I’ve got something to share with you. Part of the cost of me being a total word nerd is that some turns of phrase in the bike industry drive me crazy. Case in point: Any time a magazine refers to a “review” as a “test.” The God’s honest truth is almost no one ever gets a piece of gear from a manufacturer with the express advance consent to destroy it by some scientific method. Sure, bikes get broken (been there, done that) and phone calls containing profuse apologies ensue (made them). But actually putting a bicycle frame or component on some sort of test rig so that you can push it to its absolute limit and then report on the particular method of failure isn’t something bike magazines routinely do.
The upshot is that what we all publish are best described as “reviews.” My opposition to the use of the word “test” is that it implies some sort of scientific evaluation. While I do my best to subject bikes and components to objective evaluations, there’s always a subjective element, a part of the experience, the appraisal, that cannot be reduced to raw numbers. As a result, it’s really rare that we are ever in a position to discuss failure mode on a first-hand basis.
That said, crashing can be a pretty effective way to find out just how strong a part is. When I went down in Tuna Canyon, I came as close as I’m likely to come to finding out about failure modes for a few different items. Some of you have asked what I was riding and how it fared. The bike that day was a Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL4 with the new SRAM Red and Zipp Firecrest 202 Carbon Clinchers.
Aside from my jaw and teeth, I can also claim to have thoroughly investigated failure modes for the S-Works Tarmac SL4 frame and fork, not to mention the S-Works Shallow Bend Carbon Fiber Handlebar, as well as the new Zipp 202s.
The final GPS sample taken just before my ill-fated face-first dismount indicated that I was traveling at 29.9 mph. That’s one true statement about the moments leading up to my crash. Here’s another: I never touched the brakes. I think it’s safe to conclude that by the time I buried my wheel in whatever I shoved it in with sufficient gusto to arrest my bike’s forward motion like a couple of drunks in a bar fight, I may have scrubbed a bit of speed, but it couldn’t have been anything significant. Of that last statement I’m certain for one simple reason: The time that elapsed between my bike stopping and me stopping was insufficient to allow me to tuck, roll or even get my hands or arms up to protect my head and face. When people talk about things happening in fractions of a second, I can tell you this was faster than love at first sight.
If ever there had been a time where I might have reported on riding something hard enough to break it, well, this would have been that occasion. Taking one for the readers. Occupational hazard. Being empirical. Whatever. The simple fact is that I didn’t break the handlebar. I didn’t break the fork. I didn’t break the stem. I didn’t break the frame and most impressive, I didn’t break the front wheel.
Let’s say that last one again, for emphasis: I didn’t break the front wheel. Hell, it didn’t even come out of true. While my face took the majority of the impact force, the front wheel did take a fair drubbing when it hit whatever it did to bring the bike to a stop and thrust me, tether-ball-like, over the bar.
I can recall my friends picking up my bike as the paramedics were doing their dead-level best to convince me that I’d been unconscious since the release of Star Wars. Amid the many questions they asked as they secured me to the backboard, in the background I heard my buddies say, “Man, his bike is fine.”
I also recall thinking, “Yeah, no shit. Have you seen my face?”
Like I said, I thought that if for no other reason than it hurt too much to say out loud. At that point I still had a mouthful of gravel and dirt. The dirt didn’t bother me; the gravel was a definite pain. The experience was not unlike having a mouthful of peppercorns. Inevitably, you’re going to swallow some and I really could have used a beer to help wash it down. Looks like I have plenty of those now, though—thanks again.
I’ve broken my share of components over the years. I’m not a heavy guy (that day I was all of 162 lbs.) and I’m not even all that forceful as I ride, but I’ve broken bars, stems, seatposts, saddles, a couple of forks and plenty of wheels. When I picked up my bike from the friend who stored it for me for a few days, the only indication I could find that proved the bike had hit the deck was some dirt on one lever and on the bar tape; there was a bit more dirt on the front wheel.
I’ve inspected the bike thoroughly. I can’t find anything wrong with it. And I’m aware that the way composites are laid up today, they are designed that if they suffer a serious impact, though several layers of carbon may break, the entire structure won’t instantly fail. This gives the rider the opportunity to feel that something is soft, not all is right, time enough to pull over and avoid catastrophe.
