SRAM Red eTAP Review

As noted yesterday, I recently had a chance to ride a new Trek Domane SLR with a SRAM Red eTAP 2×11 drivetrain.

eTap is SRAM’s new ‘wireless’ electronic drivetrain design.  I don’t know why wireless is in air quotes there–it truly is wireless.  The system works by having a compact lithium battery in each of the shifter paddles, and then detachable/rechargeable batteries on the front and rear derailleur.  The shifters and derailleurs are wirelessly linked–no cables, and no external batteries to mount.

This is the backside of the paddle–2 screws and you can access the (replaceable, but not rechargeable) lithium battery:

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Removal of the batteries is a cinch–there’s a flip-toggle on the top, and then they just pop right off.  It seems pretty secure, but easy to operate.  Batteries are interchangeable front to rear.

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The overall derailleur size is not hugely different from a Di2 derailleur–save for the battery on the back side.  Overall, the packaging is pretty elegant.
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So there are no cables relating to the drivetrain.  There are still (obviously) brake cables.

So how’s it work?

The first function of any drivetrain is to shift.  It could be a perfectly engineered system but if it shifts poorly, then it’s a waste of time to even consider.  The eTAP shifted well under all conditions.  I was impressed by the positive nature of the shift and the very comfortable, tactile feel of the shift-toggles.  Under power, coasting, pedaling gently–it accommodated any shift you attempted very aptly.  Shifting felt confidence inspiring.

This drivetrain was set up so that the right toggle shifted down (smaller cog/faster gear) and the left toggle shifted up (larger cog/slower gear).  Pressing both toggles shifted the front derailleur.  While I had never ridden a bike set up like that before, it was intuitive and easy to pick up.  The hoods were very comfortable and immediately fell to hand.

My only criticism on the shifting was the speed of executing shifts.  It was noticeably slower than a well-operating mechanical setup and noticeably slower than Di2.  Candidly I didn’t do any stopwatch timing, but I would have to estimate that it took about twice as long as Di2 to execute a single cassette gear shift.  For a non-racer, that shouldn’t really be a huge issue…but even for a non-racer, it was noticeable.  I spent more mental energy planning my shifts than I normally would, and if I was going to go out on a sprint, I had to plan further ahead for the shifts to occur.  Once sprinting, shifting took longer as well.  I’ve been spoiled by Di2 and the instantaneous nature of the shifting.  I don’t know if there are settings that can be customized to increase the speed of the shifting, but I can say that this was unexpected and unappreciated.

That said, I like the toggle design better than Shimano–no more searching for the right ‘up or down’ button–just one big toggle that you can hit with your gloved hands and have predictable results.  I know Di2 can be configured different ways, but I really liked the ‘one toggle per side’ setup on the SRAM.

So what about wired versus wireless?  All things being equal, I think most people would prefer wireless.  No snaking wires through the frame, no worrying about wires shorting out or rubbing through, no need for a Di2 compatible frameset (or ugly external wiring) etc.  My concern is on the reliability of wireless.  When riding with 100 other eTAP riders, will my shifters continue to function reliably?  What about with age?  Those are concerns that are presently just theoretical–it functioned perfectly and I have no reason to doubt SRAM’s development of the product…but I think it’s fair to say that most consumers will have at least a moment of that thought/concern.  I have a very good wireless router at home for my wi-fi, but I still have to screw with it occasionally to make everything work right.  The Di2 on my Madone has been flawless-a few years in, I’ve never even had to adjust the derailleur.  So on this point, I’ll say…if the wireless is perfectly stable, then I’d prefer the wireless.

Too soon to tell on reliability, but SRAM has done a lot to say that they’ve tested this and it’s reliable.  They have a lot riding on the durability of this drivetrain, as they’ve put their eggs wholly into the wireless basket, and they’ve had some high profile challenges with product reliability over the past few years.  I’m hopeful and cautiously optimistic that this will be a reliable product.

