Sunday, March 4, 2012

Wickwerks Chainring Review

With the explosion of the Chicago Cross Cup, I've had lots more opportunities to race cyclocross in recent years. 2011 was my biggest season thus far and I have some big cross ambitions for 2012 (more on that in a later post!). Cross is super-fun and super-intense so it has been a great way for me to maintain some of my cycling fitness through the fall and early winter.  Thanks to my brother and his shop (Hub Endurance, Chattanooga, TN) I was finally able to replace my very well-used aluminum Giant TCX with a new carbon Blue Norcross EX.  The frame deserves its own review, but just by swapping frames I shed some weight, gained some stiffness and improved braking performance.

What did not improve originally was front shifting performance.  In fact, for reasons I haven't been able to pinpoint it probably went from barely tolerable on the Giant to lousy on the Blue.  Keep in mind that this evaluation is by my personal standards- I'm guessing most riders would be perfectly fine with the front shifting on either bike. I'm a tinkerer by nature and it bugs me to no end when things aren't working like they should. Compounding matters is the fact that at the beginning of last year I finally converted from a triple mountain bike front chainring setup to Sram's new XX 2X10.  The 2X10 front shifting has to be one of the single greatest cycling innovations ever.  It is right up there with moving from rim brakes to disc brakes on mountain bikes.  Tons of engineering went into designing Sram's XX front derailleur and chainrings.  The shifting is nothing short of amazing. It is lightning quick and simply works in all situations- even under high pedaling pressure which is generally a recipe for an ugly, grinding shift.  I'm going into all this detail about Sram's 2X10 system because it has raised the bar so high, I now want that kind of shifting on all my bikes and I was nowhere close on the new cross bike. It's worth noting that even as good as XX shifting is, lots of racers including Team Kenda-Felt, swap out XX chainrings for Wickwerks chainrings and report even better shifting!

As far as front shifting here's what I moved over from my old CX frame: Sram Force shift levers, Sram Force front derailleur, Sram Force compact crankset with FSA 46/34 chainrings.  Upshifting (from small to big chainring) was both sluggish and unreliable.  Sometimes I would want to accelerate and try to upshift and it would miss the shift altogether.  I've been assembling and maintaining bikes for 15 years, so this was not a set-up or adjustment problem.  It worked, but again it was below my personal standards and way below XX 2X10 shifting.  Since I liked Sram stuff so much the first thing I looked at was whether I couldn't just put a Sram 2X10 mountain crank and front derailleur on the bike.  This would have worked, but the current gearing options are all wrong for cross.  The closest thing they have is 45/30.  That small chainring is just geared too low for most cross courses.  The next thing I looked at was upgrading the old FSA rings.  Keep in mind these are not cheap chainrings.  They are ramped (referring to the grooves machined into the back of the big ring that help the chain transfer) and pinned (chainring pins are generally made of steel for durability and work in conjunction with ramps to improve front shifting).  I've been cycling long enough that some of my first bikes had front chainrings with no ramps or pins.  Riding those old bikes really helped to teach me proper front shifting technique.  What new cyclists don't realize is that there should actually be a very slight pause in your pedal stroke as you shift up to the big ring or down to the small ring.  If you didn't do this on an upshift on an old bike it would just grind away and not catch.  Improved rings/derailleurs have made technique less critical, but I see many new riders just crushing the pedals without any pause at all between up-front shifts- a little technique goes a long way people.....

This is the backside of my old FSA big chainring.  You can see the ramps and pins, but nothing even close to the Wickwerks rings!

Backside of the Wickwerks rings.  Take note of the hefty ramps!

I had heard about Wickwerks chainrings and read a few really positive reviews. I also learned that multi-time World and National champion Katie Compton has been using Wickwerks chainrings for years, which is a pretty solid endorsement!  Currently Wickwerks is strictly a chainring company and as such they have a really refined product.  Wickwerks chainrings actually came out well before Sram's new XX group.  The backside of the big chainring is heavily machined and does not use pins.  Instead it uses a series of improved ramps and Wickwerks' "Bridge" technology.  For a full explanation of the Bridge technology and how it works read this section of the Wickwerks site.  Chris Wickliffe owner/founder of Wickwerks was good enough to send me a set of 44/34 rings to ride and then review.

I've now been riding the chainrings for about 4 months, so this is not one of those "I raced them once and then wrote a review" things.  The back half of my cross season included the always challenging Jingle Cross Rock in Iowa, the Illinois State Cross Championships with lots of training and few smaller races in between.  Swapping rings over was a simple 15 minute job.  I was super-excited to get out and put these things through the paces.  My initial test ride in a local park was somewhat disappointing (keep reading!).  Shifting was a little better, but still not that crisp moving up to the big ring.  I loved the looks of the ramps on these things and knew the shifting should be better than it was.

Back to the drawing board.  On paper this set-up should be awesome.  New rings, newish chain, Force derailleur and shifters. Here we need a bit of cyclocross history and cycling component economics!  Cross has been around for decades, but only recently has it exploded in popularity.  That means for most of its history it was a fringe sport and not really taken into consideration by the big component companies (Shimnao, Sram, Campagnolo). So here's the problem.  Cyclocross tends to be a messy sport so the long-time tradition is to run shift and brake cables along the top tube for two reasons: #1 to keep them more out of the mud than on the downtube and #2 you often need to grab the downtube when carrying the bike and this is easier without cables.  This all makes perfect sense.  Where the system breaks down is the front derailleur.  Up until last year ALL front road derailleurs used what is called a bottom pull orientation (meaning the shift cable comes up from the bottom).  Since cross bikes have the cables on the top tube this created a problem that was sort of fixed with the stop-gap measure of putting a pulley on the seat tube of cross bikes to reverse the direction of pull.  This is a pet peeve of mine and a bad idea for all kinds of reasons.  Reason #1 is that if a race is muddy in the least all this mud inevitably piles up right on top of this pulley with predictable results on front shifting.  Reason #2 even without mud this system adds in unnecessary friction and weight.  Reason #3 this adds to the overall length of the front cable run which degrades shifting just a bit more.

