SRAM eTap Review

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In just the first few outings this system has changed my ride as much as adopting cleated pedals or wearing lycra. Every shift is so unwaveringly quick and predictable that I no longer power through little risers or freewheel through dips. Like an F1 race car, which was stated to be one of the inspirations of the gruppo, I make many more minor gear adjustments and stay glued in my optimal power/cadence zone. As a world-weary and jaded individual this was one of the few things in recent memory that made me laugh out loud with joy on my very first ride with it.

SRAM eTap shift count on Garmin 1000

Shift count on Garmin 1000 via firmware update

First impressions:

First impressions with the kit were as good as they come. Excellent build quality. Timeless industrial design. Well engineered mix of metal and carbon fiber.

Ultra clean cockpit

Wireless shift levers means an ultra clean cockpit with half the cables

Completely wireless system means no cables or sensors at bottom bracket area. So clean!

All wireless everywhere: Beautiful bottom bracket area courtesy of Garmin speed sensor on the front hub, cadence on Stages power meter, shifting via wireless eTap system

The removal of a couple of cables makes a bigger visual difference than one would think.

The removal of a couple of cables makes a bigger visual difference than one would think.

Ergonomics

The ergonomics have soaring highlights but are not perfect. The button size, positioning and logic is definitely better than all other competing systems. The logic of switching to left-for-easy, right-for-hard, both-for-front took no time at all to adopt to. As a matter of fact, in the full summer season I’ve been riding it I’ve not once misfired on a shift. It was that natural.

That there is only one button on each side allows them to be larger in size which comes in handy when in the drops, as well as while wearing gloves.

The rubber hoods have excellent grip but the bump on the top is much smaller and less ergonomic than Shimano’s. Due to this I’ve had to adapt my hand positioning a bit as I used to love cruising on the tops of the hoods like this:

in-the-hoods

Now things are a bit…different…

in-the-hoods-comparison-skitch

In the hoods: Shimano wins

alternate-hoods-skitch

ergonomics-in-the-drops-skitch

In the drops: SRAM wins

Performance: Zap vs. Tick Tock

I’m coming off of mechanical Dura Ace 7800. In an effort to visually clean up the cockpit Shimano started routing the shifter cables around the handlebar through the grip tape from 7900 onward. This added noticeable friction and reduced usability and enjoyment so I skipped that ‘upgrade’ and went straight to eTap.

Compared to mechanical eTap was:

  • Faster going up the cogs
  • The same going down the cogs
  • Front shifting is bonkers

The first thing I need to mention is front shifting which is the most dramatic improvement your bike may ever see. Thoughts like should I muscle this up into the big chainring and do I really need to risk dropping my chain for a downshift right now completely vanish and are replaced with the low effort and high speed that you usually experience with rear shifting. There is a cognitive weight lifted off your shoulders when all of your gears just become another gear, ready for instant deployment with a click.

In the rear the eTap’s carbon derailleur cage saves weight but doesn’t provide the solid ‘thunk’ that Shimano’s metal units do. Oddly, this makes it ‘feel’ a little cheaper. After a couple hundred miles you stop noticing this altogether.

There has been a lot of hand wringing over speed and reports that Di2 responds quicker. From my experience this is true. Pressing Di2 is like ‘zapping’ the derailleur to the next gear–it moves when you press the button down. SRAM’s buttons have a nice solid ‘click’ to them. Pressing them in is the ‘tick’, releasing them is the ‘tock’. You get your gear on the tock.

While the difference is noticeable, is also only milliseconds and completely irrelevant. For me the button size and logic makes my rides more enjoyable.

Compatibility

I was very excited to get my hands on this kit but like many others, I didn’t have the budget to buy a new bike with eTap as an OEM gruppo, or replace my entire drivetrain top-to-bottom with SRAM kit. After clearing an unnecessarily tall hurdle in a completely undocumented upgrade path from a 10sp Mavic wheel to an 11sp setup with eTap deraileur, I landed on this premium mix-n-match setup which runs like a dream:

  • SRAM eTap brake levers with Ciamillo Negative G brake calipers
  • SRAM eTap shifters with Shimano Dura-Ace 9000 crankset, 11sp chain and 11sp cassette

Even though the spacing and alignment is perfect, there is a little bit of growl from the top 4 titanium cogs in the rear. My current suspicion is that the Shimano gears are cut for the alignment provided by a Shimano sprung pivot derailleur instead of the yaw-angle of the SRAM derailleur. Once I wear out these cogs I may switch to SRAM to see if that makes a difference. Of course that will be quite a while as the Shimano stuff is extraordinarily durable, which is why I opted to keep it.

