Securing a frame I could pack and travel with easily was only half of the solution to the problem before me. I know from experience that I wouldn’t have been one of those riders to get stronger while racing a Grand Tour. I needed to build the Seven up with a component selection that would permit me to ride through fatigued legs in the second week.
Due to some availability issues and a hold-up in customs, I had to start the trip with a Campy Record 10 group with a 34×25 low gear. However, following a frenzied cab ride in which I learned the average European mortgage term is 50 years and the winter fare for a cab traveling from Albertville to Geneva was triple what I paid, I gained possession of the group of parts and was able to install them just in time for the climb up the Col du Galibier.
A brief note on installation of Red and Apex parts: This was the first time I had ever worked on SRAM components. While I’ve had the opportunity to ride them some, I’d never installed any previously. I know from talking to shop mechanics that there is a love for SRAM based on how easy their stuff is to work on, but I’d never experienced it for myself. Let me just say, ‘I get it.’ I honestly don’t think the installation could have been smoother. The point where it was most noticeable was in running the cables through the levers. With every lever from Shimano and Campagnolo through which I’ve ever run a cable, there has always been a bit of fiddling to get the cable to run through the guide hole. I’ve never gotten it on the first try. With SRAM, all four cables went through on the very first try. I couldn’t help but take note.
In three hours I had all the Campy parts removed and the SRAM parts installed and adjusted. To me, that’s shop mechanic speed, not fatigued guy working in the rec room of a hotel.
The linchpin in this operation involved the removal of the Campy freehub body from the Easton EA90 SLX rear wheel and the installation of the SRAM-compatible Shimano freehub. I’d never done it before and wasn’t convinced I had all the right tools. The operation proved to be quicker and easier than instant coffee—not to mention more satisfying—in part because it required little more than two 5mm Allen wrenches.
Let’s back up a second. Triples have been the stock-in-trade for non-PROs riding in big mountains for years. There are some features to like, such as pairing a 12-25 cassette with 53/39/ 30-tooth chainrings. In that setting you always have a familiar gear and the jumps between cogs once you’re into the third ring are tiny. However, most people I talk with believe triples have serious shifting issues (I didn’t experience that in years of using a triple with Campy). You also hear complaints about extra weight, wider Q-factor, too many duplicated gears and cost. To switch a Shimano bike over to a triple requires you to purchase a crank set, bottom bracket, a front derailleur, a long-cage rear derailleur, chain and, usually, a shift lever and cassette.
Adding an Apex rear derailleur, cassette and a new chain to as SRAM-equipped bike simplifies the solution in terms of cost, familiarity and labor.
By the time I switched out the parts on my Seven, I was in need of some lower gears. I had suffered through two days of shockingly steep grades, and while I would probably have been okay if the road had never tipped steeper than 7 percent, it had. A lot. Hell, the shallow pitches on the Col de Pré had been 7 percent. And while I needed something lower than a 34×25, I wasn’t so sure I needed a 34×32. But the folks at SRAM were confident (if not downright adamant) that I’d put the 32 to use if it were there.
My fear was that I’d end up with a nine-speed cassette as I’d never use anything lower than the 28. Well that concern was laid to rest the first time the Col du Galibier hit 10 percent. How many times have you known you were in your lowest gear and yet reached down to try and downshift out of some Hail Mary hope? Well, I did just that and—lo!—the derailleur gave me another gear. With the fatigue I was experiencing it was hard to turn the gear over as quickly as I would have liked, but the 32 became an integral part of my riding for the rest of the trip.
My concern that I’d end up with a nine-speed cassette was realized, however. I almost never used the 11. The nature of the descents I was riding included switchbacks the way sharks have teeth. After braking for a switchback, the gears I found myself most often using to sprint back up to speed were the 13 and 15. Long straits that give you a chance to wind out a 50×11 were as rare as fans of offshore oil drilling.
My preference would be that they ditch the 11 and add a 14, which is a cog I’d use a great deal more. Jumping from the 15 to the 13 when upshifting was large enough to be frustrating; I’m accustomed to the presence of a 14. Similarly, the jump from the 19 to the 22 took some getting used to, as did the 22 to 25 jump; you notice that bigger jump when upshifting, though under downshifting it didn’t bother me too much. In the cassette’s favor is the 25 to 28 jump, as is the 28 to 32, which might appear large on paper but were utterly welcome out on the road.
If I’d had two full weeks in the Alps on this group, by the end the only shifts I would have noticed would have been between the 13/15 and the 19/22. If they’d offer a 12-32 that included a 14, I promised I’d shut up.
Karma dictates that someday I’ll go ride in the Rockies at 11,000 feet without proper acclimatization and due to the combination of zero oxygen and screaming fast descents I’ll be grateful for both the 11 and the 32 in the same cassette. Once that happens, I’ll come back and delete the above two paragraphs.
Naturally, the question of weight is going to arise. I have yet to reassemble the bike and weigh it in its current configuration, but I’m guessing it’ll be about 18 to 18.5 lbs. The big gain in weight compared to its last build (when it was 17.0 lbs.) comes from the S&S couplers, which added just less than 10 oz. to the frame’s overall weight. The rear derailleurs weigh nearly the same, though the cassette increased in weight by about 100g, though I suspect it will have a much longer life. SRAM sent me the Apex crank and bottom bracket, so that increased the bike’s weight by roughly 250g.
