Salsa Horsethief Split Pivot

Of late, I’ve had a good opportunity to put some miles on the Horsethief that I picked up this year.  Mine is a Horsethief Carbon GX1.  It’s predominantly a stock build, which consists of Sram GX1 1×11 drivetrain, Sram Guide R brakes, Sram Roam 30 wheels, Schwalbe Nobby Nic 29×2.3 tires…my non-stock additions have been a Thomson dropper post (with stealth routing) and a set of ENVE RSR carbon handlebars that I had laying around.  I’m also using an Ergon SM3 Pro saddle as per my standard practice.

I also picked up a set of Stan’s Hugo wheels and WTB Badger 27.5×3 tires, as shown in the pictures.  My Sram/Schwalbe 29er combo is set up tubeless, the 27.5+ combo is set up with tubes (although both are tubeless capable).
IMG_5016 Lots of tire clearance with the 27.5+ setup. IMG_5018

IMG_5021 Salsa’s surprisingly good lock-on grips: IMG_5022

Cable routing for the Thomson (more details below):

IMG_5023 Front cable view. The tension adjuster is on the Thomson. IMG_5025

Downtube housing view. Note the crossover where the Thomson routing comes from the right side of the headtube and goes to the left side of the seattube.

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IMG_5029 Nice dropper post ‘stealth’ port on the seattube. IMG_5030

IMG_5031 Fox 34 IMG_5032

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Overall impression is that I love the bike.  It’s incredibly capable.  The Split Pivot suspension does everything I remember from test rides–it doesn’t have undue sag or pedal bounce, it climbs like a goat, and it has excellent small and large bump compliance.

The Fox 34 fork has been a pleasant surprise.  It is noticeably more rigid than the 32mm standard fork I last had–it feels as rigid as either the Carbon Lefty or the RS-1 that my two previous mountain bikes had.  In candor, it is not quite as buttery smooth as the RS-1 on small bump compliance…but that said, the Fox 34 is far more progressive.  The RS-1 didn’t really ramp up as much in spring rate as the Fox.  On hard landings, the Fox is smoother/gentler at the end of travel than the RS-1.  The RS-1 was amazing–and surgical in its steering precision–but I’m not missing it.  The Fox also has 130mm of travel, which when combined with the slackness of the Horsethief makes for a very confident bike.  You can point this bike up or down anything, and feel fully in control.

The Sram drivetrain and brakes have been great thus far.  The GX1 shifts ably and confidently under all conditions.  It isn’t quite the “rifle bolt” feeling of the XTR 1x I used to have, but it comes in considerably less expensive, and it’s from a company that I am willing to support.  I haven’t had any issues of any kind with it–it shifts nicely, and the derailleur has prevented event a hint of chain slap thus far.  I also really, really like the ‘derailleur lockout button’ on Sram that allows you to lock the derailleur forward to take away chain tension for wheel swaps.

The Guide brakes have been perfect.  No noises, no issues, no problems adjusting.  Trued the rotors and went.  The Thief has a larger rotor up front than in the rear–which is a new experience for me.  Coupled with the excellent modulation of the Guides, it allows for great precision in braking.  The oversized front rotor really helps make the brakes feel balanced front to rear.  The rear rotor isn’t “undersized,” either–when you want to haul down the brakes or pivot the rear end through a corner, it’s got you covered.  The brake levers are nicely adjustable and work perfectly for single-finger control.

The Salsa lock-on grips are surprisingly good.  When I first started mountain biking, my hands would hurt.  I tried big ‘ergonomic’ Ergon grips and found that it only made things worse.  With time, I’ve realized that sticky lock-on grips, coupled with not using a death grip on the bars is the recipe for happy hands.

I’m still getting used to the geometry, but the BB feels a bit lower than I had expected.  From time to time, I have an unanticipated pedal strike.  Other than that, the geo feels perfect.

The Thomson dropper post merits some comment as well.  The first one I had didn’t work. The stealth adapter doohickey was broken out of the box.  It looked normal, but didn’t do anything.  Thomson dropped one in the mail to me the day I called (great service), and the replacement adapter worked perfectly.  The post works great–it has great modulation and control up or down, and because it is cable actuated, there is no bleeding to worry about.  The last dropper I had was hydro, and caused issues every few months.

