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red-gruppo-on-white.jpgThere’s one subject that sparks more unresolvable debate amongst bicycle geeks than any other: which groupset is best? The problem with this question is that there is no definitive answer and even if there was, what might be best now could be dethroned tomorrow as the freewheel of technological innovation just keeps on spinning. Until recently, it was reasonably safe to pick a personal winner and retain smug contentment for a few years or so. Now, though, for reasons more fortuitous than planned, ‘the times they are a changin’; we are living in a gear revolution more akin to the goings on in the world of computer tech than one that has ordinarily applied to bikes.

Take the inner sanctum top-ends of Shimano and Campagnolo. Dura Ace updates have been pretty rare over the past five years. The last big thing was the shift to ten cogs on the back cluster. A seriously well-considered, carefully planned, sober upgrade with clear and meaningful benefits. The last big thing in the Campagnolo camp was the shift from solid to skeleton brakes and some subtle shifts in logo design.

Those were the good old days…

Now it seems that the compulsions of technological acceleration have blasted our serenity. Somewhere between my original indulgence in 10 speed Dura Ace and the forthcoming absurdities of electronic shifting, the SRAM avalanche hit the road (in 2005); and the terrain has been shifting ever since.

Looking up my all-time favourite bicycle geek book, The Dancing Chain by Frank Berto, the German Sachs company started making bicycle bits in 1895. Like Herr Sachs, Monsieur Huret was also an old bicycle racer who turned to the manufacture of bicycle bits, in his case, from the 1930’s. The legacies Sachs and Huret created crossed tracks via the Sachs buy-out of Huret in 1980, and in 1997, the born-in-the-USA SRAM company bought out Sachs-Huret. So, while the American would-be Shimano-Campagnolo rival only has a history back to 1987, it’s market manoeuvrings gave it an instant historical pedigree to rival even that of the sainted Campagnolo.

The first signs of things to come came when SRAM, as a hitherto mountain bike bit maker, decided to Force its path into the road scene in 2005. SRAM Force started displacing Record and Dura Ace in the pro peloton via some big ticket Pro Tour component sponsorships. Now we are seeing Force and Red specced as original equipment on some of the modern top-end racing icons, like, say, the new Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL2, Tarmac S-Works SL2 and now, I notice, the 2009 Trek Madones.

So it’s reasonable to wonder how the three main contenders compare. Right now, pitching Record against 2008 Dura Ace and SRAM Red, Red wins in terms of overall groupset weight. Red is the first complete groupset to weigh in under 2kg. It will still best the 2009 Dura Ace upgrade and ’09 Record. Only ’09 Super Record will be lighter, at considerably greater cost.

I like SRAM Red. I also like Campagnolo Record. I have a love-hate thing with Dura Ace. I have thousands and thousands of km on Record and Dura Ace (about 20,000 km on each). I have only 1,000 km on Red. But then again, Red’s only been available from about mid 2008. So I guess I can present a reasonably informed view on how the three compare (except when it comes to the long haul endurance of Red).

Please don’t consider this to be a formal review! I don’t aim to be so clinical. Rather, consider what follows to be a subjective appraisal; my judgement on how I would like my NEXT bike to be dressed.

To indicate why I am not inclined to formally rank and rate, I would simply contend that you can’t. For instance, what kind of metric could I apply to judge the overall shifting merits of Record, Dura Ace and Red (the top end groups from Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM respectively)? A valuation by ‘feel’ is hardly objective. But relative feel is how people judge these things and is the metric folk use to actually choose. In those terms, SRAM Red feels to be the most precise, slickest and easiest to use. But, then again, Record has a better clunk – a more precise and definitive journey from one gear to the next. Then again, Dura Ace is the easiest in terms of force to facilitate the shift (having a sweet, almost automatic feel). So, there you are, I have contradicted myself already and totally confused any attempt to definitively rank. The three are distinctive in feel. I could live with any one of them but ‘like’ the ultra short ‘throw’ of Red – you only have to feel the paddle to make it shift – which makes me wonder why anyone would want electronic shifting when they could have SRAM Red. Record requires the greatest finger pressure. But that is not actually a bad thing. I prefer to know when I have shifted than guess – as you so often have to do with Dura Ace. Dura Ace shifts like a wet, limp spaghetti stick. It’s a flop rather than a notch. More sewing machine than jack hammer ratchet.

Then there’s the ergonomics. How do you measure that to compare? Again, objectivity is a challenge! If you judge such things in terms of effort needed, Red wins. If you judge in terms of closeness of levers to hand and conformity with anatomy, Red wins there as well. If you judge in terms of comfort, well, Red wins on that one as well. Red has the best hoods in the game, according the the peculiarities of my own hands – which may or may not be the same as yours. Dura Ace is a basket case failure in terms of hands-on-hoods location. I can’t judge the 2009 Dura Ace on this, but I do know that this is one area to which Shimano has given some considerable attention. The new Dura Ace hoods are supposed to be more like Record. Record is also good. But, I admit, the thumb shifting thing is not and could never be as simple as the single pushing exercise on Red, or even compared with Dura Ace. I don’t like the manoeuvring you have to do to do the Record thumb shifting thing. You have to shift your hands too much to make it work. With Red, the hands don’t need to move at all. That, in my book, is an indicator of ergonomic superiority. But… then again… I do like the feel of the Record thumb shifters. I like the tactile sense you get when you push them down.

So what about looks? Record wins. Easy. No contest. Record (and Super Record) is an exercise in bicycle jewellery; an exercise in industrial art. Record is a stunner. Every bit of Record, from shifting leavers, hoods, derailleurs and cranks is a statement of beauty. Dura Ace is ugly in comparison. Red is inoffensive. The new Dura Ace is even uglier than its 2008 counterpart, in my view. I really don’t like the look of the next generation Dura Ace levers. It all looks too much like a Japanese attempt to capture the essence of Campagnolo; just as with the attempt of Japanese camera makers to copy classic German Leica cameras. Copying never works. Individualistic distinctiveness is the Italian way. The attempt to emulate is flattering, but is an effort that fails to impress. SRAM Red, on the other hand, has done well to create distinction and will remain distinctive even when everyone’s 2009 offerings are firmly in place.

RECORD-Groupset.jpg How, then, do the three compare in terms of reliability. I can’t judge Red yet. But I can judge Record and Dura Ace. After 20,000 km on each, Record is the no contest winner. Dura Ace has given me nothing but trouble when it comes to the capacity to stay tuned into the long term. After all this distance, my Record (I have two bikes dressed in Record so have double certainty in this) has retained its precision and tune. Dura Ace (only one bike dressed in that), has flopped out to the point of un-usability. I can’t keep my Dura Ace shifting in tune, even after replacing rear clusters and chain rings, and, of course, many chains. Mind you, I have a bike dressed in Ultegra SL and that is just fine. Which suggests a specific problem with my particular Dura Ace groupset. Perhaps I am too fussy but I can’t cope with gears that refuse to hold traction with a chosen cog.

For what it’s worth, my current ranking is SRAM Red and Record equal first and Dura Ace third. Ultegra SL fits into second place…Ultegra is essentially identical to Dura Ace but way better looking and slightly cheaper to boot.

Of course, this will all change once I get my hands on Super Record… That’s what’s going to be on my NEXT bike!

For the record, I have had SRAM on my cross country Fisher Pro Caliber for over a year now and that (X0 groupset) has, like the SRAM Red road group, also been flawless to date. I have another mountain bike (a Trek) with Shimano XTR and that’s not been as attractive a story… perhaps I have something deeply out of synch with Shimano…

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