No matter how many times I do Interbike, every year something unusual, something fresh, something exciting occurs to keep my interest fixed on a location that were circumstances any different, I can assure you I would never consider as the focal point of a long awaited vacation. I am here strictly for work. And while Las Vegas gets weirder with each passing year, that ever-increasing weirdness is a functional corollary to the bike industry itself, not that it’s getting weirder, but that change is ever afoot that each of us arrives with the hope that we’ll see new products destined to make our cycling experiences not so much better, but as thrilling as that first taste of independence how ever many decades ago it occurred.
This year my show started on an unusual note. Rather than host an afternoon ride to experience their products, SRAM invited some members of the media to meet them at the Ventian hotel, next to the Sands Convention Center, and ride out to the Outdoor Demo at Boulder Canyon. What I didn’t recall about the invitation was that we were going to ride the 2012 SRAM Red crank with Quarq power meter and—oh joy—we would ride a predefined section of the bike path to record a roughly five minute effort and then analyze the data recorded. What I found out was something I already knew: I was tired, and the Quarq power meter seems to provide the same level of data as the SRM in a simpler package. The bikes we rode were Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL4s with 2012 Red, Zipp 202s and the aforementioned Quarq power meter.
Once at the Outdoor Demo, the very first bike I went to ride was the new Pinarello Dogma, or if not new, then the latest iteration of the Dogma. It’s been a while since I last rode a carbon fiber Pinarello and there’s been a good reason for that. The last carbon Pinarello I rode was not an impressive bike, no matter what Pinarello fans would have you believe. It used excessive amounts of intermediate modulus carbon fiber and as a result, though it was fairly stiff, it was dead as roadkill.
The new Dogma is nothing like that. I’d heard a few good reports on the bike, but remained suspicious; I wanted to find out for myself, doubting Thomas that I am. The very first thing I noticed was that in picking up the 9000 Dura-Ace-equipped bike it was a noticeably light bicycle, in the 14 to 14.5-lb. range. Upon rolling out I discovered a bike that offered excellent road feedback and precise handling. Telling you the bike was stiff doesn’t say much; what I’ll tell you is that this bike has gained a tremendous amount of stiffness. It’s stiffer than any of the open-mold bikes I’ve ridden as well as most everything else I’ve ridden coming out of Europe.
Regarding the new Shimano Dura-Ace 9000, I can say that I’m really blown away. While I definitely need more time with the brakes, I can say that the issues I had with both front and rear shifting have been solved. That said, Shimano has gone back to a trimmed front derailleur, with both big and little ring trim. Shift force for both front and rear is ridiculously light. The brakes seem to offer better modulation than the previous version, which was my big complaint—great power, but not enough modulation.
A couple of weeks ago I rode with Specialized’s road product manager, a guy named Brent Graves, who is a real industry veteran. Graves summed up the new group by saying, “It’ll give mechanical groups another five years of live.” I have to agree, though nothing will make me like the look of that crank. Even so, I can’t wait until I have the opportunity to get on a group longer-term.
Next on my list was the new Kestrel. The first name in monocoque carbon fiber bikes has struggled as a brand for some years. Good product has never really been the issue, getting the message out has. When I heard that the new Legend had a frame weight of 780 grams and was using some sophisticated construction techniques, including inner molds to improve compaction.
I went out for a ride with Steve Fairchild who led the design of this bike, RKP contributor J.P. Partland and mountain bike legend Joe Breeze. ASI, the parent company for Fuji and Kestrel is also the parent for Breeze’s Breezer bikes, hence the connection there. Fairchild revealed that he wasn’t concerned with making the stiffest bike on the planet. He’s long had a reputation from his work with Fuji, Jamis and now Kestrel for designing bikes that felt good to ride (read: not overly stiff) and handled with enough certainty to inspire confidence in the rider.
The Legend is the first sub-800g frame I’ve ridden that wasn’t designed with crazy amounts of stiffness. It’s a gentler bike and if Kestrel can get dealers to carry them and generate enough press and a big enough marketing effort, this bike could be fantastically popular. My take is that it’s a great alternative to “comfort” road bikes like the Specialized Roubaix. As opposed to making a crazy stiff bike and trying to quash vibration, the Legend lets the vibration move through the bike to inform your sense of the road surface, but in offering some flex, increases a rider’s comfort for the big hits like bumps, manhole covers, driveway ramps and such.
