The argument against top-tier components

Shimano’s Dura-Ace 7400-series “25th Anniversary” groupset, on display at Shimano Cycling World in Singapore. Note the headset and seatpost at the far right, as well as the Seiko wristwatch.

Shimano Dura-Ace. SRAM Red. Campagnolo Super Record. All of these three groupsets are the pinnacle of what each of the three big bicycle component manufacturers offer, and can confidently be considered the state of the art.

And yet, today I’m going to tell you a few reasons why you may not want them on your bike.

“THAT COSTS HOW MUCH?!” – HIGH ACQUISITION COST

As with many things, becoming a technological showcase is going to cost you a pretty big coin. As simple as a bicycle may look, a top-tier groupset mainly exists to present to the world just how much it can improve in terms of performance, many of them frequently being refinements or marginal gains over the previous generation, as was the case with Dura-Ace 7900 over 7800.

This is why I believe top-tier components are really meant for sponsored professional athletes, who will appreciate these marginal gains more – not amateur enthusiasts like many of you reading this decidedly amateur publication.

I feel this is most onerous with Campagnolo Super Record. Campagnolo already isn’t cheap to begin with, at any level; for some people, the exorbitant purchase price of Super Record over even Shimano Dura-Ace or SRAM Red just adds insult to injury.

“THAT COSTS HOW MUCH?!!” – HIGH REPLACEMENT COSTS

Much like used supercars and luxury sedans may appear like bargains up front, the high costs of a top-tier groupset do not stop with the initial purchase. You still have the maintenance aspect to look at. As the parts wear away with time and usage, when the time comes that a chain, cassette, or chainring requires replacement, the sticker price may be a source of unwelcome financial “aftershocks.”

Why is this the case? Like it or not, part of the technological advancement brought on by a top-tier groupset is down to the use of unconventional materials, such as carbon fiber or titanium. One example is the titanium cogs on a typical Dura-Ace cassette. These materials are chosen mainly to save weight, longevity be damned. When hub manufacturer Chris King moves away from titanium as a material for its R45 rear hubs’ ratchet mechanisms, one should already suspect that something is up with the material. Titanium is great for making bicycle frames, but plays a distant second or third fiddle to good ol’ steel for wear items.

Exploded view of a SRAM Red 10-speed PowerDome cassette. Photo credit: Glory Cycles/SRAM

Apart from unconventional materials, sometimes it is the manufacturing methods themselves that are unconventional and lead to the greater expense. SRAM is the poster child for this, its trademark PowerDome cassettes CNC-machined from a single, solid steel billet. This feat of engineering is expensive to replicate, and so replacing a worn PowerDome cassette like-for-like is also going to mean at least a US$279 hit to your wallet.

QUESTIONABLE CONSTRUCTION METHODS…?

Somewhere along the way of searching for marginal gains and shaving every last gram possible from a component, bad news starts to happen. Worryingly, this isn’t restricted to just top-tier stuff – sometimes even second-tier components have problems, too.

A cut-away Ultegra 6800 crank arm, showing off the construction that makes it hollow. Photo credit: Shimano Cycling World/Hands On Bike.

A few years ago, Shimano started to hype the lightweight construction of its Dura-Ace 9000 and Ultegra 6800 crank arms. These are made hollow by forging them in two pieces, which are then bonded together. This is in contrast to the one-piece solid forging technology used on Shimano’s cheaper or lower-tier cranksets.

For comparison, the non-series Shimano FC-R565 crankset uses heavier solid-forged arms, hollowed out from behind for some weight savings.

While this newfangled construction should be all well and good from a stiffness standpoint, numerous reports of Ultegra 6800 crank arm failure have also come in. And they’re not pretty.

Photo credit: Carlin the Cyclist.

As you can see above, this particular Ultegra FC-6800 crankset cracked just above the pedal thread area, then totally came apart precisely where the two crank arm halves were bonded together. John Carlin’s experience isn’t the only one, either. This has been a worryingly common issue with Ultegra 6800 cranks – one that I hope Shimano have addressed with its R8000 successor. While the problem isn’t as widespread with the contemporary Dura-Ace FC-9000 cranksets, it has also happened to a few riders using these top-tier cranks.

A little worrying for me is that this “Hollowtech Crank Arm” technology has trickled its way down to third-tier Shimano 105 level. That said, trickle-down technology usually means it’s been proven at higher tiers, and that same technology is made more reliable and more inexpensively in order to reach a larger audience, so we’ll just have to bet that the manufacturers have indeed done their homework. At the very least, I haven’t yet heard of any 105 FC-5800 hollow crank arms separating from each other…

CONCLUSION

At the end of the day, people are going to buy what they want. I have no illusions of making people change their minds, nor was my intention to scare people off. However, my only request is to know what you’re getting into, and not be immediately dazzled by the new tech on offer. Compare and contrast, and study the pros and cons. When it’s your money on the line, you might as well make it so that you maximize what you get.

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An angry swarm of bees vs. the sound of Scylence

Here in the Philippines, many cyclists will put a bike on a stand, shift to a hard gear, and hand-pedal the cranks to a high cadence, then suddenly let go…all to listen to, and savor, the sound of a freewheeling freehub. The louder the freehub, the better.

They even have a name for it: “tunog-mayaman,” roughly translating to “it sounds [like a] rich [person].”

The first time I heard this expression, I let out a mild chuckle. Because I’m a curious son of a gun, though, I did a bit of research as to why people say so, and why they prize the sound of a loud freehub.

For the uninitiated, a freehub is two things. Its exterior allows the mounting of cassette sprockets (usually via splines and a lock ring), while its interior is essentially a one-way ratchet mechanism.

