Source: bike shops, websites
Weight: 1,932 grams
How obtained: sample from company
RBR advertiser: no
Tested: 10 hours
If you’re designing a new dream road bike, particularly for racing, you picked a great time to do it. Competition among component makers has reached a fevered pitch. The selection is unparalleled with top groups available from the Big 3 — Shimano, Campagnolo, SRAM — and FSA is in the wings with everything you need except the brake/shift levers (for now).
To help you decide, we tested SRAM’s top-line road group, Red. It’s expensive at nearly $2K. But it’s a technological tour de force with everything you could want on your superbike.
Red offers plenty of weight-saving and efficiency-increasing carbon fiber, resistance-reducing ceramic bearings, titanium and magnesium bits where steel and aluminum used to be, and even bold graphics that tell everyone you’re not riding Campy or Shimano anymore.
This uber group also comes with some impressive credentials, having recently been pedaled to Giro d’Italia victory by Alberto Contador. His Astana team, all riding Red, is ranked No. 1 in the world as of June 2008.
Starting from the top, perhaps the most ingenious components in the Red group are the DoubleTap brake/shift levers.
Unlike Shimano and Campagnolo, which have separate levers for upshifts and downshifts, SRAM has just one. And it’s simple and intuitive to operate. All you need to know is that a short sideways push of the shift lever (directly behind the one for braking) moves the chain onto smaller cogs/chainrings while long throws shift to larger cogs/chainring.
If this sounds tough to do right, it isn’t. Any push on these levers moves the chain, and in less time than it takes to reset your power meter you’ll get the hang of how far to push them to upshift or downshift. I learned almost immediately and enjoyed the unique shifting method. The shape of the levers and hoods is ergonomic and natural, too, and the carbon feels great in the hands (and doesn’t get cold like metal). The carbon also helps make Red DoubleTap the lightest brake/shift levers available.
While saving weight is good, some racers have been even more impressed with how easily Red can be shifted in a sprint. When your hands are the bar hooks, the shift levers can be pulled back to the handlebar and held there. If you hold the right lever this way, you can shift the rear derailleur with a twitch of the hand without any reaching.
You can jump as many as 3 cogs with one sweep of the lever for upshifting fast. Riders with smaller hands will appreciate the adjustable-reach feature that moves the levers closer to the handlebar. Other nice details include dual cable routing so you can tape over the cables however you like, and the left lever has a trim feature for silencing chain rub on the front derailleur cage.
The rubber hoods fit slightly baggy in places on the levers in my test group, but this didn’t cause any problems.
As its top-line road group, SRAM took pains to ensure Red maximizes power transfer. For example, Red features a cool new cassette that’s machined from a forged block of steel and then hardened. This construction stiffens the cogs to improve shifts and get more oomph to the pavement. (Most cassettes use individual cogs that can flex.) And although the Red cassette is 100% steel, it’s still significantly lighter than competitors’ versions, even those including titanium cogs.
That’s all good, but I would like to see SRAM make the cassette available with a 12-tooth smallest cog. Even as a decent masters racer, I can’t begin to use an 11. For 2009 SRAM says it will add cassettes of 11-25 and 11-28 teeth to the current 11-23 and 11-26.
Complementing the trick cassette is SRAM’s Red crankset, which boasts stiff carbon arms (built over aluminum cores) with an integrated carbon spider. This construction, along with reinforced 7075-T6 aluminum chainrings, produces flex-free shifting, climbing and sprinting.
The Red crankset spins on SRAM’s CXP Team bottom bracket that boasts “hybrid” ceramic bearings (ceramic bearings on stainless-steel races) to nearly eliminate friction and maintenance. SRAM says it will increase the bottom bracket axle diameter for 2009 from the current 24 mm to 30 mm to add stiffness. This will also increase the bearing diameter, further reducing friction and maintenance. Plus, the Q-factor will be reduced for less distance between the crankarms.