What about having to maintain 2 (or 4) batteries?  Well the compact Li-ion batteries in the shifters should last a long time, and are easy to swap.  The toggles have status lights that will tell you battery status, so you’re not left stranded.  The batteries on the derailleurs are the same size and are interchangeable.  Removal/installation is a breeze, and charging 2 batteries is not much more of a hassle than charging 1.  I don’t know what battery life will be like, obviously.  One significant advantage I see over Shimano is that the batteries are interchangeable.  If you forget to charge and go out on a ride, chances are that your rear derailleur will die first–and you can stop, swap front/rear batteries, and continue your ride with a 1x setup.  That’s a huge advantage over Shimano (which defaults to 1x when the battery starts dying, but from experience, it’s not a very long window that it continues to operate).

I also think it’s a big advantage to have the batteries be external and easily accessible.  Sure, you see them more…but if my Shimano battery ever has a problem, replacement is more of a pain.  It’s also more of a pain planning for a Di2 compatible bike that can hide the battery and wiring (as I hate the look of external Di2 batteries on bikes).

For some bikes, the eTap is a no-brainer.  Bikes that aren’t Di2 compatible?  Yessir.  Bikes for travel, folding bikes and tandems (where cables are either inconvenient to set up or less reliable because of long pull distances)?  Absolutely.  I would love to run a set of eTap on the Mandem some day–that bike is screaming for this drivetrain.

So let’s do the big question: if I was building a bike tomorrow, would I go Di2 or eTAP?  Well, first I’d look into whether the shifting speed can be adjusted.  I’d really like the shifting to be more responsive than it was–and I’m thinking that something had to have been off on this particular setup, as other reviews I have read have not had this concern.

But yes, if I was buying tomorrow, I’d go eTAP.  Everything I’ve read has praised the stability and durability, and there have not been problems with cross-communication across other bikes running them in group rides.  The wireless setup is a big plus in my mind–and it opens up a range of bikes to the benefits of electronic shifting, without the detriment of trying to retrofit wires and batteries.  The feel of the toggles was great–and single toggles are better than the small buttons on Shimano, to my taste, particularly if you’re riding in adverse conditions with gloves on.

Moreover as I said recently, I’m moving from being a Shimano guy to a SRAM guy, based on Shimano’s intolerable market practices.  So yes, if I was building a new drop bar bike tomorrow, I’d put eTAP on it.  Time will tell how the reliability stacks up–I’m optimistic as noted above.  In the interim, it’s a great advance in technology that really opens up a lot of new opportunities for elegant electronic shifting.

Now I just need to make friends with someone at SRAM for some longer-term testing on the Mandem…

 

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Trek Domane SLR Review

To Joel, see the disclaimers at the bottom, before you start reading.

My local bike shop, North Central Cyclery, just got in a brandy-spankin’ new Trek Domane SLR.  For those of you hiding under rocks, this is the new design that Fabian took to Paris-Roubaix last weekend.  The bike was fully kitted out with Aeolus 3 tubeless ready carbon clinchers, SRAM ETap Red 2×11, Bontrager’s new brakes, the new Bontrager ISOCore bar, 700x28c tires and, most importantly, the adjustable ISO-Speed rear dampener and ISO-speed front dampener.

As I wrote recently, a few years ago when the Domane came out, my biggest criticism was that the flex in the seatpost was fixed–for riders of different sizes, it was not adjustable.  The new adjustability built into the seatpost answers that criticism and, in my mind, makes this a more versatile bike.  But what about the dampener up front?  What would it ride like?

The new owners at NCC offered me a chance to test ride the bike and I jumped at the chance–always being one who is willing to try new technology.  And the chance to put someone else’s $11,000 bike through 25 or so miles–something I’m always willing to do.

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This is the new front decoupler:

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This is the bottom of the rear bottle cage bolts. Loosening this bolt allows you to adjust the ‘firmness’ of the seatpost and its flexibility. All you have to do is loosen this bolt:

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And then slide this piece up or down. It’s an easy adjustment, and one that I played with mid-ride. Adjusting it takes about 10 seconds.