My final bike of the day was yet another Pinarello Dogma, but this time equipped with Campagnolo Super Record EPS. Having just come off the Legend which was equipped with Di2, this was my first chance to ride Record EPS on the road and to experience it back to back with Di2. The first, biggest difference between the two systems is that with EPS you definitely have a stronger sense of having just pushed a button. Di2 really lacks a strong tactile component that reassures you you’ve just hit a button. Also, the ability to just hold a button down and either dump gear or downshift straight to the bail gear is perhaps not a matter of jaw-dropping engineering, but it’s a surprising thing to experience. I’d like some more time to ride both groups, but based on this experience, I have to say that I think Di2 may downshift a bit quicker than EPS, but upshifts seem to be just as quick. More significant for me is the tentative approach that I’ve adopted with my own Super Record group has been assuaged by the foolproof front shifting of EPS. Shifts are faster and infinitely more precise.
Tomorrow begins with the Lake Meade ride followed by a frantic attempt to get on a great many bikes I didn’t ride today.
Comparing anything in the bike industry is a dangerous business. There’s a long history of manufacturers expecting—and getting—reviews of just their equipment without having the results muddled up by any comparison to the work of a competitor. There’s also a history of pissed-off companies withholding ad dollars, not just in the bike industry, but any industry you look at. If you never see an ad from Campagnolo, Shimano or SRAM, this series would probably be why. Most bike companies aren’t wild about reviews that don’t spit-shine their every effort. So I’ll try not to be surprised if none of them ever advertise with me. They’re each accustomed to kid glove treatment, but I can’t in good conscience claim to have written an in-depth appraisal and not note some of the weaker features—some intended, some not—that give these groups their real-world identities.
So which component group is best for you? After all, that’s the question. Judging from the comments these posts have received, very few readers were willing to accept the idea that there was a winner. And that’s okay. What I wanted to make people aware of was that there are objective features found in some of these groups that elevate that group in consideration. When someone tells me, “It’s just a matter of preference.” I bristle in the same way that I do when someone tries to tell me, “How can you say with certainty something is a good piece of writing? It’s all subjective.”
Um, nope. No, it’s not. You see, if I posted a piece of writing riddled with misspelled words, used no capital letters and included no punctuation, you’d stop reading after just a few minutes. I guarantee it. And that’s even if all the verb tenses are correct. No matter how excellent the ideas might be, without a sense of the rhythm and focus of a writer’s ideas, the work becomes just a jungle of words. Similarly, a group is just a bunch of bike parts until they are properly assembled and adjusted to the point of working according to factory spec.
Below are a number of considerations that help illustrate some of the stronger features each of the groups has to offer, while also highlighting some of the weaknesses to be found as well.
Foolproof shifting: Despite the input from some readers that (insert group name here) shifts like crap, my experience is that Dura-Ace and Red have been more foolproof than Campagnolo. Red gets a ding because if the chain is in the largest cog and you try to downshift again because, for instance, you believe the chain’s in the 21 when it’s actually in the 23, unless you’re paying attention and push a bit harder on the lever, you’ll end up upshifting, so you’ll get a higher gear when you were looking for a lower one. I’ve made that mistake, but I’ve also learned that if I go for the downshift and the cog’s not there, all I have to do is push a bit harder and the chain will stay put. Not so bad. Sure, it’s simpler the way Campagnolo and Dura-Ace let you know you’re out of cogs: the lever won’t move, but there’s more to this feature than that.
More impressive is that a Red group built with the included Gore cables I could ride through a hurricane’s storm surge and the shifting would continue to be butter-smooth.
I’ve missed dozens upon dozens of upshifts with Dura-Ace because I needed to rotate my wrist to get that last bit of lever travel and couldn’t because I was mid-sprint. And I’ve overshifted the Super Record thumb buttons just as many times. But I’ve never missed or over-shifted an upshift with Red, in part because I can pull the lever back to the bar, tucked beneath my index finger.
In downshifting, practically speaking, I never downshift more than two cogs at a time. I broke too many Shimano chains in the 1990s because I tried shifting three cogs (or maybe more).
There’s no clear victor, but I give the edge to Red.
Front derailleur trim: That Dura-Ace no longer features any trim is a fail. I don’t know a rider who doesn’t get at least a bit of front derailleur rub in some gear. That’s not to say perfect adjustment isn’t possible; the problem is that so few mechanics (me included) know exactly how to achieve it. Because Red only offers trim in the big chainring isn’t a fail, but it gets a B-. Super Record is the clear winner here because you can trim easily in either the big or little chainring.
