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.
In my efforts to (unsuccessfully) get back to my mandated editorial duties, which is to say posts in which cycling is the primary concern, I’ve flashed on a few different products I have reviewed previously and for one reason or another have felt a need to update readers with insights gained from my ongoing experience with them. I don’t normally feel a need to do this. I try to make sure that by the time I publish a review of something I’ve digested that product well enough that I am unlikely to have any further insight into its use or function in the coming months.
Every now and then I find out otherwise.
A great example of this is my review of Rapha’s shaving cream a few months back. I lamented how the high cost of the product ($20) was likely to keep some consumers away. At the time, I reasoned that the 150ml tin wouldn’t go far. In my head, I expected it would last me two months, tops. That made its per-use cost quite high—$10 per month for shaving cream is a bit luxurious for my household. Since my review, I’ve realized that I need far less of the cream to execute the perfect shave. I estimate that I used the first third of the tin in about three weeks. I’ve gotten through about another third of the tin (not quite, actually) in the two months since my review.
What I learned is that I just need to wet my face a bit more before applying it. Perhaps if I had one of those old horse-hair application brushes I’d have gotten hip to this sooner.
I bring this up for two reasons. First, I really think I owe it to anyone whose product I review to give it the fairest shake I can. I’m sensitive to the ongoing criticism that Rapha receives in the U.S. because their products carry such a premium. I have observed that some of this isn’t their fault: They can’t adjust the exchange rate between the pound and the dollar. That said, they deserve to have word circulate when a reviewer realizes a product is a better value than originally perceived.
The second reason is this stuff is just ridiculously good. Since my crash last fall, I haven’t been—ahem—enamored of my face. While no one else notices the change in my smile and no one else can feel the scar tissue in my lips, looking in the mirror is something I’m still adjusting to. That shaving my face (despite the ongoing numb spot) can bring me any pleasure is as odd and ironic an outcome as I could have this week. The way my skin feels and the way my face smells after shaving with this stuff is something that makes me genuinely happy. I figure if it’s my business to tell the world what I think of something then they deserve to have me be honest about this.
Next up, I need to go on record and say that as much as I love the revised SRAM Red group, I’m finding the new generation of Red brakes to be rather finicky. Keeping them perfectly centered while balancing left/right side spring tension isn’t as easy as with any of the competing dual-pivot calipers. Much of this has to do with the stamped-steel spring. While on one hand the spring gives the brake very light action, something that SRAM can get away with due to the used-car-salesman-slick Gore Ride-On cables. The issue isn’t that I can’t adjust tension or center the brake; the issue is that it just doesn’t seem to keep the adjustment for more than a couple of weeks. Still, if you accept the idea that any time you make a brake set lighter you’re going to give up something, I’d prefer finicky adjustment while keeping overall brake power, rather than what happened when Dura-Ace went from 8-speed to 9-speed: The brake set gave up power.
Some years back, when the bulk of my work was appearing at Belgium Knee Warmers, I reviewed the Assos Summer Gloves. The review appeared in 2009 after having used the gloves for more than a full season. By the time I wrote about them, as I noted in my review, I was completely in love with them and I reviewed them only because my strong feelings for their quality, fit and finish were so unexpected.
Well, I finally killed those gloves recently. That’s the pair I’ve been riding all this time, pictured above. The pink peeking out of the one palm pad is the padding creeping through a rip in the stitching. Yes, I mean that I killed that particular pair of gloves. The actual date they were pressed into service is no longer known to me, but I can say it was probably some time during the summer of 2007. That’s more than five years of use. It’s fair to ask though, just how many uses that was. We can factor out four months for late fall, winter and early spring, during which time I wear long-finger gloves. And we have to siphon off a fair chunk of the spring, summer and fall due to other gloves I’m sent to try. Conservatively, I think that leaves me with at least 100 days of use per year. These have absolutely been my go-to gloves for all rides where the temp is at least 60 degrees at the start. Factored another way, I can say that I’ve usually worn these gloves at least three days a week, and I’d guess for a good 30 to 35 weeks each year. That’s probably in the neighborhood of 600 uses. That works out to, what, a dime per use?
