This past weekend I joined a number of my colleagues in Westlake Village, California, for the introduction of a number of new products from SRAM. There was a lot on offer, more than they could cover in a two-hour presentation at Sea Otter, hence the get-together. We got to ride much of the new stuff hitting the market and in an environment suited to the mission. I’ll get to the riding in a minute; first, a list.
So SRAM introduced the following:
- An upgrade of the popular Red group to 11-speed
- A revamped Force group with hoods shaped like those in Red and an 11-speed cassette
- Hydraulic rim brakes
- Zipp 303s with discs
- Hydraulic disc brakes for Red
While I did pick up the new Force parts to check them out, I didn’t have the chance to ride them, so all I really feel qualified to do—other than regurgitate the press release—is to tell you that group will hit the market soon and the suggested retail on the group will be $1358, about half of Red 22′s $2618 price tag. According to the company’s scales, the refined group will come in at 2150 grams, putting it in the neighborhood, weight-wise, with Chorus and Dura-Ace 7900, making the Force group a notable value, at least on paper.
For mechanical Red, the only significant change is the addition of an 11th cog. So why is SRAM making a big deal about calling this group 22-speed? It goes to their assertion that users will have a true 22 speeds even without the presence of a trimable front derailleur. Shimano went in the other direction with their new 9000-series Dura Ace. The wide spread on an 11-speed cassette is going to demand a very carefully adjusted front derailleur to avoid chain rub in the big and small cogs, no matter which chainring the chain is on.
As a more practical matter, because SRAM continues to start every flippin’ Red cassette with an 11t cog, the addition of another cog means that all the cassettes (save the 11-32 WiFLi) now sport a 16t cog. It’s nice having that 16, but if they’d offer a 12-26 and a 12-28, you’d then have the 16 and an 18. I’m willing to wager all the beer in Yankee Stadium that nine out of 10 cyclists would use an 18t cog far more than they use an 11. As to the 11-32 WiFLi cassette, an 11th cog there gives the the very noticeable addition of a 14t cog. In the past, when I rode the 10-speed Red with an Apex rear derailleur and the 11-32 cassette, I can tell you that the jump from the 15 to the 13 felt like I’d over-shifted with an Ergo lever. It was a big jump.
Mechanical Red remains the lightest complete group on the market, at a claimed weight of 1747g.
When I first arrived at our host location, I wasn’t sure just what I would see, other than 11 cogs. So I walked over to the NRS tents to see what the mechanics were up to. It was there that I noticed one of the mechanics bleeding a hydraulic brake system. From a road lever.
This would be the spot in the program where it’s a good idea for me to back up and remind everyone that I have written previously about just how skeptical I am of the need and utility of hydraulic brakes, particularly hydraulic discs, on road bikes. Honestly, I when I noticed what was afoot, I was a bit surprised that Michael Zellmann, the head of road PR for SRAM, had invited me. I mean, this was like pitching Dura-Ace to a guy who’d inherited his love of Campy from his dad. I do my best to be open-minded, but at every turn I had questions about just what sort of solution hydraulic discs offered.
Let’s recap those concerns, shall we?
- If you boil your brake fluid on a descent, your brakes can fail.
- Generally, you want the bike to offer some vertical flex at the dropouts; disc brakes would demand beefing up the fork and stays.
- Many mountain bike disc brake system offer poor modulation. Road bike brakes need to offer great modulation.
- Pad retraction is an issue on many mountain bike brake systems. Roadies won’t put up with rubbing brakes.
- Disc brakes won’t improve a bike’s aerodynamics.
- The hydraulic lines will require working hand-in-glove with manufacturers to offer suitable frames.
- There isn’t enough room in control levers to add a master cylinder.
- It’ll make the bike heavier. Roadies are allergic to heavier.
Last summer, I went for a ride with Brent Graves, the head of road product for Specialized. We discussed disc brakes quite a bit. It was hard not to detect his enthusiasm. So I posed each of my concerns to him. Damn that guy, he came back with the same answer each time.
“It’s an engineering issue,” he’d say with the confidence of a pilot who’s flown to Tokyo once a week for 10 years. “It’s just engineering.”
At that point I realized I should probably just shut up and wait to see what happens. What I didn’t know (because he didn’t tell me) was that he was already riding a disc-brake-equipped prototype of the Specialized Roubaix. What he did tell me was that I could expect to see hydraulic discs on road bikes at a variety of price points perhaps as early as 2015, but certainly by 2016.