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I appreciated this panel on the downtube, for those who decide to build with Di2 and want access for wiring, batteries, etc.

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Aeolus 3 TLR carbon clincher wheelset:

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SRAM Drivetrain

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Carbon IsoCore handlebars

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The whole shebang.

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So what’s it ride like? Low-hanging fruit first…

This was a 58cm (I normally ride a 56), set up with the bars pretty darn high.  I liked the geometry of the bike, and even liked the 58cm size, but I’d drop the bars down a lot for my personal use.

The Aeolus 3 TLR wheels were impressive.  They spun up quickly and rode very responsively.  They are competitively priced and weigh a reasonable amount for what they are.  I would have no hesitation about getting a set.  They do not have as much vertical dampening as my ZIPP 202s, and aren’t quite as stiff as my ENVE 3.4s, but they rode very nicely and acquitted themselves well.

I was not a fan of the ISOCore handlebar.  The technology in it was great–it did an admirable job of dampening jolts (along with the whole bike).  The problem for me was the shape.  The reach to the bottom of the drops was just too far.  The distance between the top of the bars and the drops was too long–I clearly prefer compact drops.

I’ll write about the SRAM Red E-Tap another day.

The bike was light–it felt as light as my Madone, even with the technology baked into this frameset.

The bike itself?  It’s a unique experience.  Under power, it is as efficient and stiff as my Madone.  It’s a remarkable design.  With the ‘flex’ fully stiff in the rear, it feels very much like the Madone–taking just a pinch of the edge off of sharp jolts.  With the ‘flex’ as soft as it will go, it is quite a bit softer than the last generation Domane.  For some reason, the flex feels better dampened–even set fully soft, it doesn’t bounce abnormally, regardless of cadence.  I tried both extremes, and then settled on a middle position, probably about 45% stiff, and found it to be great.  When I started out, I wanted to see what the dampening was like, so I pumped the 28c tires up to 115 psi to try to net them out of the equation.  It really works quite amazingly well.  As noted above, changing the dampening takes about 10 seconds (with a 4mm allen).

To try out the bike, I steered into some jolts, potholes, manholes and other obstacles that I’d normally avoid–at least as much as I felt comfortable doing on someone else’s $11k bike.  The system flatly works in taking out the jolt.  On rough surfaces, it does an incredible job, and on flat surfaces, it’s invisible.  Sprinting, it’s stiff and responsive–and quick.  Get in the saddle and spin, and there’s no saddle bob.  You start to trust it, and you can sit in the saddle and stay under power, even when you’re crossing bumps, expansion joints, etc.

Mid-ride, I went to the 45% stiff setting as indicated above, and dropped tire pressure down to about 85-ish PSI.  The ride was fantastic.  I have no constructive criticism about the ride quality for a bike of this nature.  It was palpably better than the Madone, across uneven surfaces.  It also did a better job absorbing chatter–like rough chipseal–than the Madone does.

What about the front?

First, I like the geometry of this bike better than I like the geometry of the old Domane.  It feels a bit racier up front than the old Domane.

Second, the front dampening system works–really well.  It has a pivot on bearings that only permits fore-aft movement, and even under hard cornering there is no evidence of lateral shift.  Hopefully the system has been tested enough that it will hold up and not develop lateral shift with wear.

Under normal, in the saddle pedaling efforts, all you notice is that when you hit a hard bump, it doesn’t seem as hard as it should.  Road chudder (crap-induced shudder) is greatly diminished.  You hit an expansion joint or sharp edge in the road and the system takes the edge off of it.  The design is great–it feels intuitive.  You still feel very connected to the road, and can feel what’s going on with tire traction even under hard efforts and adverse conditions, but it takes the sharpness of bumps off in a way that would make this a very comfortable bike to ride for long distances.

