The early adopter dilemma, part 4: Riding impressions of the “Spinal Tap” setup

Hyro, my 2014 Giant TCX, now sports Shimano 11-speed drivetrain hardware and hydraulic disc brakes. Sickness got in the way of me judging the new setup, but that got addressed after a couple of Sunday mornings. So, what do I think of the bike now? There’s quite a lot to digest.


After upgrading from the TRP Spyre calipers to Shimano’s BR-RS785s, and swapping in new RT86 IceTech rotors, I’ve noticed the new calipers are a little more sensitive to alignment. I can set them up to work fine without rubbing on the rotor in between rides, at home.

Fascinatingly though, on my maiden ride, I found leaning the bike over in a turn will result in some rotor rub, particularly at the front. It’s transient, and it goes away after a few moments of straight-up riding, but the sound is pretty distinctive: like a knife being sharpened against a whetstone. This didn’t happen on the TRP Spyres.

On the second ride, I made sure to tighten the front quick-release skewer a bit more, and have the axle as square on the dropouts as possible. That seems to have done the trick. Rotor rub still happens, but it’s much rarer, much quieter, and much less dependent on cornering loads going through the front wheel and fork.


There is definitely a difference in how Hyro fits me, purely because of the ST-RS685 levers and their longer brackets compared to the outgoing 105 ST-5700 levers.

Reach of the ST-RS685 STI levers, from center of clamp band to base of brake hoods.
Just under 8 cm.
Reach of the 105 ST-5700 STI levers, from clamp band to base of brake hoods. About 6 cm.

At the 50 km mark of the maiden ride, I was starting to get a twinge in my lower back. Even with some minor corrections to my old bike fit, there’s still a lingering phenomenon of being too stretched out.

Swapping STI levers can actually be a bike fit conundrum, and that was definitely the case here. There’s a whole 20 mm of reach difference here alone.

Profile shot of the ST-RS685 lever.
Profile shot of the ST-RS685 with the ST-5700 lever superimposed.
Note how much lower and closer the pivot is on the ST-5700s.

The lever shape and pivot location is also quite different on these two lever sets. On the ST-RS685s this is good for about 5 mm or so of extra reach.

I still have some adjustment available to me without swapping any parts: 5 mm of headset spacers, and perhaps 10 or 20 mm less saddle layback. The worse case scenario would be to swap to a drop handlebar with shorter reach.

Ultimately, I brought the Power saddle forward about 20 mm, which got all my angles right and solved my long-ride comfort issues. I also tweaked the reach adjustment on the ST-RS685 levers, which I am glad is done by a screw here instead of swapping shims. I still get reminded of how long the hoods are, though, especially at the beginning of rides.


One concern I had going into the new drivetrain was the larger steps on the cassette.

Hyro’s outgoing 2×10-speed drivetrain has 14 unique gears covering a spread of 29.9″ to 109.8″. Back then, this was already pretty generous. Accessing the 27T and 30T cogs was problematic in the big chainring though, as these combinations were quite cross-chained and chain retention would be a gamble. It gets much worse when your big chainring’s shift ramps and pins are worn.

The 11-speed gearing introduces a wider range at both ends, but larger gaps overall. Interestingly, it’s in the middle of the cassette where the gaps are kept small.

Initially, the bigger gear steps meant finding an ideal cadence was a little harder. I’m most efficient turning my legs at 80-90 rpm, shifting gears to compensate and stay in that Goldilocks zone, despite upcoming climbs or headwinds. Coupled with visually inspecting where the chain currently sits on the cassette, doing this with the 11-34T cluster threw me off.

It wasn’t until I climbed some hills that the new gears made much more sense. Because each shift has more cog teeth behind it, I could use the shifters less. It’s also easier to stay in the big 50T chainring while negotiating the climbs on my usual loop in southern Metro Manila, because the low cogs are still accessible while the chain is still relatively centered and efficient. It must have all worked out: I was able to set two new personal bests on that loop. After a few hours of saddle time and some more on the turbo trainer, I no longer have any concerns with gappy gearing – my legs just got used to it.

A table of road speeds at a given cadence, broken down by gear combination.
This is for the old 2×10 setup.
Road speeds at a given cadence, broken down by gear combination.
This is for the new “Spinal Tap” 2×11 setup.


I mentioned the new gearing makes me less reliant on the shifting. Which is a shame, because this is the best shifting I’ve had, by far. And I thought Tiagra 4700 was good!

As complex and slightly frustrating as it was to set up, the front derailleur is the star of Hyro’s new drivetrain. Zero chain rub to report, and a satisfying action without requiring a hard twist of the left wrist to push the lever, which itself has less sweep. The new cam-action front derailleur makes front shifts a more viable option on long rides where you’d otherwise be too tired to jump the chain between chainrings.

The ST-RS685 STI levers initially had a fascinatingly muted rear shift feel. Going into harder cogs was very soft and stealthy compared to the old 105 ST-5700 levers, and certainly quieter than any SRAM or Campagnolo control lever. I imagine this may be good for overtaking tactics against other riders, although the softness went away when I stripped away the CN-HG600 chain’s thick factory storage grease and re-lubricated it with the much thinner Boeshield T-9, so there’s that.


Finally we come to the brakes themselves…and they are stellar.

Shimano’s hydraulics have addressed my one major criticism of TRP’s Spyres: high lever effort. Even with compressionless brake cable housing, braking was a three-finger affair most of the time. Worse, it got compromised on very long rides simply by fatigued hands from road buzz, and how they had to overcome the Spyres’ stiff return springs and any resistance within the brake cables themselves.

On the Shimano brakes, the lever effort is kept low, which means modulation is easier – and it remains that way even on longer rides. Deceleration itself is linear and very consistent, especially after having bedded in the pads. I do have to retrain myself to avoid strong pulses of the brake lever, lest I get wheel lockup, as braking becomes more progressive at the end of the lever travel. While the new lever shape and pivot locations are a bugbear for bike fit, they also meant my fingers could get more purchase and leverage on the already powerful hydraulic brake system – and this is on the brake hoods. Add to that the reach adjust on the lever travel, and this means one-finger braking is entirely possible, although most times I use two from the hoods.

Overall, I feel I achieved what I set out to do with Hyro, which is an “obsolete” bike if you dance to the same ridiculous technological tune as the bicycle industry does. There are a few more marginal gains to be had, but with the “Spinal Tap” setup, this five-year-old TCX feels better than ever.

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