While I’ve worn some gloves made from Pittards leather that were as comfortable in the palm as … hell, I don’t know what to say here that won’t sound unintendedly sexual. The thing is, Pittards leather gloves are supple the way we wish our own skin still was. In that regard the first few wears are experiences that carbonate our senses with the infatuation of a first date. They possess magical properties to beguile our hands if not our senses.
If only they lasted as long as even the average romance. I’ve yet to get 100 wears out of a pair of Pittards gloves. There’s a distinct possibility that I’m part, if not most, of the problem. I’ve yet to figure out—even after following instructions—just how to properly clean Pittards gloves without them getting dried out and stiff like 20-year-old boot leather. Maybe it’s easier than I think. The thing is, I don’t want the graduate seminar in leather glove care. This is precisely why I love the Assos Summer Gloves. They have required no greater care than a jersey. I toss them in the wash and never worry about how they’ll come out. Because they are closure-less they have a clean appearance and lack all that bulk of material on the back of the wrist, making them more comfortable and giving them less material to soak up sweat.
You’ll pardon me if I think the care and feeding of a pair of gloves should be simple, a process as thought-free as drinking a glass of water.
As worn as they are, I’m going to continue to use these gloves for mountain bike rides and dirt road rides on my ‘cross bike. I figure they’ve got at least another season like this before there’s damage bad enough to toss them in the trash.
Okay, glad to have that off my chest. Seriously, these little details have been eating at me.
I’ve been riding SRAM’s new Red group since mid-May. During that time I’ve had the ability to switch between it and Dura-Ace 7900 and Campagnolo Super Record on a regular basis. I’ve even taken a ride on my ‘cross bike to be reminded of how the previous iteration of Red worked.
In broad strokes, 2012 Red features some noticeable improvements over its predecessor, and I write that as a fan of the original Red group. And when compared to the other mechanical groups, it fares very well. I’m not going to engage in a comparison of Red to either EPS or Di2 because relating mechanical groups to electronic ones makes as much sense as comparing a kiss from Angelina Jolie to one from Jennifer Anniston. I’m sure either will be fine.
A word on weight: I’m not going to dwell on this topic as there is really no need. The new Red group is lighter than the old Red group when taken as a whole; it is also lighter than every other group on the market. Boom. They win. If you buy parts strictly on weight, you needn’t waste your time with reading more of this review. The interesting thing about this Red group is that its weight isn’t the best argument for why to purchase it.
I’ll go component by component and then wrap the review up with my views of it as a whole.
A big key to a snappy front shift is a stiff big chainring. I don’t think I’d understand just how important that is had I not had the occasion to put a chainring made from especially soft aluminum on a crank. The shifting was a disaster. Not only did the teeth bend, but even the ring itself bent. I can say from some experience that the rings on this new, ultra-light crank are distinctly stiffer than its predecessor. Hollow is a serious byword with this crank; both the crank arms are hollow all the way to the spindle and the rings themselves are hollow; that the crank and rings are stiffer than before is counterintuitive. Hiding one of the chainring bolts in the crank arm, a trick Campy has long employed, didn’t hurt any.
The bearings that the spindle rolls on are smoother than a granite countertop; indeed, they are the most freely spinning BB bearings I’ve encountered. Smooth spin aside, I pronate a fair amount and have on occasion rubbed the heels of my shoes on the bolts (or their covers) of a crank; this is a very slim design that leaves plenty of room for shoes to pass.
I had the opportunity to play around with a friend’s bike with 8-speed Dura-Ace recently. Of all the integrated brake/shift levers, I believe it was not only the heaviest, but it placed more mass out ahead of the bar than any other control lever. To switch to the old Dura-Ace and be reminded of just how much the mass of the control levers could affect handling was startling. Red levers, at 280 grams, do more to minimize the amount of mass ahead of the bar than any other control lever. The point here is not that they weigh less, it’s that they affect handling less. With less mass forward of the bar, the bike reacts a bit quicker to steering input and you’re less apt to oversteer.
The four biggest changes to the control lever, at least, in terms of my experience (I accept that SRAM’s engineers may think other changes were bigger/more important) were the size and shape of the lever bump, the circumference of the lever body, the size and position of the shifter paddle and the texturing of the lever hoods.
