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The Case for Having A Complete Shimano Drivetrain From Front to Back (For the First Time)

When I bought my Trek 5200, used, it came with an Ultegra 9-speed Triple drivetrain. The local shop carried SRAM chains and cassettes, so that’s what I had on day one… through day 3,400. In that time, the shifters broke so I went with MicroSHIFT 3×9 shifters as I couldn’t get Shimano replacements.

Then I had the opportunity to upgrade my Specialized Venge to Ultegra components so I scrapped the triple and 9-speed drivetrain for the original 105 drivetrain… a 2 x 10-speed.

I hadn’t used a Shimano chain or cassette since I upgraded the Trek. I also opted for aftermarket chainrings that were sold as SRAM. They looked good and were quite light. I figured it would be good, SRAM chainrings, chain and cassette.

Well, after all of my recent difficulties with my system skipping under power in the baby ring (little ring up front, most gears in the back), I started investigating drivetrains and I saw something, I believe it was from Shimano, that said it’s best to use their components exclusively from front to back because the components are made to work together for the best shifting experience possible. I wasn’t going to switch all of that stuff to SRAM, so I put an Ultegra cassette and chain on the Trek… and the LBS owner suggested the skipping was likely due to simply needing a new chainring*, I looked for and found two 105 chainrings that matched my crank (110 BCD, 50/34) at Jenson USA, ordered them and got them installed once they arrived.

So, with those two chainrings, for the first time ever I’ve got a full line from front to back – 105 everything, except the chain and cassette which are both Ultegra.

So, you may be wondering, what about the aforementioned Specialized Venge? That bike came with a FSA crank and FSA chainrings. To this day it’s never had a full line of Shimano from front to back (though I’m reconsidering this after my experience with the Trek):

For the Venge, that’s Day 2,922 down to Day 1… The chainrings were never Shimano, and the cassettes and chains were usually SRAM.

So, now that I’ve got a full Shimano drivetrain on the Trek, how does it ride? Keeping in mind that new parts help considerably, and there are a few on the Trek (chain, cassette, rear derailleur – even 105 brakes), the Trek has never behaved so well. Every shift is quick and crisp, and the system is exceedingly quiet. Quiet is fast. I’ve never had it so well – and that skipping issue is fixed. I took the bike out yesterday for a 57-mile ride and put it through the paces, climbing out of the saddle in the little ring and several different gears on the cassette. This isn’t to say the bike was all that bad with a mashup of parts from different manufacturers (at least till that baby chainring started going), but the difference with a full line of Shimano drivetrain parts is surprising. Now I understand Shimano’s recommendation.

*Now, for the asterisk above… the owner of our local bike shop made was able to say I needed a new chainring because I am meticulous about maintaining my cassettes and chains. It couldn’t have been either of those, so after all of my farting around, which I’d kicked around with him to verify my thinking, and the drivetrain was still skipping, the only thing left that could be wrong was the chainring. Normally, with a skipping issue you’re going to start with the chain and cassette.

Road Bike Drivetrains, Cassettes, Chains, Cranksets… and Annoying Noises; Shimano, SRAM and ShRAMano

Two weeks ago I had a cassette on my Trek 5200 that Dr. Frankenstein would have approved of. The three bottom (big) gears from SRAM cassette and seven of the top gears from a Shimano 105 cassette. This was the only combination that allowed my bike to shift (relatively) normally up and down the cassette. I spent the better part of two years messing around with the setup thinking the problem was in the cable network – that there was drag in the system due to an error on my part. The bike displayed classic symptoms of systemic drag problems… trouble shifting in one, maybe two gears, but only up or down the cassette (rarely both), unless it was perfectly dialed in within an eighth of a turn on the barrel adjuster. If I had to guess, I’d hit about 85% of my shifts crisply and cleanly. I’d get a hesitation in 10% and completely miss 5%.

The problem turned out to be a worn-out rear derailleur.

With a new derailleur, it didn’t take long to realize it might be better if I went with a single-line cassette. There was a slight misalignment between the third and fourth cog that would produce an ever-so-slight chain skip click when in that fourth cog. Fifth? Third? Absolutely quiet and all of the other gears were awesome. Now, it must be stated here, I am intolerably finicky about such things. I can’t help it. I’ve sought counseling. The counselor pulled all of her hair out. It’s not good.