I can tell you this bike feels the same as it did before I went down. The story might be different if the bar or levers or some other component had taken the second big impact, rather than my face, but they didn’t. I’ve looked for any indication I can find that I shouldn’t trust this bike and I couldn’t find a reason not to ride it.
So I rode it today.
It’s fine and I’m better for getting back in the saddle of the horse that threw me.
My ride today was, in part, an affirmation in my belief of how far carbon fiber technology has come in the bike industry. I don’t think manufacturers get enough credit for how much they’ve improved the durability of carbon products. And I’m not suggestion this is in any way isolated to Specialized or Zipp. I am willing to bet most of the bikes and wheels out there would have survived my particular crash. I can’t imagine how hard you have to hit to actually make any of those things fail.
Like I said, I didn’t enjoy this, but I’m glad that the bike I was on performed as advertised. I might even call it a “test.”
When Padraig asked me if I wanted to attend a small SRAM event during the first weekend of my trip to Flanders and Roubaix last month, I needed no time to think about my answer. After all, I was heading over anyway (to ride the Flanders Sportive and watch the both races)—why not spend a few days with other media types getting to know the latest innovations from SRAM, Zipp, and Quarq?
I landed on a cold, grey Friday morning a few weeks later and headed straight for our hotel. After some introductions and a quick lunch, we piled into vans for a field trip hosted by Jason Phillips and Ben Raby, two of SRAM’s European Sponsorship liaisons. Our first stop was Liquigas-Cannondale, a team who switched to SRAM at the beginning of the 2011 season. Interestingly, none of the Liquigas bikes we saw were running the new Red. Distribution is still taking its time to catch-up with demand, and only a handful of riders in the professional peloton had it on their bikes. Instead, Liquigas was running the “old” Red, albeit one with custom graphics to match the bright green of the riders’ bikes and kits.
Parked to the side was the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team car that brought Sylvain Chavanel to a press conference being held in the hotel’s conference room. Luckily for us, the team was kind enough to bring along one of Chavanel’s race bikes—with the number from his victory in the Three Days of DePanne still attached. Omega Pharma-Quick Step uses its service course as a base of operations throughout most of the spring classics (meaning less casual access for journalists and fans), so I was excited to have a chance to see Chavanel’s bike up close.
As the French Champion and a favorite for Flanders Sunday, Chavanel was, along with teammate Tom Boonen, one of the few riders lucky enough to have the new Red 2012 groupset. Jason pulled the bike down from its rack and began walking us through each component. The Omega Pharma-Quick Step deal was a major coup for SRAM as the team agreed to ride Red components and Zipp wheels, but Zipp bars, stems, and seat posts and Quarq power meters as well. The team’s decision to ride Specialized bicycles certainly helped matters, but this is one of the first instances where SRAM has been able to provide a team with just everything it has available.
But while pro bikes are always nice to see, I was here to experience Flanders—and SRAM Red 2012—for myself. Saturday offered me more than my fair share of both.
Each year, more than 15,000 people tackle the Ronde van Vlaanderen voor Wielertouristen one day before the professionals. There is a reason why you might not be able to imagine what it is like to ride with 14,999 other people: because it’s insane. At the start, people and bikes were everywhere and came in all shapes and sizes: young and old; men, women, and children; road, mountain, and hybrid bikes—even a few tandems! Some people wore sneakers—others had backpacks. Of course, this being Belgium, there were several hundred Omega Pharma-Quick Step jerseys as well.
On the road, I immediately noticed the relative silence of the new drivetrain—a big effort went into creating an altogether quieter experience. To achieve this, SRAM replaced the original Red cassette with the new Powerdome X cassette, a lighter, drilled-out cassette cluster similar to what SRAM uses for its XX mountain bike groupset. StealthRing elastomers have also been added between cogs, dampening vibration and reducing noise even more.
