PEZ TEST: SRAM’s FORCE Is With Us
If you’re in a hurry – I’ll cut to the chase: Does it work? Yes. Does it work well? Yes. Maybe I’m steppin’ out on a limb here, but I’ll say the new SRAM gruppos are gonna be the rage at Interbike this year. At last consumers have a choice beyond the big two, and PEZ Fans know we’re big on choice… Here’s our close-up look at the SRAM Force group set.
IT’S A COMPLETE SET!
For the first time in a long time, a new kid on the groupset block just might stick around – I’m betting they do – if the Force group set I’ve been riding for the past 3 months has any say in the matter.
The complete SRAM Force gruppo comes with everything you see here (clockwise from top left): crankset (53/39 available now, compact coming soon), external bearing bottom bracket, rear derailleur, front derailleur, shifter levers, cables, brakes, cassette body (fits Shimano hub body), and chain. (Batteries not included… or needed for that matter.)
I’m pretty sure there’s nothing wrong with what’s already on your bike – both Shimano and Campy make excellent gear and have been responsible for some huge advancements in cycling tech over the years. But the neat thing about SRAM’s entry to the gruppo market is their gear is good enough to compete, and different enough to offer a legit choice.
This ’06 Bianchi 928 DiLuca Replica made a nice place to attach the Force group set, but Look for SRAM gruppos to appear on some 2007 Bianchis. (Click the thumb at top for the BIG view.)
I was pretty stoked when SRAM pr honch Michael Zellman called me up and actually offered to come to my house to install a complete group set on my bike. No lie! And when someone drops his competitors with so much enthusiasm – I was happy to jump on his wheel and go for a ride.
Fortunately I’d just taken delivery of a brand new ’06 Bianchi 928 all carbon Di Luca Replica frame and fork that was in need of a worthy gruppo. The complete install took Michael around 3-4 hours in the freshly cleaned up PEZ HQ workshop – and presto – I was ready to ride. But we’ll get to that later…
The signature piece of the gruppo has to be the shifter/brake levers. They’re SRAM’s biggest point of difference, the item you’ll notice most when riding, and what’s been getting most of the attention since the launch in Spring. And fair enough – they’re well thought out and offer some cool features that go beyond just the shifting action.
• Shifting Action – By now you’ve probably seen SRAM’s ads extolling the virtues of the new ‘Double Tap’ system, but judging by the number of guys on my Saturday ride who ask how the shifting works – it bears another explanation. Shifting of both front and rear derailleurs is lever actuated, by the single inner lever on both the right and left sides of the bars. The cool thing is that the same directional movement of the lever allows for gear changes in both directions (up and down).
Shifting is easy on both the right and left sides. All you gotta do is push that lever over 1 click to upshift, or 2 clicks to downshift.
• The shift action is simple – to shift the rear cogs you push the lever over 1 click to upshift – the actual shift happens on the return movement of the lever, which releases the derailleur to jump to the next smaller cog. To downshift you push it in the same direction, but push it over two clicks to downshift to larger cogs – this movement essentially ‘pushes’ the rear derailleur to the next larger cog.
I noticed the arc of the lever during the shift was a closer match to my hand’s natural arc around the handlebar, so it seemed easier for my fingers to maintain contact with the lever during a shift. This is great for guys whose fingers don’t have a long reach, while guys with longer finger reach might not notice this as much.
The left side lever shifts the front derailleur, while the right side shifts the rear gears. (Jeepers Wally, why don’t you tell me something I don’t know?)
So – to shift up (to a taller gear) on the cogset, you push the front right lever inwards a short distance until you hear one click and on the return, – ka-chunk – you’ve just shifted up one cog. Upshifting can be as fast as your fingers release the lever – and SRAM tells us their internal mechanism actually makes the gear change happen slightly faster than Shimamo’s mech. I didn’t do a direct comparison, but I can tell you the SRAM shifts plenty fast.
To shift down to a lower (climbing) gear – you push the lever in the same direction – but this time you push past the first click until you hear a second click – chunk-ka – you’ve just changed to one gear lower. The further you push the lever, the more gears you can change in a single sweep – 3 was the most jumps I made, but I’ve heard of guys getting 4 gears from one shift.
It’s this movement that inspired SRAM’s “Will You Make The Leap” ad slogan and website url (WillYouMakeTheLeap.com), as part of the mechanism inside the shifter hops over another to make the down shifts.
