I was part of a select group of cycling media invited to join the guys from SRAM, ZIPP and QUARQ for a couple days in Kortrijk Belgium, where we also visited the SRAM-sponsored Liquigas and Saxobank teams ahead of the Tour of Flanders.
My arrival in Belgium just one day ahead of the sportif ride meant I missed out on a warm up spin on the new gear, but having worked with the guys from SRAM & Zipp for several years, I knew the gear would be dialed – and it was.
The only fear I had was how the legs would hold up on the 140km sportif route, that would take in 15 sections of cobbles and bergs, and whether the rain would hold off for the day. My biggest training ride had been about 70km, but I’m happy to report the adrenalin of the day and fresh roads were more than enough to carry me through, allowing me 6 hours 36 minutes to concentrate on the new gruppo.
I’ve long been a fan of the SRAM gear, and we’ve had their stuff on about 95% of the bikes we’ve tested at PEZ since Red first appeared in 2005. While individual parts of the group set have been subject to criticism when held up against the establishment of Shimano & Campag, overall the system has performed well at the ProTour level, and even outperformed the others in a couple of areas – like the ergonomics and adjustability for me…
What’s New? Everything
While this ride was by no means a ‘long term’ test, it was a good chance to get a feel for how the new Red worked as both a whole, and also as individual parts. Every part of the group set has been redesigned and improved – the shifters, derailleurs, brakes, cogset, chainrings, chain and cranks. Weight has been reduced (so the lightest gruppo out there is now even lighter – by almost a pound!), and more focus put into the individual parts working better as a whole.
Let’s get to it…
From the beginning my favorite part of this system has been the levers, and since this is where you touch, feel and control so much of your riding, it makes a good starting point.
The original Red levers – and by this I encompass the whole lever body & assembly, were a hit with me because they simply fit my hands better than anything else. I liked the shape of the hoods, and I especially liked the adjustable reach of the shift- and brake-levers to suite my preference.
Naturally when I heard that SRAM had redesigned the hood shape, I wondered what I might be losing, but while the overall platform of the hood feels slightly larger, there’s a bit more to hold on to – which I did appreciate riding over so many cobbles at Flanders.
The knob / bump has a taller profile too, so some guys will like that there’s a bit more to hold on to from the top. They’ve also refined the transition area form the hood to the bars, and designed a smoother interface for the cable transition from lever to handlebar.
The hoods themselves now feature a corrugated surface to improve grip, and while I never had an issue with grip slip before, I can see how this might be more noticeable when the hoods get wet either from rain or sweat.
Next up the levers – also my faves from the last edition – these new ones are slightly longer, but still have that slight ridge that runs down the outside edge, which allowed me to hook my finger tips onto the levers for better control. The backside of the lever has been reshaped to allow more room for fingers behind the levers – something people with bigger hands will like.
But maybe my favorite part of the whole lever design has also been improved – the adjustable reach for both shift- and brake-levers is now done with allen keys (one bolt for each lever). Gone is the finicky c-ring that controlled the shift-lever reach, and while it was functionally fine, the allen key adjuster sets things as they should be – in every way.
Of course they’ve retained the DoubleTap shifting technology, which has proven a viable system at all levels of the sport. Their ‘Zero-loss’ shifting, which means that any movement of the shift lever actuates the derailleurs, and it’s a great system that gives complete feel to shifting control.
The technical changes are significant, but the whole system still feels and works like it used to – only better. It took me about 5 seconds to get used to the new shapes, and I immediately felt right at home, which is of course is what you should expect from a top line gruppo.
Sylvain Chavanel’s bike was sporting the new Red levers.
Pretty much everyone agrees the other popular complaint about ‘”old Red” was the noisy drive train. Everyone should be happy now though as the new system is noticeably quieter. I haven’t run this gruppo side by side with Shimano or Campag, but I could easily hear how quieter it is versus the previous versions of SRAM groups – I currently have SRAM groups on 4 bikes at PEZ HQ – and I can tell you this one is quieter than any of them.
The most notable single change for me is to the front derailleur, which was widely regarded as the weakest link in previous versions.
Note how the derailleur cable fully wraps around the bolt.
Front shifting is now considerably more precise and faster, thanks to the combo of the new derailleur and new chainrings. Plus SRAM has eliminated any need to ‘trim’ the derailleur, by designing one that actually points in the direction of the cogs you choose – whether inside, in the middle, or on the outside of the cassette. They call this “Yaw” technology and it eliminates chain rub on the front derailleur like you could with some gear choices on the old system (ie: inner chainring to outer cassette cog).
The green lines show the front derailleur positioned over the inner chainring above – note how it angles to eliminate chain rub when using the outer cogs of the cassette. The red line shows the ‘idiot-proof’ alignment marking – just make sure it lines up with the chain, and you’re set.
When positioned over the big (outer) chainring, the front derailleur aligns smoothly with the chain.
You can actually see how the angle of the derailleur changes to match the chain direction. The new design also replaces the old titanium cage with an alu/ steel combo that is stiffer, and moves the chain with more authority and less flex.
