BACKGROUND -- By now, if you're into cycling, you've heard of SRAM's new road groups. Force and Rival are now available in a bike shop near you, if they can get them. I've just taken delivery of a 2007 DBR Podium 5, and it was equipped with the SRAM stuff, all Rival except a Force rear derailleur. I can only presume this switch is for marketing purposes, since there aren't any differences between the two groups apart from materials. With about 200 miles on the system so far, I'll give my initial impressions on the stuff. You'll hear back from me at 1,000 miles.
I think SRAM has their marketing approach pretty nailed; it's clear that this is a well thought-out strategy. I'll leave off on the business end of it all for the moment, except to say this: SRAM has one very, very good shot at this, so they'd better get it right. Unlike most markets, where an established leader is hard to dislodge by sheer inertia, SRAM almost has a prebuilt niche. Since before your reviewer owned a road bike, there have only been two options for complete road component groups, and people have been clamoring for something that is not Shimano or Campagnolo, just to be different. SRAM, with the name recognition it's already gained from its off-road pedigree, is perfectly positioned to jump into that demand. But it needs to be available, both as parts and on stock bikes, it needs a presence in professional racing, and, most of all, it needs to work.
THE SHORT VERSION -- Yes, it works quite nicely. It's well thought-out, a ground-up project, and everything is in its place, although aesthetics clearly took a back seat to function in its development. Clearly, only the essentials have been released so far, and its reliability has yet to be tested. But, if everything holds up and if it's all there then SRAM is going to be a major player for some time.
SHIFTERS and DERAILLEURS -- The heart and soul of the group. Without shifters, they've got nothing. Other manufacturers make individual road components that do well, even at the high end, from newcomers FSA's cranks, bars, and headsets, to old standbys like Stronglight and Mavic reduced to odd bits like superlight cranks or brakes. But no one else has successfully managed the technical and patent hurdles to produce an integrated brake / shift lever that works well. You've probably heard the basics of SRAM's Doubletap system. There's the brake lever, and behind it is the shift lever. There's one lever only for upshifts and downshifts: tap it slightly to release cable, push it in to take up cable.
The Force and Rival levers, identical save for the use of carbon and magnesium in Force where there is polished aluminum in Rival, impressed me in person more than in theory. They're slick. Every bit of them has the heck engineered out of it: the right and left levers are differential, canted outward to fit the curve of your hands. SRAM says it's inspired by fighter jet controls. My hands, accustomed to hours of resting on Campagnolo hoods, aren't quite sure what to make of the neutral handshake of the Rival levers, but I think it will become more comfortable as I get used to it. I appreciate that the brake levers are single-purpose. The sideways swing of Shimano's STI has always annoyed me. The cables both route neatly under the handlebar tape, like Campagnolo; there are no exposed cables. The "clean space" behind the levers really works. Most racers typically ride with one or two fingers hooked over the front of the brake lever, and the rest tucked behind it. The SRAM levers' cutout backs have enough clearance built in to have this position, and yet still apply full braking power. Very nice.
I think SRAM benefits from having a blank canvas to work with in the deisng of their system. Shimano was the first to introduce integrated brake / shift levers, and their bulky units look more and more dated to me. They haven't really changed much since their introduction. Campagnolo's minimalist levers are very pretty, and are designed like a conventional aero brake lever. Indeed, the first ergopower levers allowed the brake cables to be routed out the top of the hood, like a traditional brake lever's from before my time. The SRAM levers' design benefits from the years of experience other companies have had.
The shifting is more intuitive than I expected. I told myself half a dozen times, "Up like Shimano, down like Campy, up like Shimano, down like Campy," but it wasn't really necessary. Only once did I reach for a thumb button that wasn't there! The shifting performance recalls Shimano more: for an upshift to a harder cog you tap the lever, release it, cable goes out, the bike shifts. Multiple cogs require multiple clicks, tap-tap-tap. Pressure required to perform the shift is extremely light, but there's more delay between the tapping and the actual shifting, as opposed to Campy, which takes a lot more thumb power to operate the ratchet, but you are directly releasing the cable with your thumb. I don't miss the multiple-upshift ability of Campagnolo as much as I expected, because I can rattle off three or four quick taps before the shifter even gets going. It's like paintball: fully automatic is banned, but the semiautomatic is so quick that you wouldn't notice.
To downshift to an easier cog, the lever swings inward like Campagnolo's, past the initial point where upshifting happens, and you can sweep up two or three gears with one pass. At first, I flubbed a couple of shifts, until I remembered that the SRAM lever doesn't sweep horizontally across the handlebar, but at an angle towards the rider. Again, this is a much more "natural" gesture, but it takes some getting used to. Whether because of the "openglide" cassettes, whose smaller cogs are literally missing teeth to aid shifting, or not, the cogs shift extremely smoothly, even under load up a hill. The famed "sprinter's position" was ever bit as cool as it sounds -- this is where you pull the shift lever in to the handlebar and hold it there with your hands in the drops. I can be out of the saddle, full-power in the 53x14, need more gear, and just flick my wrist to cue up the 13, 12, and the 11 if I were Tom Boonen or someone. Ben Jacques-Maynes said he didn't lose more than 50 watts while completing this operation, as opposed to hundreds with Campy, and I wouldn't doubt it. The first time I did it, I smiled, maybe even giggled a bit, and immediately sprinted again just to play about with it. Sweet.
