A Special Look Behind the Scenes: SRAM & Zipp

Paul’s report from SRAM & Zipp’s Product Advisory Board, February 2012.

Seeing and playing with cool bike stuff before it gets released is fun. Having an influence on what great products come next in the bike industry is a privilege. I sat on the SRAM / Zipp Advisory Board with seven other retailers last week. Our group was eclectic in their business models, from arguably the most successful bicycle mail-order owner to owners of tri and road shops from around the country with both single and multiple sites. The common thread that ran through the group was that we challenge ourselves, our staff and our businesses to be on the cutting edge of bicycle technology. We don’t stay stagnant and we expect our manufacturers to give us intelligent, well thought out and executed products that will enhance our clients’ cycling experiences. This group would chew up and spit out any pretenders. The “powers that be” at SRAM did their homework and truly wanted to know how they can be the preeminent player in their market. Our group was not short on giving comments and advice.

The ten attending executives at SRAM took turns in presenting their five year plans for product ideas and launches. We talked about minor enhancements to current products, to what is possible and what is truly vapor in terms of limitless design concepts. We heard of ideas for future power measurement components that would revolutionize power meter technology.

This is where this story gets boring. As soon as we sat down to the table we were required to sign a N.D.A. (Nondisclosure Agreement).  Anything that I can tell you now has already been leaked by the press: Hydraulic road brakes, next generation Zipp wheels, new 135 rear end spacing for road bikes … all the stuff you thought SRAM might be working on is already coming down the pipe. The really cool stuff, the stuff that even astronauts don’t know is happening, I can’t share with anyone. Not even my staff. I can say that SRAM is a progressive company with a brain trust of engineering geeks who like to make stuff that has a purpose. These guys don’t like fluff. They’re passionate about being the best and they are hungry enough to be challenged by some of the most critical retailers in the industry. Bravo!

After our closed-door meetings, we got a chance to test ride the components in sunny Tuscon. I rode the new SRAM Red group with Zipp’s 303 Firecrest carbon clincher wheels. The back story on my baseline group is that I am a Shimano guy. I have been riding the Di2 for three years now and use the mechanical Dura Ace on my Parlee Team Rockstar Games bike. My fingers are trained to use two paddles to shift. Being a creature of habit and one that dislikes change, it did take me a couple of days to think through the process of shifting with one paddle. The feel of SRAM’s new hoods and reach to the shift and brake levers was seamless because of the independent adjustability of both levers.  I like my levers close to the bar and the Red group gave me exactly what I was looking for.  I loved the feel of the inside shifting paddles’ freedom to be able to sweep towards the bar as you engage the shift. This makes it easy for those with small hands or those, like me, who like full control of the shifting mechanism. There are no limits on the direction that the shift paddle moves towards the center line of the bike.

The front derailleur is completely new on the Red group. There is no trim. The derailleur was designed to change its cage angle as it shifts from the small to the big ring, and back. The no-trim design eliminates the need for automatic trimming as found on the Di2. SRAM approached the age old trim issue differently than Shimano, with the same result. No one needs to trim, whether you use the mechanical SRAM Red or electronic Shimano.

The new SRAM Red cassette is the lightest cassette on the market at 139 grams. It has elastomers between the cogs to keep the chain quiet, along with adding to the chain life by shouldering the plates of the chain as the rollers engage in the valleys of the cogs. The bottom line is SRAM took the previous generation’s design, which was loud and clunky and created a new design that feels and sounds better than any cassette that I have ridden to date. I am going to put it on my Shimano drive train to save the grams and add the shifting crispness that the CNC machined cassette offers.

The braking on the new Red was comparative to the Shimano brakes with one added feature. SRAM extended the brake paddle length making braking in the drops feel like using power brakes; a light touch with one finger on the bottom hooks of the brake paddle was all it took to modulate your speed. If you have ever descended long European passes where you stay in the drops for 15 to 30 minutes at a time, you know how fatiguing it can be to control the pressure on the brake paddles. Add cold weather to the mix and you can see how longer brake levers with added leverage and stronger modulation would change a frightening experience into one of relaxation and control. You may rarely use the drops for braking, but when you learn to brake in the drops you will quickly discover the power of that position and truly understand the benefit of the new SRAM Red design.

Overall, the new Red group was impressive. It is the lightest group ever, it functions as intended with solid feedback for every shift and it gives you the braking confidence to find your limits as a cyclist. SRAM kept the name of the group the same. I thought that this group was worthy of a new nomenclature.  Don’t be fooled, these aren’t minor improvements over the original Red group, this group stands on its own. I will be building up my new Guru Photon with Red and report back to you once I figure out how to shift with one paddle.

On the wheel side, the new 303 Firecrest carbon clinchers blew me away. Well, just the opposite really happened. It was two extremely windy days in Tuscon and descending down the choppy Arizona roads on aero wheels typically would have been a handful to keep the bike on line. The 303’s were solid. Any other aero wheel I have ridden would have pushed and pulled me side to side on the descents. The 303’s are a great choice for road or tri bikes. When other aero wheels would give you angst on windy days these wheels give you the confidence to relax and point and shoot your bike at any target at any speed.