Recap

eTap is a tremendous feat of engineering and will materially change how every ride feels. You can mix-and-match parts and purchase only the minimum kit to save money and suffer no degradation in performance. This is what your life on eTap will look like:

etap-joy

Just Another Day in Lycra

Egg and cheese w/salt & pepper on a salt bagel. My heart may give out but the EMT’s will concur that today I had the legs.

Descending at 50+mph knowing that if it all to end right now that the impact crater would be epic.

Ascending Skyline knowing that if I were to throw up, I’d have to take one for the team and swallow it back. Bile had caloric value too.

Hopped behind a truck to draft and then noticed that he was going 15mph. Strava segment ruined…

Ran out of liquid. Almost as bad as running out of alcohol.

Leading a Virtual Ride on Zwift

My name is Aaron and I’m the ride leader for the Thursday night US Richmond Rally on zwift.com. Zwift is more than just great software that provides an engaging experience while riding indoors, it is also a tremendous community of riders from all around the world. Here are some tips I’ve compiled over this winter that I’ve found helpful when leading rides in this virtual world.

Photo Jan 28, 9 05 50 PM

Use voice-to-text

With drafting and real people at the controls virtual rides are very realistic but differ from the outdoors in a couple of important ways, namely reduced situational awareness and improved ability to communicate with riders around you. You get both the benefit (and requirement) of coaching your group throughout to keep them focused and together.

While I’m sure TeamSpeak and Discord are lovely, you have to presume the lowest common denominator. I don’t want to say everything twice so I only use the Zwift text feature on my phone app. I use my phone’s built-in speech-to-text translator so that I can give clear instructions quickly while riding at speed.

So far I’ve found ways to overcome most of the limitations. If I type urr or wwr my iPhone will capitalize it for me. I use shorthand for power—if I say “three point oh” I will get 3.0 on-screen which is desirable. Siri still hasn’t figured out that I “pedal” my bike rather than “peddle” it, though.

Speak as if you’re speaking to a first-timer

Presume that at least one rider in the group has never done this before. Make announcements before the ride so people know how long they have to get to the start line. Tell them where the start line is. For example, you will frequently have to pedal much further to get to the Richmond start than the drop-off point in Watopia.

Prepare riders for what’s ahead

I give riders a full rundown twice before the ride (more if I’m asked specific questions which I try to always answer) and once shortly after departing while everyone is getting situated.

Richmond is a particularly tricky course due to the hills. I make sure that everyone knows NOT to coast on the descent because the 40mph group will dust you if you let it go.

When climbing VERY small variances in power output lead to 30 second gaps quick. I am clear that the group WILL split and that this is OK. Stopping to regroup does not work but people are adaptable and can find others on the list with their ride abbreviation in it and get together to carry on.

Photo Jan 06, 8 13 11 PM

Be Present

One of the things I love about Scottie Weiss’ Wednesday Watopia Ride is that he is always present. If you’re in the first group you’ll always see him there at the right pace so you can gauge your efforts appropriately. A couple of times per lap he provides positive feedback for those in the group who are following the pace and working well together.

Since we can’t feel the wind in our hair and hear that guys super loud cassette ratchet you need to remind people of things that would be more obvious in the real world: “close those gaps to get your maximum draft effect!”, “the hills are coming up, make sure to watch your watts and take care of your neighbors”, “after this sprint the downhill is coming up, let’s ease up to 2.5 and stay tight”.

I try to be realistic about power. I don’t have a smart trainer but I know a lot of people do. I’m sure once your kicker whacks you on the hill it is going to take you a minute to get sorted and putting out the appropriate number of watts. I have recently just been calling out sustained watts that are beyond the group agreement.

After each ride I like to go into Strava and give everyone Kudos that came out. The Strava algorithm for determining that you rode with someone isn’t always perfect but it’s what we have. Its a little gesture to thank everyone for coming out and encourage them to return.

Make it fun

The ‘moderate’ rides are interesting because while they are slower than the races, they still attract a group that likes, as was said the other night, “a good gauntlet throwdown”. By lap 3 in Richmond you’re over an hour in so there is no harm in opening up the final hills to an all-out battle to the finish. It’s a great way to ensure that you feel like you got a workout as well as give everyone a goal for the following week. Similarly, WWR does a sprint finish on the flat Watopia course.

Ultimately the key to a good group ride is communication and engagement. A group ride brings together the best aspects of a spin class and virtual reality, passing the time quickly and giving you the feeling that you went somewhere together. This is already a lot of fun and will only get better as the software improves.

Ride on!

Life in a Bike Shop

Understanding That You Don’t Know Shit And Thriving

I don’t know it all as it pertains to bikes, women, beer; fuck, I’m still working on figuring out myself. I am functioning at a slightly higher level than your common ariolimax californicus aka “banana slug”. Slugs and service managers are the vuclanized glue/icky slime that binds the fabric of America together.