Anyway, going by Shimano’s and SRAM’s instructions, both companies recommend exclusive drivetrain compliance – in other words, no ShRAMano. I’ve been mixing SRAM chains and cassettes with Shimano components for years, typically because my LBS stocks them (I still shop for everything the shop stocks, there). In many cases ShRAMano will work just fine, but mixing the cassettes was a touch much. I knew this going in, but if one has to resort to mixing cassettes, something is wrong in the drivetrain that needs to be corrected. That “needs to be corrected” part weighed on my mind. I don’t like “needs to be corrected”. My counselor* will attest.

The shifting with the setup above was close, but left a lot to be desired. Every gear shifted excellently except the second to the largest cog. That gear, if I didn’t do a hard shift, stuck downshifting (going up the cassette) and it sounded like the chain was going to grind to dust any minute. It worked fine upshifting (going down the cassette to a harder gear).

Now, I know what you’re thinking, something is still wrong with the shifting – perhaps there is drag in the cables? That’s the typical answer. I investigated that. On a fluke, I took the Shimano Ultegra cassette from my Venge and put it on the Trek, then put the SRAM PG1070 cassette on the Venge. The Trek shifted like butter, 100% up and down the cassette. Not one missed shift. So, I know what you’re thinking… the Venge now shifts like crap now. Nope. 100%, without a noise. I rode the Venge on Tuesday night hitting every shift with precision and crispness – 100%. In fact, I’m actually looking at this as a win-win – the Venge shifts better with the SRAM cassette than it did with the Ultegra (and with Ultegra components, no less). And the Trek appeared to be right as well, finally.

I took the Trek out for its first test spin last evening and it was fantastic. Not a single missed shift or extra click with the chain moving to the next gear, up or down in either the big or little ring up front. It’s been a long time coming, but I’m finally done with this mess. Well, almost done. I’ve got a new Ultegra chain on the way, too. I was going to need a new chain pretty soon anyway (guessing, right around DALMAC time) so I may as well slap a chain that matches the drivetrain on the bike. That seems to work on the Trek. For the Venge, I’ll stick with ShRAMano.

How do we make sense of this? Hey, I wish I could tell you. Sometimes ShRAMano works, sometimes it doesn’t. Supposedly, it’s always best to stay within the line… though, it appears, not necessarily in every instance. Flip a coin.

*I didn’t actually meet with a counselor about how my bikes shift. I talked about it with my wife a little bit, but all of her hair remains firmly attached to her head. I used the line to be funny and overly melodramatic. If you didn’t get the joke, or were offended, well that is unfortunate. I have sought counseling for other matters both related and not related to what I’ve written about on this blog (the overall blog, not this post), so your petty attacks won’t work on me. I wear my issues on my sleeve and write about them often with the sole hope of helping others. If you can’t take a joke, that says more about you than it does me.

Road Cycling: Why Do Pedals and Cleats Creak, And Vastly More Important; How to Fix A Squeaky Pedal and/or Cleat

There is nothing worse in cycling than rocketing down the road on a $5,000 road bike, virtually silent in every way… except for a “wreeet, wreeet, wreeet, wreeet” every other pedal stroke for 65 miles.  It’ll make you want to take a shotgun to your offending foot.  I’ve been there.  Before we jump into the phantom creak (for which there are two fixes, by the way), I want to get into some of the initial causes for creaks that’ll drive you bonkers if you can’t pinpoint what’s going on.

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The Dead Pedal

The simplest, your pedal is shot.  I get between five and seven seasons out of a set of pedals before having to replace them.  I want to be very clear here, too; by shot, I mean shot.  The pedal on the right was so worn so bad I couldn’t clip out of the pedal by moving my heel away from the bike, I had to un-clip to the inside, toward the bike.  Those pedals are done, cooked, kaput.  Unless your pedals are truly at the end of their life, we’ve got options, so don’t fret.

Replace the Cleats!

A pair of cleats, depending upon how much you walk on them, should last a season – maybe two if you use cleat covers (I do).  When the front lip that rests underneath the pedal loop wears thin, it’ll cause creaking.  If the lip is worn too thin, replace the cleats. Clean the underside of the shoe.  Take a construction pencil and outline the cleat.  Get any dirt or rocks out of the bolt holes so the 3-mm Allen key fits in as it should (otherwise you can strip the bolt hole and have to resort to a flat-head screw driver).  Loosen and remove the bolts and old cleat.  Lube the threads of the new bolts and set the new cleat exactly where the old one was.  Bolt the cleat down.  Do the other cleat.

