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SRAM RED: First Ride Impressions

RED. What’s all the fuss about?

In 2006 SRAM launched its first foray into the world of road bikes with the Force and Rival groupsets, a double-barrelled shot across the bows of Shimano and Campagnolo. It was a welcome addition to the age old debate of which groupset to choose.

But the US company was far from content being a distant third option. Buoyed by its confidence with leading edge products in the MTB world, SRAM launched several innovations in its two groupsets, most critically heralding a new shifting paradigm with the introduction of Double Tap.

Two years later and SRAM has released RED. This is the company’s attempt at producing the lightest and highest performing groupset possible, clearly staking out its intentions to take on the dominance of Shimano and Campagnolo.

Despite its scarcity, RCUK has managed to get some quality miles on board SRAM’s new groupset recently to bring you our first ride impressions. The bike the groupset is hanging off is the Independent Fabrication SSR 953.

It’s in the details

A claimed weight of just 1,928g has been achieved by taking Force components to task, removing as much excess material as possible and by making good use of carbon fibre and titanium. The RED groupset is essentially an evolution from Force – they’ve not started from a blank sheet as such – and has allowed them to iron out a few of the supposed niggles in Force and Rival. SRAM also gained a considerable amount of feedback from its collaboration with the Saunier Duval pro team, who quickly highlighted potential areas of improvement.

RED aims to be more than just a lighter version of the Force groupset of course. SRAM set themselves the daunting task of releasing the lightest production groupset to the market, clearly making a statement about their intent to take the battle to the established contenders. SRAM is a company that clearly moves quickly, and updates to the Force and Rival groupsets have seen trickle down technology from RED, due for release in 2009.

Let’s start with the shifters. It’s here that the groupset has gained the most interest from riders, and probably split a few opinions too. It’s never going to be easy to prise many died-in-the-wool cyclists from their favoured choice of groupset, but after some time on a SRAM equipped bike it’s easy to see that SRAM clearly mean business. This stuff works. And well. The RED shifters are lighter than Force, a given really, but the real changes are in the performance, which is dramatically increased. Inside the guts of the lever body is a new pawl geometry which provides a new acronym to commit to memory: Zero Loss Travel. This essentially offers far snappier shifting with a reduced degree of lever travel before the next gear is released.

Ergonomics are improved too, with a 1cm longer lever but, most critically, independent reach adjustment for both the brake and shift levers – ideal for those with small hands or riders who favour a brake lever close to the bars. Dual Cable Routing means you can run your cables inside or outside of your bars and for slick shifting and braking SRAM has fitted low-friction Gore Ride-On coated cables and housings.

The rear derailleur incorporates titanium and carbon, so it’s significantly lighter, with ceramic pulley bearings for smooth running. But it’s the front derailleur that is on the receiving end of some more interesting changes. Trim position now swaps to the big ring only, following feedback from its sponsored pro riders who of course spend most of their time in the big ring (which I do too of course…). And a hardened titanium cage drops the grams.

The RED’s crankset gets redesigned aluminium-splined carbon arms, with a narrower profile, and new PowerGlide chainrings that should be stiffer than Force, with a similar solid design to that used by Shimano’s Dura-Ace. New ceramic bearings should be smooth too. New too are the bold SRAM decals on the back of the crank arms, something that seems to be popular with the younger amongst us but not winning fans in the older ranks [I like it – ed.]. Like Force and Rival, cranks are available in various lengths from 165mm through to a Boonen-esque 180mm.

Changes are relatively minor to the brake caliper geometry, although the ‘A’ arm has been remodelled to skim off weight. Maintenance is more user friendly, with brake pads now easier to replace and there is also the addition of adjustable spring tension and a small centreing screw .

Unfortunately our test bike didn’t come equipped with SRAM’s revolutionary RED cassette, so we can’t comment on how it actually fares. What we can say during our test period is that the Red groupset appears to function quite happily with both Shimano and Campag cassettes.

Most visually striking of all is the brave decision by SRAM to plaster the components with the bold red and black decals. Large SRAM lettering adorns the back of the crank arms, red and white dashes on the brake and shifter levers and the rear derailleur. But in the end, you either love it loathe it.

But is it actually any good?

In a word, yes. The Dartmoor Classic 100 mile sportive provided the chance to really get under the skin of the new groupset, as well as the usual commuting to work, training rides and giving it a bit of welly [don’t you mean ‘light cardio’? – ed.] around Crystal Palace in the weekly crit race.

What’s most notable from the first few miles is just how super quick the shifting is with the redesigned shifters. There’s much less lever travel before the gear shifts when compared to any other groupset, and after several hours you really get used to the instantaneous nature. After nearly seven hours of trudging up and down moorland around Dartmoor, you quickly become accustomed to the slick shifting. Move aside Shimano and Campagnolo.

Even taking into account the lack of a RED cassette, shifting was fast and precise with both a Shimano and Campag cassette tried during the test period, with little discernable difference between the two. The shape of the lever hoods is comfortable, and is about a halfway house between Shimano and Campag in height and size. The adjustable lever reach shouldn’t be understated, allowing you to set your shift and brake levers where you want them – not what they in the design office decide is best. The extra length of the brake lever blade too improves control while on the drops. Meanwhile the shift lever is just the right size and shape for perfect shifting every time.

On the surface much has changed then, and while the weight is certainly something to be excited about, it’s the incredible shifting performance and the smoothness that the ceramic bearings provide that leave an impression following a ride. Be careful, after some time aboard s SRAM equipped bike you might find yourself not wanting to go back to anything else.

But all this weight saving comes at a price. £1,399 to be precise, which is about the same as Record but considerably more than Dura-Ace. It’s undoubtedly aimed at people who want (or need) the lightest and highest performing groupset. With more pro teams using it this year too, expect to see it gain a higher profile.

Interestingly, I’ve come away from this first ride impression most impressed with the shifters from the whole package. Sure, the brakes and cranks all work well, but it’s in the shifting department that SRAM have really scored a home run. It’s just so intuitive and offers a serious rival to everything else.

But it’s very expensive, which leads me to conclude that with RED fully compatible with both Force and Rival, the potential to mix and match seems an attractive prospect. A pair of RED shifters and a Force groupset would offer most of the benefits of a full RED groupset, albeit not nearly as light, but with more money left in the bank. Or you can wait until the new Force and Rival is released which will feature the same Zero Loss Travel…

If you must have the lightest groupset, but aren’t sure if you should sway from Shimano or Campagnolo, RED is a serious contender, and very much worth checking out. You might just become a convert.

www.sram.com

And thanks to Barry at Bespoke Cycling for the loan of the RED-equipped Indy Fab SSR 953 which enabled us to bring you this first ride impression.

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