The Thief is well-configured for stealth routing, with external cabling on the downtube, and a stealth port on the seattube.  I do need to come up with some cable management up front, as the cables slap and make an annoying sound on chattery surfaces.  My only concern/criticism about the Thomson so far (other than the annoyance of a broken part fresh out of the box) is the cable routing out of the control.  The control itself is great–a quality part, CNC’d to perfection.  But the cable goes straight forward out of it.  In a crash, I have a feeling it will not fare well.  As I’ve looked at Crank Brothers’ new dropper post, their cable routing makes a lot more sense out of the control, and is far more crash protected.  We’ll see how this holds up.

The ENVE carbon bars are great as always–and do a good job of cutting down vibration that would otherwise lead to hand and upper body fatigue.

So the $10,000 question: how does it compare to the Fuel?  For purposes of this comparison, I’ll compare the Fuel to the Thief in 29er mode.

The wheels are palpably heavier on the Thief.  I wish I had a set of ENVEs on it.  The Thief is a bit heavier overall–but shockingly, the delta is not that great.  Other than the wheels, it isn’t noticeable.  The Thief feels more confident up front, when pointing up or down hills.  The extra travel and slacker angles help out a great deal.  The Thief also feels more stable on tight switchbacks.  Comparing XTR brakes to Sram Guide, I don’t have a preference–both are perfect.  Comparing XTR 1x to Sram GX 1x (which isn’t really an apples to apples comparison), both have the same level of perfection in their function, but the Shimano drivetrain feels better (more mechanical and more precise) getting there.  I prefer the Thomson dropper to the Rockshox dropper that the Fuel had.

The Thief feels like it has more travel front and rear–it feels more trail oriented.  I think a lot of that is the difference in the front end–with the Thief being more confident up front.  If I had both sitting there and could pick one, which would it be?  In a ‘money no object’ world–wait, no.  We’re in the real world.  In the real world, at MSRP, the Fuel would cost more than double what the Thief cost, and there’s just no way that it’s worth it.  In the real world, the Fuel does not offer double the capability.  Frankly, even if cost were not an object, I have a hard time finding merit in the Fuel that the Thief doesn’t have, other than the ENVE wheels and swanky paint.  The Thief is an incredible bike with a great spec for actually riding.  I don’t miss the Fuel, and don’t feel like I lost any capability.

Thus far, it’s an incredible bike, and I’m looking forward to more time on it.

Chips and Salsa.

I write today with a frown.

Why?  Probably because I overreact a bit.  But it’s because of this.  If you click through, you’ll see that it’s an article from Bicycle Retailer and Industry News about how Salsa is going to start selling bikes through REI.

You know that thing where you get a new bike, and love it, and ride it, and love it, and then one day you see the first chip in the paint?  That’s where I’m at.  That first frustrating chip in the paint.

Earlier this week, I spent quite a bit of time in the saddle on the Horsethief, and I’ve been working on some writing about it.  I went for the Horsethief because I didn’t want a Trek (with their migration towards online sales), and because I really wanted to get a bike from a company that had the LBS ethos that I support.  I now find myself regretting that decision–or at least second guessing it.  I’m in that position not because the ‘thief is a bad bike.  Far from it, the ‘thief is amazing.  No, I’m in that position because I fundamentally do not want to support a company that is pivoting away from local bike shops.

In the article, Salsa indicates that they believe that this move will benefit local bike shops in the long-run.  I’m sure that this is the answer that has to be provided in response to a concern about LBS–but I’m not certain that it is true.  Salsa is starting with 11 stores…”starting small.”  But when REI sells out of their purchase for 2017 (and they will, because Salsas are great bikes), REI will come back and want to make a bigger purchase for 2018.  And if REI, with 145 stores and a massive online presence, wants to buy 10,000 bikes, versus a LBS that wants to buy 20…well, which order would you fulfill first if you were a profit-minded company?  For that matter, how long until REI is selling Salsa online…and then how long until they’re getting sold on Backcountry and the like?  When REI puts the Salsas on clearance at the end of the season, what will their pricing be?  And for that matter, will Salsa sell 10,000 bikes to REI at the same price that they sell 20 to a LBS…or will this become akin to Shimano, where volume equals discount?  If Salsa can sell to REI for cash, will it make sense to sell to LBS that have to buy on credit?

