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Tech Report: Riding SRAM’s Force group

Next year is going to be a good one for tech-heads. We already have so much 2007 stuff to ride and talk about — and we’re still more than a month away from the season’s first trade show. The latest look ahead came this past week when Michael Zellmann, SRAM’s PR and media manager, visited VeloNews HQ in Boulder showing off SRAM’s new Force road group. At the Sea Otter classic in April, both Lennard Zinn and I had the opportunity to ride a pre-production version of the new components, which were very close to the finished product. The group Zellmann dropped off is from the first official

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By Matt Pacocha

SRAM’s PR and media manager, Michael Zellmann, chillin’ before the climb . . .

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Next year is going to be a good one for tech-heads. We already have so much 2007 stuff to ride and talk about — and we’re still more than a month away from the season’s first trade show.

. . . and suffering up Flagstaff Mountain

. . . and suffering up Flagstaff Mountain

Photo: Matt Pacocha

The latest look ahead came this past week when Michael Zellmann, SRAM’s PR and media manager, visited VeloNews HQ in Boulder showing off SRAM’s new Force road group.

At the Sea Otter classic in April, both Lennard Zinn and I had the opportunity to ride a pre-production version of the new components, which were very close to the finished product. The group Zellmann dropped off is from the first official production run. The $1800 Force and $1100 Rival groups — shifters, derailleurs, brakes, cranks, bottom bracket, chain and cassette — are already shipping to bicycle manufacturers for retail sale in the next few weeks.

Cassette and rear derailleur

Cassette and rear derailleur

Photo: Matt Pacocha

An important part of the evaluation of an entirely new group is the process of installing it onto a bike; this task gives a deeper insight to how the parts work, much more so than merely test-riding the components. While installing Force on a Scott CR1 went smoothly, I had both compliments and complaints. Happily, Zellmann was on hand to address all of my questions and concerns.

The good
The production Force shifters are light — each shifter is more than 60 grams lighter than a Shimano STI shifter and roughly 10 grams lighter than a Campagnolo Record shifter. The pair can shave almost a third of a pound from a bike equipped with STI shifters. Despite their low weight, the shifters are solid, both as platforms for one’s hands and in their Double Tap shifting action. The gears pop off with the same solid clicks associated with X.0 mountain shifters — obviously no complaints here.

The front end

The front end

Photo: Matt Pacocha

The derailleurs are of the same quality as their mountain brethren; they mirror X.0. The rear has a similar carbon pulley cage and an un-sprung adjustable b-knuckle. The front derailleur has a fine finish and a strong spring, but still feels light at the shifter. One note is that there is a two-position trim adjustment in the small chainring, but no trim adjustment when in the large chainring.

The cranks gained some weight over the initial target estimates, thanks to the inclusion of a minimalistic aluminum spine that SRAM engineers had not anticipated having in the final production version; the crank was supposed to be made solely from carbon fibe,r save for the pedal threads and BB attachments. The two-piece crank depends on the GXP style external bottom bracket, and the non-drive arm is affixed using a single 8mm bolt. The fixing bolt also includes a self-extraction system for ease of use. The bottom bracket and entire crank system is very easy to install. Its adjustment is also simple. Preloading the bearings depends on a fixed stop, not bolt torque. The carbon fiber arms and new hard-anodized chainrings look top-shelf in terms of quality.

Zellmann said the two hardest components to “get right” were the 10-speed chain and cassette. The cassette is labeled Open Glide, calling attention to the one missing tooth on each cog, which acts like a shift gate and is said to increase shifting performance. Shifting is smooth and precise. The best feature is the 11-26-tooth range. I can’t fathom that 10-speed has been around for close to five years, yet 2007 is the first year a major manufacturer has coupled an 11-tooth cog with something larger than a 23 (Campagnolo will produce an 11-25-tooth cassette for 2007). It seemed like a no-brainer to me. It’s a bummer that the new 10-speed chain’s master link isn’t removable, but it does take all of the guesswork out of installing a chain as there is hardly any way to mess it up, unlike pressing in a pin.

The bad
I had one issue with the brake calipers. I actually wrestled with whether to mention it, because it does seem like nit-picking, and it doesn’t really have any bearing of the new group’s functionality on the road. Nonetheless, I felt that the brakes’ threaded pad carriers used screws (and nuts) with overly coarse threads. This factors into ease of adjustment and my personal mechanical style. The final toe adjustment was somewhat challenging; as I tried to loosen the screw ever so slightly to make the final adjustment, I’d go too far, loosen it too much and lose the entire adjustment. In the end I got it right, but the process took a bit more time than with other more familiar systems.

The ride
Zellmann, a former Boulder resident, suggested we use Flagstaff Mountain for my first test ride on the new group. Flagstaff ascends 2500 feet over just six miles — it’s a favorite lactate-threshold workout of Toyota-United’s Chris Baldwin (see “My Favorite Workout” in VeloNews issue No. 14) — after which you turn around and descend at speeds upwards of 50 mph for close to 15 minutes. The road provides a very blunt test of how a component fares, and Force performed flawlessly in its first trial. Its shifts were quiet, precise and efficient, and the cranks felt as stiff as any I have ridden.

After a hypoxic moment on the crux of the climb, Zellmann put in one final effort to finish strongly and in front of yours truly — not too bad for a guy from the Windy City. Once we turned around, I was able to confidently attack the descent. The brakes and levers provided ample power and modulation. The levers fit my fingers well, and the calipers didn’t show a hint of flex or chatter, likely due to the fact they pivot on bearings, not bushings. After the first few corners my comfort level was high enough to brake later before each successive corner, which subsequently led to carving some exhilarating lines. It definitely made for a fun morning at the “office.”

As with all of our group reviews, I’m shooting to put 1000 miles on the SRAM’s new parts before we publish a full report in the “What We’re Riding” department of the magazine. With the parts due out on bikes in the next couple weeks you’ll probably be able to get your hands on the stuff before I’m finished, in that case, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by SRAM’s high-end entry to the road market, as I have been. To sum it up, the stuff works as well as anything else out there.

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