Shift lever ergonomics are vastly improved as well. On the “old” Red, it took a while for my hands to get used to feeling the shift and brake cable housing enter the level underneath the hoods. SRAM redesigned this transition with the new Red, making a smoother, more fluid interface between the housing, the bars, and levers. This offers a pleasant place on the hoods to rest your hands while improving the shifting even more (derailleur cables now have a more direct route to the shifter, meaning less drag and cleaner shifts). SRAM also provides a newly textured hood for extra grip on gloveless days. Lastly, the levers are fully customizable thanks to SRAM’s Independent Reach Adjust mechanism—folks with small hands will certainly appreciate that!
On smooth roads bike was incredible. I found Cannondale’s SuperSix EVO to be one of the lightest and stiffest bikes I’ve ever ridden with what I have come to consider a “World Tour” ride quality that begged me to get out of the saddle and accelerate. I especially appreciated this at the end of the day, on the wide, flat roads from the top of the Paterberg (the final climb) to the finish back in Oudenaarde. As the wind picked-up and echelons began forming, I found the bike gave me an extra gear, responding quickly as I jumped from echelon to echelon, pretending I was fighting my way back up to the leading group on my way to “winning” my first Ronde.
Riding an event like the Tour of Flanders is one of those “once in a lifetime” experiences that subjects you to a whole slew of conflicting emotions: you love it, you hate it; you’re exhilarated, you’re exhausted; you’re optimistic, you have no idea why you signed up for an 85-mile event in mid-April with only 6 weeks of solid riding in your legs.
You get the idea.
My first moment of apprehension arrived with the day’s first cobbled sector. A long, flat stretch of about two kilometers, the gutters were littered with water bottles, wrenched from their cages by riders too lactic to have noticed they were gone. Here, the stiffness of the bike (and its saddle) became more of a detriment. I remember wondering, “Are pros just more accustomed to how bikes like this feel on cobblestones?” And then it hit me. I stopped and examined my tires; the pressure was too high. Burping some air helped, but the harshness was something I would be forced to deal with several more times throughout the day.
But the bike made up for it on the climbs. First up was the Molenberg. Picking my way through several hundred riders—all climbing at different speeds—I realized that the day’s biggest challenge would be making it up each climb with my feet still clicked into the pedals. Luckily, the new Red handles shifting under load beautifully—I slipped the chain into the cassette’s biggest cog and picked my way through the mayhem. The new Red levers also felt as if they have been tightened-up on the inside. Shifts were crisp and gave positive feedback. Each shift was distinct and clear, even on rough, cobbled roads.
At the top of the Molenberg, it was time for me to reassess what I hoped to get out of this experience. I started the day with two goals: First, I wanted to survive it without bonking, blowing-up completely, or embarrassing myself. Second, I wanted to document as much of it as possible, even if that meant stopping frequently for photos. But the Molenberg showed me that making it over every climb without having to put a foot down would be an achievement in and of itself; I added that to the list.
From there I decided to treat each climb as its own finish line of sorts, mentally preparing myself for each and counting them down to mark my progress. The 22% beast of the Koppenberg came soon after the day’s first feed zone. Everyone was fresh, fueled, and feeling heroic. Sure enough, the crowds were dense, and I sat at the bottom, propped on a barricade, waiting for a lull between waves of riders making their way up the steep cobbled slope. Again, the new Red worked like a charm. Hands on the tops of the bars, I relied on my easiest gear. Keeping my ass on the seat and legs spinning at a high cadence enabled me to maneuver as if I were on a mountain bike and I made it to the top cleanly. I was finally starting to get the hang of this again, 15 years after mastering it for the first time.
Success on the Koppenberg buoyed my spirits for the next two hours, but I knew that two of the day’s toughest climbs awaited at the end: the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg. Since I knew it was not as steep as the others, I started the Kwaremont a bit over-geared. But as soon as the cobbles began I regretted this decision and—promising to return another day to tackle it at speed—I upshifted to snake my way through walkers and slow-moving cyclists as I passed earlier. Success!
The Kwaremont dumps you onto a two-lane national road with a smooth surface and a wide bike lane. A left turn and a nasty false flat then take you to the top of the descent that ends at the foot of the Paterberg, a short, but steep cobbled climb that maxes-out at 20%. It’s also the last climb of the day.
