I experienced some serious lust for the Alchemy that Peloton Tech Editor Ben Edwards was riding.
Our loop took us into Laguna Beach and up some rather steep pitches; one bump measured a whopping 31.5 percent in grade. My bike was equipped with a 34×28 low gear and it was nice to have gears low enough for everything I encountered, especially as I’m still not going super-hard since my crash.
I’ve got about 200 miles on this bike over four days. While I think most media outlets went pretty easy on Dura-Ace 7900, I can assure you that as you encounter reviews of this group and they all positively glow with the sort of effusive praise we reserve for Robert DeNiro thrillers, you won’t need to second-guess. This stuff is that good.
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
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
For as long as I’ve been a cyclist, I’ve been gearing obsessed. Because speed is a function of gearing and cadence, and I liked speed, each of those numbers was as important to me as the number of miles I rode, at least at first. My priorities have shifted since then, but I’m still obsessed with speed and the most efficient means to attain it, which means I’m still preoccupied with gearing.
My first serious road bike featured a triple with half-step gearing. For those unfamiliar with half-step gearing, this was a setup used in touring where a fairly widely spaced freewheel (say a 13-28) would be paired with a crank with 50/45/30 chainrings. Done right it resulted in a drivetrain with almost no redundant gearing and by making sequential shifts between the freewheel cogs and chainrings, riders could make smaller steps in gearing than if they used more traditional selections. It was perfect for nerd like me.
I haven’t ridden half-step gearing since I sold that bike; I can’t say I miss it. I’ve remained fascinated with gearing choice though and have tended to err on the side of lower gears for long climbs. I continued to use triples off and on; I had an FSA carbon fiber triple on one of my bikes as recently as 2007. To me, the beauty of using a triple was matching the widely spaced chainrings with a narrowly spaced cassette. Stateside, I’d run a 10-speed 12-23, while in Europe I’d run a 12-25. Sure there were issues with chainline, Q, shifting and weight, but there’s a price to be paid for a drivetrain that spanned from roughly 30 gear inches to 120.
FSA is to be credited with the invention (if we can call it that) of the compact crank. They also get credit for offering the first carbon fiber crank that was stiff enough to be ridden by racers. The combination of smaller chainrings and carbon fiber meant that cranks, which often weighed a full kilogram weigh less than 700g; some less than 600g. They were as stiff as many of the old-style aluminum cranks and the 50/34 chainring combination moved the chain down the cassette, no matter how strong a rider you were.
In truth, the compact has all but eliminated the need for a triple. It weighs less, offers greater stiffness, improved chainline, lower Q and better shifting than even the best triple. Plus, when paired with some of the more mountain-oriented cassettes such as the 11-26, you get nearly all the low end found with the old triples plus more high end.
Then there’s the fact that this K-Force Light crank set enjoys a stunning white finish with graphics you can read at 30 paces, rather than only 30 inches. My 175mm crankset weighed in at 613 grams, which is a bit more than advertised, but they are still lighter than many options on the market. Flex? I’ve ridden exactly one crankset in my life in which I could feel the crank arms twist when out of the saddle and the only reason I could detect that was because I was also riding a bike equipped with the Dura-Ace 7800 crank concurrently. There may be stiffer cranks out there than this, but I’ve found nothing to criticize here.
Pricing on these is all over the place thanks to the Interwebs. While it’s no good for bike shops, the fact that you can install these with only two tools means that purchasing them online can save you perhaps as much as $200.
I still run into a great many cyclists who look upon compact cranks with the same disdain they reserve for helmet mirrors and neon-yellow windbreakers. In some riders’ eyes, it’s just not PRO. My view evolved when Tyler Hamilton rode one through the 2003 Tour de France, launching an epic breakaway to Bayonne and climbing the cruelly steep Col de Bagargui in a 36×25. It occurred to me that if your average PRO can pull the peloton along at nearly 40 miles per hour in a 53×12, then maybe I didn’t need a high gear bigger than I could do an interval in.
Honestly, I can’t do an interval in a 50×12. By shrinking the chainrings a bit, I get more usable gears out of my cassette and in my experience, selecting equipment to suit your needs is always PRO.
A love of gear is an expansive love. And it’s not a love that blooms in isolation. It grows from our infatuation with an activity and the gear is nothing more than the physical manifestation of that activity.
