SRAM Red DoubleTap Integrated Shift/Brake Levers
SRAM's DoubleTap shifting system has made speedy inroads into a component world that has been long dominated by Shimano and Campagnolo. And they did it by chasing the prestige market from the start: professional racing. Putting components onto pro bikes is a ballsy high wire act for a company touting untested components. It isn't so much getting onto the bike that is brazen; that just costs money. It's the risk of the parts failing in the most visible arena. What if the top guys refuse to ride it at the biggest races? What if the parts fail spectacularly on television, especially with YouTube around to share it with the whole world?
We rode SRAM Red for a few hours shortly after it came out in 2007. We could figure out how it worked easily enough, but it didn't become second nature in that time. Just like when we first switched to Camapagnolo ErgoPower from downtube shifting.The Pinarello Prince Carbon we recently reviewed came with SRAM Red DoubleTap shifters and a SRAM Force group. The Prince review gave us a chance to see how we'd like SRAM shifting over several weeks. Because SRAM maintains the same design through their road groups, Red shifters will work with Force and Rival components and vice versa.
The name of the shifting system, DoubleTap, is accurate, though it doesn't have the strength or power that rival systems have. Shimano Total Integration, STI, seems complicated. Ergopower, seems to use ergonomics for something that is more powerful as a result. DoubleTap seems like you're pressing a button. Lightly. Casually.
The good thing is that DoubleTap is simple and easy, and even has a relatively light feel. It's just that after almost 20 years of the other two, something simple and easy might take some unlearning. Doubters wonder about using a single lever for shifting. It's as if they never noticed that downtube shifting and bar end shifting each utilized a single lever per derailleur.
When we first heard of the system, we kept on reading how it worked like a click-style pen. This made little sense to us. You click the pen the first time, and the ball point descends. You click it the second time, the ball point ascends. For a shifter to work, it would have to descend, descend, descend up to nine clicks, and then ascend up to nine clicks. We've never seen a pen do that.
Yet the shifting works. SRAM uses a two-pawl system. One pawl holds the ratchet wheel and one transports the ratchet wheel "up and down" through the gear shifts, which is more like clockwise and counter-clockwise on the ratchet wheel. Short pushes or taps move the ratchet wheel with the rear derailleur spring, releasing the wheel one click at a time so it upshifts the rear derailleur. Long pushes or taps moves the ratchet the other direction, pushing against the spring. You can downshift up to three cogs at a time, but can only upshift one cog at a time. BTW, the frog that SRAM uses in their ads is there because the two pawls "leapfrog" one another.
It is smooth and easy. A large part is definitely the motion; the throw needed to shift and the arc the lever takes. A small part could be the Gore RideOn cable housing and cables; this stuff has been getting raves. Still, even with smooth and easy, it will take anyone who has integrated brake/shift levers some time to unlearn their old habits. A doctor we know said of switching, "it isn't brain surgery." It's not a fair comparison; most of us aren't brain surgeons and shifting has to become more intimate, like breathing. The issue is that you have to get so comfortable with the shifting that you don't think about it. For Campy users, it's not having the button. For Shimano users, it's not reaching for the second lever. Putting the bike in a stand and running through the gears is easy when all you're doing is concentrating on shifting. But doing it while focusing on everything you need to think about when riding can be harder. At least initially for this tester.
The shifting for the rear derailleur came pretty naturally and fast. The downshift (up the cassette toward the taller cogs and smaller gears) felt very much like Campy. And being able to downshift up to three cogs at once completed the Campy feel. The upshift (down the cassette toward the smaller cogs and bigger gears) had a nice "letting go" feel and a positive clicking sound. Even though you can only upshift one cog at a time, the throw is so short, that multiple shifts move quickly and is particularly fast when riding the drops.
When DoubleTap first debuted, SRAM made a big deal about an innovation pro rider Ben Jacques-Maynes figured out. You can tuck the lever under a finger and hold it against the handlebar and upshift really fast while sprinting. We didn't find ourselves in any field sprint with these shifters, so we don't know how likely it is that anyone would do this. But it does work. We found we could even start clicking when the shift lever was against the brake lever, and since the lever moves in a comfortable ergonomic arc, we could easily move the shift lever with very little thought to the bars while were sprinting out of the saddle.
People have wondered what happens when you get to the tallest cog and then try to shift beyond that. If you realize it just as you start to push the lever, you could upshift. But if you push to the second position, the downshift position, you'll feel you're at the end of the cassette yet the derailleur won't shift. The first time or two when we were in this situation, we did drop from the 25 to the 23 near the top of some steep hills. After that, we didn't accidentally mis-shift in this way again.
While our shifting got faster over our test period, we noticed an odd thing. There was a voice in our head that appeared when we were riding hard and about to shift. It was the voice of doubt. We'd start to push the lever and the voice would ask, "are you sure it's going the direction you want?" It was just a split-second, but it was unsettling. Thing is, the more we rode it, the fainter the voice became. It didn't disappear entirely, and we figure the first few races on SRAM the voice would pipe up as we were attacking, but probably after a few more weeks on SRAM and a few races under our bibs, the voice would disappear for good.
The front shifting is imperfect. It has been widely reported that you can't trim the front derailleur with SRAM shifters. That is somewhat true; you can't trim in the small ring. We had chain rub in the two smallest cogs in the small ring. We were told by a few people that the front derailleur could be adjusted to there wasn't rub on these cogs. We weren't able to affect this adjustment, but it seems like it should be possible. There is one click of trim when you're in the big ring. We didn't find a need to trim the front derailleur at all, even in two tallest cogs on the cassette, the 23 and 25. There was one initial issue with the use of the shift lever itself. You usually need to click the front shifter twice in order to move from the big ring to the small. Initially, we found we had to click, release, and click again. It took three rides to work this kink out, or unlearn our old habit. By the end of our time on the Prince we almost couldn't awkwardly shift the front derailleur.
Shifting is only part of the DoubleTap package. The brake levers are different as is the hood shape. This turns out to be such a good idea; both Campagnolo and Shimano have followed SRAM's lead in this department. SRAM's curvy brake levers initially looked wrong to us. By the end of several weeks, they merely looked a bit odd. Still, what matters is what we experienced behind the bars. The levers were always easy to reach and comfortable in our fingers. We didn't notice the curved shape at all when squeezing the levers.
A rarely advertised benefit of the SRAM levers is that the shift lever and brake lever have adjustable reach -- and can be adjusted separately. Each has about 10mm of reach adjustment. You can adjust the shift lever to be closer to the bar on its own or adjust both to be 10mm shorter. 1cm might not seem like much, but it can be the difference between comfortable and stretching, can be a great thing for those with short fingers.
The different hood shape is great. It is longer and curved and gives more room for our meaty hands. Great when grabbing the hoods while standing on the pedals. There is a much less touted feature of the shape that strikes us as great. The shape helps hide the brake and derailleur cable housing under it rather than having the derailleur housing sticking through the tape above the hood as on Campy. Looks like Campy is addressing this with their new levers.
Overall, we really like SRAM's DoubleTap shifting. We've been committed to Ergo for a long time, but SRAM has devised a system that gives us pause. A lengthy pause. Especially because on top of everything else, SRAM Reds are lighter than all the integrated levers, save Shimano Di2. 280g for the set. Yeow.