ZIPP Firecrest 202 Tubeless Review Update

Just about exactly 6 months ago, I posted about my then-new ZIPP Firecrest 202 wheels.  A reader wrote in and asked for an update on how those have worked out in the interim.

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In a word? Flawlessly.

While not “officially rated” as tubeless wheels, the ZIPPS have proven to be one of the best setups I’ve ever used.  As noted in the setup post, I ran 2 layers of tubeless tape in them.  I’m not sure if it’s the 2 layers, or just the wheels, but they hold air better than just about any tubeless setup I’ve ever used.  If I pump the tires to 50psi, they will hold above 45psi a month and a half later.  It’s allowed me to get lazy about tire pressure checks–pump once a month, and do a ‘finger test’ before riding.

I’ve run them at pretty extremely low pressures too–this winter I had some days I was running 30 up front and 32 in the rear.  The rear CX0 wasn’t pleased (a lot of sidewall deflection), but I had no issues with the wheels, or with burping, etc.  I typically run about 40 front and 45 rear, which is a nice combination for all surfaces.  For rides that will be more hard surface, I bump the pressure up 5-10psi front and rear.

The wheels are as true as the day I bought them, even after some pretty rough rides, challenging conditions, and CX Singletrack.

From an riding perspective, the ZIPPs remain as great as when I started with them.  The aerodynamics are palpable–particularly in cornering winds, where they perform admirably.  In heavy sidewinds, the ZIPPs are about as stable as the ENVE 29XCs, and more stable than the ENVE SMART 3.4s I have on my road bike.  (By “stable”, I mean resistant to crosswinds pushing you around the road.  As a lighter rider, that is sometimes a challenge for me on deeper section wheels).

The ZIPPs have a great ride–they are very direct steering, but have more vertical ‘give’ than my ENVEs.  That’s not a bad thing–it is some pleasant vertical compliance that helps on rough surfaces.  They are predictable and solid otherwise.

About the only criticism I have of the ZIPPs is the hubs.  I’m used to excellent DT240 hubs on my ENVE wheels.  The ZIPP hubs are palpably less stiff.  I haven’t been able to figure out why, but in hard turns on high-traction surfaces, I’m getting brake rotor rub with the ZIPPs, as if there is deflection in the rear triangle.  This wasn’t an issue with the ENVEs, and while it seems weird, the setup is about identical.  I’ve chased the rotor alignment and shape and there’s no problems there–it seems to be that the rotor is moving slightly from the deflection of the hard turn, and as the bike and brakes haven’t changed, I’m attributing that to the hubs.  (And no, adjusting the tightness or brand of the skewers does nothing).

In any event, I’ve been very, very pleased with the ZIPPs.  I would not trust them on the Mandem, as they are not heavy enough for that purpose…but for a solo gravel, CX or road rig, these are fantastic.

The Culling of the Herd

It’s been an interesting few months here at RATG headquarters.

At one point, I had the Madone, the Moots, the Vaya, the Trek Fuel, the Beargrease, the Big Dummy, the Brompton, the Tandem, a singlespeed mountain bike, and the Trek 770, all cohabiting in the garage.

The Trek 770 departed because I felt I had garnered as much as could be garnered from that experience.  The singlespeed departed because I don’t really remember why.  But for a long time, the balance of the bikes were all there.

I’ve done a lot of reevaluating of priorities–how much time I spend in the saddle, how much resources I am willing to allocate to bikes, how much I need to and want to allocate to other things in my life.  I came back to loving riding because of riding, not because of the need to get in my 4th ride of the week to make some training plan–and that’s been good.  But I also came back to a little realism about my bike needs and wants.

I really like having a good roadbike–for solo rides, for group rides, for gorgeous summer days on back country blacktop, for heartbreaking sprints and lung-crushing pulls in the wind.  Here in IL, that means skinny tires (23-28c), aggressive riding position, rim brakes.

I really like having a (dare I say it) “gravel bike” or “mixed surface bike”–for gravel, limestone, grass, b-roads, winter/bad weather riding, and all-road adventures.  It’s also nice to be able to throw on a rack and some panniers for longer-duration adventures.

And I really have come to enjoy mountain biking in the spring/summer/fall.  So that’s three bikes that I’d really like to have.