That said, there were a few times when I was riding hard, out of the saddle, and felt the front working in a disconcerting way.  I have a tendency to get long and low when sprinting, with more weight over the front than I probably should have.  Coming up on one sprint point in the ride, I was pushing hard, out of the saddle, weight over the bars, and hit a big expansion joint.  The movement of the front end was palpable, and as I had a lot of weight on my hands, it upset my balance a bit.  It was enough of a jolt to be scary, ever so briefly.  The bike’s stability was not upset, but mine was.

I tend to think that this problem was exacerbated by my poor sprinting body position (weight too far forward), and that with more time on the bike, I’d get used to it.  That said, it is something to be aware of and to account for if you pick up this bike and spend time on it.

25 miles was a nice amount of time to spend on the bike.  It certainly wasn’t living with it for years as I’ve done with the Madone, but it was a lot better than the “take a few spins around the block” that you often get with test-rides.

So the $11,000 question: would I get a Domane SLR?

If I was in the market for a top-of-the-line, large-manufacturer carbon road bike, this would definitely be on the short list.  I can’t think of another comparable bike right now that would be ahead of this.  It’s an incredible bike and has a lot of features that are unlike anything else on the market, and that function really well.  I’m hopeful that the technology trickles down the market.  I think the front dampening will catch on a bit, and won’t be a ‘one-off’ trend that we laugh about in 5 years…but we’ll see.

You may note that there are some important caveats above.  So the direct answer is no, I wouldn’t get a Domane SLR, even if I was shopping for a new road bike today.  Candidly, I’ve come to realize that $11k is a ridiculous amount of money for a bike, and there are bikes with 98% of this capacity (for what I do) at 25% of the price.  That’s not really a fair criticism, though.  That’s like test-driving a Ferrari and noting that for most drivers, a Honda will accomplish the same basic objectives for less money.  For a cost is no object mass-produced bike, the SLR is an accomplishment, and an incredible bike.  I’d be curious to see how the technology works on some of the lower priced new-generation Domanes, as that may be a more compelling value for riders looking for a new bike.  I can say I left the ride far more impressed by the Domane than I had anticipated.

From a practical perspective, the Domane answers the call of a rider who wants a high-end bike with the latest technology.  It also answers the call for someone who wants to have a road bike that can handle very light gravel/dirt roads and crappy pavement–and that’s an emerging market.  If you have the luxury of having 2 bikes, I’d still prefer a ‘pure’ road bike like my Madone, plus a ‘gravel’ or ‘all road’ bike like my Moots…but the Domane is an interesting ride and represents some amazing developments in bikes.

Disclaimers:

  1. No, I’m not getting a new road bike.  I’m very happy with my Madone 7 and don’t foresee replacing it for a long, long, long time.  Honestly, even with all of the technology on the Domane, there’s not enough of a leap to make a bike change worthwhile–when I’m riding mixed surfaces, I ride the Moots.  And no, I’m still not happy with Trek.  From a personal perspective, I still dislike their online sales module and feel that it’s a step in the wrong direction.  I know some dealers support it and others don’t–for me, I personally don’t like it, as I’ve written about.  So no, this is not a creeping trend back towards Trek love…it’ll take more from the company, and more experience to see how their online sales pan out, before I fall back into the fold.  I know many people have different viewpoints on that, but I’m voting with my dollars, and expressing my viewpoint.
  2. I’ve expressed some concern about the change in ownership of my local bike shop.  I don’t know the new owners well, but they seem really well-intentioned.  Handing off a $11k bike for a test ride is a pretty good show of faith on their part.  It’s hard because NCC was a home to me–I could go there and see my best friends.  I could go work from there.  I could go there for problems ranging from bike to personal.  I have hope about the future of the shop again, and I look forward to working with the new owners.

New Domane SLR-Criticism Answered

Trek just revealed their new Domane SLR, which is a departure from previous Domanes in two primary ways: 1) the compliance of the ISO-Speed coupler in the seat tube is adjustable; and, 2) there is now an ISO-Speed coupler in the head tube.  There is also a new handlebar design intended to mitigate vibration, but that’s not specific to this frame.