The Dirty Cleat and or Pedal

The next offender for a squeaky cleat/pedal interface is dirt.  If you walk around in the grass or dirt, chances are your pedals are going to creak at some point.  The easiest solution is to clean your cleats and pedals – especially where the pedals touch or lock into the cleats.  Also, avoid walking in wet grass if you can.

Cleat Out of Alignment

Next, and this gets a little tricky, is a huge offender.  When you replace your cleat, you mistakenly fail to correctly align the new cleat.  The new cleat will work against the pedal when you clip in and pedal.  The more watts you put to the pedal, the worse the pedal/cleat will creak.  Now, the fix here isn’t as simple as move the cleat so your heel is closer to or further from the bike.  You have to figure out how your foot wants to align so you can properly move the cleat.  The most time consuming and expensive way to handle this is take the bike and shoes to your local shop and they’ll do the hard part for you.  If you want to tackle this yourself, while riding, we want to figure out where we are in the float.  Recently, I misaligned a cleat and the creaking was minor, but it was there and slightly annoying.  When I pushed my heel out away from the bike, the squeaking stopped.  So you’re thinking, adjust the cleat so your heel naturally goes outward a little, right?  Wrong.  That’s the opposite of what you want.  When pedaling and not thinking about it, my heel wanted to go toward the bike.  Pedaling naturally, I was all the way at the edge of the float with my heel in.  I wanted to move the cleat so my heel could move in, toward the chainstay.  Conversely, if you’re pedaling and your heel is pushing out against the float, you move the cleat so your heel will pushes out from the bike to stop the creaking.

I had to move my knees out of the way to get the shot, that’s not how one’s knees should look when everything is properly aligned.

Now, I can’t stress this enough; you don’t want big adjustments here.  You want little adjustments, then check your work by tightening the cleat bolts down and take your bike for a test-spin.  Go too far and you’ll blow right through your 4 or 7° float.  A little move in the cleat will go a long way.  And if you mess it up, set up an appointment at your local shop so you can breeze in, get your cleat aligned and get out.

Once you’ve done all of the above, if you still can’t figure out what the hell is going on with your creaking-ass pedals, fear not, there is a solution!

  1.  Lube the pedal and cleat where they interface – a lightweight oil will do (think Boeshield T-9).  This will work for a time, but as soon as the lube wears off, the squeak will come back.  I don’t mess with lubing the cleat anymore.  There’s a better solution.
  2. Better is candle wax.  For the creak you just can’t fix, take a birthday candle and rub it over all of the parts of the cleat that touch the pedal.  Then do the pedal surfaces that touch the cleat.  You’ll be amazed at how well this works… and it’s going to last a lot longer than rubbing some lube on the cleats.

Perfect Shifting on a Shimano 10 Speed Drivetrain Requires Perfect Cable Housings, Ferrules, and Fresh Cables

I’ve written before, in a disjointed “update” fashion, about my adventures with Shimano’s 10 speed shifting problems but after yesterday’s adventures, it’s time for a full post. Necessity is the mother of fixing a road bike’s drivetrain is how the saying goes, methinks.

First, Shimano’s 10 speed drivetrains (105, Ultegra, Dura Ace) are notorious for poor shifting quality if there’s any drag in the cable system. And by “any”, I mean any. No drag? Fantastic. Drag? Read on… I won’t be dealing with the normal culprits in this post, things such as dirt, grime, wear, excessive lube, installing the cable improperly on the pinch-bolt of the derailleur, frayed cables, sweat and sport drink-caked cable guide, etc. This post is for a more nefarious issue.

If you’ve got drag in the cable system, here’s what it will present as, in two different scenarios – each on a different bike, with a different component line (Ultegra and 105).

With the first, you can get the shifting dialed in, but it’s hard. One quarter-turn either way and it’ll shift good going up the cassette or down the cassette, but not both. You’ll get a hesitation on one or more gears while others will work just fine. If, however, you get the barrel adjuster dialed in just right, it’ll shift perfectly. It’s liable drive you up a wall, too, because the cause can be tough to track down – it was for me.