The front shift isn't quite as polished as the rear, especially when downshifting to the small ring. Push the inner lever, there's a loud "clack!," and the chain unceremoniously drops down to the 39. It works just fine, but it's much harder to make the shift smooth than a Campy system. Upshifting back to the big ring is a quick flick at higher speeds, but is more sensitive than Campagnolo to upshifting under load at lower RPMs, say, while attacking on a climb. Two things that relieved me: first of all, there's no trim position while in the big ring, but the front derailleur cage is wide enough that even cross-chaining didn't make it rub. Second, when in the big ring on Campy, I have this habit of nudging the shift lever. If it's firm, I know that I've shifted all the way up. With SRAM, a small motion downshifts back to the small ring, and so I worried that if I pushed the shifter slightly in, I'd have no choice but to drop back down, then shift back up. It turns out, though, that if I do end up touching the shifter while already in the big ring, or forget that I'm already there, as long as I pass through the first shift position and swing all the way up, nothing happens. Whew.
CASSETTE -- The "Open-Glide" cassette has all-steel cogs, and only one cassette is available. I have no interest in fragile titanium cassette, but the ultra weight-conscious might; rumour has it this is in the works for the coming year. Yes, they really did remove an entire tooth from several of the cogs. It shifts nicely. I'm told the system will shift a Shimano cassette fine as well, which might be important: my Podium 5 came equipped with some Mavic wheels, and when I decided to try out my new bike with the Campagnolo Eurus wheels I race with on my other bike, I encountered a frustrating surprise: the cassette wouldn't work. I replaced the freehub body on the wheels with the Shimano HG-compatible one, but the spines are too deep to allow the SRAM cassette to function. Further research revealed this deeper spline pattern was specific to 10-speed Shimano systems, even though it is the same pattern as the 8 and 9-speed ones. The SRAM cassette has the 9-speed spline depth. They are going to need to address this in the near future, since more and more hubs will come set up like this in the future.
CRANKSET -- Truvativ has been making their "Giga-X-Pipe" external-bearing bottom brackets and cranks for a while, and the SRAM Rival aluminum crankset is a rebadged Truvativ. Cranks aren't really an exciting part of a bike, but they could've done a little more work with the aesthetics of the thing. The external bearing cups are a snap to install, using the same tool as Shimano and FSA systems. The bearings don't spin very freely, especially compared to the Campagnolo Record ones that I'm used to. I checked to make sure I hadn't done something wrong, and found out that, though there's no pre-load adjustment, SRAM says they come very tight from the factory, and should loosen up a bit with use. The chunky arm of the crankset was also vulnerable to shoe rub. I use Speedplay pedals and Sidi shoes, and the end of the strap very easily comes into contact with the crankarm. One creative feature of the crankset that I liked was the crankbolts. I ride over a lot of rough roads, cobbled and brick surfaces, and the like. I'm always at risk of losing normal crankbolts because of this. The Rival crank is supplied with lightweight alloy bolts, but instead of simply tightening a bolt against a nut, you use a 6mm allen key on the outboard side, and a 5mm key on the inboard side. You can make the bolts VERY snug this way, and I haven't had one loosen yet. If this holds up well, I'll be really happy, since I'm loathe to use threadlocking compound on crankbolts, but replacement Campagnolo bolts are expensive!
BRAKES -- The lightweight calipers are dual-pivot, front and rear, and produce a whole lot of stopping power. Modulation might be a little trickier than with Campagnolo's differential system, but the brakes feel firm and haul the bike down in a hurry. Your tires will be the weakest link in the braking power chain. They're "skeletonized" like most modern brakes, making them quite lightweight, and feature a quick-release to open them up and remove the wheel, which means they could be used with any type of brake / shift lever. If you're buying a group piecemeal, you'd have to be pretty desperate to get Force instead of Rival: 21 grams of difference, $85 more expensive.
OTHER NOTES -- The chains use a no-tool permanent link to install. 10-speed chains are narrow and easy to make mistakes on, and it's nice to have a one-step, worry-free process. Campagnolo says the only way to install their chains is with a proprietary $100 tool, and the chains themselves, though high-quality, are quite expensive. Shimano's are a bit less picky, but still require careful use of a special joining pins. The SRAM chains just snap on with a two-piece master link, though unlike their 8- and 9-speed chains this can't be opened again for cleaning, not that I'm a proponent of doing so in most conditions. No triple crankset is currently on offer, and I haven't heard of plans for one, but a couple of compact combinations are available in addition to the 53/39 standard gearing. The same front derailleur can be used for all gearing options, thanks to its wider plates, and the 130mm bolt-circle diameter means you can run the stock crankset with 52/38 chainrings if you're so inclined. MSRP for Rival is about $1,100, putting it somewhere in between Centaur and Chorus, or 105 and Ultegra. Mail-order and websites will probably have it a bit cheaper.