This past weekend I joined a number of my colleagues in Westlake Village, California, for the introduction of a number of new products from SRAM. There was a lot on offer, more than they could cover in a two-hour presentation at Sea Otter, hence the get-together. We got to ride much of the new stuff hitting the market and in an environment suited to the mission. I’ll get to the riding in a minute; first, a list.
So SRAM introduced the following:
- An upgrade of the popular Red group to 11-speed
- A revamped Force group with hoods shaped like those in Red and an 11-speed cassette
- Hydraulic rim brakes
- Zipp 303s with discs
- Hydraulic disc brakes for Red
While I did pick up the new Force parts to check them out, I didn’t have the chance to ride them, so all I really feel qualified to do—other than regurgitate the press release—is to tell you that group will hit the market soon and the suggested retail on the group will be $1358, about half of Red 22′s $2618 price tag. According to the company’s scales, the refined group will come in at 2150 grams, putting it in the neighborhood, weight-wise, with Chorus and Dura-Ace 7900, making the Force group a notable value, at least on paper.
For mechanical Red, the only significant change is the addition of an 11th cog. So why is SRAM making a big deal about calling this group 22-speed? It goes to their assertion that users will have a true 22 speeds even without the presence of a trimable front derailleur. Shimano went in the other direction with their new 9000-series Dura Ace. The wide spread on an 11-speed cassette is going to demand a very carefully adjusted front derailleur to avoid chain rub in the big and small cogs, no matter which chainring the chain is on.
As a more practical matter, because SRAM continues to start every flippin’ Red cassette with an 11t cog, the addition of another cog means that all the cassettes (save the 11-32 WiFLi) now sport a 16t cog. It’s nice having that 16, but if they’d offer a 12-26 and a 12-28, you’d then have the 16 and an 18. I’m willing to wager all the beer in Yankee Stadium that nine out of 10 cyclists would use an 18t cog far more than they use an 11. As to the 11-32 WiFLi cassette, an 11th cog there gives the the very noticeable addition of a 14t cog. In the past, when I rode the 10-speed Red with an Apex rear derailleur and the 11-32 cassette, I can tell you that the jump from the 15 to the 13 felt like I’d over-shifted with an Ergo lever. It was a big jump.
Mechanical Red remains the lightest complete group on the market, at a claimed weight of 1747g.
When I first arrived at our host location, I wasn’t sure just what I would see, other than 11 cogs. So I walked over to the NRS tents to see what the mechanics were up to. It was there that I noticed one of the mechanics bleeding a hydraulic brake system. From a road lever.
This would be the spot in the program where it’s a good idea for me to back up and remind everyone that I have written previously about just how skeptical I am of the need and utility of hydraulic brakes, particularly hydraulic discs, on road bikes. Honestly, I when I noticed what was afoot, I was a bit surprised that Michael Zellmann, the head of road PR for SRAM, had invited me. I mean, this was like pitching Dura-Ace to a guy who’d inherited his love of Campy from his dad. I do my best to be open-minded, but at every turn I had questions about just what sort of solution hydraulic discs offered.
Let’s recap those concerns, shall we?
- If you boil your brake fluid on a descent, your brakes can fail.
- Generally, you want the bike to offer some vertical flex at the dropouts; disc brakes would demand beefing up the fork and stays.
- Many mountain bike disc brake system offer poor modulation. Road bike brakes need to offer great modulation.
- Pad retraction is an issue on many mountain bike brake systems. Roadies won’t put up with rubbing brakes.
- Disc brakes won’t improve a bike’s aerodynamics.
- The hydraulic lines will require working hand-in-glove with manufacturers to offer suitable frames.
- There isn’t enough room in control levers to add a master cylinder.
- It’ll make the bike heavier. Roadies are allergic to heavier.
Last summer, I went for a ride with Brent Graves, the head of road product for Specialized. We discussed disc brakes quite a bit. It was hard not to detect his enthusiasm. So I posed each of my concerns to him. Damn that guy, he came back with the same answer each time.
“It’s an engineering issue,” he’d say with the confidence of a pilot who’s flown to Tokyo once a week for 10 years. “It’s just engineering.”