Braking performance: With regard to modulation, I give the edge to Super Record. For absolute brake power, Super Record and Red have an edge over Dura-Ace, but not by a lot. That said, swapping out wheels often makes a bigger difference than going to different groups. I’ve ridden each of the groups with wheels that resulted in poorer than expected braking and with wheels that offered braking that was a bit more responsive than I wanted. Ultimately, they all offer terrific modulation. They are so good they beg the question: Who really needs hydraulics?
Sound: A full Red group is the noisiest group I’ve ever encountered. Full stop. Still, it’s not that terrible. Is it one of the group’s worst features? I don’t think so. I seem to have spent so much time on Dura-Ace that I’ve come to accept its noise level as the standard by which to judge. The upshot to that is when I get on Super Record the group is so quiet I relish the cut in noise. Win to Super Record.
Ease of shifting: For riders with small hands or relatively little hand strength it’s fair to note that the shifting systems require differing amounts of force to execute a shift. This difference is more pronounced with the front shifter. Since Dura-Ace changed to running the derailleur cables beneath the bar tape, the force required to execute a shift has gone up, and with the front derailleur it’s noticeably so. Red requires less force to execute a shift, but this is another occasion where the clear edge goes to Super-Record. It’s the system I recommend for women riders.
Crank options: Super Record is off the back on this one. Campagnolo offers the Ultra-Torque crank in either 53/39 or 50/34 configurations and only four lengths: 165, 170, 172.5 and 175mm. Red offers six chainring combinations and six lengths (165 to 177.5mm in 2.5mm increments). Dura-Ace gets the slight edge, for while they offer the same six choices in chainrings, they offer seven lengths, adding a 180mm option to the array.
Gearing choices: If we leave out non-group options such as pairing a Red group with an Apex rear derailleur and cassette and just stick to in-group options, Red doesn’t look so hot with its four choices. Dura-Ace offers more choices with eight different cassette options. However, though Super Record only offers five options, they take the V here because the 11-speed 11-23 offers everything a 10-speed 11-21 offers, plus it adds a little kindness for the odd hill. The 12-25 and 12-27 options make lots of sense where I live and for those folks who need a little extra help on longer climbs, the 12-29 cassette provides something the other groups don’t offer.
Ergonomics: Okay, Dura-Ace just plain loses on this. The current control lever body has all the design sense of a freeway accident. Sure, it’s functional, but looking at it doesn’t invoke any desire to hold it in my hand. The Super Record control lever is its tactile opposite. I can’t not want to touch one, to hold one in my hand when I see it. It simply looks made to fit my hand and if my hand belongs there, then I’m going to put it there. The Super Record brake levers also feel better on my fingers than either the Dura-Ace or Red levers. They aren’t really made for someone with big hands, but the included shims help with that. But as I noted for those of us with smaller hands I wish they offered the ability to adjust the lever throw. That’s a miss.
Red strikes an interesting balance by offering a lever body that is comfortable and natural to hold and giving the user the opportunity to adjust both the brake lever throw and the shifter paddle position. Edge to Red.
Weight: This one goes to Super Record with a weight of 1950 grams (4.3 lbs.). Red is an extra 30 grams, which is pretty darn close. Dura-Ace may be the heaviest of the bunch, but it wasn’t too many years ago that a 2 kilo group would have seemed like the stuff of killer tomato movies.
Cost: Recently, I was talking Campagnolo’s general manager for North America, Tom Kattus. We were talking about how people choose groups and he noted that Super Record isn’t a fair comparison to Dura-Ace or Red because it’s so much more expensive. The fair comparison is Chorus, he says. That’s a helpful consideration if your primary motivator is price. But I think anytime someone looks at Super Record they do it for a simple reason: They want their conception of what is best. People may shop for the best price on Super Record, but by the time they do that they’ve already decided that’s what they are buying. Super Record buyers don’t want better—they want best. The 7-series Beamer is an amazing sedan. However, the Maserati Quattroporte can reasonably be called the best four-door sedan on the market. Some people will argue Jaguar or Porsche, but you can’t count the Maserati out, and that’s the point. The best deals I see are for Red, so again, it takes the win.