The descent to the bottom of the Paterberg was narrow, technical, and fast. Imagining how fast the pros would tackle it the next day, I made my own bid for glory. There were few riders on the road at this point, and I was able to push the bike as far as I was willing to take it, braking late and carving the corners. Braking was even more powerful and smooth than the original Red—even with carbon-specific brake pads.
The Paterberg’s difficulty is exacerbated by the run into it. You scream down the descent into a tight right-hand corner that immediately sends you up the Paterberg’s steep, cobbled grade. Braking, downshifting (front), and upshifting (rear) simultaneously, I expected to drop my chain and prepared myself for the unenviable task of beginning the climb from a dead stop. But despite breaking every rule in the book, the bike shifted, the chain stayed engaged, and I attacked the last climb in the Tour of Flanders.
Back at the hotel, SRAM’s Michael Zellmann asked me what I thought. Struggling to come up with something eloquent or “techie” say, all I could manage was, “Well, it’s just better”.
“That’s exactly the reaction we’re hoping for.” He continued:
“You see, while everyone else is trying to reinvent the groupset [by going electronic or hydraulic], we felt traditional mechanical groupsets had yet to be perfected. Based on feedback we received about the original Red and our own research and testing, we knew there was still room to improve. With Red 2012, we feel we’ve created the best mechanical groupset in the world.”
Granted, I only spent a day on it, but after what the Ronde put us both through, I’m inclined to agree.
So last week I laid my hands on a SRAM 2012 Red group. To use a more colloquial phrasing, you might say that my stock has risen enough with the folks in Chicago that they were willing to provide me with a group for review. It suggests they have some regard for my work. Which is pretty cool, considering we’re this tiny, independent blog thingy.
My plan, at least initially, was to install the Red group on a bike and then right it until I was supremely overtrained, or somewhere thereabouts, and then write a post about my experience with it. I’m writing this post because of my experience with working on the new group. Why? Well, my previous experience as a mechanic is enough that this group really impressed me.
What you see above is a shot of the installation instructions. Ordinarily, what passes for installation instructions, on the rare occasions that they are created, is a tepid improvement over the boilerplate that you get in bicycle owners’ manuals. I’ve yet to see an owner’s manual that was anything but a CYA (cover your ass) document cooked up by a bunch of lawyers for the purpose of shielding a manufacturer from a lawsuit stemming from any sort of crash on a bike, including those where shoddy assembly may be an issue.
These installation and adjustment instructions are another matter. They begin by indicating which parts will be installed and where they go on the bike (not like that is big news though, huh?). Next, a legend indicates each of the tools that will be required from start to finish, and in exact detail. Those of you who have worked as wrenches will recall boxed bikes that often included a list of tools on the top of the box. That menu would include a screwdriver (sometimes two), pliers, a crescent wrench and often (though inexplicably) a hammer.
With the exception of the 10mm Allen key required to tighten the cranks, the 2012 Red is built around three different Allen keys—and no flippin’ Torx wrenches. A 5mm Allen is used to fix the component to the bike, i.e. brake and derailleur fixing bolts and control lever clamps. A 4mm Allen is used for gross adjustment, i.e. cable fixing bolts and brake shoe adjustment. Finally, a 2.5mm Allen is used for fine adjustment, i.e. derailleur set screws, brake centering adjustment and chain catcher position. That sort of consistency speeds a mechanic’s work.
The directions take nothing for granted. They show cable routing, torque values and color code different operations. While Shimano has at times had some good installation instructions, these were the most boiled-down and direct of any I can recall reading. The one criticism I do have is that I found that there is an overlap of steps between the installation of the front and rear derailleurs. Because of how the derailleurs are adjusted and when the chain is supposed to be installed, it’s not possible to do all of either the front or rear derailleur before moving on to the other. The steps need to be coordinated between the two (they are currently separate instruction sheets included with each component) so as to complete all the steps prior to chain installation before moving on to those that depend on the chain being present.