Making the bump bigger is really only an issue of consequence should you hit a bump or other rough road. With the old levers it was easier to get your hand bounced forward and risk losing any grip on the lever whatsoever; for most of my miles, its size and shape were of no import. However, the decreased circumference of the lever body addressed an issue that many riders with small hands registered some dissatisfaction. The old Red lever body was big, bigger than any of its competitors, though the 7900 Dura-Ace lever body is a good deal larger than its predecessors. I don’t think the previous lever body’s size affected my grip, but the decreased size of the new Red lever body leaves me with the feeling that I’ve got a more secure grip on the lever. Ergonomically, it’s just more comfortable. Adding to my sense of a secure purchase are the new lever hoods with with their newly textured surface are especially helpful on hot days when a sweaty hand needs all the help it can get, and for those who ride with no gloves, this can be a pretty big deal.
Retained from the previous design is the three-position shifter lever adjustment as well as the brake lever throw adjustment. It’s important to adjust the shift lever before you adjust the brake lever, but I really love this feature; it’s nice when I’m in the drops to be able to keep a finger on the brake levers without having to reach. When I think back on how difficult the reach was to my ’80s-era Super Record brake levers, I wonder now how I ever avoided some crashes. There’s no question in my mind that SRAM Red are the best levers for people with small(ish) hands.
The changes to the shift lever are notable because the bigger lever is easier to find at crunch time. No matter how many years I spend on Campy, there are times when I’ve buried the needle and reach for a shift and more than one finger reaches out. On Campy, that’s flat-out not helpful. But the beauty of Red is that the shift action is light enough that you never really need more than one finger. The same rule generally applies to whisky. And it’s worth noting that I haven’t missed a shift (upshifting when I meant to downshift) with this new group. And even though the shifter paddle is larger, the fact that it is positioned further from the shifter body than with the first Red group gives your hands more room when operating the brakes from the hoods; I noticed that with the first Red group I couldn’t keep my pinky and ring finger wrapped around the lever body while braking without the shifter paddle making contact with my fingers; not so bueno. Thankfully, that’s been fixed.
Another feature I like about this lever that was carried over from its predecessor is the small hollow in the lever body beneath the hood where your thumb usually sits when your hands are on the hoods. It provides a little give that increases your comfort whether you’re in or out of the saddle. It doesn’t seem like it should be that big a deal, but the sensation is oddly reassuring.
It is my sincere hope that what I’m about to write I will never find occasion to type a second time: This front derailleur is the single best thing about this group. Getting excited about a front derailleur is okay for a 10-year-old, but as an adult, and one who ought to be at least a bit jaded, this front derailleur isn’t just an improvement over its predecessor, it’s a marked improvement over everything else on the market.
Sheesh. Where to begin? Hold on while I turn up the Lounge Lizards.
Okay, there are three details that make this front derailleur truly superb. First is the fact that it is the first front derailleur I’ve used since the old Dura-Ace 7800 that allows flawless shifts into the big ring during out-of-the-saddle efforts without me steering weird due to the amount of force necessary to execute said shift. On the flip side, I don’t have to ease up on my pedal stroke out of a sense of concern that I might damage the front derailleur or overshift beyond the big chainring. Dura-Ace 7800 was truly the first group that allowed this level of performance and I remember the first time I tried it during the press intro in Switzerland; I immediately realized this was a game changer. But in my experience, Campy front derailleurs from Record and Super Record, with their carbon cages simply haven’t ever achieved this level of consistent performance. I keep hoping, though. And it’s worth taking another look at the crank above. I shot that image this week; you won’t find a single scratch from shifting the chain beyond the big chainring.
Riding on my own, I’d never feel the need to stand up near the top of a hill and drill it, then shift into the big ring while still standing. But it’s just the sort of move I need at least once on every fast group ride I do, this morning being no exception. And while this move works with Dura-Ace 7900, the force required to execute the shift means the shift is never as fast as necessary to make it really smooth, so I always just sit down. Bah.
Let me begin my comments about the Yaw feature of the front derailleur by saying that I’ve never gotten the 7900 front derailleur to allow me to shift into all 10 cogs without some chain drag either in the biggest or smallest cog. I’ve been wrenching on bikes a long damn time and flat-out can’t make it work. I was a bit skeptical that I could do it with the Red derailleur, but the Yaw feature—that is, the fact that the front derailleur twists slightly when it shifts from the little ring to the big ring, optimizing chain line—is what allows this front derailleur to have a relatively slim cage and yet have drag-free operation in all 10 cogs. I won’t lie; it took a lot of fiddling even beyond the instructions, but it does work.