Then it was me again with the skepticism. And then, damn his intelligence, he noted that every time there had been a significant shift in the market, it had begun with the curiosity of innovators and early adopters—the bleeding edge—and then as the idea caught on, refinement of the technology to make it both affordable and palatable to the masses.
Did someone just say iPhone?
Because not all bike companies will begin developing a frame to accept the disc brakes immediately and also because even by their own admission hydraulic discs won’t be right for all applications, SRAM is offering a hydraulic rim brake. Terminology-wise, they are referring to the class of products as “Hydro R” to denote hydraulic road. The disc brake is HRD, while the rim brake is HRR. As you can tell from the photos, the master cylinder is located in the inflamed thyroid of the lever bump. Let it be said that no one will ever be able to complain about the bump on SRAM road levers being too small any more.
Specialized is actively spec’ing a Roubaix with the discs and Cannondale has a version of the SuperSix EVO with the hydraulic calipers. This is no longer bleeding edge, this is leading edge.
So that’s the what. In my next post I’ll cover my experience of actually riding each of the options with Red 22: mechanical, HRR and then HRD.
In Part II of my interview with Steve Hampsten I get Steve to talk about several of his big loves in equipment: 650B wheels, the constructeur movement and Columbus MAX tubing. His perspective isn’t what I’d call mainstream, but his rationale is so clear that the alternative he offers is truly compelling.
PB—You’ve been at ground zero for the constructeur movement and 650B wheels. What is it about those that interests you and what practical value do you think they offer the average cyclist?
SH—Constructeur bikes—which I’ll define as a made-to-order frame and fork designed to work with dedicated lights, fenders, and (usually) a front bag and rack—have become pretty popular of late. I think they’re an attempt at creating a bicycle that will work well in the real world in terms of being usable in varying types of weather and lighting conditions, and when carrying more than just a spare tube and a gel. As a designer with a hands-on approach, I find integrating the racks, lights, tires, and fenders of these bikes to be both challenging and rewarding—each one is just a little different.
650B wheels are interesting and becoming more so each year. A 650B x 38mm tire offers roughly the same outside diameter as a 700c x 23mm tire—so it’s essentially the same wheel size that most of us are used to but with a much larger volume of air. They’re nice when riding on really rough roads, when carrying a heavy load, when you want that certain Frenchy je ne sais quois—or when you want all three. Currently I have three 650B flat-bar bikes in the works: all three designed as shopping bikes but each is taking a different approach in one form or another.
We should see at least two new 650B x 38mm tires this year—the size many feel is ideal for this wheel—and I think they’ll be better quality than anything we’ve seen previously. It’s maybe not the ideal go-fast tire size but it is comfortable, grippy, and elegantly classic-looking.
PB—How would you compare/contrast the use of 650B wheels to the newish road bike category of endurance bikes like the Specialized Roubaix, Trek Pilot and Felt Z-series which share a longer wheelbase, slacker head tube angle, more fork rake and longer head tube resulting in a higher bar position?
SH—I wouldn’t really compare them at all. The three you mention are closer to our own Strada Bianca and to the Moots Mootour/IF Club Racer/ Co-Mo Nor’wester than they are to a 650B bike like the Rivendell Saluki or Tournesol Pavé. I think most 700C bikes are good for moving a rider and (maybe) a small load over a variety of road surfaces but as the load increases—or the surface becomes less smooth—then smaller wheels with bigger tires start to make more sense. But I like that bigger companies are offering bikes that aren’t simply dumbed-down Pro Tour race bikes, that they’re entertaining the idea there might be more riding experiences to be had than simply hammering along a road in mad pursuit of … what?
PB—Let’s talk a practical consideration: For better or worse, most riders on most group rides are running a 23mm tire at 8 bar (and some guys are running pressure much higher than that). Rolling resistance is much lower than running a 28mm tire at 7 bar or less. That’s some noticeable extra wattage you have to put out to maintain pace with the ride. Do you maintain that these bikes are appropriate for most roadies?
SH—Well Patrick, I’ll have to disagree here with you here: I don’t think that skinny tires pumped hard roll much faster than fatter tires run slightly softer. I agree they FEEL faster because you’re getting more feedback from the road surface and you’re bouncing over all the little bumps and most folks think that feels like speed. I like my skinny tires for some riding and I like the fatties for other rides. I do notice the larger tires seem a little more sluggish to accelerate, which they should as it’s more weight to get moving. But on gravel or on a bumpy road, I’ll take the bigger tire as they feel smoother when rolling and more planted in corners. Horses for courses, as they say.
PB—If you could only ride one bike, a bike that needed to be versatile enough to do your favorite group rides and more, what would that bike be? What size wheels would it have? What would the geo be? What frame material? And heck, what parts would you put on it?