My favorite part has to be the simple choice of two positions for the front derailleur – you choose either the big- or small-ring, and the derailleur takes care of the rest – nice.
The adjuster screws now work with either a flat blade screwdriver, or allen key – no more slippery Phillips heads here.
The difference in front shifting is considerable, and while some guys commented the shift quality was (at last) on par with the best in category, to me it’s less about how the system stacked up to the competition, and more about what an improvement it is over previous Red.
The front derailleur comes with a built in hangar-style chain guide. The green arrow shows where to adjust the trim.
Like everything else in the line, the rear derailleur is a full redesign. While it’s lighter and I did notice the rear shifting to be to crisp, clean, and quiet – it was hard to isolate the derailleur from the whole new derailleur / cogset / chain combo that works so well together.
Sylvain Chavanel’s Specialized was sporting the new Red rear mech.
A closer look shows off some things that should make a difference – like the cleaner cable channel. It’s also designed to work better with 28-tooth cogs, which is a good thing for customers, since I’d venture most if us would welcome that size climbing gear at some point during the season.
Of course they’ve retained their Exact Actuation shifting – which means 1mm of lever movement pulls the same amount of cable, and has been a trademark of SRAM shifting for years now.
The pulley wheels feature a new tooth shape, and ceramic bearings that are said to improve shift quality and run quieter.
The more direct cable channel is easy to see.
XG 1090 CASSETTE
Much of the reduced sound level from the drivetrain is result of the newly designed cassette body. The middle 8 cogs are still machined out of a piece of steel (which is lighter and stiffer than titanium) while the outer cogs are aluminum, but they’ve done a couple things which have improved shift quality and reduced the noise level significantly.
The cog teeth have been designed to load, transition, and unload the chain in a way that reduces noise by reducing surface contact at certain points between the chain and the cogs. Then add in what SRAM call their “StealthRing” elastometers between each cog, to further reduce the noise level. The StealthRings are actually a slightly larger diameter than outer cog next to it, so these elastometers contact the chain before the actual cogs do when the cogs pick up the chain – so the impact of the chain engaging the cog is reduced, and therefore less noisy. In essence – they cushion the landing of the chain onto each cog.
The green arrows in the pic above show how the StealthRings sit slightly higher than the smaller cog next to it. No word yet on durability or how often these might need replacing, but the system does work.
The newest PC 1091R chain has a few changes too, that make it work better with the rest of the parts to deliver faster shifting and overall quieter performance. Visible in the pic above are the chrome-hardened hollow pins which reduce weight while maintaining strength & durability, and the heavily chamfered outer plates which help the chain move from cog to cog with better overall efficiency.
Our bikes were built with the new Quarq power meter crankset, and Ant+’ed up to a Garmin power meter, which recorded all of our data on the ride. While I didn’t win any awards for speed or power, I did score some recognition with the “Scalded cat” award – handed out after the ride by Quarq’s Troy Hoskin – for the biggest variance in power on the day – no doubt part of my strategy to conserve like crazy on the flats, then do everything I could to muscle the 39×28 over the many cobbled bergs on the course. (Going fast isn’t really a big deal to me – but getting off is.)
There’s a non-power version available of course, that features hollow crank arms that are lighter and stiffer than before, and also integrate the fifth chainring bolt into the crank arm, which not only cleans up the overall look, but just makes sense to me.
The chainrings too have been redesigned to be stiffer than before, and use a new design for the ramps and pins to make for faster, more precise shifts. And don’t be fooled – chain ring design really does make a difference in shifting performance.
The new brake design, while continuing to slow the bike just like it should, shows off a much smaller frontal surface, which helps it cause less drag to airflow. Add in aero-shaped barrel adjuster and a trailing edge quick release and it’s clear this is a step forward for RED.
The new Red brakes are a much smaller frontal profile, and an aero-shaped barrel adjuster to cheat the wind.
With rim profiles getting wider each season, the new brakes are designed with more clearance, which worked well with the Zipp 303 Firecrest carbon clinchers we ran.
The wider clearance is great for new wider rims like Zipp’s 303 Firecrest clinchers.
Braking power is reportedly increased via their “AeroLink” arm, a patented Multi-Link lever arm that increases brake forces. My bike had brand new brake pads and wheels, so I expected it to stop well – and it did – I could feel the increased stopping power with the new system over what I’ve been riding at home.
The AreoLink arm moves as you actuate the brakes to increase braking power.
It’s easy to see a lot of work and thought has gone into the new RED, and whiule my one long ride on the gear was nothing more than a good amount of time for a solid first impression, the improvements have clearly made this an overall better working groupset. It was certainly an ambitious undertaking, but the timing was right. Looking for a way to stay relevant in the onslaught of electronic shifting (and far from being just the kind you read about on the spec sheet), SRAM deserves a chapeau for turning out some technical improvements that you’ll definitely notice.
• Get more info and find a dealer near you at SRAM.com