In most pursuits, we all know what we know and then maybe a little more. What those who tend to succeed understand is that, knowing too much and knowing enough tend to yield similar returns. Surrounding yourself with complimentary pieces is not only the wise way to get business done, but also lessens greatly the need to want to shoot innocent (and not so innocent) people in the face. In these days and times such displays of malcontent are frowned upon. Major news outlets eat that shit up, but shooting people in the face in general is bad for business. Finding good help without having a rep as a bike shop where people get shot in the face is hard enough in the best of markets.

Individual knowledge is just one part of what it takes to be successful in the bike shop biz. The collective experience of the group is what really makes a good shop, great and a service manager sane.

Musical Selections

“You just don’t expect to hear this type of music in a bike shop.” What the fuck is that? If you have a problem with Doris Day, we may not be the service department for you. We happen to have a very eclectic taste in music. Everything from “post-industrial Christian death metal, to ska-meringue, to country heartbreak-trap to the smooth and sultry sounds of the Jim Crow era. We mix it up. No standard faire retail selections here or traditional service department staples. We do on occasion play the Black Keys as we are contractually obligated to do so by the masons. When they’re not on that whole world domination/illuminati kick, they do appreciate systematically toppling strategic KOM Strava segments and ridding the world of those high cadence “Nancy-boy’s”.

TLC

“My bike needs a little tlc, you know a little tender loving care?” No shit on both counts. I can see that and I know what the acronym “tlc” stands for. This dumb look on my face is just a look. What I don’t see is a case of beer and a compelling enough reason as to why I should break away from from my xxx-rated match of “Fucked Up Words With Friends” to assist you. Alas it is my responsibility to help ensure that your time spent on the bike is as pleasant as possible.
So your GT mountain bike spent time in Syria infiltrating ISIS? Didn’t play out well? You can’t go over there with bean pies and a Final Call and think that you’ll be accepted. Wrong Muslims entirely, though I’m sure the pies were appreciated. Caliphate or not, everybody knows that bean pies are the shit.

Life in a Bike Shop

There’s No Crying In The Service Department

We in service are generally immune to your shared stories of inspiration. We are a cold-hearted lot.

“What’s your bikes malfunction private?!!!”

Then convention got tossed on it’s head. A customer who frequents the shop came in and told me just how much the other women on our ladies rides inspire her. They are supportive of one another and have developed a sisterhood from it. I think a tear began to form. I was genuinely moved and then I started thinking about the October beers again.

For The Love Of All Things Decent

Customer: “So this is how you want to run your business?”

Service Drone: “By providing you with information in order for you to make an informed decision? Yeah I think so…”

The customer is always right? Not in service. Your achievements in that strange world outside of our basement don’t qualify you to do my job, even though my uncanny skill to discern IPA’s from stouts does qualify me to do yours. Weird equation but more true than not.

It’s a cold world. Most of the time the customers and the techs working amicably together in order to satisfy one another’s needs. It gets steamy in service, but what happens in service stays in service except when someone feels it their duty to defile you on that internet thing. People “wrench and tell” all the time now. Societies on the skids.

In service you had better have a tough skin, because certain customers see you as the guy/gal that wants to pick their bones clean.

Customer: “I have a flat. Can you fix it?”

Service Drone: “Is it ok if we replace the 3 spokes that are missing as well? You’d be amazed at the performance gains from a wheel not just holding on for dear life.”

Customer: “I just need the flat fixed!” Your not gonna get the drop on me! I’m on to your game; see!!!”

Doing reputable work and helping to ensure your safety is pretty important to us. Legal ramifications aside, nobody in service wants anybody to do anything less than have a fantastic experience, get to work safely or engage in whatever the pursuit they see fit. Ripping people off isn’t part of the business model. We’re not getting rich doing this shit. Stand down irate customer, stand down…

Do You Fix Bikes?

Nope but our service team can make you a mean tiramisu. When your call was directed to us, the option on the outgoing message said, “service”.

I used to work at Tower Records during the time when grunge was king and the internet was just used to play the military grade version of Candy Crush. I used to get questions all the time about that song that has a “crushing guitar part and indecipherable lyrics”. I wanted to tell them that they just described half the songs on Sub-Pop and Dischord and to leave me alone because I was severely hungover, my flannel was itchy and making me highly irritated. Good times, good times…

What else would a service department do in a bike shop other than service bikes? The spectrum runs from people asking if we tap bb shell threads to asking if we have the technology to repair a flat on a 20″ bike. Now I’m severely sober, not itchy and perplexed. Can’t devote too much time to simple questions, gotta get ready for The X-Files reboot and cleaning the heads on my cassette player is a full-time gig.