The third feature of this derailleur that I love (aside from the fact that the set screws accept 2.5mm Allen wrenches—why is no one else doing this?) is the integrated chain keeper. The fact that you install it after you have set the derailleur up is terrific and it can be set up in less than a minute is terrific. I checked the other day and it may be essentially unnecessary on the standard crank, though. There isn’t a single scratch from scraping the chain along its polished aluminum surface.
At first look the most noticeable feature of the rear derailleur is how freely the jockey wheels spin thanks to the ceramic bearings in them. It’s hardly the derailleur’s best feature, though it is good. The cable routing is ultra-clean and has been designed in a way that even a ham- or pastrami-fisted mechanic can’t get it wrong. And as you’ll notice from this image (click on it if you want to see it even larger), you can trim the cable so that there’s no excess sticking out. Like the front derailleur, the set screws accept 2.5mm Allen keys and the set screws are on the face of the derailleur so they are easy to access.
I’ve appreciated just how little cable tension is necessary for SRAM drivetrains to achieve proper adjustment. They seem far less finicky than some of the other drivetrains I’ve worked on over the years. That said, this rear derailleur works better with the Red cassette than it does with a Dura-Ace one; for reasons I never could figure out, I had to increase the cable tension by more than a full turn to get a Dura-Ace cassette to work with this group. In the end, it just never performed as well as the Red cassette.
Between the control lever, this derailleur and the (soon to be discontinued) Gore cables that come standard with this drivetrain, shift force is lighter than the facts found in most political speeches. And I write that having used this drivetrain with a Specialized Tarmac SL4, a bike that features internal cable routing, routing that has proven not to be as smooth in operation as that of its predecessor, the Tarmac SL3.
I’ve heard a few derisive cracks about the rubber bands in the Red cassette. Yeah, whatever. I can say that this is the quietest mechanical group I’ve ever used, thanks in no small part to the elastomers that ring the cassette body. That’s notable considering that previously the Red group was the noisiest group on the planet due to the cassette, which rang like a church bell with each shift. What I’ve found particularly intriguing about the elastomers and the new teeth shapes was SRAM’s claim that the chain now has a smoother movement between cogs, the upshot being that less lube gets slung off the chain with each shift. I wondered about this claim until I had a chance to check it out. It’s pretty sandy where I live and ride, even if you’re not on the beach bike path. If my bike’s chain dries out during a ride and I forget to lube it before my next ride what usually happens is this: I’ll begin the ride with only a bit of chain noise, but by the end of the ride, the chain will be squeaking like door hinges. For three days running I’ve been too tapped on time to lube the chain on the Tarmac and the chain has kept up a steady but meek squeak. It has yet to get louder; maybe there’s another reason why—I’ve yet to do a double-blind study—but my forgetfulness should have resulted in a much more unpleasant screech by now. I think they may be onto something with this new cassette design.
Currently, the new cassette is available in four ranges: 11-23, 11-25, 11-26 and 11-28.
The new Red brakes remind me of Shimano’s first dual-pivot calipers from the 8-speed Dura-Ace group (7600), back in the early ’90s. Until I actually saw them move, I really couldn’t imagine how they operated. That little black arm with the cable anchor bolt looks like it’s part of the front caliper arm, but it’s not. It’s a separate arm that moves on its own pivot in order to articulate the movement of the right arm. As the calipers close, it swings toward the arm holding the barrel adjuster on a tighter radius than it would were it just part of the front caliper arm. And while I’ve done my best to try to describe its operation, I respect even that might not help someone visualize just how this brake works.
Even if you can’t quite picture it, here’s what’s important: Brake response with these calipers is very progressive. Touch the brakes to scrub a little speed when you’re in the group and that’s all that happens; it’s not a particularly grabby brake at first. But get into a descent and you can go whoa to dime without feeling like you’re going to break the levers off.
Let me add that the pad holders you see on these brakes are not the standard Red brake block holders. These are holding a set of Zipp pads and I use holders because they are pretty easy to both install and remove pads. They ain’t pretty, but they work well.
