Frayed, again

Seven months after I last replaced my frayed rear shift cable, it’s happened again: that old familiar feeling of just nothing happening as I summoned an upshift. In such conditions, I’m effectively riding on just half my cassette, the smaller cogs sealed away until the shift cable finally snaps in two and dumps me on top gear.

Just a fact of life for me, I’m afraid

Fresh rear shift cable getting inserted into a Shimano 105 5700 STI lever

Shimano’s 105 5700 STI levers are infamous for fraying their shift cables around the head area, which I can confirm with my own experience. I’ve already written about the challenge of replacing shift cable on Hyro, which usually results in me lying on the floor, looking at the bike up its bottom bracket shell, while trying to coax rear shift cable correctly into its routing hole in the drive-side chainstay. Ah well, such is the reality of wrenching on a TCX.

Not too long ago, “AngryAsian” James Huang wrote about his appreciation of good old mechanical shifting with cables in an age where electronic shifting is the bee’s knees. For those like me, who ride on frames that have challenging internal cable routing, something electronic like Shimano’s Di2 would be perfect – install the battery, E-tube cables and junction boxes one time, and in theory, you should never have to maintain or replace them. Shifts will always be perfectly indexed once set, and Shimano have even thrown in automatic trimming and Synchro Shift of the front derailleur. Indeed, Di2 has found fans in cyclocross competition, where the maintenance-free nature of the E-tube cables and the increase in frames with internal routing make for a minimum of fuss compared to the punishment the rest of the bike suffers from.

Even simpler still would be SRAM Red eTap HRD, where the control levers and derailleurs talk to each other purely through wireless communication. Sure, you have more batteries with smaller capacity to deal with compared to Di2, but all you’d have to worry about afterward are the hydraulic brake hoses.

The main barrier to entry for electronic shifting, despite all its merits, is cost. Unless you’re looking at the top tier of groupsets and components, electronic shifting is usually not an option. If you were to go with the most affordable route, Shimano Ultegra Di2, you’re still looking at roughly the same cost of mechanical Shimano Dura-Ace, the Japanese juggernaut’s top-tier road bike groupset. This is why many believe that Di2 should be made available at more affordable third-tier Shimano 105 for proper mass-market adoption to increase.

Until then, dealing with replacing cables and fishing them through the frame roughly twice a year is a reality of maintenance. At least I have no battery to deal with, though.

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Pie-in-the-sky: Dream bike components

In the three years since I’ve taken up cycling, I’ve modified my bikes to better fit my demands as a cyclist and bike commuter. While they are great bikes now, there’s always scope for things to get better. Below is my list of dream bike components.

TUBELESS WHEELSET FOR DISC BRAKES + TUBELESS ROAD BIKE TIRES

On paper, Hyro’s stock Giant S-X2 wheelset is tubeless-ready, but in practice it needs tubeless rim tape and valves – not to mention the sealant and the tires themselves. As it’s essentially made for cross-country mountain bikes, it’s also rather heavy, despite having only 28 spokes. Since disc brakes have gotten a larger presence in road and cyclocross bikes, wheelset options have also increased – many of them lighter than the S-X2 yet just as strong.

The Aero Light Disc wheelset by Hunt Bike Wheels of the UK: strong, light, tubeless-ready, and built to accept CenterLock brake rotors.

Schwalbe’s Pro One tubeless slick clincher tire is state-of-the-art as of 2016.

As for road tubeless – I’m all for any tech that improves ride quality. Tubeless tires promise the same performance as clinchers, but at a lower air pressure. Couple that with the puncture protection of the liquid sealant inside the tire, and you have a compelling combination – one that’s worth the replacement of sealant every few months. Even that task has innovations coming its way too.

The only real downside is the availability of tires. Any 700C-sized tubeless rubber available in the Philippines tends to be made for cyclocross, with tread knobs or file tread and at least a 32 mm width. If there were slick or lightly treaded options in similar widths that would be great.

FRONT DYNAMO HUB AND LIGHTING SYSTEM

I’ve waxed poetic about the sheer endurance of my Cat Eye Volt 1200’s battery. However, it’s still running off a battery – it always stands the chance of running out of juice and failing mid-ride. Early on, I had dreams of a bike lighting setup that could be left permanently on. The best way to make that possible is to build a front wheel around a dynamo hub.

A PD-8 dynamo front hub, made by Taiwanese firm Shutter Precision (SP). It accepts six-bolt disc brake rotors. The two plastic pieces on the right sandwich into each other as wire connectors.