• Sprint Shifting – Another very cool shifting feature that sprinters will love – is the ability to upshift the rear cogs while your hand is in full-grip in the drops. It works like this – you’re into the sprint – in your drops and ready to wind it up – but you know you’ll want a gear (or 3) more when the sprint really winds up. With the shift lever gripped into your wrist (see above), you can snap-shift up by flicking your wrist to the inside (think the opposite direction of twisting the throttle on a motorbike). Each snap of your wrist shifts up one gear – all the while you’re still in full control with both hands gripping the drops.
The Front Shifter lever also moves in one direction for all shifts. So to go from inner ring to big ring, you just push the lever to the inside again, and you’ll feel it click past one feathered ‘middle’ position, and then onto the final placement above the big ring as you push the derailleur into place.
Unlike Campy which offers 3 ‘trim’ positions between small and big rings, the Force front derailleur offers just one – which proved to be all I needed for smooth operation – SRAM figures why complicate matters with too many choices? SRAM’s spacing is a tiny bit different, which makes for less need to trim.
To shift back down from the big ring, it’s a repeat of the motion, but you push the lever to the inside (again in the same direction) for just one click, and bam – the derailleur snaps back to its original position over the inner ring.
Does It Work?
The whole shifting procedure is way simpler than the number of words I’ve used to describe it would suggest – and if you still don’t get it – then 5 minutes on the bike is all you should need to figure it out. Once dialed in – which was easy thanks to their ‘Exact Actuation’ adjustments (more on that below), the system performed flawlessly – just what I expect from a brand with SRAM’s reputation. Shifting gears is easy and exact. The only shift I blew was due to my own operator error – and that was only once.
That little ridge running down the outside of each lever is perfect to hook your fingers onto, allowing braking from a wider variety of hand positions, and with just your finger tips.
• Lever Shape
After a few weeks of riding the system, I can say my favourite feature is the shape of the brake levers. Finally, here’s a lever that is easy to reach for smaller hands (without modifying adjustments or adding spacers), and allows for superior grip and control. To be clear – the reach to the levers is not any shorter than the other guys, but the lever shape allows for more positive contact between finger tips and levers.
The levers sweep to the outside more than others, so you don’t have to reach around the front of the bars as much to find ‘em – they actually curve out generously to meet your hand. Second – and this is the genius part – they’ve shaped the levers with a ridge that runs along the outside edge where your fingers first make contact. The beauty of the ‘ridge’- is that it allows you to actually get a grip on the lever – strong enough for secure actuation – without having full finger contact around the lever. The ridge allows your fingers to ‘hook’ onto the lever and keeps ‘em from slipping off way better than the other guys.
The one complaint we’ve heard is also with shape, but of the shift levers. The shift lever could use a little more of a finger catching grove or ridge, as some riders report that their fingers slip off the shifting paddles when gearing down (the movement to the larger cogs where you can take more than one or two gears) more than a gear at a time. As the lever moves further from your fingers, there is a less pronounced ridge than we hope future versions will have.
The hood shape offers a lower profile than Shimano, but a fatter grip than Campy, and the internal cable routing keeps the front end nice and clean looking.
• Hood Shape
The hood design is another point of superiority in my book. Like Campy, the cables run internally – great if you like clean lines like I do. The ‘pistol grip’ shape is bigger than Campy though, and I liked the more secure feeling hand position. I do like Campy’s low profile design, but found that even with my smaller hands I’d often wish for a bigger area to hold on to, without the threat of my hands slipping over those nubs at the top. Compared to Shimano’s hoods, The SRAM’s set up in a much lower profile – again offering a more sleek design, but sacrificing none of the security of a nice big love-handle.
Cable replacement is easy too – brake cables slide out from this hole in the top of the lever (like Campy) and shifter cables are easily accessed from a side hole concealed under the rubber hood. I had to unwrap my bars and remove the cable housing to replace the front derailleur cable, but SRAM reports others have changed the cables without untaping.
Anyone with an mtb background (like me) will remember SRAM’s entry in the shifter market back in the 1990’s with their GripShift. The system worked well and gained a solid following over the years, and evolved nicely to a well-earned place in the mtb component arena. Their big point of difference was the 1:1 actuation ratio – 1mm of cable pull at the handlebar equaled 1mm of cable pull at the derailleur, which made for easy adjustment under the more extreme conditions of riding off-road.
SRAM’s road system is called “Exact Actuation” and works the same way (basically a 1:1 actuation ratio). This set up offers a wider range for dial in – so alignment errors are easier to reduce, meaning the derailleurs effectively stay in tune longer than other systems might. In my experience, a well maintained bike usually doesn’t require a lot of ‘tuning’, but this could make a difference for some riders.