Trek is selling the adjustable compliance as allowing a rider to tune their bike to specific conditions.  Riding flat pavement?  Less compliance.  Riding pavé or cobbles?  More compliance.  That may be totally true, for riders that will see a lot of varied surfaces on the bike.  From my perspective, however, this addresses one of my biggest criticisms of the Domane from my first real riding of this bike back in 2013.  Here were my thoughts back then:

The other issue is that of the seatpost tuning.  With a full-suspension mountain bike, you can adjust the shock pressure and valving to meet your particular needs.  When I, at 150 pounds, ride my Spearfish, I run a certain pressure.  If a 200 pound rider got on it, they would need more pressure and more dampening.  The Domane seatpost is ‘tuned’ to one spec, and cannot be adjusted.  Let me say at the outset: the tune that they gave it works well for a variety of riders.  But if you’re at either extreme of the weight spectrum, it may be a ‘try before you buy’ situation.  Trek maintains that there is not a weight limit for the Domane–that’s probably self-limiting.  I would be curious to see how the bike reacts to a 300 pound rider–there would be a lot of seatpost deflection.  Perhaps too much.

At my weight, there were a couple big hits that I took where it felt as though the seatpost was loading up and then bucking me a bit…kind of like a spring without a shock to dampen the oscillation.  The Carbon does a good job of dampening hits–don’t get me wrong, it’s good–but there were at least a couple of bumps where I had a weird sensation that I was being thrown, rather than getting a compliant ride.  Here’s the important disclaimer, though: I had that sensation because I was in the saddle, hitting big bumps on a road bike.  Had I been on a Madone, I would not have had that feeling, because I would never be in the saddle, on a Madone, on a similar bump.  The compliance of the Domane lets you stay in the saddle on bumps that you would otherwise stand for.  That is 99% good–but once in the while, it leads to odd results.

In response to that concern/criticism, I had offered the following proposal:

I wonder if we will eventually get to a point where the technology permits rider-tuning.  The seatpost is already decoupled at the top-tube/seatstay junction.  What if you decoupled the seatpost at the BB, and allowed the rider to select different seat posts?  (Some sort of mechanical joint at the BB that could be disconnected–perhaps a second pivot point?)  You could have thinner/thicker seatposts, or different modulus carbon, to accommodate different conditions (comfort vs. crit) or to accommodate different rider weights, just like riders can tune a FS mountain bike, or can select a different seatpost on a bike.  Or in the alternative, the ‘seatmast’ could be mounted as it is on the Domane, and you could have super long ‘seatpost’ inserts that would extend well down into the bike frame, and allow you to tune the responsiveness of the bike (again by changing seattube thickness and modulus).  There are some interesting opportunities here, for this technology to grow.  Imagine a Domane that you could make super-rigid for a crit, and super-compliant for a ride on the cobbles, just by swapping the seatpost.

Now, three years later, we are at that point.  Trek’s solution is far more eloquent than changing out seat posts.  By moving the ‘dampening slide’ on the frame, they can accomplish the objective of adjusting the vertical compliance without having interchangeable parts or greater complexity.  That is a fantastic solution.  (Don’t get me wrong…I don’t think Trek made this change to answer my criticism, but I think it’s a great change).

In my mind, from my time in the saddle on a Domane, the biggest weakness was that a ‘one size fits all’ compliance setting was ineffective for different size riders.  I view the new adjustability of the seat tube coupler not so much as “different compliance for different roads” (although that could be of occasional benefit), but rather more importantly as “different compliance for different size riders.”  That is a brilliant upgrade.

Regarding the steerer ISO-Speed, time will tell if that’s a good idea or not.  The Domane I rode had a palpably slower steering setup than a Madone, which made for a longer wheelbase, more forgiving handling, and more vertical compliance.  If the ISO-Speed coupler allows for racier handling and the compliance, that could be a win-win.  My only concern is that the ISO-Speed will lead to wonky handling or a disconnected feeling in the front.  Hopefully Trek has engineered this enough to iron out any wrinkles like that.