SRAM’s Red derailleurs are equally high tech with the rear sporting an impressive blend of materials. There are carbon and magnesium in the rear derailleur’s body, and carbon in the pulley cage. Titanium is used for the spring and all bolts. The pulleys spin on ceramic bearings. Meanwhile, even the ordinary-looking front derailleur packs a punch with a shift-speeding, gram-whittling, hardened titanium cage.
Tying everything together is SRAM’s PowerChain, which features a handy PowerLock connecting link for no-tool installation and maintenance. The chain also features SRAM’s HollowPin construction for weight savings and a nickel-silver finish for durability and good looks.
Red brakes follow the theme of weight savings and efficiency with a minimal skeleton design, titanium almost everywhere and ball-bearing pivots for silky smooth operation. Look closely and you’ll see that every bit of unnecessary material has been paired away to save weight. One arm is hollow, as is the upper brake body pivot. The pad holders are extensively machined.
Maybe more impressive — and helping to answer the oft-asked, “Why does Red cost so much?” — all the typical steel bits used in brake calipers have been replaced with titanium. Thisincludes the pivot bolt, the pad bolts, the pad set screws, the cable anchor bolt and even the centering screw. The spring is the only steel part. Plus, you get a nice ratcheting quick-release and an easy-turning cable adjustment barrel.
|Red DoubleTap Brake/Shift Levers (288g per pair)
||Red Crankset (655g)
||Red GXP Team Bottom Bracket (105g)
||Red Front Derailleur
|SRAM PC-1090 10-Speed PowerChain (255g)
||Red OG-1090 10-Speed Cassette
||Red Brakes (265g* per pair)
*Brake and shift cables and housing included
|Red Rear Derailleur (153g*)
On the Road
So how’s all this cutting-edge componentry work?
First, a couple of caveats. I didn’t get to ride our test group as much as I would have liked. Because of Red’s limited availability I had to accept a bike from SRAM that was too large for me to ride very much. My workaround was to do shorter loops and to let a taller teammate (our local team’s strongman) ride the bike and provide feedback.
But you don’t have to ride much to form an opinion on basic function. I thoroughly enjoyed Red, as did my teammate, who says he would consider it for one of his next race machines. As mentioned, DoubleTap shifting is easy to learn. About the only possible negative is that it’s a little noisier, making more of a mechanical clunk with each shift than we’re used to with other shifters. I found this solid and reassuring, but my teammate still prefers the smoother feel of his Shimano Dura-Ace levers.
Regardless of the different sound and feel at the lever, the shifting is fast, reliable and accurate. You can hit the rear shifts as gently or as forcefully as you want, and front shifts are equally pleasing. We tested the standard 53/39 crankset so can’t speak for shifting on the compact version, but Red’s front derailleur worked super on the setup we had.
Red brakes also are very impressive — powerful and easy to modulate. This surprised me because superlight brakes are typically less effective due to the reduced material and overall flimsier construction. But these had ample grip and worked as well for stopping hard as scrubbing off speed. There’s also a sweet feel at the levers thanks to the super-smooth ball-bearing pivots, a really nice feature.
It’s hard to quantify the effect of ceramic bearings based on test rides, but you can certainly feel it if you backpedal by hand or lift the chain from the chainring and turn the crankset slowly. There’s very little resistance, which boosts confidence that you’re not wasting any energy. It’s nice to get these expensive bearings as standard equipment because they’re now almost a mandatory upgrade once you realize most of people you’re riding or racing with are using them.
Red has succeeded in stiffening the crankarms, chainrings and cassette cogs. When I stood to climb or sprint there was no apparent flex. The bike would just take off, a great feeling. My teammate posted a personal best on one of his timed courses riding the Red-equipped test bike.
Overall, SRAM’s Red is an expensive but exciting components group worthy of any superbike. It’ll put you on the lightest ride possible and at the same time deliver race-winning efficiency, power transfer, shifting and braking.
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s streak of consecutive cycling days has reached more than 8,000. Click to read Jim’s full bio.