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