In the second scenario, and worse, you’ll get clicking gears, almost like you’re half-geared, going up or down the cassette, but not both. Motherf****er, I’m getting worked up just thinking about it. It gets worse; it’ll happen on specific gears only, upper, lower or middle of the cassette depending on which way you’re adjuster is misdialed. Oh, it gets still worse. You can get it dialed in just right in the big ring, but it’ll click in a couple of gears when you shift to the little ring. We’re going to deal with this scenario first, because it’ll drive a person mad. It did me.

The clicking problem presented itself on my Specialized Venge. Shimano Ultegra 10 speed. I switched housings, cables, almost everything and couldn’t find the damned gremlin. Then I gave the mechanic at the shop a crack at it. He made it better by installing new cables all the way back, but I still had to have it dialed in just right… and I still had the big ring/baby ring problem, though as little time as I spend in the baby ring, it was livable, at least. Still, it bugged me to no end knowing there was something off.

In the end, I got lucky finding the problem. The mechanic at the shop ran the rear derailleur housing exiting the handlebar and entering the down tube about a centimeter too long. It drove me nuts seeing it not symmetrical with the other side. I decided to tinker with it one Saturday to get that cable length corrected. When putting it back together, the ferrule (end cap) was a coated plastic… I didn’t like it and swapped it out for a metal end cap before putting everything back together. After HOURS of monkeying around with it, shifting perfection was achieved at long last. It was that one little freakin’ plastic ferrule that gummed up my shifting so bad, a pro couldn’t figure it out.

Second up is the hesitation in the shifting on my Trek, Shimano 105 ten speed drivetrain. Now this was a little trickier to pin down for one fun reason. The whole bike, from the ground up, is new except for the frame, fork and chain ring bolts. I chose the cable housing lengths myself, based on a guess. I threaded the housings through the handlebar ports. I put it all together myself, brakes, shifters, housings, end caps… all of it.

So let’s just say there was a lot I could have messed up and leave it at that.

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I checked everything and was simply flummoxed. No plastic ferrule, no bad housing, no drag in the system… in fact, I went so far as to leave the rear loop alone because if it worked on the old 9 speed system, why mess with it, right?

Guess what I found out Sunday night? Yep, it was the rear loop that worked perfectly on the original 9 speed system. It was the only thing I hadn’t changed and before I messed around with changing new stuff, because I’d finally had enough, I just wanted to make absolutely sure. I cut a new length of shifter housing (there’s a difference between brake and shifter housing, by the way) and put two brand spankin’ new end caps on each end, threaded it on, connected the cable to the derailleur, dialed it in with the barrel adjuster… et voilà. Doh! Perfect.

The problem inherent in the ten speed system was corrected in the eleven speed drivetrain. The fix for a ten speed system can seem complex, but with a little sticktoitiveness it can be dealt with. The tough part is figuring out where the drag is in the system.

If, by some unlucky stroke, you run into this on your bike, the best advice I can give is run the whole cable system new back to the derailleur. New housings, new cable, new end caps (and be sure to use metal caps)… no frayed ends on the shift cables, too. The problem is drag on the cable, even the slightest little bit will throw the system off, so I wouldn’t use a heavy lube on the cable, either. In fact, if you’ve got decent housing, I’d stay away from lube altogether. Modern shift cable housing doesn’t require it, though check the manufacturers instructions for yours, just to make sure.

This post assumes, of course, that all other issues are dealt with, like a gummed up cable guide (under the bottom bracket shell), the cable is on the proper side of the pinch bolt, the cables aren’t frayed or rusted, the housings aren’t gummed up, etc. etc. etc.

The Perfect Road Bike: How to Attain Yours

Attaining the perfect road bike may seem, at first blush, a bit like attaining a chupacabra.  If you’re light on your Latin lore, try Bigfoot.  There are so many factors it may better to say it would be like trying to use Bigfoot as bait to catch the Loch Ness Monster.

My friends, it’s not quite that bad, if you know what you’re doing.  If you don’t, this is the post for you, because it’ll get bumpy in a hurry.  Let’s look at some points that don’t require a tinfoil hat.

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The Bike:

The most important question you’ll have to answer to build your perfect bike is, “What kind of rider do I want to be?”  I realize most won’t have a clue – don’t be discouraged, it’s not a requirement.  Yet.  There’ll be a little more trial and error with the process at first if you don’t, but that can be worked around with the right amount of cash.  If you like the idea of road cycling, what kind?  Do you want to be fast, kinda fast, or do you just want to putter around the 40-mile block?