The pulley I am talking about is shown on the bottom right picture above.

I turned my attention to getting rid of this pulley to finish fixing my front shifting performance.  A German company produces a little adapter called an Umlenker that changes a bottom-pull derailleur to a top-pull. I didn't test one of these mainly because it is another stop-gap measure and adds unnecessary complexity to the front derailleur.  My next solution was to try a Sram XX front derailleur since I like it so much on my mtb bike.  Many mtbs use a top-pull orientation, so it eliminated the pulley from the system.  Sram uses the same pull ratios on the road and mtb stuff, so on paper this should have worked just fine.  In practice, I ran into another problem.  I could not stop the front derailleur from over-shifting and falling off the outside of the big ring.  I even went so far as to put in a longer stop screw into the derailleur with no luck. I'm pretty certain (but would like confirmation from someone) that the issue is with the crank spacing.  I believe a Sram 2X10 crank sits further out from the bottom bracket than a standard road crank and hence the over-shifting.  If I had paired with a 2X10 crank it would have worked fine, but, as above good cross gearing does not exist in a 2X10 crank.  All of this ended up pushing me over to the dark side (Shimano).  Sram has been a longtime sponsor of my Evotri team, but beyond that their headquarters is up in Chicago and I just plain like what they've done component-wise in the last decade.  BUT Shimano finally caught wind of this exploding cross phenomenon and created a cyclocross group that finally included....drumroll please... a top-pull front road/cross derailleur, the CX 70.

So I realize that this is way more background than anyone except the most geeky of bike geeks and/or bike mechanics would care about, but I think it is critical when reviewing something to look at all the pieces involved in a system.  In this case that includes: pedaling technique, front shifter, front derailleur, chainrings, cable routing and whether or not you are using a pulley to change cable pull. If these pieces aren't working in unison, then you won't get the performance Wikwerk rings are capable of. With the new Shimano derailleur everything finally clicked.  To get back to the Wickwerks chainrings, they definitely began working as advertised.  Upshifts are super-quick and positive with almost no grinding.  It is not quite as good as my XX set-up but I think that is due to the nature of sti-style road shifters, not the chainrings or derailleur.  I bet if I mounted a Sram thumb shifter on my cross bike instead of the regular road shifter performance would be almost identical. It is worth noting that Chris Wickliffe has a teaser on his website for a completely re-designed front derailleur that looks quite promising.  If it goes into production and works as well as the chainrings, it will make for a killer combo!

Prototype of the Wickwerks front derailleur.

Durability of the rings appears to be as good or better than everything else that is out there.  My rings have been ridden in super muddy races (Jingle Cross) and races with lots of sand (Illinois CX championships).

Diligent chainring testing and Jingle Cross!

Cross is a growing market and I would expect we'll soon see some of Sram's XX chainring technology filter down to compact cross chainrings soon like it did with the new Red road rings this year.  Hopefully we'll also see a top-pull road derailleur from them as well.

A set of Wickwerks cyclocross chainrings cost about $130.  Certainly more pricey than a standard set of chainrings, but I think the performance benefits make it worth it for many racers- particularly if you need to replace a set of worn rings.

Why not run a single chainring?

With all my griping about simplicity I'm sure a bunch of people are wondering why I didn't just go with a single ring set-up which has been gaining popularity.  For a long time you were limited in your gear combinations with a single ring. Now though, you can put a Sram 11-36 cassette on with a mtb rear derailleur and a middle-of-the road front chainring (around 42t) and get as wide a gear range as a double set-up.  Single-ring set-ups save a little -but not much- weight because you still need to add a chain guide.  Simplicity is the strongest argument and one I like.  Cyclocross magazine ran an in-depth article on double vs single ring cross setups a few years back.  At the time all the pros that provided comments for the article were using double set-ups.  The argument that is most convincing to me is that when races get muddy (quite common in the midwest) then you often lose your lowest gears (which you really need in the mud) when mud packs up on the rear derailleur.  If you are in your lowest gear and everything is packed with mud sometimes the derailleur gets pulled into the rear spokes (this has happened to me once in addition to some close calls).  With a single-ring set-up you really need to count on being able to use every gear combination.  With a double, you can do without your couple of lowest gears and still be geared low enough for the mud. Single ring set-ups also have chainline issues, but I don't think that is a make-or-break issue.  I should probably try it before I knock it, but right now with the Wickwerks rings and shimano derailleur I am really happy with my shifting and can think about tinkering with other hopefully hydraulic disc brakes for cross bikes!


Andrew said...

How do you know that the performance you are experiencing is due to the Wickwerks chainrings? Did you try the combo of the Shimano derailleur with your old chainrings?

Sweet said...

Sorry I missed the e-mail telling me to moderate and publish your comment. Would I have gotten improved shifting performance with my old FSA rings and the new Shimano CX-specific derailleur- definitely. Would it be as quick and crisp as the Wickwerks chainrings, highly doubtful.