Inadvertently Passing The Torch

Was out on a ride with my son on a hilly trail and inadvertently passed the torch. I told him to take point on the climbs because he was faster than I. I took the lead back on the descents because I can but watching him effortlessly pull away from me was bittersweet. Blood or no blood, I don’t like being outdone. I had to check that because he asked me if I wanted to hang out with him. I leap at these opportunities with my teenagers. There are still teachable moments out there like, to grip the saddle on the downhills with your thighs and picking your line before it picks you. Maybe not life lessons but if it helps him avoid a tree my job is done. That said I need to work on my power to weight to age to beer ratio.

Life in a Bike Store

Grease May Be The Word, But Not The Answer

Your bike isn’t an assault vehicle. It doesn’t work on crude. If your bike won’t shift its not because the chain longs for fossil products. Loving your chain doesn’t mean drowning it in muck. No tech wants to engulf themselves in a Exxon Valdez amount of sludge. There are some bikes that practically slide through the doors. If you see a tech grab the heavy gloves its not for extra care, its because they don’t want to spend 30 minutes scrubbing your grease, ball-sweat (or female equivalent) and everything else those magnets attract from their hands.

The Package

One thing that is a constant in the world of bicycle retail is the ever present chance to see some guy clicking through the store with his junk on display. The more experienced the rider the less the shame. Experienced riders however do understand that 2 seasons of hard riding kill off most kits. You can possibly get one extra fondo out of one if you religiously use light detergents and air dry. Newer riders show theirs off with an air of societal defiance. It’s a dick. We get it. It’s a big dick. Noted. Tie it up outside before you come in next time. We have a small store and space is at a premium.

Ladies click around the aisles as well, but somehow manage to not look as pathetic as guys. Women at least look tasteful. Snotty noses and sweat stains are totally welcomed. Shows a ride well ridden. With some of the guys its all dick and balls. Sometimes I want to remind dudes that we have children walking about. No need to add to their future therapeutic unresolved concerns.

“It’s Good To See You Again. Now Who The Fuck Are You?”

Nothing worse than the customer who visits seldomly yet expects you to remember everything about his last visit. Dude…I see a lot of people in a day and I used to smoke my fair share of pot. Please forgive me if I can’t discern your Trek 7.1 from the other 20 I’ve dealt with over the last week. Not that yours was taken any less seriously than anyone else’s but if your not a frequent shopper, have a kick-ass story, a total dick or Jesus Christ Himself, chances are it’s going to take a little something more than “remember me”, for me to actually remember you.

Life in a Bike Shop

The Unfortunate Return of The Man Purse

I by far am not the manliest of fellas. I think an Amaretto Sour is a fine drink and have learned to stomach Project Runway. Tim Gunns tough but fair. I also love Peggy Lee and don’t just watch “Orange Is The New Black” for the shower scenes. I really enjoy the character developments and Uzo Aduba “Crazy Eyes” is a brilliant actress.

All to say I don’t wear my testicles like little tributes of honor on my shoulders. Didn’t man-purses go away in the 80′s? I blame the European Union on this one. I have no basis for this accusation but economic unrest can lead to unforseen consequences. What honestly is wrong with the strapless wallet? Money clips are pretty bad-ass. I can’t even pawn this one off on the metro-sexuals. It’s bigger than them. The gentlemen that have carried them in (and thankfully out) of service have been totally cool, but what decent God-fearing American would accessorize them with their Lees?

Nobody Loves Campagnolo More Than Themselves

It’s the sexiest grupo on the planet, just ask them. I’ve never heard anyone talk with as much passion about a set of hubs as a Campy person. People dig Shimano components and appreciate SRAM but rarely talk orgasmically over them. Campys love-affair with itself makes is totally incompatible with any other component group. Its sorta like a pretty young lady rocking a 3.9 g.p.a. with no identifiable social skills. Exceptionally functional but a bore at mixers. To be fair every company worth its weight in ceramic bearings has a superiority complex. It’s healthy for business. Campagnolo has thought differently for years and in doing so has made some of the best components mechanickind has ever had to never hear the end of.

Better Off Alive

We see all types of bikes everyday from the luxurious to the practical. Every customer presents their own unique challenge. Every customer has a story and not always an audience to recieve it. In service the doctor is always in and the fee for unsolicited unqualified advice is always free.

I get stories about divorce, death of children, births of children, lifestyle changes, accomplishments, failures and all in the spate of writing up a job order for a flat change. Sometimes you want to give said person a hug and other times just a quote and a time of expectation. You cannot escape the human experience in the bike store and especially not in service. The alcohol in house is generally reserved for employee use only, but some days you just want to clear a space on the counter pass a guy a bottle and a shot glass and just keep the tab open. Understanding the human mind really isn’t my shtick but 44 years has taught me that in most cases we’re all just as lost as the next guy, but perspective like decent beer is everything.