I’m not sure everyone will do the math the way I did, but in my view this bike gives me a truly versatile travel bike solution. What it comes down to is this: I’ve got a bike that will be convenient to fly with no matter where I go. It will be inexpensive to fly with as well as the most I’ll be charged is just $25 per flight. Thanks to the titanium frame and largely aluminum components (the only carbon fiber is the fork, bar and shift levers), even if the case takes some serious hits, it’s unlikely any damage rendering the bike unusable will occur. It’s still light enough that I should survive any group ride I hook up with. With 700C wheels I don’t have to deal with the odd handling inherent in a bike using 20” or 24” wheels. And because it’s a bike I’ve owned for years, the handling and fit are utterly familiar—which is handy both on long climbs and fast descents.
S&S couplers have been on the market for a good 15 years. When they first came out, I was suspicious of their function and safety. They are more time-tested than our love for the Internet. And while they’ve had devotees for years, they were never a super-popular solution to travel. Today’s travel costs have finally made their value readily apparent.
Is this a permanent solution? Probably not, but I believe this should cover my travel needs for at least the next five to seven years.
Is it the perfect solution? Also, probably not, but airlines seem to be increasing both their charges for bicycles and their hostility to anything requiring care. Traveling to far-flung lands without a bicycle is like going to a great restaurant that omits the salad and the dessert. I want the whole meal.
Even before I knew I’d be joining Erickson Cycle Tours for the Route des Grandes Alpes I began researching a new solution to traveling with a bicycle. For more than 10 years I’ve been using a double BikePro case, which was perfect as long as I was traveling with another cyclist. These days, however, I’ve usually been traveling with only one bike and the way oversize baggage charges have taken off with all the thrust of a Saturn V booster rocket, I’ve been thinking that I need a simpler, less expensive way to travel with a bike.
I investigated each of the airlines to see if anyone going to my destination was still inexpensive, as well as alternative shipping options, dedicated travel bikes such as the Ritchey BreakAway and Bike Friday, having an S&S-coupled bike built for me by Hampsten Cycles or having an existing frame retrofitted with S&S couplers.
I quickly ruled out continued use of my trusty BikePro case as financial suicide. My next choice would have been to have a new frame built by Hampsten, especially after seeing some drawings Steve did. With a slightly shorter, sloping top tube combined with a slightly longer stem, the frame would have packed in the S&S case easily, a fact I’ve come to appreciate more in the last two weeks. However, timeline and expense conspired against us, so I went with Plan B.
My beloved Seven Cycles Axiom has been hanging on the wall of my garage for at least two years, unused. I’m a sentimental fool and couldn’t part with it even though my Felt Z frame weighs two-thirds what the Seven does.
After speaking with Steve at S&S, he encouraged me to talk to Steve Bilenky at Bilenky Cycle Works about retrofitting my Seven. I wasn’t too sure initially; the folks at Seven had noted a number of technical challenges to retrofitting my frame and suggested I consider a new frame instead. However, Bilenky walked me through the procedure, telling me how they take blank titanium couplers and machine them to size. Combined with the fact that their turnaround is quick, I was sold.
At Bilenky a titanium frame retrofit is $850, while steel is only $495. However, when you consider that a steel frame will need a paint touch-up if not re-do, a steel retrofit could be as much if not more than the ti retrofit. The hard case is another $395. Accessories such as tube covers, compression members and cable quick connects can add on another $100 or so.
Considering that some airlines are charging upwards of $200 per flight to transport a bicycle in a normal bike carrier, a retrofit with case and accessories can pay for itself in as few as three trips, all because the case comes in under the magic 62-linear-inch number. While the dollar savings is great, the quality of life increase in being able to take a bike with me anywhere for just $25 per flight means that I can now consider taking a bike along on trips I where would previously have had to go without. It’s hard to put a price on that.
Assembly isn’t as fast as with one of my other bikes in the BikePro case, but I gain added confidence knowing that I’m traveling with a difficult to damage titanium bike, rather than one of my more fragile carbon fiber bikes. All things considered, I’ll take the inconvenience.
Because my Seven frame features a 59cm seat tube (c-c) and a ground-parallel 58.5cm top tube (c-c), I must remove the crankset in order to place the rear half of the frame in the case. The longish lengths of both seat tube and top tube mean that I have to be both careful and deliberate when placing the frame halves in the case; think heirlooms in a moving van.
Fortunately, the folks at Bilenky cut and labeled a set of frame tube protectors made from Cordura, foam rubber and Velcro. The amount of thought I had to put into protecting the frame was nil. All I had to do was follow the directions from Bilenky for the packing order of the parts. To say they have it down to a science is an understatement; it’s a procedure, much like assembling a toy model. There’s a sequence for packing and a precise location for each part; follow it and you won’t have to sit on the case to get it closed.
So that covers the frame and the travel element. However, for a trip with so much climbing over so many days, I was going to need some low gears. The folks at SRAM had suggested I try riding a Red-equipped bike with the rear derailleur and cassette replaced with those from their new Apex group. The combination would give me all the functionality and low-weight advantage of Red with the low gears you can only achieve with the long-cage rear derailleur and dinner-plate cassette from Apex. Game on!
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.