Dynamo hubs nowadays are incredibly efficient, generating electricity from the rotational energy of the front wheel that would otherwise be wasted. They are very hard to find locally though, as are lights that are built to run off them. A Taiwanese firm called Shutter Precision makes some of the best dynamo hubs out there, supposedly even better than German stalwards Schmidt and their famous SON (Schmidt Original Nabendynamo) units.

Heck, if you had Shimano’s Di2 electronic shifting, you could recharge its battery off the electricity from your dynamo hub, and never worry about losing the ability to shift gears. That’s exactly what Mark Beaumont did when he rode a Koga Solacio so equipped from Cairo to Cape Town in April 2015.

An Exposure Lights Revo Dynamo. One of the few dynamo-powered front lights advertising its output in lumens – in this case, 800 of them. (Photo credit: jamiecjordan.)

The only real question mark I have is the power output of a dynamo-powered front light. Unlike their battery brethren, dynamo-powered lights tend to have their brightness measured in lux instead of lumens. This makes meaningful comparisons of illumination difficult. Even then, I have yet to see a dynamo front light that pumps out the 1200 lumens my Volt 1200 does.

HYDRAULIC DISC BRAKES

I’m very happy with my TRP Spyre mechanical disc brakes. Any upgrade to braking capability is always welcome, however. For all the Spyres’ reliability, simplicity and decelerative ability, they will never offer single-finger braking from the hoods.

Shimano BR-RS505 hydraulic road disc brake caliper and SM-RT99 “Freeza” brake rotor.

Shimano now has hydraulic disc brakes for road bikes, incorporating spiffy technology such as Ice Tech from its mountain bikes. A few things hold me back from upgrading Hyro with them, though.

  • Caliper options for road and cross bike frames with Post Mount hardpoints are artificially limited. Fortunately, it looks like any of Shimano’s mountain bike brake calipers will work – no more mismatch issues between caliper and lever!
  • Shimano’s road hydraulic disc brakes are available in 10-speed (Tiagra) and 11-speed (105, Ultegra, Dura-Ace) flavors. Hyro runs the older 105 5700-series 10-speed groupset. Even then, I would still have to replace my derailleurs with new units, as Shimano’s Tiagra 4700-series 10-speed groupset uses different cable pull for shifting.
  • Finally there’s the price. Despite the tech trickling down to lower tiers, none of these parts is what I’d call cheap. Most expense goes into the STI levers, which are traditionally the priciest items on a groupset, but that cost jumps even more with hydraulic braking.

A CUSTOM TITANIUM FRAME

In terms of geometry, Hyro is spot-on for my physique. However, there’s no denying that he is still an aluminum bike, and deserved or not, the material still has a stigma for a stiff, crashy ride.

What about other materials, then? I have almost zero interest in carbon fiber as a bike frame material; unless it’s for a fork, it just isn’t the right material for the riding I like to do. Chromoly steel is currently the darling of custom frame builders, and is fabled for its legendarily springy, lively ride quality, but its susceptibility to rust puts holes in its reputation for longevity.

A custom titanium cyclocross bike frame from Russian builder Triton Bikes, kitted out with most of the things I’ve already mentioned in this post.

That leaves titanium. With the ride of steel and the corrosion resistance of aluminum, on paper it seems the perfect material to build a bicycle frame out of – one that could outlive you. Combined with a carbon fork, a titanium bike feels like a winner. The main concern is price. Tooling and methods for working titanium are expensive, the cost passing on to the end customer. I’m also not a fan of the bare titanium finish, as it attracts more attention than I would like; unfortunately paint isn’t known to adhere well to titanium tubing.

If there was some way to translate the TCX’s geometry and tire clearances into titanium form, then add all my desired rack and fender hardpoints…that might well be the last bike I buy.

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What’s your dream bike made out of? Tell me about it in the comments below.

Quick look: Shimano RS505 road bike disc brake system

In 2013, Shimano finally introduced hydraulic disc brakes to road bikes, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the technology trickled down to a more accessible level. Recently I chanced upon a bike that had this new hardware.

BUT FIRST, A HISTORY LESSON

Hyro, my TCX, uses post-mount frame tabs to mount a TRP Spyre disc brake caliper on the non-drive chainstay.

Disc brakes are not new technology; they’ve seen service in automobiles and motorcycles for decades. In the realm of bicycles, disc brakes were an innovation first popularized by bicycle tourers.

They then found widespread adoption in mountain biking, where they quickly superseded rim brakes and their susceptibility to mud and water by the end of the 20th century. The disc brake calipers were mounted to MTB frames and forks by either the perpendicular IS (International Standard) mount, or the more ubiquitous Post-Mount system.

