Category Archives: News

SRAM eTap Review

tldr;

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

Tour of the Battenkill Race Report

You don’t bother to shave for The Tour of The Battenkill. It is long, cold and dirty. This is the race you’ve been saving your Paul Bunyan jersey and that extra bottle of man-up for.

Battenkill is the largest amateur race in America and is often considered the hardest. It is 62 miles over the hills and through the dirt of upstate New York out in the middle of nowhere. Despite the remote nature it attracts a huge number of cyclists from around the country and the world. The Cat 4 field in which I raced was broken into 6 fields for safety.

With trickle-down economics finally hitting the budget minded traveler (think spas and other anemities appearing in cheap hotels) it almost came as a surprise to me that motels still exist. My family and I decided to keep things reasonable we would go budget on the first night and use some of that extra money for a post-race splurge on day two in Saratoga Springs a couple of towns over.

While our first night was no-frills to the extreme, there is something that is still very comforting about walking into a toasty warm room from a cold, dark  night in the shadows of the mountains in Vermont.

Hello Governor.

The Battenkill race literally takes over Cambridge. Unfortunately you have to walk from one end of town to the other to register which is 20 minutes each way from the parking lot. I know, I know, why wouldn’t I just bike there to save time? I brought my family and wanted to make sure they knew where everything was while I was out racing.

This was strategic error #1. I gave myself what would be more than enough time to prepare for any other normal race, but not a full hour which is what would have been needed for a relaxed round trip to get my numbers and set up my bike. As it turned out I had to run back to the car, hastily put everything together and race to the start line without my GoPro or a 2nd bottle of water.

I still missed the start by 3 minutes.

Luckily it was a neutral start. I charged up the road and got my “warm up” in by chasing the peloton at 28mph, catching them just before the pace car turned off and the real racing began.

It had rained the night before the race which left a damp heaviness in the air and a softness to the dirt sections. You wouldn’t have known it, though, the boys out front were pulling 27mph over the spongy, potholed gravel. The speed and rocks shed a third of the group straight away. I felt bad for those who got flats early on. There will be too much carnage up the road to simply accept your “DNF” and call it a day. No. You wait for the service car, take your free wheel, climb back on your horse and ride!

There was quite a bit of chatter in the parking lot about what psi to run your tires at. The general consensus was to go light — 105psi otherwise you’d spin out on the dirt sections. Since I knew the dirt would be wet and offer a little more traction I went with a relatively high 110 and it worked like a charm. No flats, good traction, and excellent rolling on the pavement.

Some delicious Cambridge, NY mud

So there I was, feeling surprisingly good and taking some pulls with the lead pack through the first feed zone where I made strategic error #2.

I had this feeling that there wouldn’t be any food so I loaded up my jersey pockets with everything I thought I would need before the race–mostly the super-low viscosity PowerBar Gel which still flows through flasks even when cold, as well as a few granola bars.

As our group pulled in my suspicion was confirmed: food was only being handed out by coaches of larger, organized teams. Not a problem but what’s this? The water is bottled water? As in: I have to ride no-handed to use two hands to break a safety seal and try to pour the shit into my bottle-cage-sized bottle while the peloton pulls away? Yeah! I guess so!

Since my water gauge was reading “E” rolling through was not an option. I did what looked like a jester’s juggling act which resulted in 3/4 of a tank and 15 lost places in the standings.

It was early in the race and I still had plenty of gas left so I dropped the hammer once I had my water situated and managed to catch a few guys who got dropped from the lead pack. We were also joined by some riders from behind who had better luck in the feeding zone. New temporary alliances formed and we charged ahead. Some speed was attained. Scenery was glanced at. There seemed to be more dirt than the course map suggested.

Photo Credit E. Glading http://www.flickr.com/photos/eglading/

Photo Credit: E. Glading

At the amateur level there is no such thing as gentlemen’s rules. You apparently don’t slow down in the feed zone to keep your group together to fend off others. You don’t wait for a strong racer who dropped a chain. You plow ahead with absolute tunnel vision, gnashing your teeth and fighting for that finish line which is still many miles away.

The second food stop had proper water bottles but the jerks in my pack didn’t take anything and pedaled straight through — I lost another dozen places despite literally grabbing a bottle, drinking it while pedaling, and tossing it to the side of the road.

Riding solo now I was better able to take in some of the scenery, and appreciate the great work of the organizers to have police at every intersection allowing the smooth passage of the riders. I thanked many of them as I rode by.

By mile 50 most riders left on the road that weren’t in that lead pack were shelled. There was no organization or groups to be seen. Just ragged individuals struggling to keep the pedals turning. I started to make some places back and passed some riders I knew were in a field that left 5 minutes ahead of us.

A moment of fierceness on one of the dirt climbs

On one of the last dirt climbs my right quad gave out and I gave it an on-bike massage but had to remain seated for the duration in order to keep it from re-cramping.

Once free of the dirt the lead group from race group behind ours rolled through looking far too fresh so I hitched a ride for a few miles and crossed the finish line feeling pretty good, all things considered. The results were nothing to write home about but I think I had learned enough to improve my position should I choose to return in the future.

After catching up with a bunch of riders who were also up from NYC, including the crew at CiS we had to jump in the car for the second half of our weekend because if you’ve put yourself through the brutality that is Battenkill you kind of owe it to yourself to go hit the spa in Saratoga Springs to restore those aching muscles.

Saratoga Springs has a long history that I won’t bore you with here, but they love horses and as their name suggests, they are situated on top of naturally occurring springs. Depending on the rock and the gasses that may be present, each of the springs is unique; some are naturally carbonated and others taste like the cool mountain streams that you see in water commercials on television.

Using a hand-drawn map of the town my family and I went on a natural springs treasure hunt. The water flows freely around the clock and you can drink the water from all of the springs in town.

The main attraction for me, of course, was the hot mineral baths at The Roosevelt Spa in the Saratoga Spa State Park. The water is brown due to the minerals, is slightly effervescent and served at body temperature. It smelled like iron and cilantro. The spa provides you with a warmed towel when your bath is over. It is heaven.

Then you will want to have dinner. Being Not-New-York(City) the vegetarian options are limited but there if you look. My wife and I found a great mushroom risotto at Scallions which was hearty and delicious.

In keeping with our theme of variety and adventure, I would say the year is off to a good start.

###

Charts and graphs viewable at Garmin

2009 Race Results Tracker

This season’s top-10 finishes are listed here. There is a lot of racing left this year so check back for updates!

Tour of New York
June 13th, 2009
• 8th Place, Aaron Deutsch (Cat 4)

Al Toefield Memorial Race
July 18, 2009
• 8th Place, Lorenzo Brown (Cat 5)

Cadence Cup Race 6
August 1, 2009
• 6th Place, Aaron Deutsch (Cat 4)

Mt. Washington Hillclimb
August 15, 2009
• Aaron Deutsch time: 1:33:37