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Red launch

The new SRAM Red group was put to its first open test on the Spanish island of Mallorca on Wednesday

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After much teasing, gossip and leaks — official and accidental  — the new SRAM Red group was put to its first open test under a crew of international journalists on the Spanish island of Mallorca on Wednesday.

The new Red remains 10-speed, and will still be a mechanical system. However, the entire group has been re-designed from the ground up, with particular emphasis on a “system approach” to front shifting, noise reduction, simple, low-profile looks, aerodynamics, and low weight.

Aftermarket availability is scheduled for February 24 of this year, though the group won’t begin showing up on complete bikes until the 2013 model year, or later summer. The price is $2575.

The previous Red group’s front shifting has always been its Achilles heel, and, rightfully so, the most dramatic changes occur within the front derailleur. Low weight and reasonable cost (in relation to its top-tier competition) were hallmarks of the old group, and remain key attributes of the new. Total weight is just 1739g, the lightest group by about a quarter pound. According to SRAM, the new group is 527 grams lighter than Dura-Ace Di2, 311 grams lighter than Dura-Ace 7900, 359 grams lighter than Super Record EPS, and 445 grams lighter than Record EPS. It is only about 100 grams lighter than mechanical Super Record, though.

Read on for all the details, and first impressions after a four-hour ride through the hills of Mallorca.

Drastically altered front derailleur

Let’s start with the big one: SRAM’s front shifting has been historically below average, there is simply no other way to put it. This fault was made truly evident with the rise of Shimano Di2, which has had the finest front shifting of any group by quite a margin since its inception. SRAM fully admits that, up until now, there has been a benefit to “battery assist” (as they put it) front shifting. Understandably, therefore, SRAM put the function of their front shifting at the forefront of the group’s redesign.

The derailleur itself does not function like any other on the market. Rather than use a normal parallelogram, the whole cage actually twists as the shift is performed, helping to ease the chain up or down more effectively. The system is called Yaw.

The technology eliminates the need for a trim function, and so there no longer is one with the front shifter. Cable pulls remains the same, so in theory an old shifter could be used, though SRAM say it won’t work as well. But, more on that later.

Beyond the fundamental re-think that is Yaw, the derailleur sees a number of material and other functional updates. The cage is now an aluminum/steel/carbon hybrid, using an aluminum outer, steel inner, and carbon rear tail to decrease weight and increase stiffness.

Gone are the two mount holes, which used to be need for compact versus standard chainring setups. Now, frame makers have caught up to the use of compact cranks and a single mount point will work without issue.

The entire unit has been slimmed down considerably, from the spring to the mount bolts, which are now 4mm allen with a 5mm thread. The new spring design also eliminates any problems with frame clearance.

The new front derailleurs will come stock with an integrated chain catcher, which can be adjusted or removed without changing the adjustment of the rest of the derailleur.

Now, setup. Due to the Yaw tech, setup is extremely important, or the derailleur simply won’t swing the way it is supposed to. To help pro mechanics and home wrenches alike, the new derailleur comes with a number of laser-etched marks that, when lined up with the big ring, result in perfect installation. The derailleur is actually shipped with the limit screw set to move the derailleur out to the big ring position to make this installation even easier. This is a bit different, as most derailleurs are set up with in the small ring position.

Improved shifter ergonomics

Hood shape has evolved, rather than been recreated. Those happy with current SRAM hoods will be happy with the new ones as well. SRAM worked with fit specialists from Retül and elsewhere to perfect the relationship between the wrist and hand, and important element in maintaining control, and the result is a very flat transition from bar to hood, and a number of small tweaks to allow customization for individual hand size and strength.

Grip security is improved thanks to a taller knob, which also juts up at a tighter angle, and a textured surface. The knob remains smaller than the bulbous Shimano levers, though. Hood to bar transition has been improved as well, creating a much flatter transition from bar to hood.

Both brake and shift levers have been slimmed down, allowing for an easy three-finger wrap between the levers and the bar. The brake lever is longer, and curves nicely to provide excellent touch points both when on the hoods and in the drops.

Both brake and shift levers are adjustable using a 2.5mm hex.

Lighter, stiffer crankset and chainrings

The new crankset is Zipp Vuma-esque, but is from from an exact replica. It’s all hollow carbon, and uses a hidden 5th chainring bolt behind the crankarm to effectively eliminate the weight of that arm as well as help stiffen things up. Of course, that means that third-party rings will have to be updated to work.

The new chainrings borrow much from the excellent XX mountain rings, particularly the upshift rivets and ramp/pin timing. They are optimized to work with the Yaw front derailleur, and are claimed to be significantly stiffer than the previous chainrings, which were less than excellent, to put it nicely.

The new crankset will drop a full 100 grams over the current BB30 Red crank, while apparently being much stiffer and shifting much better.

Also on offer is a Red Quarq power meter, designed to blend into the rest of the crank very nicely. A few nifty features are included, including an LED indicator to signal on/off and zero setting. A system called Ominical ensures easy chainring swaps.

Rear derailleur, still only going to 10

The real question is, how many more times can I get away with that Spinal Tap reference? Until we get to 12 speed, I think.

The rear derailleur has been completely redesigned as well: lighter, with improved clearance for 28-tooth cassettes, a better barrel adjuster, super quiet aeroglide
pulleys, and a better cable path.