You may observe the notable absence of fat bikes on the list.  True.  So here’s the deal–the past few years have not been fatbike friendly in IL.  Really, I’m not sure IL is such a great fatbike state.  Yes–you can ride fat bikes anywhere, any time.  Duly noted.  They are fun.  But we don’t have dunes in my area (and if I’m traveling, I’d prefer to find single track)…so that leaves snow.  In 1-3 inches of snow, candidly, a strong rider on a mountain bike with 2″ tires can keep up with fat bikes on non-marathon rides.  The 2-3 hour group rides we do here?  Not a problem.  With my cold weather hand and foot circulation issues, I’m not signing up for 200 mile fatbike expeditions, anyhow.  In 6+ inches of snow, fat bikes get hung up unless it’s total powder or there are groomed tracks (and in total powder, again, aggressive 2″ tires can do a world of wonder).  So there’s a very narrow range where fat bikes are a necessity for the type of riding I do.  That is not a general indictment of fat bikes–they’re awesome for a lot of things.  But as I came down to defending my bike choices, the fattie didn’t have a lot speaking for it.

I’ve spent some time on 3.8″ tires.  I’ve spent a ton of time on 4″, 4.7″ and 5″ tires.  I feel pretty confident in saying that in any kind of dense or wet snow, when you get deeper than 5″ of sustained snow, a fatbike isn’t going to do much without grooming…even at low single-digit, tubeless tire pressures.

I’ve also seen the wonderful things that studded tires can do in shallower snow, on icey rivers, and on dicey roads.  And so, I came to make some choices.

The Madone stays in the garage–it’s about as nice as road bikes come, and I’m very happy to have it.  Sure, it has a inexplicable chip in the paint on the drive side chainstay, but it’s a wonderful bike.

The Moots meets all of my all-road criteria (though I wish it would fit more than a 35c in the rear).  And it’s my Moots.

Everything else ended up going.  (Except the tandem, because tandem).

The Big Dummy, which used to be my daughter’s favorite for going on daddy-daughter rides was relegated to a dusty corner of the garage once she mastered two wheels.  It’s more fun riding alongside her, and seeing her progress, than it is to pull her around…and I don’t live close enough to town to make grocery store runs realistic.

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The Brompton, which is such an amazing bike and piece of idiosyncratic piece of technology, came into my life with great expectations.  But my commutes are too far to reasonably Brompton, and when I have meetings at different locations, they too are typically too far spread to make it possible to use.  That, and I’m a sweater.  Even an easy lunch run on the Brompton would have me returning to the office a bit too soggy in July.

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The Fuel–I love that bike–was just a bit obscene sitting in my garage.  I decided I didn’t want that much capital tied up in one bike, even though it is an amazing, ultimate, fantastic machine.  Nothing wrong with the bike at all–just the concept of that much money sitting on two wheels that only have one purpose.

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The Beargrease.  A bike I loved and hated.  I loved it for snow biking.  I loved it for lazy trolls on gravel roads.  I loved it for how light it was, despite its looks.  I loved it for the ride quality.  I hated it when I tried to take it on single track, as the expedition-worthy geometry lead to school-bus handling.  I hated it for the memories of spending untold hours on it freezing my ass off, training for races that I wouldn’t complete.  I hated it for the memories of hours spent in the saddle with friends that have moved on, or that have also reevaluated their priorities.  I loved the bike, but decided it didn’t meet the criteria for staying in the garage.

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And the Vaya.  My dear, sweet Vaya.  The first real bike I ever owned, and the first bike that was built up from a frame, with a mix of hand-selected components.  The Vaya was a vision.  I walked into this shop I was just starting to know, and talked about wanting to build a bike for gravel and all roads out there.  With a ti frame, because it lasts forever.  And then the carbon fork, and the handbuilt wheels, and the sweetpost, and this and that. The moments of glory and personal satisfaction that the Vaya gave me–the moments of utter suffering.  Finishing the Gravel Metric one year and not remembering anything from the turn on Gurler until I awoke in a cold shower in the basement of NCC.

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But I didn’t get the Vaya out for gravel rides now–it was always too clean, and the Moots is faster and more comfortable.  And I didn’t get it out for the road–there’s the Madone.  I got it out for casual rides with my daughter–a purpose that could easily be accomplished by any other bike in the garage.  And I came to accept that I didn’t need to have the Vaya to keep the experiences I had on it.  I don’t need a trophy on the wall, or a dusty bike on a shelf, to remind me of what I’ve done and where I’ve been.  It isn’t the one that got away.  I sold it and haven’t looked back.  I loved it, I used it to its fullest potential, and now it lives in a home that loves it as much as I do.  I’ll never again have another bike like the Vaya, just as I’ll never again have the same experiences I had on it.  But the new bikes, and the new experiences–they can be just as good.

