27 January 2009

bikefix Initial Review: SRAM RED drivetrain

Last month, I posted my initial impressions of SRAM's flagship RED brakeset. A tease, I know, but they really jumped out at me and I had some more riding to do before I could weigh in on the shifters. Without further ado (and after a couple of months' riding), here are my initial impressions.

SRAM made a big splash in 2006 with the introduction of their Force and Rival groups- the first serious non-Shimano or Campagnolo road bike component competition in recent memory. To SRAM's credit: they aren't scared. They aren't scared to go up against the big boys (not that they're small). They aren't scared to do thing different. They aren't scared to demand a premium for their gear. While courage is admirable, the real question is whether or not they bring anything unique to the table.

The RED brake/shift levers are what really set RED apart from their competition (Dura Ace and Record). In part because the company had to work around numerous patents from Shimano, Campy and others, they needed an entirely new and different way in which to translate the hand's intention to cable pull. What the company settled on was dubbed "Double Tap" and can be simultaneously elegantly inspired and tooth-gnashingly frustrating. As on Shimano's levers, riders will see a brake lever blade with a smaller shift paddle nested behind. The difference here is that the shift paddle performs both up- and downshifts. In order to release cable, the paddle is pressed until the first click is felt or heard- just like another S-company's. To pull cable, press the paddle inward a bit further and up to three downshifts (at the rear) are yours. Does it sound intuitive? Not really, but it's much easier to use than describe. Shifts are solid (much closer to Campagnolo in feel than Shimano) though not the least bit clunky. It may be the carbon lever blades, but they feel a bit more plastic-y than Shimano's levers. It's not a cheap of flexy feel- just different. There is reportedly less lever travel required for shifts than in (first generation) Rival or Force shifters, though I can't say first-hand. The (carbon fiber) brake levers are also a bit longer than earlier groups', for easier braking from the drops. Both brake and shift cables run under the tape for a very clean cockpit (and an excellent opportunity to try GORE's slick as snot RideOn cables).

RED is essentially an evolution of the company's former range-topping Force. As such, there aren't any major surprises to SRAM users. All of the exotic material boxes have been checked: Carbon deraileur cage, crankset and brake levers? Check. Titanuum front deraileur cage? Got it. Ceramic pulley bearings? Of course. All of this adds up to a fantastically light (1928g) and fantastically expensive ($2100 or so) groupset. To my eyes, the cassette is particularly cool: the gears are essentially machined from a solid block of steel- almost like a hollow Christmas tree. A backing plate is bonded to the lowest (largest) gear to make for a very slick, very stiff cassette (that is disappointingly prone to a bit of surface rust). Its skipped teeth look a bit odd when spinning and though it isn't Shimano-smooth, SRAM are getting darn close (your particular adjustments and state of lubrication will likely have more of an impact on smoothness).

Is it justifiable? As near as I can tell, SRAM's RED works as well as Dura Ace- just differently. It's been a while since I've spent much time on Record, but performance-wise, they're all just very good. Personally, I have had some trouble adapting to the DoubleTap shifting (especially when tired), but finally seem to be getting the hang of it. SRAM aren't trying to be Shimano (with their Light Action feel)- when you've shifted, you (and the rest of the pack) know it. Is this a good thing? It boils down to personal preference. Given my experience to date, I can't say that RED is worth the extra money over Dura Ace (particularly now that 7800 DA is so reasonably priced), but then if weight is your main metric it could well be. At the end of the day, it won't be a quantitative decision, however. Next to DA and Record, RED is neither better or worse- it's just different. My main recommendation would be to get some saddle time on it as well as Shimano and Campagnolo offerings. If you're spending $5,000 or so on a road bike, the time should be a minor factor and your local shop more than willing to work with you. If the shifting works for you (and it should with time) and the look appeals to you, you likely won't be disappointed. Once the shifting becomes second nature and the light weight taken for granted, there's very little to say- no drama, just near-flawless function. SRAM have done an excellent job with RED- one that either of the other big guys would have been proud of.



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