Sunday, September 21, 2008

I Made the Leap (SRAM Red Review)

In a quest to get the BMC Time Machine into tip-top shape prior to heading out to the big island, I've been gluing on new tires, replacing cables and checking torque on all the important bits and pieces. The real news though, is that 2008 Team Evotri sponsor SRAM came through big time with a brand-new SRAM Red tri groupset!

For those who don't read the cycling news websites every day, you might have missed the important bit of industry news where Zipp was acquired by SRAM this spring. Zipp has been a big supporter of the team and it was awesome that SRAM was also willing to come on board and keep everything "in the family" so to speak!

I like SRAM so much because I have some faith in the concept a free market economy (how's that for making a leap?). To make some sense out of my ramblings you need to know a bit about the history of bicycle component manufacturers. A long time ago, in a land far, far, away cyclists had much greater choice as to what bits and pieces went onto their machines. My first racing bike came with Suntour components, but companies like Sachs and Mavic were also significant players in the component game. For a variety of reasons having to do with who owned what patents and who actually had a sustainable business model, Shimano and Campagnolo came out on top and pretty much dominated groupsets throughout the 80s and 90s. Shimano does well in North America (and also makes some killer fishing reels) and Campy has a bigger piece of the European market. This is all well and good, but that free market thing I mentioned tends to thrive on competition. I think innovation suffered for a number of years while Shimano and Campy were content to dominate their respective markets without any real challengers.

Enter SRAM. To make a long story short, SRAM acquired Sachs and had great success with a simple product called the Grip Shift for mountain bikes. In recent years we saw SRAM make small forays into the road market with chains and cassettes. It wasn't until they stormed onto the scene in 2006 with full road groups (Force and Rival) that people really sat up and started to take notice. Their DoubleTap shift levers in particular were much simpler internally than the competition and offered better functionality. Both of these groups got rave reviews, were ridden in the Tour and quickly became spec'd on some stock bikes (3 things that really got Shimano and Campy's attention).

SRAM's real ace-in-the-hole was the Red group. While Force was a solid contender with both Dura-Ace and Record in terms of weight and performance, it was the new top-end Red grouppo that sent everyone else back to the drawing boards.

Thanks for allowing me to indulge in two of my favorite pasttimes: cycling and history! I do think it helps to have a little background knowledge to understand why people are so excited about this SRAM stuff.

To get back to my BMC upgrade, I stripped all the old components off right after Steelhead. I've now got more than a month and more than 1,000 miles on the new parts, so I feel I can offer up a small, well-informed, review.

TT Shifters

No question the aesthetics of these shifters is top-notch. One nice feature not apparent from the pictures is that there are fewer parts to these than a Dura-Ace bar end shifter set. Good news for you home mechanics! Combined with the Red rear derailleur I would say the shifting is more positive than Dura-Ace: each shift is very solid. The carbon levers look great and save some weight, but I'm not sure how they'd hold up in a crash, or even accidental drop. One feature that I miss is the ability to switch to friction mode. This has come in handy more than once when shifting problems have come up mid-race or mid-ride. On the flip side, not having this extra non-essential piece is in-line with the SRAM philosophy of simplification (less parts, better durability, lower weight).


Rather than belabour you with the minutia of each drivetrain piece I will just write a few words about how everything works together. Ceramic bearings have been all the rage among weight weenies and bike techies. I've never been convinced that these upgrades are worth the price tag. SRAM Red was the first grouppo to offer ceramic bearings as standard equipment. Both the external bottom bracket and rear derailleur pulleys utilize ceramic bearings. Just playing with these pieces before they were installed, I thought they were smooth, but not noticably more so than standard bearings. As soon as I started my first ride with the new stuff, I have to admit everything was smoother. Granted the Dura-Ace stuff I took off had lots of miles on it and had been raced in too many rainstorms this year, but there was a definite, noticable difference. Beyond that, the derailleurs were easy to install and adjust. As noted above, the shifting is very strong and solid. I believe the rear derailleur spring is stronger than Dura-Ace, which helps with nice crisp shifting. I think it is a toss-up for most innovative pieces between the double-tap shifters and the rear cassette. Cassettes haven't changed much since the change-over from freewheels. SRAM's approach to the Red cassette is entirely new. They start with a solid chunk of steel and do about an hours worth of material removal to come up with a hollow cassette made entirely of steel, which when nickel plated is much more durable than the titanium that Dura-Ace uses. The hollow design means the whole thing is also lighter than a Dura-Ace cassette. This is definitely my favorite piece of the tri group. Below is a picture that shows some of the cassette machining process.


