If there’s one thing you can bet your life on people saying when a new groupset comes out, it’s that “the other manufacturers better get cracking or they’ll be left behind.” This has been even truer since Shimano released their electronic, Di2 and especially since the Ultegra version.
The feeling seems to be that the Campagnolo and SRAM manufacturers have been sitting in their offices with their hands on their cheeks and mouths open like Munch’s The Scream moaning, “What are we going to do?”
Well, obviously these sorts of companies don’t just rest on their laurels. They’d be out of business pretty quickly if they did. Rather, they have many staff who are constantly at work on research and development. We saw Campagnolo release their EPS groupset late last year and now SRAM have put the updated Red groupset onto the market.
Here at Bicycling Australia we’ve been pleased to have one of the pre production versions of Red to test for a few weeks. The groupset is one of two sent to Australia by SRAM mounted onto a Cannondale Evo Super Six with a pair of Zipp 303 Firecrests. While the Zipps aren’t that surprising given SRAM took over the company in 2007, a cynic might say the Cannondale was a wise choice if you wanted to make the groupset look good. Not only is it a lightweight frame (6.4kg complete bike weight including the Zipps for the 56cm), its matt black paint job makes the finish of the Red absolutely look the goods. To me, it’s a shrewd move.
Personally, I was very interested to test this new Red. SRAM to me has always been a love it or loathe it groupset, though I guess you could say that about all groupsets. Some people like the DoubleTap shifting, others don’t. Other people may have felt that the hoods were a bit low, but if there was one criticism that you heard regularly it was the action of the front derailleur. It has been said to be hard to move back into the big ring, fussy to adjust and prone to going out of trim. And while it can’t be denied that a groupset that has helped a large number riders make the podium on the Champs Elysees must have a number of good qualities, urban myths and internet fancies are hard to ignore. So let’s have a look at how SRAM have improved the new Red for 2012.
SRAM Red has always been a player in the lightweight stakes, so weight weenies will be please to know that the new groupset weighs 1,739 grams, about 150g less than the previous incarnation. Here are the individual weights:
Rear Derailleur: 145g
Front Derailleur: 86g
BB30 cranks: 557g
Bottom Bracket: 53g
Cassette: 135g (11-23T)
Cranking It Out
There’s some interesting stuff happening with the cranks to help that weight loss along. They’re completely hollow and in the same way that frame manufacturers use oversize tubes to add stiffness, SRAM have made these pretty beefy. What’s new is not so much the fact that the cranks are hollow, but that the hollow section extends right into the carbon spider. This is still a five-bolt construction, however, one of the bolts is hidden behind the crank arm.
Another first is the possibility of having your Red groupset supplied with Quarq power cranks. SRAM have made some pretty good acquisitions over the years and their takeover of Quarq nearly two years ago is beginning to pay dividends now. However they haven’t just bunged one in there. This power meter has been specifically designed to sit perfectly in the hollow spider and now uses a standard CR2032 battery, which is one of those 10-cent piece sized ones that you can buy from any supermarket. Quarq estimate that you should get around 300 hours of use per battery. Provided you own a compatible computer they have also added left and right balance, via a bottom bracket magnet, a visible transmitting LED and have improved the accuracy of readings by 0.5 of a per cent. The Quarq cranks should add around 170g to the entire package over the standard cranks.
True to form, the chainrings have also been slightly changed. Slightly thicker, they have modified pins and ramps. They’re also slightly farther apart to allow for the new front derailleur, which brings us to…
The front derailleur mechanism probably constitutes the biggest change for the new Red groupset. As mentioned, this is an area that most people felt could be improved and SRAM have stepped up to the crease with a complete new design. The cage is a conglomeration of aluminium (outer plate), steel (inner plate) and carbon at the tail. Called ‘yaw’, this new derailleur twists slightly as you push or flick it onto the different rings. The idea is to eliminate the need for trim while still keeping the cage itself narrow easy shifting. Previously, you had to really haul the front derailleur onto the big ring but I found this new one to be a huge improvement. It is lighter and the throw isn’t so far. In the entire time I had this system on test I didn’t have a single miss-throw or dud shift. I did have a bit of rub when riding in both of the big rings. And while we all know you shouldn’t do this, there are people who still do. Hopefully the quality of the front shifting will mean that we can all be a little less lazy when it comes to using it.