The b-knuckle (the top bit of the parallelogram) has been elongated, resulting in better shifting with big cogs. The barrel adjuster, that seemingly innocuous item, gets a sleek wing shape to make it easier to turn with slimy or cold fingers.

The pulleys are still using ceramics, and now include a new tooth profile and material for quieter running and less power loss. A titanium cable clamp bolt is a nice touch, as is the fact that one no longer has to move the derailleur body down manually in order to access to the mounting bolt.

Available for the first time this May will be a WiFLi version of the Red derailleur, meaning you can run an 11-32 cassette and 53/39 cassette without issue. The WiFLi version gets all the same updates as the regular derailleur

Quieter, lighter cassette

To mount up the old Powerdome cassette, the OG1090, was to announce every shift and pedal stroke to the world. It was obscenely loud relative to every other cassette available, a fault that was made up for with its low weight — but only barely.

The new XC1090 is similar to the highly machined XX cassette, but also different. It uses a hollow, machined steel cluster to keep weight low, and caps this one-piece unit with an aluminum large cog, which is pressed onto the steel cluster.

This keeps weight very low, lighter than most Ti cassettes, while maintaining the durability of steel on the quickly-wearing cogs. But it doesn’t inherently keep noise down.

That job is given to a small elastomer that sits in between each cog, called “stealthings.” A special tooth profile allows the chain to contact these elastomers close to the derailleur, where there is no load, and then move onto the teeth as the cassette spins and load is applied by the chain. So the elastomers are a landing zone, minimizing noise while staying out of the way at the point at which wear occurs. There is no loss in efficiency and the elastomers take a very long time to wear out, according to SRAM’s testing. And, if they do eventually bite the dust, they can be purchased separately. Or, just run the cassette without them, they aren’t needed for the unit to function.

Does it work? I’ll go into more detail in the brief ride review later, but the short answer is yes. The new SRAM Red is the quietest group I’ve ever used, with nothing but the hiss of tires audible.

Brakeset: single-pivot size, dual-pivot power

The brakes are wholly redesigned as well, and step away from the classic dual pivot design in favor of a cam system similar to many of the expensive superlight brakes on the market. The design allows SRAM to maintain power and modulation while decreasing the weight. However, cams often have issues with changes in rim width, it changes the geometry of the whole system. Without more testing I can’t say whether this is an issue with the Red brakes.

The brakes can therefore be smaller, and more aerodynamic. They visibly integrate with the frame better, rather than sticking out well beyond the tube walls. Given that the front brake is on the forefront of your battle with the wind, such small changes can have an affect.

The quick release has been moved in-line with the cable, spring adjusters are recessed, and thanks to the cam design (they call it a “Force Multiplier Link) the whole setup is the size of a single pivot brake; three elegant features that also improve aerodynamics. The whole look is much sleeker than the current model.

Compatibility

Here’s the big one. All of SRAM’s cable pull ratios have remained the same, so in theory everything should be backwards compatible with old Red, Force and Rival. However, much like Shimano, SRAM insists that the group is designed as a system and therefore will work considerably better with all the correct parts.

The front derailleur in particular benefits from the system approach. Like Shimano, we expect that running full Red will actually improve shift performance dramatically. For the rear, it is much more difficult to say, and we’ll just have to experiment when we get a group back in the U.S.

We can say for certain that old SRAM rings won’t work on the new crankset, though.

On the road

I had a few questions coming into our ride test, and they were all pretty well answered, though of course more time on a component will always reveal more of its secrets. I got about 4 hours in on the group today, everything from cruising on the flats to getting dropped liked a bad habit by Tim Johnson on the day’s final uphill sprint (if he wasn’t peaked for Worlds, I totally would have had him. Also, I was sick in December and got very little sleep on a plane a week ago.)

First: would the front shifting be an improvement, and if so, where does it slot into the current hierarchy of system. Prior to today, my ranking went as follows: Shimano Dura-Ace Di2, Shimano Ultegra Di2, Campagnolo EPS, Shimano Dura-Ace 7900, Campagnolo Record mechanical, Shimano Ultegra mechanical… on and on between Campagnolo and Shimano. Old Red fit somewhere down near the bottom.

Yes, the new Yaw system and chainrings are a marked improvement over the old Red. In fact, and this is the big one, new Red outstrips Shimano Dura-Ace 7900 and undoubtedly provides the best front shifting of any mechanical group. Even more impressive: new Red comes dangerously close to matching Dura-Ace Di2.

The biggest indicator of a solid front shift setup, and Di2’s greatest strength, is shifting under high load. That’s not necessarily a recommended practice, but then again racing includes lots of ill-advised shift practices. New Red can be shifted up and down under sprint loads without issue.

Rear shifting is just as good as it was before. Crisp and fast. I’m a fan of double tap, so I have never had any qualms there. More impressive, though, was how utterly quiet the whole drivetrain is.

That was made most apparent when I was riding behind our local ride leader, who was using an old Red Powerdome cassette and a Force group and was riding next to a journalist with the new group. While our rider leader’s bike was making an awful racket, the journalists was completely silent. It is a feature that truly needs to be heard to be believed (and, perhaps, appreciated).

Braking was better than with the current Red brakes, though still a bit less powerful than a Dura-Ace brakeset. Modulation was on-par with the best brakes I’ve used. Without trying out more wheel and pad combinations, I can’t honestly go into much more depth than that.

We’ll have much more time on the new group soon, so keep an eye out for a more complete review and wear analysis.