Ease of repair: There are three criteria for this section. First is how quick is it to work on or replace a part. Little touches like the clearly marked and easy to reach derailleur set screws plus the easily accessible lever adjustment screws control lever nuts make Red my favorite to work on. Should I want a component worked on and some small part replaced, such as a component within a control lever, Super Record is the ticket. Just take it to an authorized Campagnolo service center. But if I’m away from home and need a replacement part due to a crash or other need (this happens), I’d rather have Dura-Ace. It’s better stocked, both here and abroad. Regardless, if I walk into my garage to work on a bike I’d rather work on Red than Super Record or Dura-Ace. I have the highest level of confidence that I’ll make the adjustment I need in the least amount of time if I’m working on Red.
Crash sensitivity: If you go down, it’s handy to be able to ride home. Super Record’s more liberal use of carbon fiber puts them at a distinct disadvantage here. Any time a friend who owns a Campagnolo Record or Super Record group has gone down we know to call for a pick-up. The components remind me of what a mentor from Arkansas once said of chickens: “They just look for reasons to die.” Unfortunately, Red levers seem to be rather susceptible to death by impact and abrasion as well. Even after going to carbon fiber brake levers I have to admit that Dura-Ace seems more likely to survive a misadventure.
Cool factor: Ah cool. What’s cool is (of course!) entirely in the eye of the beholder. I’ve got plenty of friends for whom cool can only be bestowed by something Italian. Other friends believe that if you’ve spent a dime more than necessary your purchase wasn’t cool. They go for Red. And there are plenty of folks for whom cool only comes by sticking close to the mainstream. No winner; this is a draw.
Overall appearance: The effect graphics can have on a part is easy to underestimate until you see something amazing. One of my favorite features about Red is its bold use of graphics and color. It makes a statement. And while I really like the overall look of Super Record, there are places where the look is more industrial than stylish. Maybe I’d like the look more if I didn’t expect so much from them. For God’s sake, they’re Italian. Their stuff ought, by right, to look so good that I should fantasize pretty girls will blow kisses to me when I ride by on Super Record. As to Dura-Ace, 7800 was a better looking group; 7900 recalls Apple products in the 1990s after Steve Jobs was forced out. I recall seeing one Apple computer and thinking, “They what?” The difference between average industrial design and great industrial design is the difference between Hyundai and Aston Martin. There’s so much I like about Super Record, but Red takes this by a wheel.
Ideal users: The best answer for one user is not the best answer for all users. I tend to steer women to Campagnolo groups for the ease of shifting if they don’t have great hand strength. I’ll recommend Red if it seems like they will have trouble with the reach to Campagnolo brake levers. For newbie racers or those who race ultra-technical courses where you might be hard on the brakes for a tight corner and then sprinting back up to speed, I think Dura-Ace is better than Mexican Coke, because you can brake and downshift at the same time. If you’ve got big hands, also Dura-Ace; the lever bodies are bigger and you’ll be less likely to notice the increased force required to shift to the big chainring. Like to maintain your equipment yourself? Red is the easiest to work on and achieve the desired result in my experience. And for you sprinters, it’s Red. Red Red Red Red Red. And everyone knows that if you hang your identity on Euro cool your bike will feature Campagnolo.
And the winner is …
As I tallied up the various considerations above, I suspected that what I was going to find was that I’d given more points to Red than the other groups. I was surprised to find that it was essentially a tie between Super Record and Red. When I think about the bikes I’ve had at my disposal recently, I realized that I chose which bike to ride according to the following criteria:
- If the bike absolutely had to work correctly at all times and I knew I couldn’t afford a missed shift due to drivetrain vagaries, I chose Red.
- If I wanted the perfect gearing for a hilly day and light shifting plus terrific progressive brake power for descending, I chose Super Record.
- I seem to wind up on Dura-Ace only when it’s the equipment on the bike that I want to ride.
My Super Record drivetrain has been so fussy that there have been rides where I’ve made a conscious choice not to take it. The more I think about it the more I realize that if the drivetrain had worked flawlessly all the time—instead of only recently—I probably wouldn’t be as enamored with Red as I am. All of the groups have issues that bug me. I’d like the Super Record brake lever throw to be adjustable. I hate the Super Record brake quick release. I’d like more cassette choices in Red. I’d like lighter shift action with Dura-Ace. All that said, that 11-speed 12-27 cassette paired with a compact crank will get me through any terrain when I’m fit. And if I’m not fit (which would include all of 2011 and every bit of 2012 so far), well maybe Fatty will let me contribute to Fat Cyclist again. In the meantime, I think I’m going to go lube my Campy chain; I’m riding it tomorrow. And the next day.