The top of the line Domane SLR retails for $10k, and includes SRAM e-TAP.  I realize that for electronic shifting, eTAP is all that SRAM offers–a decision I do not fully understand.  Given my druthers, I’d prefer to have a wired electronic shifting system (a la Di2) on a standard bike, so as to only have to maintain and charge one battery, and so as to not have to worry about wireless connectivity.  From what I’ve heard, SRAM has it pretty well sorted, so I’ll look forward to seeing more about their system.  And to be clear, for alternative setups or frames that do not lend themselves to wired electronic shifting (e.g. tandems), eTAP makes perfect sense.

Hopefully at some point, I’ll get some saddle time in on a new Domane and will be able to report back if the changes are a worthwhile update to the technology.

Manufacturers Alliance for Development Equality, Unity and Professionalism

Some exciting news to share today.

You’re hearing it here first, but very shortly, there will be press releases from a host of major bike industry manufacturers, announcing the results of the first-ever Manufacturers Alliance for Development, Equality, Unity and Professionalism conference. The conference, held largely in secret to permit open and honest discussion across the bike industry, was focused on developing some industry-wide tenets that could be broadly adopted and supported, to improve the quality of cycling for all, while allowing technological progress and product diversity.  More specific details will be announced in their official press releases later this month, but here are the high points:

  1. Adoption of Unified Standards:  By type, bike manufacturers will adopt unified development standards.  Road bikes will be using a unified tapered steerer design, BB90 bottom brackets, and consistent dropout width.  27.5″ and 29″ mountain bikes are going to Boost front and rear, with consistent disc brake mounting standards and hardware sizing.  The fatbike standard is yet to be agreed upon, but everyone does agree that it will be uniform.  Across the spectrum, dropout spacing, BB standards, fork standards and similar issues will be standardized by bike type, to favor consumer interests.
  2. Distribution Networks:  Major manufacturers are agreeing that their distribution will be consistent throughout the marketplace, with equal purchase terms for all of their dealers and distributors (instead of engaging in practices that drive local bike shops out of business).
  3. Helmet Recycling Program:  Acknowledging the need to regularly replace helmets, manufacturers will announce a helmet replacement program wherein helmets that are a few years old and in need of replacement can be traded-in to be recycled, and new (replacement) helmets will be sold at a significant discount to encourage safe riding.
  4. Gender Equality:  Professional riding teams will be sponsored on a gender-neutral basis, with even investment in technology and support, equal sponsorship, equal payouts, and equal media coverage.  Major stage races will include mens’ and womens’ divisions, with racing on the same courses on the same days to ensure equal treatment.
  5. Advertising/Editorial Standards:  Manufacturers have agreed that they will not attempt to pressure industry publications to change their reviews or editorial positions by exerting influence through advertising dollars.  Publications have agreed that they will not attempt to extort demo products by suggesting that giving their employees free kit will result in greater coverage and more favorable reviews.
  6. Zero Tolerance for Doping:  Rather than relying on individual countries for doping controls relating to their riders, in whom they have a clear interest, a uniform set of doping standards will be enforced by an international anti-doping commission, with neutral testing agencies.  Those caught cheating through the use of performance enhancing drugs will face bans that render the practice untenable and unattractive.  Those who inadvertently and in good faith run afoul of drug prohibitions relating to medications that do not truly offer any performance advantage will not be penalized, but rather will be educated and given an opportunity to conform to the universal standards.  Changes in the standards will be clearly broadcast, and athletes who wish to participate can obtain a free review of any medications that they propose to take, to ensure compliance with doping standards.
  7. Fair Business Practices:  Major manufacturers have agreed to adopt reasonable approaches to intellectual property, and have agreed to both commit to avoiding unnecessarily punitive approaches to small businesses, and also to mediation of major disputes to reduce costs and allow for a more equitable outcome.

These are exciting days, and I look forward to more information to be forthcoming in the next few weeks.  For now, the MADEUP initiatives represent a rational, common sense approach to the bike industry that advances the interests of all cyclists.