The Front Derailleur has clean lines consistent with the other parts of the group set, and a slightly wider cage that eliminates the need for more than one ‘trim’ position between the inner and big rings.
The Rear Derailleur barrel adjuster is the same as found on the brake calipers, and is large and super-easy to adjust.
SRAM’s Exact Actuation rear derailleurs feature a large, strong return spring, which works well providing quick positive upshifts, but doesn’t overpower your hand on the downshift. The rear derailleur uses a two-spring system that maintains less play and a more fixed position, reportedly allowing for more precise interaction of the system.
The rear shifter cable routes through a channel before getting clamped, reducing cable-pull on the clamp bolt itself. Nice touch.
• Like every piece of the FORCE Gruppo, the brakes are a clean attractive design – nothing evolutionary, but a sound design that works well. To aid in wheel changes, the breaks release via the small lever similar to Shimano.
The actuating spring is big and beefy, and slightly offset from center, but easily actuated thanks to the design of the cable-pull through the levers.
One set of calipers weighs in at 140 grams by my scale – which makes them competitive with Shimano and Campy (I weighed a corresponding set of Campy Record at 137grams), but not so close to guys like M5, Zero Gravity, and AX.
SRAM has also developed their own compound for the brake pads Overall I found the system pretty powerful – it felt as good as anything and better than some – confidence inspiring braking for sure.
Changing the break pads could be easier though. Each pad requires the removal of a tiny screw that holds the pad in place – similar to Shimano’s pin. Getting access to this screw on the front brakes was a pain – unless I pulled the whole assembly off the bike.
CRANKSET & BOTTOM BRACKET
The cranks are carbon with an aluminum spine, and are currently offered in 53/39 config, with compact versions of 50/36 and 50/34 on the way (the factory is making them now). Personally, I found the shape and finish top-notch – the arms are sleek and stylishly finished in carbon weave – and looked especially trick as they matched the carbon weave on the forks of the Bianchi 928 Di Luca replica I built up.
The cranks are actually made by SRAM-owned Truvativ, and they felt as good anything I’ve ridden, and given Truvativ’s pedigree building cranks – my expectations were up there – and fully satisfied.
• The crankset is a two-piece design with a hollow spindle, that look great and function as you’d expect coming from SRAM-Owned Truvativ. The external bearing BB is darn-close to being industry-standard these days (if it isn’t, it will be soon).
The whole set-up performed flawlessly for me over two full months of testing, with nary a creak, crack, or groan. In month 3 (when my knees finally filed a formal protest from pushing the bigger gears), I swapped out the Force cranks for a set of Truvativ Compacts that bolted straight through the BB – and I’ve still had no noise from the bottom end.
• The cogset features SRAM’s 10-speed ‘OpenGlide’ design, which basically removes one tooth from each cog in the top 6 gears (11 12 13 14 15 17 on my 11-26 cogset). This point is where the actual shift takes place and performed as it should with no trouble. Cogsets available now are 11-26, with 12-26 and 11-23 coming soon. The cogsets fit a Shimano hub body.
SRAM’s own chain features their ‘PowerLock’ connecting link, which requires no tools to connect your chain. It’s designed to stay put once in place, but extra links are available in case you need to remove and re-install your chain.
The force group will look even better on your bike – so get out there and ride!
LIKE I SAID BEFORE
Overall the entire groupset performs like it should – very well. And fair enough – to compete in the once exclusive domain of big the guys, you gotta be at least as good. I also like that SRAM does a few things better – but these are also areas of my personal preference:
• I really liked the brake lever shape which gives me a more positive and secure feeling when braking.
• The shifting action is solid and positive all around – both through the levers and at the cogs and chainrings.
• Internal cable routing keeps the front end clean looking.
• Braking action was strong and confidence inspiring.
• Overall appearance is clean and solid – I liked it.
The new groups have been spec’d on over 90 different brands, so chances are you’ll be seeing it soon. But more than anything, I think the appeal is to riders who like a choice, and now can choose a system that combines a lot of what Campy and Shimano each do well into one group. To say any one system is better than the others would be misleading, they all work very well, and each offers points of difference that will appeal to different riders. But SRAM has done their homework and have stepped onto the playing field with a groupset that is impressive and stands toe to toe with its larger competitors.
Price: Force Group Set – US $1650, Rival Group Set – $1020
• SRAM Website: WillYouMakeTheLeap.com
Note: if you have other experiences with gear, or something to add, drop us a line. We don’t claim to know everything (we just imply it at times). Give us a pat on the back if you like the reviews, or a slap in the head if you feel the need!
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