Campagnolo wins. There, that’s one of the two acceptable conclusions it would seem most readers will accept as just. I’m willing to bet that for most readers the sentimental favorite, the group of components that if—for any reason, any reason at all—I fail to find Campagnolo’s Super Record group the absolute winner of this little comparison, this subset of readers will feel justified in coming to the conclusion that I simply don’t know what I’m talking about.
I understand that sentiment, I really do.
The other alternative, of course, is that I’m supposed to come to the conclusion that these three groups and our love for them are as beyond question as religion. If you’ve had the impossibly good fortune to have had a love of Campagnolo passed down to you by your father, conceivably even a grandfather, you, sir, are lucky beyond measure and are thusly awarded a dispensation from this discussion. In your case, Campagnolo, by virtue of the fact that it was as inherited by you as your actual religion, is beyond question the winner.
But most of us made a choice. Maybe it wasn’t all that conscious, but we had to make a choice, so for most of us, it’s not like religion.
It’s a helluva prelude, but I had to do it. And here’s why: When I bought my first racing bike in the 1980s, it was both used and equipped with Campagnolo Super Record. I had a sense that what I purchased was an investment in my future. That my bicycle was without an expiration date. It was not, however, impervious to ham-fisted wrenching. The headset had been brinnelled, “indexed,” as we joked. When I replaced the headset (with a Chris King), I took the opportunity to overhaul the entire bike. I recall my shop’s manager turning the brake’s quick release and saying, “This works so well … why would Shimano want to go and change that?”
That was a direct quote recalled verbatim more than 20 years later.
Campagnolo’s Record group carries with it an air of elegance. Record has the enviable distinction of combining components of obvious function with a wash of art that rises above good industrial design. It reminds me of the work you find in a great guitar, fine silver or some of the best German sedans.
It seems unlikely that either Dura-Ace or Red will ever be as pretty as Record. This is a level of unlikely akin to me winning a Pulitzer or peace breaking out in the Middle East, although I’d welcome either or both. Campagnolo’s sense of the interplay of artful design and function are readily apparent at almost every turn, to be found in the use of carbon fiber in the front and rear derailleurs. Even better are the flowing contours of the Ergo levers. There’s something Eames-like in the way the lever bodies curve inward at the rise and the brake levers flatten and wrap outward at the hook.
Out of the box, the skeleton brakes remind me of some German shower fixture: minimal, functional and almost endlessly adjustable. On the road, however, they accumulate more dirt, sand and assorted road grime than any other brake I’ve encountered. Not surprising, I suppose, they’ve got surface area like Norway has coastline. And getting in there to clean them has forced me to amass a set of brushes I didn’t previously need.
Best Features: Their creativity. They were the first to add 10 speeds and then 11. They added carbon fiber to components like shift levers and derailleurs before anyone else did. They embraced both triples and compact cranks before Shimano did. They’ve offered a greater array of cassettes for their top group than Shimano has for some years. It’s a fact that Campagnolo has done more to meet the needs of the everyman than Shimano has by virtue of its willingness to offer smaller chainrings and bigger rear cogs on its cassettes. For an executive with taste and too few hours to ride, there isn’t a better choice than Campy with a compact crank and a 13-29 cassette, that is unless he lives some place relatively flat where he can get by with the compact and a 12-23.
I appreciate that Campagnolo offers cassettes with a 12t small cog. I don’t climb as fast as I did when I was racing, so I like having a 27t large cog. My unabashed love of climbing combined with my even greater love of technical descents (where my speed rarely hits 50 mph) makes my absolute favorite cassette the 11-speed 12-27. It has worked for me in the canyons above Malibu and makes great sense in the Alps as well. I can’t defend this preference in any remotely objective way; it suits my fitness and the terrain I prefer.
One great feature of Campagnolo’s Ergo shifter is your ability to dump the chain down the cassette after getting over the top of a climb. Where I live I rarely need this feature, but I have ridden loads of hills in New England that had a sharp finish to them and being able to drop three or four cogs instantly was pretty handy. Even better than this is the mechanical advantage of their shifters. It requires less force to execute a shift with Campagnolo shifters than either of their competitors’ shifters. And then there’s trim. Whether you’re in the small or large chainring, you get trim and I’ve yet to ride a Dura-Ace bike adjusted so perfectly as to prevent me from desiring at least a touch of trim.