I really love this group. And while I grant that the head-turning speed of an electronic group has an undeniable attraction, a kind of ethereal beauty like a rainbow seen during a shower, there’s a simplicity to making a mechanical group work that never gets old for me. From the ergonomics of the levers to the industrial design that sees little cues show up in the art for each of the components, to the incredible polish put on parts like the derailleurs and even the plating on those metal parts that aren’t polished (and haven’t rusted in the salt air where I live), this group was incredibly well-thought-out. Heck, it took a lot of thought and creativity to remove so much weight from this group and yield a collection of parts that not only weigh less but work better.
Do I have any criticisms? Yes, but there are only two: I’d love an 11th cog, but I respect that making a mechanical group shift well with 130mm spacing and 11 cogs is nearly as difficult as climbing l’Alpe d’Huez in 40 minutes. My other criticism also regards the cassette: Why can’t SRAM offer a cassette that begins with a 12t cog? Selling a group with a 50×11 high gear sends a funny message to a great many riders who have neither big mountains nearby nor the ability to crank out a sprint at 40 mph. What gives? A 12-28 cassette is a fantastically handy device. And what if your drivetrain included 53 and 39 chainrings? How many of us who aren’t carrying a Cat. 1 or 2 license can make use of a 53×11 gear? The only time I use it is on a handful of descents; even then, only briefly. With the riding I most like to do, a 12-28 cassette would be a very welcome addition; as a result, I choose a different bike for my hilliest rides.
It’s funny, in many ways the 2012 Red group is my favorite group on the market, but that lack of more cassette selection plays a real role in how I choose what bike to ride on a day-to-day basis. I wish it weren’t so. A great many riders won’t experience the issues I face, but many, many others are going to purchase a bike with a top gear that—while they’ll be more than happy to shift into any time they’re going relatively fast—they really won’t be able wind that gear out to make the best use of it.
Maybe one day they’ll add a few more cassettes. Once they do, this will be without reservation the best group on the market.
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.
Late last week I received a rather last-minute invitation from the PR machine at Specialized. They were wondering if I might be able to carve out a day to spend with Tom Boonen, Levi Leipheimer and the members of Omega Pharma-Quickstep’s Tour of California squad. After a quick consult with Mrs. Padraig, I started packing. I mean, who says no?
Now, I’m not going to try to snow you. We all know that this was a visit that didn’t carry the journalistic weight of a post-race press conference. Like I care. I am, at my core, a fan of all things cycling (okay, most things cycling; I’m still unwilling to ride a recumbent). And even though I have at times been critical of Tom Boonen for losing his focus as a professional athlete, I’ve been an admirer of his since his U.S. Postal days.
So I took a brief tour of OPQ’s makeshift service course before heading to the big, red S for our ride. I learned a few things while checking out their set up. First, almost the entire team is still on SRAM’s original Red group. Yes, Boonen won Roubaix on 2012 Red, but all the bikes I saw other than his featured Black Red. I also asked a bit about what bikes the riders receive and how much steering they receive about what bike should be ridden when. Specialized is pretty proud of the fact that Tommeke won Ghent-Wevelgem on a Venge, Flanders on a Tarmac and Roubaix on a Roubaix. So I’ve been curious to know how much of this was rider preference vs. sponsor input. I was surprised to learn that it’s 100 percent up to the rider. Getting this answer once from a team liaison was good, but not good enough. So I asked around a bit more, finally asking Boonen himself about his bike choice. Each time I got the same answer.
Each rider is given two Venges and two Tarmacs at the beginning of the season. They also receive a Roubaix for Roubaix. Boonen indicated that his bike of preference is the Venge and he goes for the Tarmac when the course is a bit rougher.
As one of the largest bike companies in the world, Specialized is a complicated entity. They’ve engaged in some business practices that have soured some people, notably the lawsuits with Volagi and Giro. And it’s not too hard to find former employees who can’t quite rinse the bitter taste from their mouths. Even among the happy, current employees, there’s widespread acknowledgement that Sinyard demands a lot from his workforce. In the same breath people add that he isn’t shy with the praise, though, and they do feel valued. I hate the phrase “work hard and play hard” because it has become such a cliché, but if ever there was an organization where the saying is applicable, Specialized is arguably it.