I love REI–I’ve been a member for many years.  It’s a great store and a great resource.  But quite frankly, they just don’t know bikes.  I’ve talked to their bike employees and they simply don’t know what they’re doing.  I’ve watched them work on bikes.  I’ve watched them assemble bikes.  I visit the bike department in ever REI I go to, from Chicago to Denver, because I’m a bike person.  The experience is uniform–they are a retail store that also sells bikes.

Salsa is, at least to some extent, a niche manufacturer.  Recognizing the subtle differences between their drop bar frames–one oriented more towards touring, one towards gravel, one towards endurance, etc….it requires some diligent study.  But that’s their allure.  That’s their calling.  The Cutthroat was designed to fill one very specific need.  It’s not the right bike for all applications.  The distinction between the Spearfish and Horsethief–obvious to people that study bike specs, but not so obvious to the mainstream REI consumer.  So this move will result in the dilution of Salsa’s uniqueness and their specific appeal.

I sound all retro-grouch here.  And I know a lot of people that work at Salsa…so who am I to begrudge their success?  If they can start selling at major retailers and greatly increase sales volume, that should be awesome, no?  Maybe they can spend even more on R&D and develop even more amazing bikes.  Maybe this will ultimately benefit riders–maybe it will ultimately benefit me.

But it will not benefit local bike shops.  I’m more curmudgeonly this past year than ever before, because I’ve seen the impact that having a strong LBS can have on a cycling community, and I’ve seen the impact of losing a strong LBS.  I vividly remember many times that people in Chicagoland would drive out to DeKalb to buy a Salsa at ‘the old’ NCC…because NCC was the Salsa rep in the area.  That helped drive NCC’s success and viability.  With the significant changes at NCC, they are no longer one of the few Salsa dealers in the area–a number of other shops are on board now–and I suspect that will affect NCC’s long-term profitability and viability.  But if REI was selling Salsa 5 years ago, in Chicagoland, how much different would that have been?

There are swaths of the country that don’t have an REI…and this move is starting with only 11 REI stores.  But that’s the start.  If the REI experiment is successful, would Salsa restrict sales to REI, or will this trend grow?  Salsa is a for-profit company–this trend will grow.

And so if they are for-profit, why on earth wouldn’t they sell through REI?

The challenge of that rhetorical question is all of the things that you can put after the comma.  Salsa has had a unique appeal to me because of their culture and ethos.  Because they’ve been a “big little company.”  Because they have been such staunch supporters of LBS and local events.  Because their demo events are as much about their people as about their bikes.  Because of the relationships that you build–where you get to know the regional Salsa rep through your LBS, and you feel good about working with them.  If Salsa doesn’t need those things to sell bikes, then why do those things?  Or if you still do those things, do they change?  If the Chicago REI starts selling Salsas and they sell 200 a year, will REI do a bike demo there, or with another area shop that sells 30 a year?  If they are for-profit, which makes more sense?

Sometimes, when you get that first chip in the paint, it’s just one chip.  One little mark of character that doesn’t affect anything else.  But sometimes, that little chip becomes an entree into corrosion that can start affecting the whole frame.  You start to see the paint bubble up around it, and it spreads like blight.  We’ll see which this is.

Crank Brothers Highline Dropper Post

I haven’t seen this in person yet or ridden it, but I’m excited about it.  Here’s the news from Pinkbike.

Based on bad experiences with hydro droppers, I think the cable-actuated makes sense. (It’s also nice that they can be modulated more than hydro versions).
More importantly, it looks like Crank Brothers have put a lot of thought into the design of the actuator lever, and allow for a reasonable installation. While I like my Thomson a lot, I’m frustrated that the cable is designed to come straight forward out of the actuator lever, and has to make a 90 degree turn to go across the front of the bike, and then another 90 to go to the back. This Crank Brothers design is more elegant, and also better protected from trail damage.
 
As far as “only” 125mm of travel, that’s all I need for my purposes…when I’ve had more, I’ve used a limiting collar to reduce travel and allow for hitting known comfortable positions.  Some may need more for different terrain, and that’s great–but to me, 125mm is not a disadvantage.
I do recall the days of the Joplin dropper by CB, and I had a Joplin on my first “real” MTB.  Actually, I had a couple Joplins on there, through warranty replacements.  The last one I had worked admirably for a long time, and is still on that bike to this date.  I’m guessing that CB has done a lot of testing on the Highline to avoid any repeat of Joplin syndrome.
I look forward to checking out the new dropper at some point in the future.

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.