Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tips for a New Roadie Part 2 - Group Discussion

In the first article in this series, we examined the intricacies of road bike fit. But once you decide on the frame that's tailor made for you, only half the equation is complete. Now you're faced with the daunting task of picking a group set. A bike's group set is the collection of parts that move a bike - shifters, derailleurs, crank, cassette, chain, and brakes. In the aftermarket, these are typically sold as packages called grouppos. There are quite a few models to choose from, and it can be a difficult to find the group set that fits a rider's needs and budget.

It's important to understand the parts of a group set and how they function on a bike so decisions can be made based on a cyclists needs. Shifters are one of the most important aspects of a group. Most modern bikes come with indexed shifters - each shift corresponds to a specific position on the derailleur. On road bikes the shifters are mounted on the drop bars so shifts can be made while your hands are on the "hoods" or in the drops. The rubber hoods which house them also provide a very comfortable hand position while riding. Derailleurs are the components which respond to the shifters and move the chain between sprockets. The cassette is the collection of sprockets on the rear wheel which determine gear ratio. The crank is the set of front sprockets and the arms which are attached to the pedals. The chain connects the crank and cassette and allows pedaling motion of the front crank to turn the cassette and rear wheel. Brakes are there to help you stop.

Shimano's 105 Dual Control Bar Mounted Shifters

There are two brands which dominate the factory bike market - SRAM and Shimano. The two brands both deliver quality groups with models perfect for the newest riders to the best cyclists on the planet. Shimano was the first on the market with indexed shifting and has earned the lion's share of the market. SRAM is a relative newcomer to road bikes, but is quickly eating away at Shimano's piece of the pie thanks to it's light weight, innovative Double Tap shifting, and competitive pricing. Best bet is to try a brand and pick the one whose ergonomics suit you best. Some people prefer Shimano's smooth feeling shifts and two lever mechanism. Others prefer SRAM's double tap shifting and don't mind the slightly noisy reputation SRAM receives. Ride both models, see which one suits you best and then pick the group you need. The Campagnolo faithful are likely shouting at their computers due to my neglect for what may be the most beloved group set of them all. However, since it's hardly ever found on mainstream factory bikes, I will withhold my Campagnolo article until a later date.

Once you've decided what brand fits you, it's time to pick a model. Models typically vary in their weight, material used, and feel. Nevertheless, it can be confusing to know how they're different and what that translates to in the real world. There are so many features, it would be impossible to detail them all in a short post. So here is a very basic primer on what you can expect from the various models.

Shimano Sora is a 9 speed group. It is Shimano's only group set to use a thumb lever for down shifts instead of the Dual Control used in Shimano's other shifters. The thumb shifters can be hard to access from the drops which is a problem many people find. Shifts are typically not as smooth nor as accurate as Shimano's other brands.

Shimano Tiagra is another 9 speed group and Shimano's next step up. Its shifters have the dual control levers common to all other Shimano group sets. The smaller lever is used to shift to smaller gears, the larger lever shifts to larger gears. Shifts are smoother and more accurate than Sora and once dialed in is a very useable group set novice riders can grow with. This would be my recommendation as the absolute minimal group set a new rider purchase.

SRAM Rival is one of the most popular group sets on the road. It weighs less than Shimano's Ultegra and is cheaper to boot. New for 2010 it has also incorporated Zero-Loss shifting on the front shifter, so if you move the front shifter, it will switch gears. There is no play in the shifting mechanism. All SRAM models also have a unique feature where the shift lever can be moved closer to the bars to accommodate riders with smaller hands.

Shimano's 105 group set is the first entry into the 10 speed market. The shifters have a noticeably smoother action, it takes less effort to engage shifts and shorter lever throws than Tiagra. The whole group is lighter to boot. Both 105 and Rival are excellent groups for a new rider and my best recommendation. They are affordable enough for riders on a budget but are smooth, light, and accurate enough even for die-hard racers.

Ultegra SL takes the basics from 105 and lightens the package. It is every so slightly smoother than 105. However, the addition of lighter, stronger components makes the overall group set stronger and lighter on the bike.

SRAM Force is basically Rival with the addition of carbon fiber components to decrease weight and increase stiffness. Costing noticeably more than Rival, but lacking the features of Red some question the value of Force over Rival.

Dura-Ace is the apex of Shimano's lineup. Very light weight combined with amazing stiffness in components such as the cranks make it a favorite among pros and elite amateurs. It is the smoothest shifting of perhaps any group set, even under a hard sprint.

SRAM Red is another big step up from Force and Rival. In addition to lighter weight, it also incorporates zero loss shifting in both levers. The rear cassette is precision machined from a single piece of steel and helping smooth out the shifting action.

So once you've picked the group set that's just right for you, beware of some common tricks bike companies like to use to fool customers. Many save money by using generic brakes rather than the branded brakes that belong on the group sets. There is often nothing wrong with these generic brakes, especially when you swap out the pads, but laying down $5000 for a Dura-Ace equipped bike and receiving a set of Tektro brakes can be a bit disheartening. Companies also use upgraded rear derailleurs to try and fool consumers into believing they will see better performance, such as adding a Dura-Ace rear derailleur on an Ultegra equipped bike. While an upgraded rear derailleur can provide better shifting performance, it won't affect feel or performance as well as Dura-Ace shifters.

If you're serious about road biking, I would strongly suggest investing the additional money in a quality group set, at least 105 or Rival. These two groups are a great compromise between performance and expense. They have appreciably smoother performance than cheaper group sets and perform only marginally less smooth than more expensive groups.

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