It’s a pretty rare day that any of the stars that Specialized sponsors actually visits the HQ. To my knowledge, this was the first time Boonen had visited; same for teammates like former world champion Bert Grabsch. The marketing team laid siege to the building, putting up posters, making up personalized stickers to put on the shower lockers each of the riders would use (alas, Leipheimer didn’t make it due to his ongoing recovery), embroidering towels and wash cloths, catering lunch and plenty more.
Is this sort of red-carpet treatment something that means much to the riders? I kinda doubt it. Sure, it must be fun for them, but this particular lot seemed on the introverted side and happy just to keep to themselves. I think it means a great deal more to the employees of Specialized. It’s easy for most of them to spend months or a year (or more) on a project and not necessarily see that translate to a big pro win. So events like these are a great way for them to connect to their work in a bigger-picture way. And let’s be honest, going out for your company’s lunch ride accompanied by some of the world’s finest pros has got be pretty stinkin’ cool.
The shot above is one of my favorites from the Specialized lunch ride that day. Unlike other occasions when the big boys join a group ride, these guys sifted through the group and spent some time chatting with the staffers. The pace stayed pretty mellow so that moving through the group wasn’t exactly risky among this unknown quantity.
At one point one of the members of the marketing team rode up to me and asked if I wanted to get my picture with any of the riders. I’m rather camera shy these days, even though I used to spend more time in front of the camera than behind it, so I initially said no. Part of my motivation was thinking that this is really about the Specialized employees and the event was really meant to give them a chance to interact with these athletes.
Then I came to my senses.
“Well, if someone was to accidentally on purpose get a photo of me next to Tom Boonen, I wouldn’t object.”
A few ks later, “Hey Patrick, look what I brought you!”
I turn and it’s Tom Boonen. After a brief reintroduction I admitted that I was among that army of journalists who had been rough on him in the past. So it was with some delight that I was able to tell him that in rediscovering his old form and having the spring he did, I was pleased for him. He was as gracious as one might hope. We talked a bit about what he changed for this season and while the details were plenty interesting, what captivated me was hearing him talk about going back to old-school training and just logging thousands of kilometers. I nearly fell of my saddle when he said, “I told the guys, let’s do this old school, like back when we were juniors.”
He was so relaxed about his training and yet there was an animation to him as he talked about riding. Say what you want, Tom Boonen really loves to ride his bike.
Back in January I was charged with writing peloton magazine’s look at SRAM’s new Red group. To do my job I was equipped with six or seven images and a bunch of copy. Then I went to work, connecting dots, describing features and noting differences. I was forced to stick with the objective. Some things were easy to discern: the new crank arm and its hollow construction, the re-shaped control levers and the elastomer bands encircling the cassette body. Other details were more circumspect: would the difficult and complicated construction of the chainrings really result in stiffer rings that provided better shifting? And just how did the new brake work? I had a photo and a description, but I was still clueless.
Well I had a chance to ride the new SRAM Red group at last weekend’s Sea Otter Classic. As is typical of SRAM’s visit to Laguna Seca, there was a ride Friday morning on new gear followed by a tech presentation on the parts before lunch. The loop took 1.5 hrs. and gave us a chance to do some climbing and descending along with a bit of flat-pounding.
I rode a Trek Madone 6.9 SSL equipped with the new parts. While I didn’t have a chance to weight the bike, I’ve picked up enough bikes in the low-14 lb. range to know this bike was light. Bantam-ish, even. The moment we pulled out the first thing I did was shift a few cogs up and down the cassette. I was curious to know if that stuff really made the group quieter.
Holy sheep stuffing, Batman, it works.
Instantly, Red went from the noisiest group I’d ever ridden to the quietest. Neat trick. I bet there’s a rabbit in that hat. The other thing I noticed almost as instantly was that, well yes, the levers did have a new shape that did make them easier to grip. The larger bump at the end of the lever body was welcome. But in that same flash I realized that the force required to execute a shift was much lower than it had been. There was a distinct improvement in rear shifting relative to my experience with Dura-Ace 7900, but the biggest improvement was in front shifting. But not only had the return springs been softened, the larger shift paddles on new Red made it easier to get two fingers on the lever to make that shift.
