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The Torqued Wrench: Enter the Thunderdome

  • By Caley Fretz
  • Published Feb. 21, 2012
  • Updated Mar. 14, 2012 at 8:25 AM EDT

The Torqued Wrench is a look inside the mind of VeloNews.com tech writer Caley Fretz. Every other week he’ll tackle the rumors, trends, innovations, and underpinnings of the tech world — or something else entirely. You can submit questions to TorquedWrench@competitorgroup.com.

Competition is at the soul of innovation, a modern vestige of our drive to survive manifested in the push to excel — and profit. In cycling, the battle for your wallet is the stimulus for a continuously improving ride experience. In short, you ride a better bike today than you did ten years ago largely thanks to the cycling industry’s love of money. Or maybe you don’t, but only because you love your own cash even more.

Nowhere has this become more evident than in the war of the drivetrains, a collection of parts fundamentally identical in function yet thoroughly divergent in method. On a relative scale, all the current groups do roughly the same thing, roughly as well as any other, so the war comes down to tiny details, personal preferences, and cost considerations.

What has changed in the last few years is the addition of a whole new way to shift: with batteries. Again, the end result is the same, but a number of crucial details change the experience considerably, and are therefore worth exploring. We have touched on the subject a number of times, but the introduction of SRAM’s new mechanical Red and Shimano’s cheaper Ultegra Di2 has once again altered the landscape.

SRAM is, for now anyway, sticking to its mechanical guns and has debuted a product it believes can take on the electronic systems. Shimano quite obviously believes the opposite, and Campagnolo seems to be headed down the same road as their Japanese rivals. So the battle, at least for now, is between the batteries of Shimano and Campagnolo, and SRAM’s unremittingly finger-powered Red group.

So should you go with an electronic group? Or stick with mechanical? Well, to be all obtuse and annoying about it: that depends.

The answer hangs on your budget, on what features you find most attractive, on your personal ergonomic preferences and on your personal beliefs regarding the use of external power to replace even the smallest quantity of human power.

For those concerned with cash above all, the solution is simple. The cheapest electronic group is Ultegra Di2, which still runs about $2500 at full retail and comes almost exclusively on bikes over $4,000, usually closer to $6,000. Red peaks at $2500, and all three manufacturers offer mechanical groups that are significantly cheaper.

For those most concerned with weight, the response is equally simple. The lightest electronic group is Campagnolo’s insanely expensive Super Record EPS at 2,098 grams. SRAM’s new Red group comes in at 1739 grams, a full 359 grams lighter, or a bit over three-quarters of a pound. Ultegra Di2, the heaviest electronic group, gains a whopping 743 grams, or the equivalent of an entire Cervélo R5CA frame.

If absolute shift quality is the primary concern, electronic wins out. Di2’s front shifting is still the best available, by a pretty decent margin, and the rear shifting of all four electronic groups is perhaps best described as impeccably predictable. It simply works, every time. No fiddling, no adjusting; just set and forget.

Campagnolo EPS front shifting sits just behind Di2, followed by the new SRAM Red group, Shimano 7900, and Campagnolo Record. With the update to Red, the front shifting quality of the top three mechanical groups is now so tightly packed that it becomes a useless metric, except against the still superior electronic groups.

Rear shifting isn’t so easy to sort. A mechanical system with properly routed and uncontaminated cables and housing can match any of the electronic groups. Red feels like the quickest shifter of the bunch, largely thanks to its short lever throw. But if you time a shift from its actual initiation, or when the cable is taken in or let out, all the top groups end up nearly identical. (And yes, I wasted an afternoon doing this with a video camera.) So, rear shifting is essentially a draw, except that electronic systems will never run into contamination issues.

Want 11 speeds? Campagnolo of any sort is your only option at the moment, though Shimano looks like it will be adding a gear with its upcoming 9000 group this summer. Want hydraulic disc or rim brakes? SRAM looks like it will be the first to market, there.