Campagnolo has also endorsed the concept of running changes in a way Shimano doesn’t appreciate. If you didn’t like a feature of 7800, too bad; it stayed until the release of 7900. With Campagnolo, every year there are a few tweaks. The downside is that sometimes the new group isn’t all that new, but that process of tweaking has meant that the pressure required to shift the thumb button has decreased but the chance of overshifting has dropped as well. It used to be that in a sprint, by the time you generated enough pressure to execute a shift, you were well on your way to yet another shift. I was careful about the smallest cog I’d run on my cassette when I raced to make sure I didn’t risk overshifting. Running changes also means that each year Super Record gets a bit lighter; no matter what Shimano is doing, the fact that each year Super record gets lighter will keep the group competitive and push Shimano to catch up.
Worst Features: Their creativity. Let’s face it, three of the biggest game changers in component design—integrated control levers, large diameter BB spindles and dual-pivot brakes—all came from Shimano. It pains me to write that. Five or six years ago a friend summed up the reason he thought Campagnolo was OTB in component design with this: “Two words dude, square taper.” He was referring to the Italian company’s ongoing use of the square taper BB spindle, something they did finally abandon.
It’s not that Campagnolo isn’t creative. God knows. The problem is that the company used to lose the plot line periodically. Two more words: Delta brakes. I covered this ground adequately in peloton‘s issue 8, but I’ll remind you that the Delta brake, while as gorgeous as Riedel crystal, worked only as well as something spec’d by Huffy and was even harder to adjust. Imagine something as pretty as an iPod but with circa 1990s system software by Microsoft.
As much as I love the shape of the Ergo body and brake lever, I’m dismayed that Campagnolo has yet to offer the ability to adjust the reach on the brake lever. This is never more frustrating than when I move back to my Super Record-equipped bike from either a Dura-Ace or Red-equipped bike. It seems to me that ideal ergonomics would mean that lever reach would be adjustable so that any rider could open their hands while in the drops and their fingers would immediately reach the levers. It’s not a huge reach, but it’s a reach, nonetheless, that many of us are forced to make. That the quick release for the brake is on the lever is a feature I’ve never liked. A broken spoke will result in a brake lever that can only be reached from the hood.
Campagnolo’s extensive use of carbon fiber has a downside. Lay a Campy-equipped bike down and you’d better sharpen up your American Express card. I once had one of their chains blow apart at the shop-installed with the $100 tool masterlink (an abandoned design) and the broken link caught in the rear derailleur pulleys as I pedaled. The carbon parallelogram snapped like dried pasta. I still find the fact that their chains are non-repairable and require a $100 chain tool irksome. And that’s putting it mildly.
Assembly and Maintenance: The last iteration of Campagnolo 10-speed Record set a new standard in functionality for the Italian manufacturer’s top group. It was by far the quickest to set up and adjust, save the chain, but we’ve covered that. Unfortunately, Super Record 11 has proven to be fussier to set up. If the front derailleur set up isn’t perfect a dropped chain can result in chewed up carbon fiber, either in the front derailleur (no bueno) or perhaps at the frame (really no bueno).
Worse is the company’s decision to use aluminum Torx fittings to secure the levers and brake pads. Gone are the days of slipping a 5mm driver below the hood and giving a firm twist. Now you have to peel the hood back to a crazy degree and try to shove a Torx driver in there squarely enough that you don’t end up with aluminum shavings all over the lever. Your results may vary. To get the lever clamp tight enough I had to snug a crescent wrench on the driver’s handle. To see a picture of me doing this you can check out the Wikipedia entry for “awkward.” Not publicized by the company was the release of some alternative cassette spacers some months after the introduction of Super Record. There was an acknowledgement that some users might not be getting the best possible shifting performance. I was Googling for information on optimal adjustment of Super Record drivetrains when I happened to run across info about the ever-so-slightly thicker spacers.
Running new cables in a lever is less fun than changing a diaper. By a long shot. Those little white cable guides may give you choice, and they pop out to aid installation, but getting them back in is a bit like trying to replace a AA battery with a D cell.
The good news is that once it’s working properly all it needs is the occasional wash and chain lube.