The Back End
While most of the attention will, rightly, concentrate on the front mech there’s been a certain amount of work on the rear as well. The rear derailleur is still 10 speed obviously, but I did note that the SRAM representative asked me after the test what were my thoughts on 11 speed. So who knows where that might be going. Anyway, the standard cage is now slightly longer, meaning that the 28T cog can be accommodated with ease. And of course there will be a long version for use with the Apex 32T cluster. The carbon cage itself has had the same treatment as the cranks, being bigger and therefore stronger and the adjustment for the gears is hidden away for protection.
However it would seem that the SRAM designers have received plenty of complaints regarding drivetrain noise. It’s not something that I’ve ever noticed when using their groupsets, but the engineers have worked on the jockey wheels creating what they call ‘Aeroglide’. They say that the aero shape allows the chain to move through the mech stealthily. But they have also done a heap of work on the cassette. These SRAM cassettes are a work of art and the new one, known as the ‘Powerdome X’, lifts the bar even further. As you’ll find out in a future article, each one of those cassettes takes over 30 minutes just for the initial drilling process. Most noticeable immediately though is the addition of elastomers between the cogs. These act as a sound-dampening unit because they are the first thing that the outside of the chain comes into contact with as the rear derailleur shifts. This is managed by slight adjustments of the tooth profile and leading edge. I hadn’t given it much thought before this test and I’m not sure why there’s such a focus on it. Possibly pro racers don’t want their competitors to know when they’re about to attack? For myself, I like the way a groupset goes bang, bang, bang when you change. It’s a definite and reassuring sound and there’s no need to look down to see if it really has changed.
Comfort Where it Matters
The cockpit was one area of the old SRAM that I really wasn’t keen on. Perhaps as a way of keeping weight down, SRAM always seemed to use a minimalist style of hood. It was OK for riding around on but I always felt that one small bump on the front wheel would be enough to send my hands flying over the front. To my mind the most comfortable hoods on the market have been the Campagnolo 11 Speed and the new Red has a lot of similar features. Firstly, the front of the hoods is higher, giving a much more confidence-inspiring grip. They don’t have the curve and the anatomic design that Campag have, but they have good cushioning and all round are a far better prospect.
But more importantly to my mind is the brake pivot point, which has been made slightly higher. This allows you to brake with nearly as much efficiency while riding on the hoods as in the drops. The levers have been re-shaped to allow this and again, while not as sculpted as Campag’s reverse bend, are very comfortable. The reach adjustment screw is easier to access as well.
The DoubleTap paddles are slightly larger and have a very comfortable recessed finger position. The mechanism of the DoubleTap too feels like it has received a makeover, being sharper on the upshift and more precise on the downshift. Fans of Red’s distinct clunk in the levers need not be disappointed as it is still there.
As you might expect from a company which now owns Zipp, the brakes haven’t been left out of the equation. You can see at a glance that they are more aero in shape, but they have also been created for use with some of the wider-rimmed wheels on the market, up to 31mm between pads. The leading arm is bent which allows the callipers to move quickly to the rim during the first half of the brake pull and then have a certain amount of modulation during the second. Nice.
Lastly, while they may seem like small things, but the cable adjuster has flattened sides running in line with the frame and the calliper quick release turns back towards the frame rather than the old-style levers which stick out into the wind. As I say, small things, but they do add up.
Having given this new groupset a thorough workout I’ve come to the decision that the guys at SRAM called a meeting one day and said, “Right. Let’s write a list of all the criticisms people make of our groupset and fix them all up.” They’ve changed the shape of the hoods to make them more comfortable, the braking pivot has been raised to allow better braking from the hoods, the cassette is quieter and above all, the front derailleur works. It says to me that while electronic is definitely here to stay, we shouldn’t be writing off mechanical groupsets just yet.