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By Andrew Juskaitis, VeloNews Technical Editor
As the 2004 season kicks-off, most of you competitive mountain bikers have either just finished or are nearing completion of your race rigs. While a handful of you are fortunate to have a complete bicycle shipped to you from a generous sponsor, the lion’s share of you will have to carefully piece together a race-worthy bike under the ever-present restrictions of a working stiff’s budget.
Building a bike from the wheels-up can provide the clearest insight into the technical savvy of the particular owner. It’s easy to dress up a high quality frame (full suspension or hard tail) with full Shimano XTR kit, slap on a pair of pricey Mavic CrossMax SL wheels and add a full compliment of high-zoot big-name carbon accessories. Bikes like this are a dime-a-dozen (well, okay, several grand a dozen, but you get my point). It’s those bikes with hand-picked components that really start to come alive and tell a story.
Frankly, of the race bikes I’ve run across over the years, the best performing are those built without the constraint of sponsorship obligations. Freedom of choice allows the rider to pick and choose the very best parts to build the very best bike they can. My point here? Expert and sport class mountain bikes are usually more interesting to dissect than top-level pro bikes.
Professionals get paid to ride particular equipment. For the fully sponsored racer, this often translates into riding equipment that doesn’t necessarily suit their specific needs or desires. Company X pays your team to ride its hydraulic disc brakes, so you’re gonna ride ‘em (and consequently say good things about them when pesky journalists ask you, “so, how do you like your Company X brakes?”) whether they work for you or not.
Looking back at the 2003 and considering the upcoming 2004 season, the most obvious component of contention has to be Shimano’s “revolutionary” Dual Control shifting system (found on new XTR). I have yet to talk to a pro cross country racer who will pooh-pooh system on the record, but many who insist on anonymity when admit they miss the days of Shimano’s RapidFire trigger shifting. To be fair, there are also quite a few that claim to like the new shifting system. But, as sponsored pros, these not-so-content racers forge on riding equipment that they’re not particularly fond of.
While unfortunate for these less-than-satisfied racers, this situation has provided the perfect opportunity for other companies to swoop in with alternative shifting technology.
Always nipping at Shimano’s heels, SRAM introduced its rejuvenated trigger shifter line last year. Whether by SRAM’s insider marketing genius or pure dumb luck, those riders not too enthused with Dual Control now had the option of running a high performance SRAM product that offered superior shifting performance (some would argue). Add the fact that SRAM just acquired Avid (makers of the outstanding Juicy 7 disc brake) and the longtime SRAM/Shimano debate has never had so much bite.
The reason I bring this subject up is that I just received a press release from SRAM highlighting its successful off-road racing weekend down at NORBA National #1 in Waco, Texas. Ironically, the victories of the weekend were achieved using SRAM’s original technology, its twist-style shifters. Nonetheless, it’s impressive to see SRAM out-podium Shimano.
SRAM Grip Shift twisters scored the top three podium spots at the men’s cross-country race and also secured the men’s overall GC victory. Jeremiah Bishop (Trek VW/East Coast), Geoff Kabush (Maxxis), and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (RLX Ralph Lauren) were the SRAM-backed racers who ended up on the cross-country podium, while Kabush also scored the GC victory.
So is this the beginning of the end for Shimano’s off-road dominance? Not a chance. No company can even come close to producing the range and quality of the complete drivetrain components that the Japanese giant can produce. While you can argue SRAM superiority in shifting (and now braking) let’s see a SRAM crankset or front derailleur come close to XTR quality. While close (and rumored to be working on a complete high-end drivetrain) SRAM still has considerable work to do before it can overthrow Shimano in component superiority game. In the meantime, you have to give them credit for closing the gap.
Not a typical machine
I just received a quick message from frame builder Jeff Jones who just finished this so-very-custom 29’er that can be adapted from single-speed to geared bike with his innovative dropout system. Like the bike or not, you have to admire his “thinking-outside-of-the-box” design.