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By Matt Pacocha
The Sea Otter Classic’s season-opener status always leaves it vulnerable to inclement weather, and going into this year’s edition the Monterey Bay area has been awash in monsoon-style spring rains.
But come opening day on Thursday, the ponderous clouds above the Laguna Seca race track gave way to clear skies and set a perfect stage for the 2006 season kickoff, for racers, spectators and exhibitors alike.
Some of the loudest buzz in the pits concerns two of the industry’s component manufacturers, SRAM and Shimano. On Saturday, two SRAM-sponsored road teams will take the company’s new gear for a spin around the Laguna Seca raceway during the NRC circuit road race. For more on the look and feel of SRAM’s Force and Rival road groups – yes, we did get to ride them – see Lennard Zinn’s report on the group’s press launch.
Meanwhile, Shimano has five athletes equipped with what they call “third stage prototypes” of the new XTR shifters and derailleurs, along with look like early production wheels. The shifters and derailleurs, functional prototypes mostly hand-assembled from CNC-machined components, represent the only real opportunity for the racers to provide their insights before the final production specifications are set and the group readied for full-scale production.
I’ve taken the new XTR for a ride, and though it was an all-too-brief introduction (just a couple minutes each on Walker Ferguson’s Scott and Marie-Hélène Prémont’s Rocky Mountain) I have a few first impressions.
Prémont’s Rocky Mountain featured the new Dual Control shifter-brake combo, built using a radial master cylinder for the brakes. The shift mechanism rotates around the master cylinder, yielding a much narrower overall system that takes up less space on the bar; it neither interferes with riser bars nor creates any issues with extreme inboard placement.
Shifting and braking are noticeably improved. The shift action is extremely light. I have had trouble using the backs of my fingers to shift the current Dual Control, but the new action is so light it barely takes any effort to activate the lever, either up or down. The brakes feel extremely solid. Even when paired with the current-style calipers, they felt lighter and firmer than their predecessors.
Multi, Release and Instant Release
Ferguson’s bike is equipped with Shimano’s new trigger shifters, which offer two unique advantages over the old Rapid Fire units: “Multi Release” and “Instant Release.” The toggled Multi Release trigger can be operated by an index finger, in a pulling or trigger motion, or as a push button with a thumb. “Instant Release” simply means that as soon as your thumb or finger actuates the trigger, the system shifts — past systems required a push and release to shift. The action is extremely positive, and the clicks are audible, making the system seem all the more solid.
Matt Robertson, Shimano’s MTB product manager, confirms that the entire XTR group will be updated, right down to the middle chain ring, which is getting an injection of exotica in hopes of extending its life span.
Shimano starts with a titanium core, which holds the ring’s basic shape. The titanium is then covered with a carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic, which is the surface the chain actually moves over (the carbon also forms the shift ramps). This material allows for detailed designs that are too hard to achieve with a forged or coined ring.
Robertson anticipates that this new technology will provide smoother, quieter shifting, and double the wear life over the current XTR middle ring.
“We are really addressing some of the needs of our actual customers this year,” said Robertson. “We really tried to go back and listen to the marketplace. We have a reputation for not doing that on some level.
“We have had complaints — you know, ‘Hey, your middle chain ring doesn’t last like your old one did.’ And we know that it’s the same material and same anodizing. But we also know that we went from a 36 to a 32 at the same time we went to an 11-34, basically inviting people to stay in their middle ring all day long.
“So that’s what it really comes down to — people are going to ride a whole lot in their middle ring. So we need to address middle-ring wear in a different way. Using titanium as a base material, we can basically double the wear life.”
Consumers can expect to get their first look at the new XTR this fall as full groups on bicycles.
“We’re working with companies to do complete XTR bikes for the first release [October 1],” Robertson said. Components will ship globally for aftermarket on September 1, but won’t make it into retailers’ hands until after the complete bikes are released — so if you’re desperate for the new gear, expect to buy a new bike to get it.