SH—It’d be a welded steel frame from light tubing, probably with a steel fork and for 57mm-reach calipers, same as our Classic model. 700c x 25 or 28mm tires for the day-to-day stuff, maybe 24mm Vittoria Pavé with fenders for the six damp months a year up here, 33.3mm tires for the epic rides. 73 X 72.8, 46mm rake, 70mm BB drop, chainstays at 420mm. I like handbuilt wheels, anything from the Chris King catalog, and SRAM Force is my current favorite kit. Thomson, Fi’zi:k, Deda Zero100 bars, King Cages … bliss.
PB—How many people actually work for Hampsten? Tell us a bit more, if you would, about Max and Martin.
SH—Hampsten is me as the only full-time employee. I have a part-time mechanic, Chris Boedecker, who helps with assembly, repairs, and wheelbuilding as needed. Max does the in-house welded frames and has been building our custom racks, Martin does all of our lugged frames/forks and makes our extra brazed forks as needed.
Max Kullaway started at Rhygin, then moved over to Merlin where he learned to weld – this was back in their days in MA – then worked at Seven until moving out here a couple of years ago. He’s working at a local metal fabrication outfit and also welding titanium frames for Davidson. He and fellow ex-Sevenite, Bernard Georges, have started their own framebuilding gig called 333fab—say “triple-three-fab”—building steel and ti frames for both road and cyclocross. In his spare time Max welds some frames for me, here at my shop – he’s a busy lad!
Martin Tweedy took the framebuilding class at UBI back in 1996 or so then became the first employee at Match Bicycle Company where he brazed several hundred lugged frames for Schwinn Paramount, Beckman, and Rivendell. When Match closed up he worked for Dave Levy at Ti Cycles doing Dave’s brazed frames as well as helping with the Hampsten frames then coming out of Dave’s shop. He had his own line of “Palmares”-badged lugged frames and he has built almost all of the lugged Hampsten frames since 2001. Martin is credited with creating the Hampsten Gran Paradiso/Race geometry back when we worked together at Match; Dave Levy gets most of the credit for the Strada Bianca geometry.
PB—How important is frame material to you? Do you have a preferred frame material?
SH—I like materials that can be welded or brazed. Currently I’m loving my steel frames for their springy resilience but I’m also looking forward to putting some miles in on my aluminum winter bike—I think having a light, stiff bike makes me go a little harder on the hills and maybe slows the fitness degeneration as the days get colder and darker. Titanium feels good too but I just haven’t been grabbing my ti bike as much this year. But overall I’ll take frame fit and design over material choice—I think a good frame can be built from any of the materials out there. (As a footnote: I sure liked all my carbon bikes from Parlee and I can’t imagine that anyone could do carbon better. But Parlee’s pricing moved to a point where I didn’t feel comfortable offering their frames and we parted ways amicably.)
PB—You’ve been getting into building with Columbus MAX. If there’s a stiffer ferrous tubeset on the market, I haven’t ridden it. It’s stiffer than almost every aluminum frame I’ve ridden. Is MAX strictly the domain of the big man, or does it have other applications?
SH—It’s not the tubeset that’s overly stiff, it’s what you do with it that determines how the frame will ride. We’re talking about a top tube that is 31.8mm, bi-axially ovalized, butts are .7/.4/.7mm, and the down tube is 35mm with .8/.5/.8, also ovalized on opposing axes. The seat tube is pretty standard, we don’t use the MAX seatstays, and the chainstays are tall but not crazy heavy. Overall I’d say the wall thicknesses are what we would typically use on many of our steel frames but the MAX diameters are increased by almost 10% which should give an increase in stiffness of about 20%. We don’t use the MAX forks and we save some weight by welding rather than using the MAX lugs and BB shell.
So I could take that tubing and build you a really stiff, short wheel-based race bike and we could pair it with some tall rims and skinny tires pumped hard and we could make it ride like crap—stiff enough to rattle your fillings.
Or we could lengthen the wheelbase, slacken the angles, and orient the top tube so that the oval section was flexing at the head tube, and combine with a carbon or light steel fork. I’d use some lighter seat stays, possibly replace the chainstays with something smaller, put you on some hand-built 3-cross wheels with 28mm tires pumped to 85-90psi and make sure there was enough dirt, cobbles, and/or gravel on the ride to get your attention – then you would see the beauty of the MAX tubeset.
I think it helps to be at or above 180 pounds and to not be too hung up on the weight of the bike but I think MAX is a good example of older technology that still works great today. More on MAX here.