Well, we've ridden it. And frankly, we'd like to ride it some more. A lot more. SRAM's Red group is a remarkable achievement and worthy of a spot at the table with Dura-Ace and Record. And all it took was an integrated control lever.
The history of integrated control levers may be more significant for who got out of the market than who entered it. Modolo took a stab at it in ’97 and released a product so woefully lacking in ergonomic elegance and precise function that when the product was subsequently pulled six months later, no one missed it.
Mavic has twice sold electronic shifters. Twice they have developed legions of devotees. Today, a Mavic group consists of wheels, brakes and a computer. If only the gods would smile on their engineers, or their factories, or whatever it would take to make the stuff work perfectly all the time.
So what’s the big deal about Red? The shifter. It’s always the shifter. The Red shifter is comfy, shifts precisely and has a throw shorter than any of its competition. That covers the basics, but here’s a bit more detail:
The hoods have gentle curves to them to allow you to grip them in the traditional manner, drape your hands across the forward bulb and rest your wrists on the back of the hood and the bar, or sit up a bit with your hands laying across the bar and rear of the hoods. The brake levers themselves flair out from the hoods more than either Dura-Ace or Record levers do. This is a boon for anyone with small hands—you don’t need to roll your wrists around the bar to reach the levers. As you grip the brake levers with your index fingers (yes, it’s real one-finger braking), you feel the shift levers just brushing the inside curve of your fingers.
The shift lever has no play to the travel (well, one of the two bikes I rode equipped with the group had maybe 3mm of travel before engaging the spring). Move the lever and you have begun the shift. The feel of each shift is firm and precise. Downshifts of a single cog feel very natural; I was worried that it would feel sluggish, but the response is so immediate you quick adjust to the throw necessary to downshift one cog, to do two or three is no big deal. Upshifting is firm and deliberate. You can’t brush the lever with your finger the way you might with Dura-Ace, though. Multiple upshifts aren’t quite as quick as Dura-Ace and definitely not as quick as Record, but there’s no risk of accidentally dumping the chain from the 14 to the 12, either.
For the sprinters out there, one of the more remarkable aspects of Red’s performance is the way you can wrap your right index finger around the shift lever and then swing it back so that your hand is wrapped simultaneously around the lever and the bar. Out of the saddle and sprinting, there is enough clearance between the lever and the bar (even with padded tape) to give the lever a little squeeze for an upshift.
If you have ever been on a long climb and pushed a lever to see if, by chance, there was one more cog in back, don’t make that mistake with Red (or any SRAM groups), though. The act of pushing the lever will initiate an upshift. Kind of a surprising development if you’re at the end of your rope.
It would be easy to blow the group’s promise if the great rear shifting was not matched with great front shifting. Key to this are stiff crank arms, bottom bracket spindle and chainrings. Key elements, all. As a result, the front shifting is very good. It may not be quite as crisp under load as Dura-Ace, but it will shift from the small ring to the big ring when you are out of the saddle, though. It seemed that shift length was longer than that of Dura-Ace. Dura-Ace takes about one-third of a pedal revolution to execute a shift, most of the time. While some shifts took between a third and a half of a revolution, most were closer to a full revolution. Perhaps with a bit more forceful shifting on the part of the rider, the shifts might be more consistently brief.
Brake response is excellent. Anyone transitioning from Dura-Ace won’t notice a lick of difference, while Record users may notice a softer feel to the braking. Modulation is excellent; a sensitive rider will get great stopping power without locking up the rear wheel. Not the sort of thing that would excite the freeride crowd, I suppose.
There’s a lot to be said for a group that operates in whisper mode. Roll the clock back 15 years and you may recall that Shimano and Campy were noisy affairs. Red will not clutter your experience with unnecessary noise.
What’s the scuttlebutt, you’re asking? The price. At more than $2000 it is the most expensive group ever offered. However, if the dollar continues to drop like a paraglider with tangled lines, it won’t be long before Record and eventually Dura-Ace are more expensive. At least we can rest assured the pricing on Red will be more stable than Lindsay Lohan’s mental state.
Many wonder, is it overpriced? The answer to that depends on nothing so much as you. To some, every piece of bike gear is overpriced. And to some a great bike is a tiny investment compared to a health club or yoga classes (after all, if you ride a $10,000 bicycle five days per week for three years, that bike runs you about $12.82 per ride).
So the real question is, what’s a good time worth? Ride it and decide for yourself.