At that point I realized I should probably just shut up and wait to see what happens. What I didn’t know (because he didn’t tell me) was that he was already riding a disc-brake-equipped prototype of the Specialized Roubaix. What he did tell me was that I could expect to see hydraulic discs on road bikes at a variety of price points perhaps as early as 2015, but certainly by 2016.
Then it was me again with the skepticism. And then, damn his intelligence, he noted that every time there had been a significant shift in the market, it had begun with the curiosity of innovators and early adopters—the bleeding edge—and then as the idea caught on, refinement of the technology to make it both affordable and palatable to the masses.
Did someone just say iPhone?
Because not all bike companies will begin developing a frame to accept the disc brakes immediately and also because even by their own admission hydraulic discs won’t be right for all applications, SRAM is offering a hydraulic rim brake. Terminology-wise, they are referring to the class of products as “Hydro R” to denote hydraulic road. The disc brake is HRD, while the rim brake is HRR. As you can tell from the photos, the master cylinder is located in the inflamed thyroid of the lever bump. Let it be said that no one will ever be able to complain about the bump on SRAM road levers being too small any more.
Specialized is actively spec’ing a Roubaix with the discs and Cannondale has a version of the SuperSix EVO with the hydraulic calipers. This is no longer bleeding edge, this is leading edge.
So that’s the what. In my next post I’ll cover my experience of actually riding each of the options with Red 22: mechanical, HRR and then HRD.
My history with Zipp products goes back 14 years. In that time I’ve ridden wheelsets that scared me, cranks I thought should have been more popular than the Beatles and bars that changed my expectations for all carbon handlebars. The overriding impression I’ve had is that of a company less satisfied with its own products than intimidated by the competition.
Were I to personify Zipp’s professional ambitions, I’d say they are a lot like Eddy Merckx was in 1972, which is to say, after picking up victory after victory as if he was strolling through the Europe’s most decadent buffet with a trash can-lid-sized plate, he went on to trounce the hour record. In talking with Zipp engineers, I’ve been struck by how they really don’t seem to give a damn what anyone else is doing. They seem to begin each day with a question—how do we improve our products? And to give full credit where due, when someone else does a nice piece of work, they are happy to hand out the compliments. It’s a classy touch.
Now, you can’t begin each day with a blank drawing board; a new wheel can take a year to develop. And yet, despite their ambitions, it’s not like Zipp hasn’t had the odd black eye, such as the wheel failures the Garmin-Chipotle team suffered at Paris-Roubaix in 2008. Thought to be former winner Magnus Backstedt’s last shot at a big performance, he broke both wheels on the cobbles and ended his day in the team car. But compare that with Tom Boonen’s performance at this year’s Hell of the North, where the Belgian regained his old form and rode away from the decimated field and crossed the line on a set of Zipp Firecrest 303s.
The 303 is Zipp’s third set of wheels to use its revolutionary Firecrest shape, coming on the heels of the 404s and 808s. And while the unusual shape was roundly mocked by some of their competitors, a quick check of HED and Enve web sites shows wheels with rims with a highly rounded spoke bed, not unlike the Firecrest shape.
For those of you who haven’t been following these developments—and admittedly the nerd factor goes critical almost instantly—here’s a little primer: Wind, as you know, is the single biggest factor in determining how fast you ride a bicycle. And crosswinds affect both speed and confidence; if you’re getting buffeted by a crosswind, you’ll tend to back off and focus on holding your line. Naturally, deep-section rims are more prone to steering input by the wind. Even though the wind will push on the whole of the wheel, a wheel’s design will determine just how much force the wind can exert on it. This is expressed as an imaginary spot called the wheel’s center of pressure. A traditional box rim with 28 spokes has a center of pressure that is a bit forward of the bike’s steering axis. As you increase rim depth (think typical deep-V carbon wheels) that center of pressure gets moved farther from the steering axis, giving the wind more leverage on that wheel, increasing its ability to push you around like a mop.
Deep-V rims were design with the idea that the rim was the trailing edge behind the tire. Firecrest treats the spoke bed as a second leading edge, if you consider the portion of wheel behind the steering axis. In rounding the rim profile at the spoke bed, Zipp ended up with a significantly more aerodynamic rim. It also resulted in a rather unexpected effect—it shifted the center of pressure behind the dropout to an area very near the steering axis.