Group Weight: 4.3 lbs. (1950g)
Best Internet Pricing: $2199
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.
One of the greatest adventures of my newly minted career as a bicycle mechanic was when I was walked through my first overhaul. One Saturday just before New Year’s Eve, after we closed the shop up, the manager and I stayed behind, cranked up The Who and he began disassembling his Nuovo Record-equipped Cïocc.
Off came the wheels, then each of the cables and housing. Then he removed the brakes, the derailleurs, the cranks, and then the stem, headset and fork. Finally he disassembled the bottom bracket. As he removed each of the parts they went in the Safety-Kleen bath. He flicked a switch and left them to marinate. He coiled the cables before tossing them in the trash and he folded the chain on an old rag.
He showed me how to position the crank-bolt wrench so that you squeeze the wrench and crank arm toward each other to remove the crank bolts. But when he took the Park crank puller off the wall, a tool I had previously seen, but never used, the bicycle became as complicated as a Chinese puzzle, but with an entirely more thrilling solution.
He demonstrated how to hold the drive-side crank arm and use a Park Y-Allen to loosen the crank bolts. One sudden, firm twist broke the bolts free. I quickly learned the chainrings were tough to scrub clean.
With the frame stripped of everything save the headset cups, he washed down the frame and cleaned around the chainstay bridge, around the seatstays at the seat binder, at the head tube/down tube joint and behind the front derailleur braze-on.
We scrubbed the brakes and derailleurs down and used a rat-tail file to remove enough brake shoe material to remove any aluminum embedded in the brake shoes. They were placed on a clean rag to dry.
The quick releases received their own bath and then the non-drive-side locknut and cone were removed from each wheel’s axle. The ball bearings for the headset, each hub and the bottom bracket were placed in glass bowls, one for each size of bearing. After making sure the bearings were clean, we inspected them for scoring or any other sign of wear. Next, he took a rag, dipped it in the Safety-Kleen and then wiped shiny each of the bearing races and cones.
It was painstaking work, work for which only clear forethought and practiced technique could add speed. Satisfaction was proportional to effort.
We reassembled the wheels first; truing would happen the next weekend when he planned to glue on a new set tires. One finger-scoop-worth of Campy’s white lithium grease was applied to each race and then each bearing was placed like so many cherries into whipped cream.
When we spun the freewheel back on he showed me how to use the freewheel tool to tighten the freewheel onto the hub threads so that the rear derailleur adjustment wouldn’t be thrown off by trying to adjust the set screws relative to a not-yet fully tightened freewheel. It was fun to put my full weight into turning the wheel on the vise.
With the frame spun upside-down in the work stand, we finished off the headset and then re-inserted the fork and spun on the headset’s adjustable cup.
We reattached the derailleurs and brakes, and made sure to remount the front derailleur exactly where the clamp had made indentations on the braze-on. New cables ran from each lever. We cut new housing to match the lengths of the old spans. We only needed 4 and 5mm Allen wrenches and an 8mm box wrench. A quick stretch of the cables and then we tightened them once again.
A week later I decided I would overhaul my touring bike. When I realized that the hubs and bottom bracket used sealed bearings (which were pretty exotic for those days), I felt cheated; the experience was less thorough than I’d anticipated. It’s a bit like traveling to Paris with the expectation that you’ll get to speak French, only to have everyone there look at your shoes and speak to you in English.
A few months later I purchased a used Super Record-equipped Miele. The first thing I did was overhaul the bike and replace the brinelled headset with a Chris King—kind of ironic given my previous experience, but my time in shops had taught me that no headset was longer-lasting and less likely to brinell than the King.
As the years passed, overhauling my bike between Christmas and New Year’s became a tradition for me, much like the annual company New Year’s Eve party is for some folks, only this was a good deal more contemplative and peaceful.
These days I’ve see the overhaul as a metaphor for many aspects of my cycling life. Every year I break out the tape measure and goniometer and go over my fit with the help of friend who does fittings for a local shop. We break it down beginning with an examination of my flexibility and ending with a thorough examination of me on my bikes.
Last year, I overhauled my workspace in the garage, tossing out old crap, filling a box with stuff to sell on Craigslist and sorting the stuff I planned to keep. It was a catharsis, and because the adventure was novel as my first shave, it was exhilarating as well.
This winter I’m in the process of overhauling my fitness. An injury last year followed by the birth of my son left me adrift of my usual mileage; I was as unacquainted with my usual fitness as the incarcerated are with take-out. Getting me in my jeans was as difficult as passing a rich man through the eye of a needle.