But that’s all the easy part. Figures and data are easy to sort relative to your own ideals, and I’m sure everything I’ve written above can be found with a few Google searches. More difficult to parse out are all the more idiosyncratic details; hood ergonomics, shift response, and ease of maintenance impact your day-to-day riding. Here, it’s the tiny details that make all the difference.

All four electronic groups provide a more muted shift sensation than their mechanical cousins. The click just isn’t as dramatic. However, Campagnolo’s electronic buttons offer a much better response than the Di2 buttons. Added resistance results in a more perceptible shift actuation, even with big gloves, and feels much closer to the wonderfully solid shift response found on regular Super Record or Record groupsets.

SRAM and Campagnolo mechanical systems have the most positive shift sensation by quite a margin. Shimano’s mechanical systems have a softer feel, and Di2 is the softest of them all.

Personally, I find Di2’s shift button response to be dreadful. With even mildly thick gloves it is difficult to tell when I’ve shifted or which button I’ve pushed, and even with no gloves at all the buttons themselves are feel squishy and cheap.

But, I have always been a fan of a solid shift response; where another writer may describe Di2’s shifting as “effortless,” I call it mushy and muted to the point of non-existence. Consider your own personal preferences. For example, lots of people love softer shift feel, I’m just not one of them. React accordingly.

What Shimano does have going for it, both over EPS and over every mechanical group, is the use of multiple shift locations. Shift buttons on the tops, and the sprint shifters on the drops, both add excellent ergonomic functionality. This is a feature that can’t be touched by anything else on the market, and it alone sends Di2 near the top of the pile.

In its own crack at added functionality, Campagnolo is still the only company that offers the ability to drop multiple cogs with a single stroke of the lever, both in their mechanical and EPS groups. With EPS, just hold the button down and the derailleur continues to shift over.

SRAM can’t add additional shift locations or multiple-cog drops. What it can boast is the some of the best lever feel and shift response available, perhaps tied with Record and Super Record. That short lever throw is fantastic when the going gets rough — it enables you to simply whack the side of the shifter and drop a cog. The feature is great for sprinters, but the Double-Tap system is a double edged sword: when attempting to climb up a clog, failing to push the lever far enough results in a shift to a harder gear, rather than just no shift at all as with Shimano or Campagnolo.

Campagnolo’s thumb lever, which remains in the same spot for both mechanical and EPS groups, is difficult to reach with certain bars and hood-height preferences, or if you have tiny thumbs. SRAM’s levers seem to work best for small hands due to the aforementioned short lever throw, and Shimano’s for large hands due to length of lever throw and the size of the hood itself.

The question of battery life is not even worth mentioning, because Di2 and EPS batteries last so incredibly long. However, it is worth noting that the Dura-Ace Di2 system is easily hacked for a third party battery, placed in a seatpost or otherwise hidden away. Ultegra Di2 is a bit more difficult to modify thanks to a new wiring harness, and EPS is almost impossible because the brains of the whole system sit in the battery case. The EPS battery is therefore not only much larger, but also much more difficult to hide and modify.

Hoping for a final decision? An absolute winner? Sorry, I can’t really provide one. As I circle the various features of these groups around in my head, I keep coming back to that same annoying phrase I used to start this whole mini-review off: it depends.

Functionally, Di2 and EPS are at the top of the heap. But they are expensive, and heavier, and tiny details like shift button feel need to be addressed. They are in their infancy, though, and will only continue to improve over the next few years. Today, the new Red group, 7900 and mechanical Super Record can hold their own. But in three or four years, I can’t imagine any finger-powered group still putting in a bid for the top.

FILED UNDER: Bikes and Tech / The Torqued Wrench TAGS: / / / / /

Caley Fretz

Caley Fretz

Tech Editor Caley Fretz can usually be found chasing races along the backroads of Europe or testing bikes and gear in the mountains outside Boulder, Colorado. If you can't find him there, check the coffee shop across from VN World Headquarters.

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