In 2010, the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), the governing body of bicycle competition, allowed the use of disc brakes in cyclocross races. Prior to this, cyclocross bikes were essentially fully rigid mountain bikes with drop handlebars, road bike drivetrains, and cantilever rim brakes. These brakes were chosen for their mud-clearing ability, not exactly for their stopping power. With disc brakes, cyclocross racers could now enter corners faster and brake later, while remaining consistent regardless of conditions. This meant that the adoption of these brakes on road bikes was only a matter of time.

For bicycle component juggernaut Shimano, it was relatively straightforward to adapt its existing mountain bike hydraulic disc brake hardware to road use. Indeed, it took its Deore XT BR-M785 disc brake caliper and re-sold it as the road-use BR-R785 and BR-RS785, retaining Post-Mount as well. Later on however, Shimano introduced a new mounting standard called “Flat Mount” for disc-braked road bikes, citing better aerodynamics and integration. Indeed, after the introduction of Flat Mount, the only hydraulic road disc brake calipers that retain Post-Mount compatibility are the two R(S)785 units.

THE ACTUAL HARDWARE UP CLOSE

Yep, it costs a pretty penny. You can see the front of the ST-RS505 levers here.

On one of my visits to LifeCycle’s former branch in Makati, while having Hyro maintained, I noticed a flashy red bike on display. It was a brand-new Eddy Merckx Mourenx69 endurance road bike, made out of carbon fiber…and sporting Shimano’s RS505 disc brake hardware. I decided to take a better look since this was the first time I saw these parts out in the wild.

 

This is the BR-RS505 brake caliper. Note how they’re mounted to the bike’s chainstay; Flat Mount bolts them directly on. The bolts actually go through the chainstay from the underside and thread directly into the caliper. Merckx fitted this bike with a 140 mm rear rotor; the caliper will require a thin adapter plate to fit a 160 mm rotor.

Note the fins on the brake pad and the brake rotor. The finned center portion of the brake rotor is also made up of aluminum, sandwiched between the steel layers of the rotor’s main brake surface. All these features are supposed to mitigate heat buildup from braking, and let it escape into the atmosphere – a bigger concern for the higher speeds and braking loads of road bikes.

The ST-RS505 control lever as seen from the inboard side.

Unlike cable-actuated road bike brakes (either rim or disc), Shimano’s hydraulic road disc brakes tend to come as a kit of the brake calipers themselves and a matching set of STI levers. This is because the STI levers contain the master cylinders that push the hydraulic fluid toward the calipers. The first R785 brake systems paired the hydraulics with electronic Di2 shifting, currently available only on the top-end Dura-Ace and Ultegra groupsets. Later, Shimano reintroduced 2×11 mechanical shifting with the Ultegra-level ST-RS685 and these, the 105-level ST-RS505 STI levers.

The ST-RS505 control levers as seen from the outboard side. Note the Fulcrum Racing 5 DB wheels the Mourenx69 has – that explains some of the price.

You will have noticed by now the shape of these ST-RS505 levers. The earlier ST-R785 and ST-RS685 levers are very similar in shape to an Ultegra 6800 or Dura-Ace 9000 STI lever. These RS505s on the Mourenx69 look larger and rather bulbous by comparison. The look certainly divides opinion.

The brake hoods of the ST-RS505 control levers as seen from above. You can also see how flush the Flat Mount front brake caliper is with the non-drive side fork leg.

Actually holding the brake hoods.

I tried holding the RS505s by the brake hoods. As per glove sizing convention, I have medium-sized hands, and I had no problems with comfort. If anything, the front bulb makes for a nice extra handhold for an aero tuck while riding on the hoods. When held the normal way, it does feel like you’re holding a microphone.

The square-edged bleed port at the very rear of the brake hood tends to rub some people the wrong way, I’ve heard.

On some other cycling websites that have reviewed these STI levers, I read comments about a square-edged nub on the brake hood that rubbed some cyclists the wrong way and detracted from comfort. Apparently this problem area is the bleed port. Personally I never really noticed it, but it will depend on the individual rider.

If you’ve followed this site for any amount of time, you know I’m totally sold on the merits of disc brakes. The addition of hydraulics increases power to the modulation and consistency of the disc brake design. My only real reservations are the price and the backward compatibility of these calipers to road and cross bike frames with Post-Mount fittings, especially as I have no plans of getting rid of my TCX any time soon.