I should mention here that center of pressure isn’t a single static location, which is why I used the term “area” rather than “point.” It, like center of gravity, moves around, but instead of body position determining it, center of pressure depends on yaw angle—where the wind is coming from.
Okay, so having said all that, what it boils down to is this: Crosswinds have very little effect on the 303 wheelset. Further, when the wind hits a front 303 the effect is to steer you ever so slightly back into the wind, but practically speaking my experience is that it simply cancels out the force of the crosswind against your body and the bike.
So how much faster is Firecrest? Zipp says 8 percent faster than their previous design; that number isn’t hugely encouraging given that wheels are only about 10 to 15 percent of the overall drag of a bicycle. At best, you’re going to realize a slightly more than 1 percent gain in speed. But the gain isn’t so modest as that. Because Firecrest is that much more stable than a traditional deep-section wheel, you can ride with greater confidence and if there is a wind, you needn’t back off your effort to concentrate on controlling the bike.
Firecrest has realized yet another benefit. The wide rim—Firecrest is 25.1mm wide at the top of the brake track and 27.5mm wide at the bottom of the brake track—increases rim strength, and while that’s cool and everything, as you well know, that also gives the tire a wider footprint for better traction in corners.
I’ve ridden a lot of carbon clinchers. Some I liked, some I detested (but that’s for another post). The 303s strike an unusual balance. They are unquestionably aerodynamic. While I haven’t taken these to the wind tunnel, what I can tell you is that at crunch time on fast group rides, the 303s have aided my efforts. I notice a little something extra when accelerating or when putting my nose in the wind. The set weighs in at 1478g (676g for the front and 802 for the rear) which isn’t super light, but when combined with their aerodynamic advantage they are my favorite wheel for big jumps. And on longer climbs, when I will tend to slow down if there’s any sort of uptick in grade, a lighter set of wheels like this make it noticeably easier to get back up to my previous speed.
Unfortunately, there’s a dark side to this aerodynamic beauty. If you’re riding a Specialized Tarmac SL4 or Venge, you shouldn’t plan to mount these wheels on it. There’s very little clearance between the inside of the chainstays and the maximum width of the rim. That hasn’t stopped some riders I know from trying it anyway and claiming it isn’t a problem, but still. That whole voided-warranty thing can be a bitch.
I’ve done most of my miles on these wheels on a Super Record-equipped bike. Prior to switching them to that bike I’ll say that I had the impression that they were unusually stiff wheels, laterally. For reasons I can’t explain, the rear derailleur will rub spokes on every wheel I’ve tried when I put the chain in the big cog and stand up. I was surprised to hear the derailleur ting on the spokes of the rear 303. So it may be laterally stiffer than some, but it’s not stiffer than everything.
So that’s lateral stiffness. Vertical stiffness is another story. At 110 psi—the pressure I run most tires on most wheels—the combination of the 303s with Zipp’s Tangente clinchers is the most comfortable wheel/tire combination I’ve ridden. The difference isn’t huge; it’s not like running 80 psi with tubeless, but it’s enough to take the sting out of the rear end of a Felt F1. I probably wouldn’t have been able to note the difference had I not been riding these and other wheels on such a stiff bike.
The one consistent issue I’ve had with Zipp wheels has been build quality. On more than one occasion I’ve ridden a stellar rim and great hub laced together with a marginal build (this isn’t an issue peculiar to Zipp, though). Loosening spokes has been a recurring theme. Or at least, it was. The 303s I’ve been riding—and I’ve got more than 800 miles on them—have yet to come out of true. It’s worth noting that due to their angled brake track, if a Zipp wheel isn’t perfectly true both horizontally and vertically there can be a pronounced effect on braking. A rider will experience a high or low spot as either more or less grab at the brakes. It’s not a dynamite experience, but one I’m pleased to say didn’t take place with these wheels.
Another note on braking: Carbon clinchers and braking performance haven’t been good bedfellows. Some are as grabby as a drunk in a topless bar. Others have all the stopping power of an alcoholic at a frat party. The set of 303s I’ve been riding offer the absolute best braking I’ve experienced in carbon clinchers. Okay, so you’re wondering just what I mean by best; it’s a worthy question. What I mean is that the braking response is more similar to a set of aluminum clinchers than anything else I’ve ridden. I don’t want more stopping power, nor do I want less stopping power. I want to switch between wheels and notice only the change in sound, if even that.