An object in motion tends to stay in motion, therefore brake design of a top-end group has to be at or above the standards of the rest of the group. The Sram Red brakeset again betters Dura-Ace and Record by a few grams. The good news is that it doesn't do it by sacrificing stopping power like some other ultra-light aftermarket brakes. The Red brakes have a centering screw which is very important to me since I switch between race wheels and training wheels all the time (I don't believe Force and Rival have this screw?). My brakes came equipped with high-end yellow SwissStop carbon brake pads. The pads actually performed great on aluminum rims, but I got some squeal on my Zipps. More than likely this is due to me not taking the time to set proper toe-in, but I am still switching back to Zipp brake pads for Kona.

Bike Snob Aesthetics

Lastly, I consider functionality and performance as the most important criteria when selecting bikes and components. So I take it as a nice finge benefit that the SRAM Red components just look so awesome on the BMC! The color scheme is the same and BMC also uses a bold graphic design similar to what is on the Red cranks. Never hurts to look good when you're tearing it up!

Bottom Line

Sram hit a homerun with the Red group and struck some serious fear into Shimano and Sram. Still you get what you pay for. Weight-wise the Force grouppo is only about 150 grams heavier than Red. The new models of Force and Rival get trickle-down technology from Red, so other than the minor weight penalty there shouldn't be much in step-down in functionality/peformance. If you have to have the best, that is Red, but I'd have to say it is unlikely that anyone would lose a race because they were using Force and not Red!

Blowing Sunshine up..........

Whenever a sponsored athlete sings the praises of some company product, I am pretty skeptical. Fair enough, don't take my word for it. Check out a few other glowing reviews:



Cycling News

Monday, September 8, 2008

Fueled by the Baconator!

Wow a full weekend of triathlony goodness and I'm wiped out! I'll try to give you the condensed play-by-play version, but extreme sleepiness could result in random tangents and musings....

This weekend marked my last race before the big 'un. I chose the Great Illini 1/2 IM (there is also a full!) in Neoga, Illinois which is about 2.5 hours south of Bloomington. I picked this race primarily because the timing was just about perfect for a last really hard tune-up race.

I was excited about the race because it was also kind of a return to roots sort of event. When I started doing this sport more seriously 5 years ago, we almost always carpooled and camped out before a race. If the overnight temps are decent, I probably still prefer this to a hotel. I love camping and have no problem sleeping in a tent.

I was travelling down to Neoga with my brother and sister-in-law who were both racing the half as well. We had the blue magoo (Saturn Vue) packed to the gills with race and camping gear. We stopped in the last "big" town before Neoga to eat. Apparently there is very little to do in the Mattoon area, because every restaurant in town was absolutely packed. Not wanting to waste potential sleep waiting for a table we eventually opted for Wendy's. Now in general, I eat really well (copiously yes, but primarily healthy whole foods). My philosophy is if you are gonna splurge, you might as well do it right! I knew I was going to burn through a butt-load (that's a clinical term) of calories at the race, so I fueled up with a Baconator (pictured above and a chocolate frosty). You can have your carbo-dinners, I found my new pre-race meal!!! If greasy food helped Stuart Hayes dominate the field at the Chicago Tri it must be good for the rest of us, right?

The campground was within a quarter mile of the start, so I thought that gave me leeway to sleep in a bit. Darndest thing- getting up an hour and 15 minutes before the start of a 1/2 IM where you haven't gotten your packet yet, makes for an action-packed morning!

Morning temps were great- low 60s. Winds were low as well. My goal for this race was just to go hard and get one last good race in before Kona. After a VERY short swim warm-up I took off with my wave. The 1/2 only had about 200 people total and a couple waves. I was at the front of the swim with a few others right off the bat. Buoy spacing and orientation was a bit confusing and added some time to the swim, but I felt super-solid and shouldn't have any problem holding the same pace for 2.4 (I swam about 30 minutes flat).

I exited the swim with one other athlete from my wave and there was one more a little bit ahead. One mile into the bike, I had overtaken both and was in the lead! The bike course is mostly flat, but not that fast due to four 180 degree turnarounds. Nothing kills the average speed like coming almost to a stop and turning around. The positive side was that I got to see where the rest of my competition was after each turnaround. I've been hitting a bunch of long, progressive rides and was hoping that training would pay off at this shorter distance. I knew one of the biggest threats on the bike would be my buddy Kyle May owner of Spin City Cycles in Decatur, Illinois. Kyle is an excellent biker and has made up the swim deficit in more than one race. Fairly early on in the race it was me in the lead, Kyle chasing in second and my brother Andy cranking it out in 3rd place. That's the first time that Andy and I were both near the front of a race- pretty damn cool! The wind picked up a bit and the north sections were quite slow. I was hoping to match my power from my excellent ride at Steelhead and just kept my effort pegged at around 240 watts. Kyle moved up and fell back a bit at points, but I was able to maintain the overall lead (but didn't have fastest bike split). The numbers: 237 ave. watts good for 23.3 mph.