It’s a picky point, but these directions are so good that the one flaw sticks out. When I used to work as a mechanic, I had a system for assembling bikes. I started with bearings then moved on to bar/stem and saddle, then brakes, before going to the derailleurs, in broad strokes. SRAM’s team of technical writers seems close to being able to creating a manual for assembling an entire bicycle from the frame out; such a manual would have the ability to clarify what absolutely must be done first before moving on to other procedures, which could get interrupted by going back to finish something else the mechanic (me) left out. Assembling a bike is a good deal more difficult today than it was in the 1990s, despite the fact that frame prep with a Campy tool kit is almost never required. And given what many shops and studios charge for labor, and how busy those wrenches are, anything that can make labor more efficient is good.
I should add that a portion of my training is as a technical writer and I have worked as one in a variety of capacities, including writing instruction manuals. My eye may be a bit more critical than most. To be fair, Shimano’s more recent efforts aren’t bad (and they’ve improved over the years), but they are nowhere near this good.
With 2012 Red, SRAM moved to a locking, threaded BB washer to accommodate more different bottom brackets. It makes sense because bottom bracket standards are proliferating like rabbits during spring. I can report this was one of the easiest bottom bracket/crank installations of my life, if not the absolute easiest. And it has been utterly creak-free so far.
The shot above is a top-down view of the front derailleur and that grey line is an alignment guide for the front derailleur. Set that line in plane with the big chainring and the yaw technology of the new derailleur eliminates the need for trim.
So the line on the cage establishes the angle of the derailleur while this slightly polished guide line on the cage’s inner plate helps guide the height for the front derailleur. It really eliminates guesswork and multiple adjustments. Once angle and height are established, you move on to the set screws. Then, all that’s left is cable tension, and to their credit, SRAM includes an in-line barrel adjuster so that you can set cable tension in case the frame doesn’t include them; this has been an issue for me with both Shimano and Campagnolo.
SRAM indicated that their engineers had altered the lever body shape so that it would work at more different angles and bar shapes. I did try playing around a bit with different lever positions relative to the bar and it seemed like users would have plenty of options. If anything, it made it more difficult for me to find my preferred angle because so many seemed to work. Something they haven’t talked about are these little pads that cushion the hands from the bar. They sit just where the heel of your hand would normally be positioned against the bend of the bar. You have to work a bit more to get them positioned correctly before taping down the cable housing (it took a couple of tries for me), but their addition has been well worth it.
The redesigned hoods offer enough flexibility in the midsection that it’s easier to flip those hoods up than a starlet’s skirt, making it a snap to fit the 5mm Allen driver in to tighten the levers in place. This aspect of their levers and hoods is something that Campagnolo and Shimano would both do well to study.
Perhaps the least-changed component from the whole group—installation-wise, that is—are the brakes. My biggest note on the brakes was that the front brake was included with three different length fixing nuts for the fork. No Campy group I’ve ever had did that, though I can’t say with Shimano; it’s been a long time since I assembled a Shimano group from boxes as opposed to with a bike. It’s not uncommon to receive a few extra odds and ends when you pull the parts from display boxes.
Brake-shoe hardware is frequently a source of frustration. Trying to hold the pad in place well enough to get the hardware tight, but without the brake-shoe holder twisting can be difficult with some brakes. With the new Red it was a snap. And once I had the pads positioned, all I needed to center the brakes was a 13mm cone wrench. Just like old times.
Last but not least is the component whose photo led off this post, the rear derailleur. I’ve little to report here, except that the new design makes it easier to pull a wheel into the dropouts. Also, by giving the mechanic a choice of tools for the high and low set screws is nice. I love the fact that you can use a 2.5mm Allen wrench so that when you give the pedals a turn and the bike shakes some in the stand it’s less likely that the wrench will pop out of the screw it’s in.
My overwhelming sense with this group is that the engineers who were charged with developing this new group really listened to the feedback the company had received, not just from pro riders and race mechanics but also from workaday wrenches. This stuff was easy to install and even easier to adjust, and ultimately that gave me plenty of time to pull parts from the box and note how they seemed incomplete, like the parts weren’t all there, if only because it’s all so damn light.