I won’t say that cyclists love cycling more than runners love running, but the devotion seems different, and—naturally—to our eyes, more enjoyable.
It should be no surprise that our love for the bicycle itself extends to the stores that sell them. If the bicycle is a good time waiting to happen, then a shop is countless adventures yet to unfold. In each of those bicycles—even the ones we wouldn’t buy—we see our lives as we want them to be: The excitement of dressing for a five-hour ride with friends every day of the week.
And yet, we love bike shops not because of what they are, but in spite of what they are. Few of us have the sort of shop we dream of in our backyard. Even when our buying experience isn’t what we’d like, or as good as we believe it ought to be, we continue to love bike shops at least as a concept.
I’ve been in plenty of shops that were professional enough, but seemed empty of passion and that seems to be where I draw the line. Unless a shop is doing something to excite me about my sport and make me feel like my riding life is important to them, I won’t really go in for more than chains and cables.
I think that may be why operations like Mill Valley’s Above Category and Studio Velo engender such fanatical love. They are to cycling what Miracle-Gro is to roses. Ah, to live in Marin County. Slurp.
So why don’t we love the average bike shop the way we did back in the 1980s? My memory of shops back then was that they were cool the way Fonzie was cool to me when I was in second grade.
Once I take off the rose-colored glasses, I can see that a retailer had a much easier job in 1986 than they do today.
The number of bike categories they had to address was much less. The shop I dealt with had road bikes, a few mountain bikes and at Christmas they’d get a few kids’ bikes. One or two of the bikes were touring models and the rest were traditional road racers.
Replacement parts held in stock mostly amounted to freewheels, cables, brake shoes, a headset or two and five sizes of ball bearings. Aftermarket upgrades amounted to one or two groups, a few choices in pedals, a couple of rear derailleurs and a saddle or two.
In all honesty, the clothing selection was lousy.
I don’t recall anyone angling for a discount back then. Of course, the most expensive bike my shop carried didn’t cost 10% of the annual income of its more affluent customers, either. Even college students could come up with $1000 to purchase a Campy-equipped Torpado.
All of the decoration around the shop involved photos of PROs riding the bikes the shop carried.
Retailing is a much tougher business today. Online competitors and deal-shopping consumers squeeze profits like a kid with a ketchup bottle. The number of models a brand offers has in many cases tripled or quadrupled and retailers are rewarded better pricing based on just how much they stock. The array of replacement parts a shop is expected to stock has multiplied with the ferocity of cockroaches in a dirty kitchen. And while a frameset could hang on a wall for three or four years without losing its relevance or value, the same cannot be said today.
So who’s to blame? Well, this is one of those occasions, like the economy, where there’s plenty of blame to go around. Consumers (us) can be faulted for wanting deals that ultimately undermine the service we get when we visit a shop. As they shave their margins, they shave their ability to sit on large amounts of stock and their ability to pay livable wages to their staff, which hurts their ability to keep employees who talk like Competitive Cyclist copy.
The shops can be faulted for caving to every request for a deal. If they all held firm like unionized workers, we’d all be paying list prices. Some can also be faulted for running their shops like sidewalk lemonade stands and not really knowing basic statistics that are key indicator’s for their business’ health or how to connect with consumers on an emotional level.
Finally, the bike companies get a buffet-sized helping of blame for their ever-increasing number of SKUs. Let’s ask the question: How many price points do you really need to hit?
Speaking of connecting with consumers on an emotional—even visceral level—I’ve got to ask why none of the bike companies out there have resorted to enticing men with sex. You know, busty babes? I’m guessing that shots of Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie stand in for traditional hard bodies for most women (well, if not, it works for my wife), so why not use the Bay Watch approach to luring more men into the sport?
I don’t mean to trivialize the issue, but a great many very large, very successful multi-national corporations resort to sex as a means to short-circuit men into purchasing their widgets. Given how ubiquitous the approach is, isn’t it fair to point out that the approach continues to be used because, well, because it works? Wouldn’t photos of Heidi Klum astride a Specialized Amira bring some new consumers into the sport, riders who won’t expect Dura-Ace at 105 prices?
I don’t really think sex is the answer, but it is such an obvious tactic that if bike companies and retailers are missing this one, I can’t help but wonder what else they are missing.
And yet, like the faults we find in our best friends, we’ll never stop loving bike shops. Around every corner, in nooks and basements, they never fail in their ability to fascinate and excite.
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.