And we’re not done on braking: I rode these wheels in Malibu, taking them down descents that some riders are now being advised to avoid. I’ve killed some carbon clinchers in Malibu, which is interesting given that I brake as little as survival instinct will permit. Braking is, after all, antithetical to fun. I don’t know a lot about the resins that Zipp uses, but I have at my disposal two details worth considering: 1) they have on staff an engineer with a Ph.D. in resin chemistry and 2) I am to understand that the resin used in the brake track cures at a temperature higher than any of their competitors; the brake track can handle temperatures north of 700 degrees, more than 350 degrees higher than the resins used by some of their competitors. I’ve yet to kill a Zipp wheel in Malibu; I know no one else who has done it. It’s an unusual record.
When last I dated I ran across any number of women who described themselves as “the whole package.” They were bright. Well-adjusted. Educated (graduate degree). Professional. In child-bearing years and willing. Not just healthy, but hot. They knew what they were and they weren’t going to date some guy writing a screenplay at Starbucks while on unemployment. These Zipps are kinda like that. Which is why they can ask $2700 for them.
I saw a great number of items I was very excited to get on and ride. The new Zipp 303 topped my list. But before I get into that I need to make a disclosure:
I wrote this year’s Zipp catalog.
That makes me ripe for the criticism that I’ve been paid for, but I’d like to assert that’s not the case. Here’s why: I’ve been a fan of their products for a good 15 years. I was a fan of their stuff even after former CEO Andy Ording tore me a new one for not making a favorable review favorable enough. I was scared of him, but not of their products. I agreed to write the catalog because I revere their work and champed at the chance to look under the hood.
I separate my editorial work from my mar/com client work. They are different hats and the way I work, I can’t really take someone on as a client if I don’t believe in their work.
I know things about this wheel I really can’t reveal. What I can tell is that the combination of this rim depth with the Firecrest shape makes this wheel exceedingly light and fast. To find a wheel this light (1498 for carbon clincher set and 1198 for tubular set) and yet offer as much claimed aerodynamic advantage without imposing a handling penalty on the rider is difficult.
I can’t yet attest to the aerodynamics of this wheel, but I know firsthand how well the Firecrest shape works in the 404 and 808 and it is mind boggling. I can also attest to how fast the hubs are and how nice it is to corner on rims as wide as these because of the broader tire profile. I want to ride these things in the worst way.
I’ve often wondered why you couldn’t choose saddles based on how firm they are or why you couldn’t adjust how firm they are. I’m not talking Sleep Number Bed complicated, but what if you could adjust the saddle’s tension with a 5mm wrench under the saddle? Nevermind, Fi’zi:k finally took care of this.
The nose piece shown above comes in three slightly different lengths that adjust the tension of the saddle. Genius move. I’ve got an Antares that I’ll be riding very shortly.
Whether you ride the Arione, Aliante or Antares, you’ll be able to get this new version of the saddle and adjust it to your comfort level. I’ll be starting off with the soft … and wonder if I’ll have any desire to go firmer.
Too rare is it that bikes and kits are matched. This Indy Fab with Mill Valley’s Studio Velo kit by Capo had PRO written all over it.
Best pint glass of the show: The frosted Capo glasses.
My favorite steel road frame this year was this decidedly old-school Fondriest. I reviewed one of these back in ’98 and even though it was fairly flexy, it was a terrific frame from a handling standpoint.
The thing that clinched my love for this frame was the combination of stylish Italian paint and real chrome.
Yah, yah, I know chrome is about a green as Rick Perry, but I can’t not look. I wiped my drool off before leaving.
When it comes to ‘cross and cool, Ritchey’s Swiss Cross has always been a straight flush. Few bikes ever achieve this fine a marriage of style, utility and function. I harbor the suspicion that if while aboard this rig you yell “track,” the poor SOB ahead of you will look back and on seeing this bike, just get out of your way.
Maybe I can review one … from say October through Christmas.