The new brakes were a surprise. I’ve preferred SRAM and Campagnolo brakes to the 7900 brakes. My problem with the Dura-Ace stoppers is that they are rather grabby. It’s hard to touch those brakes to the rim with so little force as to scrub just a single mile per hour from your speed unless you’re at very high speed. Also, the response has seemed very linear. By contrast, Skeleton and (old) Red brakes have offered terrifically progressive braking that starts at almost nothing and goes all the way to full lock-up. The new brakes offer an even more progressive response thanks to that little linkage in the lower arm. I watched it work on and off the bike and still can’t describe how it works without pointing to the post on which the two arms swivel. It’s a truly fresh piece of thinking.
My experience was less than two hours. Hardly enough to get to know an entire groupset. Yet my experience was so notable all I wanted to do was keep riding it.
I’ll do a more in-depth review of the new Red soon; we have a group on the way I’m told. Here’s what I’ll leave you with: I know a number of who tried Red and decided it wasn’t for them. They have been more than willing to let me know why they didn’t like it. The complaints I heard at least three times are as follows:
- Lever body was too big for someone with small hands.
- Lever hoods were too smooth for sweaty hands.
- The front shifting was wimpy due to the titanium cage on the front derailleur.
- It was hard to drop a rear wheel out because the derailleur sat too far forward.
- The shifting is confusing.
Except for that last (which is easy enough to sort out if you just spend a day on a bike with Red), all those items have been sorted out.
I spent some time on the ride thinking back on when the last time was I rode a group that changed that much from one generation to the next. Now, to be fair, Campagnolo isn’t really part of this discussion because they prefer to do a few incremental changes every year. But given Shimano’s history, the jump from eight to nine speeds in both the Dura-Ace and Ultegra groups in ’97 and ’98, respectively, was the last time I was a wowed by the overhauling of a group. The folks at SRAM like to refer to this as a new group, not just an improved one. This may seem a semantic point, but if you have experience on the current Red parts, once you get on this new group, you’ll understand what they mean. They’ve earned the distinction.
When I’m out on the bike I get a lot of questions. Mostly they revolve around whatever the newest thing I’m riding, be it bike, clothing or what-have-you. What’s interesting is that the broader, more philosophical questions about equipment come late in a ride. They always have.
After we’ve punched some tickets, gone cross-eyed and been humbled, the late portion of the ride, as we cool down and head for home is when all the most interesting questions come up. They’ve ranged from what my favorite saddle (I’m really partial to the Fi’zi:k Antares) is to whether I’d ride steel on a course with a lot of climbing (um, no).
It was shortly after the Schleck chaingate that a newer rider asked me what group he should buy now that Andy Schleck had demonstrated that the Red drivetrain was defective and in need of an overhaul.
“Easy,” I said. “You should buy the one that never suffers a missed shift.”
Then I gave a hearty laugh.
I hope you’ll pardon me for laughing at my own joke. I laughed long and loud over that. The rider in question didn’t follow me. I left him to ponder what I might have meant.
That belies a common question I get, though: Who makes the best component group?
I’ve got a few thousand miles each on Super Record, Dura-Ace and Red. I can speak to that question. Normally, I don’t like or do shootouts for a simple reason: Someone always loses. That said, there are specific reasons to recommend one group over another depending on your individual needs. For some riders, there may not be a compelling reason to go with one over the others, but for others, there may be a very clear choice.
Needs aside, I believe that each manufacturer is in for some constructive criticism. Each of those groups feature some blemishes that can and should be addressed.
And so, now that RKP’s traffic is big enough that we can’t be ignored, I’m about to embark on a series of posts that could well piss off some really nice people at companies that I previously hoped would advertise. Gulp.
Oh, a brief (but obvious) word on what defines a group. It used to be that a group included shift levers, brake levers, brakes, derailleurs, a bottom bracket, crank set, chain, cables, headset, hubs and pedals. These days integrated headsets are found in most frames, nearly all wheels are sold as complete wheelsets and pedals stopped being sold with groups not long after Look entered the market; a group no longer includes a headset, hubs or pedals.
Like I said, this is going to take a few posts to get through. Keep checking back.
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.