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SRAM continues hydraulic brake swaps, will launch improved model in May

Recall, replacement, and a hydraulic option expected by mid-spring

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There are some 15,000 SRAM HydroR hydraulic brake systems floating around the globe, 5,000 on active bikes in the hands of consumers, and 3,600 in the United States. So it was no minor issue when SRAM announced that none of them, not a single production run, are safe to ride.

The source of the problem was traced back to master cylinder failures, the result of a design flaw that only made itself known during a weekend of cyclocross racing in frigid temperatures.

“It was an issue once we went to production tooling,” SRAM president Stan Day told VeloNews. “We ended up with a very slight convex shape in the bore that the piston was working in.”

In cold temperatures, the seals that would normally be able to accommodate this imperfection hardened, causing oil leaks and master cylinder failure, which resulted in multiple brake failures.

The company issued a total recall on December 13 of all of its hydraulic road brake systems, smack dab in the middle of cyclocross season, the discipline that had embraced the technology most enthusiastically. It was, in Day’s understated words, “a very, very bad situation.”

The recall was a major blow for the brand and its image as an innovator, for consumers who had plunked down their own cash on the new brakes, and for hydraulic brakes themselves, which already suffered from a lack of consumer confidence. And it could not have come at a worse time: just days before major cyclocross events across the country, weeks before the national and world championships, and just as the new systems were beginning to hit shop floors. Cleaning up the mess would not be easy.

The stopgap solution

The company reacted quickly, and by the estimation of many, quite well. It instated a replacement program, wherein consumers with affected brakes could simply walk into a shop and have them replaced with mechanical BB7sl disc brakes and mechanical Red shift levers at no cost — if the shop had some in stock. SRAM would even pick up the labor costs, paying shops about $100 per swap to get the work done quickly. It moved heaven and earth to get the BB7’s into the right hands, pulling them off unsold bikes, out of distribution warehouses, and shipping them across the world to where they were needed most.

The priority, Day explained, was consumers first, companies later. “We want to get the cyclists rolling, then get the dealer inventory activated, then the bike company inventory activated. But the cyclists, the folks to paid $5,000 for a bike, they come first,” he said.

To that end, SRAM also set up a mobile replacement operation at cyclocross nationals, taking place in Boulder, Colorado this weekend. With hundreds of cyclocross racers bearing down on a single venue, it seemed a perfect opportunity to kill a whole flock of birds with one stone. Racers could bring their bikes by early in the week and have systems swapped for free by a crew of eight technicians.

But many did the exact opposite, racing their hydraulic systems, which had been working throughout the fall, and then bringing their bikes by the SRAM tent for replacement afterwards. The timing swap was logical, if not particularly safe; as active as SRAM has been in providing a stopgap solution to its brake problem, there remains a serious issue, particularly for a racer who is about to toe the line at a national championship: BB7s are not a true replacement for the HydroR system.

“She’s not happy,” said Chris Nodder of his wife, Melanie Lewis, who raced the women’s 45-50 event on Thursday and opted to swap her hydraulic brakes for BB7 SLs. “The mechanics here have been awesome, getting us squared away, but, I mean, hydraulics versus mechanicals, the difference is huge. And making this switch at the last minute is not ideal. Never make a change on race day — we’ve broken that rule like three times already this morning.”

But Lewis had little choice: the shop she works at was out of stock, and her entire equipment setup now built around discs.

“We know that it’s just not a choice for a lot of people, especially a lot of the people we’re seeing here,” said SRAM’s Alex Wassman, standing outside SRAM’s mobile replacement operation. “This is their race bike and their backup bike and the only wheels that they have, because they maybe sold off their other stuff.”

Wassman said that riders have been gracious, thankful for the help and understanding of the bad situation. But, “if someone needs to come here and bend our ear, that’s why we’re here,” he said.

The long-term solution: New hydraulics

SRAM isn’t giving up on hydraulic road brakes forever. In fact, its engineering team worked through much of the holiday on a brand new hydraulic road brake system, described by Day as “definitely disc 2.0, not 1.2.” In other words, not a fix for HydroR, but a ground-up redesign.

SRAM will release details, including a tentative timeline for the new product, next Wednesday, but Day confirmed to VeloNews that hydraulic disc users will be back “riding sooner than they were expecting.”

“It’s a bit premature to be talking about it at this point, but I’m optimistic that people are going to be back on hydraulics within a handful of months, and they’re going to be loving it,” Day said, later confirming that “a handful” translates to about four months.

Once those new brakes are launched, SRAM will begin its replacement program anew, taking back all of the BB7 SL sets it provided and replacing them with the new system. If Day’s loose timeline pans out, that should put the new discs in the hands of consumers in mid-May. Perhaps even more important for the company’s bottom line, a May launch might be early enough to get the new system on other brands’ 2015 models.

That timeline could still change, of course, as Wassman stressed. “We’re determined to get this thing corrected as quickly as possible, but fast isn’t a solution; we want to get it right. We have to be thorough,” he said.

SRAM now faces not only the financial strain of the recall itself, but also an uphill battle for consumer confidence. Day stated unequivocally that quality control processes would be revised, but also believes that consumers and the industry need to know the whole story behind the system’s engineering — in the hope, no doubt, that if the world believes that SRAM knows exactly what went wrong, we can all trust that it won’t make another big mistake.

“Nobody stubs their toe on the same piece of sidewalk twice,” Day said.