I came into T2 with about a 3 minute cushion. I was feeling really strong and modified my race plan a bit. If I ran all out and went for a big PR, I would certainly end up with some nasty blisters and a couple extra days of recovery. I decided to run the first 6 at a quick, but reasonable pace and then run the last 6 all out. Good news is that I felt very strong right off the bat. There was none of the "muddle through the first few miles" until I hit my stride. Since the run course consisted of two out-and-back "loops" I could keep tabs on the competition and was glad to see I was putting even more time on the field without running all out. At the half-way point I upped the suffering level to standard race intensity. This method seemed to work really well. I felt good, but not great, for the remaining six miles. The course is nearly pancake flat, but my split was definitely a nice surprise: 1:25 (about 4 minutes off my open pace).

So I ended up notching my second overall win at this race which is a nice pre-Kona boost! 3 years ago I had my first long-course win at the debut Great Illini Half. Time was 4:22 which is a pr of 2-3 minutes for me. Due to a solid day in all three disciplines I actually ended up finishing almost 20 minutes ahead of 2nd.

I dedicate this victory to Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's!

Generally racing a half IM will wipe me out for the whole weekend, but we knew a ton of people racing at IM WI and had to get up there to do some hardcore spectating. We crashed at home Sat night, then got up stupid early to drive to Madison and catch the racers out on Old Sauk hill. We brought along an entire box of cowbells that were left-over awards from one of our local races. Heather distributed these to spectators on the hill and holy Wisconsin Ironman Cow did that make an awesome racket! We knew so many racers that we had someone to specifically cheer for every 5-10 minutes. The racers had pretty much the nicest weather of any of the Wisconsin races (I've raced or spectated almost every one). The great conditions showed in the times- a new course record on the men's side and blistering age group times. EvoTri members JP and Michelle both had excellent races and met their goals. JP had a stellar debut race, placing 5th in 18-24 (10:13). Michelle broke the 12 hour mark with a big PR over last year (11:52). Way to go Evo! We also had about a dozen Tri-Shark members at the race. Mostly great races with Tri-Shark expatriate Drewbie leading the way with a 10:20 and going all the way to good buddy Meredith's first time finish in just over 16. Great job everyone, it was so much fun to watch all of you!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Kona Athlete Guide!!

It's been nearly a year since I qualified for Kona at IM WI '07. In many ways, this is the ideal situation since #1 I didn't have to race another IM in the same season as Kona and #2 I had an entire year to improve. The small downside, I guess, is that I did have more than a year before the race. Contrast this with my friend and fellow Tri-Shark club member, N.K., who just last weekend raced IM Louisville and snagged himself a Kona slot for THIS YEAR! That's a little over a month between races! Congrats and Youch!

Anyway, yesterday I received an e-mail with the 2008 Kona athlete guide. This really drove home to me that I am really and truly in the final stretch of preparation. I have my last tune-up half this weekend (Great Illini) and then about 3 weeks of hard work before entering a carefully orchestrated 3 week taper.

I thought I would share a few gems from the athlete guide!

5:00 p.m. Ironman Parade of Nations (athletes gather at 4 p.m.)
(There is a f***in Parade of Nations?! Holy crap!)

2) Seasickness is the major cause of dropping out of the swim
(that's not in other athlete guides!)

3) When training, stay clear of the Kona charter boats that use Kailua Pier.

The rocks and sides of the Kailua Pier often have sea urchins on them. Always look before putting your feet down, as stepping on one could result in serious injury keeping you from
competing in the race!

From the airport area to Hawi, you will be biking into the legendary Ho'omumuku headwinds. These winds blow 5-35 mph and, in extreme conditions, can gust up to 60 mph. While air temperatures may register in the high 80’s to low 90’s, temperatures along this section of the course may exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit due to the refl ected heat from the lava and asphalt.

1) No form of locomotion other than running, walking or crawling is allowed.

On a moonless night in Kona, it is very dark. We urge all of you to make yourselves as visible as possible.

If you spend three months prior to the World Championship in a climate cooler than Hawaii, we suggest you take a three-week acclimation period in Kona before the race.
(HAH! Right.)

2007 top Male 25-29
Alex Mroszczyk-McDonald, USA 59:29 4:56:26 3:00:27 9:00:09
(yowza! This also happens to be the fastest amateur time overall as is generally the case with the 25-29 AG)