So then there’s this hole in my equations here, for something mountain bike like.  And I started looking and looking and looking.  I didn’t want Shimano or Trek, because I really do mean what I type.  I didn’t want Specialized because–oh come on now.  We’re not doing that again.  From my time on a lot of different bikes, I wanted slack-ish handling, full-suspension, 120-ish MM of travel, good compliance without pedal bob, a 34mm fork, a 1x drivetrain, stealth dropper post routing for a cable-actuated dropper….and a 29er format.  I’ve ridden 27.5, and understand the benefits, but for a rider who is still learning technical skills, 29 gives a ‘roll over stuff’ ability that 27.5 can’t touch.

So then I was thinking about it, and thinking that I wanted to get some studded tires for the 29er, so I could use it in the winter, too.

And then I thought about it, and remembered that there are 29er bikes that can also wear 3-3.5″ 27.5+ tires.

And then I thought about a 29er with a set of winter 27.5+ tires running plus-sized, studded tires.  My heart found bliss.  My head found a Horsethief.

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Fox 34 fork with 130mm up front, 120mm in rear.  Sram 1×11 drivetrain and brakes.  The split pivot wünder suspension.  Stealth routing.  Carbon frame, aluminum stays.  Nice component spec.  All the good things…and boost spacing front and rear, with easy clearance for 27.5+ tires up to 3″ (and candidly, based on the look in the frame, maybe 3.5″).  Remember that just about 5 years ago, 3.8″ tires were the fattest fatties on planet fat, and we were all mind-blown when the 4.7″ big fat larry was released.  A Horsethief checked all the boxes.

And it checked one box not yet mentioned–it’s a Salsa.  It feels really good coming home to Salsa.  It’s a company I believe in and want to support.  It’s a company still focused on riders and experiences, rather than profiteering.

So the herd was culled, and only three remained.  The Madone, the Moots, and that new steed in the corner: the Horsethief.  He’s unknown still–his mettle untested.  But I have a feeling that he’s going to be a good one.

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…

 

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.

 

Why I’m saying Yes to SRAM and No to Shimano.

I recently came across this amazing article, explaining Shimano’s current marketing practices from a dealer perspective.  As a bike shop consumer, I had heard some similar complaints (albeit not as detailed) from friends who work in the bike industry.  I highly recommend clicking through, but in essence, the complaint is that Shimano sells bike parts, in bulk, to online resellers that buy in huge volumes.  The discounts that Shimano gives those high volume resellers are so significant that the online resellers can sell Shimano parts for less than the wholesale cost that brick and mortar stores pay.

In other words, a brick and mortar store’s cost to buy Shimano components is more expensive than the customer can buy the parts for online (not to mention free shipping and no sales tax).

So a customer has the choice of spending $150 to buy a component online, or going to the bike shop…but the bike shop has to pay $165 for the same part (their cost), and then pay to light, heat and man their store, and then charge sales tax on top of it all…so they end up charging $200 when it’s all said and done.

Capitalism!  Free Market Economy! you shout.  Shortsightedness! I respond.

Those consumers that buy the components online…where do they get the components installed?  Sure, some self-install, but a great many do not–where do they go?  And if a part breaks, where do they go for warranty service?  Do you think they’re shipping stuff back to sleazybikeparts.com, or do you think they’re going to their local bike shop and complaining?

Separately, does Shimano think that most customers will pay 30% more to buy locally, rather than having parts dropped at their doorsteps?  Buying online is cheaper and often faster and more convenient, in terms of getting the parts in your hands.  Shimano’s discount practices not only ensure that online parts are cheaper–they make it impossible for a local bike shop to compete in the marketplace.  So what’s the long-term result of this?  Is it anything other than forcing local bike shops out of business?  Does Shimano really believe that LBS’ can stay afloat just charging for the price to install parts that customers buy elsewhere online?

The end result is to push the margins of LBS tighter, to drive up service costs, and to generate more unhappy consumers.  The end result is to push more LBS out of business.  Service and repair industries are fundamentally based on providing the service–and the parts–necessary to keep a product operational.  Profit is made (hopefully) on both components of the transaction.  Taking away product sales by making LBS prohibitively priced in comparison to online retailers cuts one of the bike shop repair business’ two legs off.  So what does that mean?

That means, for me, a return to SRAM.  Candidly, I’ve viewed Shimano parts as often being superior to SRAM in the past, based on a few not-great experiences with SRAM.  But the actions of Shimano undercut my values so sharply that I don’t wish to support them any longer.  Where it’s practical to do so prospectively, my business is going to SRAM.  For the same reasons that I don’t wish to support bike brands that undercut their dealer chain by selling bikes direct online, I don’t wish to support bike brands that undercut their dealer chain by driving sales online in an indirect fashion.

So long, Shimano.