So this winter I overhauled my riding routines. I’ve sworn off the fastest group rides that are a normal part of my riding week. I’m riding on my own more, and I’m wearing a heart rate monitor—not for the hard efforts; rather, to remind me just how easy easy is these days. It’s kind of a will-governor, if you will.
I always derived immense satisfaction from running through the gears one last time while the bike was still in the stand, checking the throw on the brake levers and then removing the bike to pump up the tires before a quick inspection spin. I’m not sure what this personal overhaul will yield, and it will be hard to say just what finished is as our lives are unfinished until departure. Until then, I will stick to the process. I know the process results in satisfaction.
When I was initiated into proper roadiedom, I was taught that if you were serious about doing things the right way, the Euro way, then you did things a certain way. The quickest way to show others you knew what you were doing was to show up on a Campagnolo-equipped bike with a Cinelli bar, stem and seatpost. Your saddle was Italian and your tape was the same color as your decals or the accent color in the windows of your lugs.
That mindset, though it created some gorgeous bikes that served well for tens of thousands of miles, squashed some great ideas over the years. I’m reminded of a Pasadena company, Sweet Parts, that made cranks and stems from steel of surprising stiffness and low weight. Alas, in the mid-1990s it was hard to get a rider to break rank with those suites of parts used in the gruppo or other componentry. After all, if your bar, stem and seatpost were supposed to match, what did you pair an oddball stem to?
Times change, and so do bikes. And while sometimes too much emphasis is placed on weight, it is tough to argue that today’s bikes aren’t noticeably superior in almost every performance aspect: Lower weight makes them easier to accelerate and speeds climbing; increased frame stiffness improves power transmission and more sophisticated componentry has improved shifting, given us more gears and increased brake modulation.
The proliferation of aftermarket components—everything from bars to brakes—means that we’re more accustomed to seeing bikes with parts that may not match. Zipp helped lead the way into this fray some years back. In fact, carbon fiber has been the company’s bread and butter for close to 15 years. Fortunately, the 3k weave used in many carbon fiber parts makes them more similar than not, even if the decals don’t match.
Zipp’s latest crankset for road (as opposed to TT/Tri) use is the VumaQuad. It uses a four-arm spider (the crankarm is one of the four arms of the spider) and is available in two different chainring configurations, either 53/39t or 50/34t; interestingly, both configurations use a 110mm bolt-circle diameter, so you can change chainrings out depending on the conditions or your fitness. The crankset is available in four lengths: 170, 172.5, 175 or 180mm. The spindle is oversized and machined from aluminum to the new BB30 standard; it is integrated into the non-drive arm and secures to the drive-side arm with a self-extracting bolt. And because Zipp is predicated on making you faster, the bottom bracket is offered with ceramic bearings (as well as precision steel); the cups are available in either English or Italian threads. All this in a sub-600g package.
My review setup was 50/34 rings with 175mm arms and ceramic bearings. I tried the cranks first on a bike that previously had a set of carbon fiber cranks that had some detectable flex. I immediately noticed the increased stiffness as well as a weight reduction. The easier spin of the bearings was noticeable (if not hugely apparent) when I sat down and shifted to a small gear for a hill; I felt like I was turning out an extra 10 watts or so.
Next, I swapped the crank over to my preferred ride. This frame is stiffer at the bottom bracket and I was curious to see how much of an improvement I’d feel over the Super Record Ultra-Torque crankset (a review of the Super Record will be coming). The change I felt was comparable to my first ride on the Dura-Ace 7800 crankset—I was stunned by the seamless transmission of power. I had the sense that the bike itself was stiffer at the bottom bracket, even though I knew that wasn’t the case.
Ten years ago I had concerns about parts not matching on my bike. Five years ago I had concerns about the durability of carbon fiber cranks. Last year I started wondering if you could even tell whether your bike had ceramic bearings anywhere other than the wheels. The VumaQuad has super-hero-like powers to alleviate me of anxiety and improve my performance. Of course, all this performance will cost you; $1250 (with ceramic bearings) is a weekend getaway at a swanky resort, but there’s no question in my mind this crankset is superior to every crank I have tried from Campagnolo, Shimano, Specialized and FSA. Honestly though, for that kind of money, you shouldn’t be left wondering if it was worth it.