A freehub body (left) removed from its hub shell, which contains the ratchet gear teeth (right). Note the pawls on the freehub body. Photo credit: MBR.co.uk.

While there are other variants, the most common freehub internal design sits on the rear axle on bearings, and has a number of spring-loaded fingers, called “pawls,” that will catch on ratchet gear teeth on the inside of the hub shell. When they catch and engage, your pedaling motion at the cranks gets transferred from the chain and sprockets into the hub and rear wheel. When you stop pedaling, however, the pawls will slide and skip over the ratchet gear teeth, allowing you to coast.

This high-frequency skipping of the pawls over the ratchet gear teeth is what we hear as the sound of the freehub. Conventional wisdom states that more expensive freehubs use a number of tricks — either using stronger strings on the pawls, installing more pawls in the freehub, or something else entirely — all in order to improve engagement and drive of the mechanism. The sound is really just a byproduct.

Indeed, many premium hubs do have a noise to them, and this noise is a quality in and of itself. Chris King’s R45 rear hubs, for example, are prized for the “angry swarm of bees” sound they make, but as the video above suggests, they are handily beaten by other competitors.

That hasn’t deterred many locals from asking bike groups or forums about how to make their freehubs sound louder, i.e. how to make them tunog-mayaman. Most of these modifications involve replacing the pawl springs for something with higher spring rate, although this is a questionable practice at best.

Leave it to Shimano to throw a wrench in the works, though…

Photo credit: BikeRumor.

At the end of May 2018, Shimano announced the M9100 generation of XTR, its top-tier mountain bike groupset. While I didn’t really care about the divisive new Micro Spline freehub body superseding the tried-and-true Hyperglide design that has served riders for 30 years, I was very curious about what lay inside the polarizing freehub. Instead of the classic pawl and ratchet system, Shimano used a new drive mechanism they call “Scylence.”

Exploded view of the Scylence hub drive mechanism. Photo credit: Shimano/BikeRumor.

Ridiculous spelling aside, it’s obvious what they were going for with these hubs: silent running. Instead of pawls catching on a ratchet, Scylence transfers drive via angled slots on two sides of the hub that mesh, which pull a pair of ratchet rings (yellow and green above) together. This is somewhat similar to the helical-cut gears meshing in a car’s gearbox, plus a clutch disc mating with an engine flywheel, but implemented in another way. When coasting, springs pull back on the ratchet rings and disengage the angled slots, resulting in zero friction and noise.

As XTR is Shimano’s flagship MTB groupset, the notion that these very expensive hubs are designed to be silent is hilarious in its irony. It flies in the face of the whole “tunog-mayaman” philosophy – and the one major thing that I wish ended up included into future versions of Shimano’s road bike groupsets.

LitePro’s hubs make a moderately noisy freewheeling sound.

Needless to say, I don’t really buy into the whole tunog-mayaman phenomenon. For me, it doesn’t really promise or mean anything other than the fact that your freehubs are loud. Proof? My folding bike Bino, which has gearing that tops out at a 37 km/h cruise in top gear, has a louder freehub than my fast bike Hyro

Organizing my riding gear: Helmets on the wall

I scored a major bike storage win with the installation of the Feedback Sports Velo Hinge swiveling bicycle wall hook. After that, I thought – what else could I do to clean up my cycling gear around the house?

My helmets looked like a good place to start. While road bike helmets aren’t anywhere near as bulky as a full-face motorcycle or automotive equivalent, they’re still pretty awkward things to find storage for.

The solution came to me via 3M’s “Command” line of adhesive hooks and fixtures. Command’s foundation lies in two-sided adhesive strips of various sizes, which you then stick to a wall or other surface. The other side of these strips is then stuck to a variety of hooks, holders, and other storage solutions. If, for some reason, you want to remove said hook or holder, the Command strips can be removed cleanly, without leaving any residue.

The retail package contains two cord bundlers and three medium Command strips.

Among the usual hooks in the lineup, one of the more unique Command fixtures is their cord bundler. As the name suggests, this fixture is meant to tidy up loose electrical cords and wiring, although it could also work for any lightweight rope, twine, or similarly long objects.

Here’s one as installed on my wall. The hard plastic base is anchored to the Command adhesive strip. Below it is a pliable, rubbery plastic loop (polyethylene, I suspect) that wraps around cords. At its forward end is a flared tongue which hooks back onto the hard plastic base, where it slides into a groove and bundles the whole shebang.

I had the crazy idea of having the polyethylene loop poke through the vents of my helmets, then hooking it into the hard plastic base. Effectively, the cord bundler holds the helmet fast against the wall instead.

On the Lazer Tonic, which has a vent in the center, this worked perfectly. On the Lazer Blade MIPS, where its front vents sit both sides of a center spine, it’s not as clean a solution, as it won’t hang against the wall perfectly centered, but it works just as well otherwise. I can even hang the helmets with their interiors facing out, to facilitate drying.

I have this “helmet hook array” installed right next to where Hyro hangs off the wall, making for a neat arrangement.

The main downside to Command products is cost, I guess, plus a slight bit of complexity. While 3M brags that the fixtures are easily relocated as long as you have spare strips, the strips themselves come in varying sizes (small, medium, large, extra large), and each size seems to have a load rating. The cord bundlers I’ve talked about here use one medium strip each. If you decide you want these fixtures elsewhere, or you bungled the initial install, you’ll need extra strips of the same size, and they’re not always in stock at a hardware store. The package does come with some extras.

Wall estate: Command cord bundlers holding my helmets, Command broom holders suspending my house cleaning stuff, and the Velo Hinge hook storing Hyro.

So…not exactly cheap, but it’s a pretty neat solution regardless. I don’t see myself having to move these around in the foreseeable future, so I think I got my money’s worth out of them.