If you’re going to be very fast, if that suits you, then you’re going to want something very light, very aero, and very carbon fiber.  If you’re going to be kinda fast, then the aero bit is nice, but not entirely necessary.  The carbon fiber is a must, and the gearing will be slightly more important than weight.  You just want to ride around the block at a fair clip?  Well, in that case you can easily get away with aluminum if you’re running 25 or 28mm tires.  In simple terms, the faster you want to go, the more narrow the gap to thread the needle.

The same will go for mountain bikes or gravel bikes – the faster you want to be, the more important the frame material and component class become – more on components later.

The Numbers:

In order of importance, you’ll have frame size, stem length, saddle size/width and crank arm length.  Those affect all of your big hitter pain centers.  Too much reach, drop or rise in your stem and you hurt or your arms and hands go numb.  Saddle too wide, oh dear God will you hurt.  Frame too big or small, pain indeed.  Stem too short or long?  Take a guess.  How about the crank arms?  Too short, no power.  Too long, pain, pain, pain, pain.  Saddle too high?  Ouch.  Saddle too low?  Guess!

You get the point.  The numbers have to be very close to right.  Don’t just go with any size, either.  Even going with the internet frame size calculators is a little iffy, because a true pro will take the geometry of the whole frame into account before picking the right size for the rider.  Using me as an example, the computer model showed I should be on a 58cm frame.  For my Specialized, I knew better, though.  I wanted something a little more low slung so I ordered a 56.  Because it was a compact frame, I even could have been worked into a 54 but I thought that would be too much drop from saddle to bar, and the stem would have been really long.

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You’ll also have to take frame style into account.  The Specialized is a compact frame while the Trek two photos up is a standard.  Standard frames are a little more finicky when it comes to size so it is wise for one to stick a little closer to the proper size.  You can tell them by their top tube – it runs almost perfectly parallel to the ground.  I could have fit myself on a 56cm standard frame, but it would have taken some creative part selection.  The 56cm compact frame, it was no problem at all.  10mm longer stem, peg the saddle, slap it on the keister and call her a biscuit.

I’ll Take Mechanically Sound for $1,500, please…

This is going to be a very short paragraph because it’s very simple.  Shimano 105, SRAM Rival, or Campagnolo Chorus are the minimum starting point for components.  You don’t need top of the line for your perfect bike, but you have to start somewhere, and that’s where.  I have two perfect bikes, one with 105 and one with Ultegra components (third and second from the top, respectively).  Dura Ace would have been nice, yes, and another $1,000 per bike.  Not necessary for my above average, but below hair on fire, pace.

Color Me Happy…

And that leads us to the all-important color selection.  Look, unless you really like baby-$#!+ brown, don’t settle for a bike that looks like a baby $#@+ on it.  For this point, and I can’t believe I can say this and mean it, I like my Trek over the Specialized.  I built the Trek from the ground up.  I picked the crankset, the chainrings, the pedals, the seat post…  I picked the colors.  I picked the stem and the quill stem adapter.  And the headset.  And the bottom bracket… and the bar tape.  And the handlebar…  Right down to my name on the top tube and the Punisher decal on the down tube, the Trek is my bike.  I built (and for some parts, had it built) exactly how I wanted it, from the ground up.

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Whoever tells you road cycling isn’t a bit of a fashion show, they’re either lying, they don’t know any better, or they truly don’t care.  Either way, it’s a fashion show on two wheels.  And let’s face it, if they’re in the “don’t care” camp, that puts you in the “ain’t listening to someone who doesn’t care” camp.

Finally, we come down to the little details.  The decals, the style and color of the decals, and so forth.  Too many decals and your steed won’t look flashy in the “flash me your boobs” way.  No, boobs are wonderful.  Bikes with too many decals are gaudy.  Don’t go there.  Just a few, here and there.  Let the awesomeness of the bike speak for itself.  Anyone who knows a 1999 Trek 5200 knows they were gaudy.  So gaudy, I need only link to it (page 19).  When I built mine, I could have had the original decal set put on the bike.  You can see what I went with, “Trek”, a “Made in the USA” decal (because it literally was, twice), and a “Velocity Wheels” decal, because Velocity is awesome.  Finally, I just added that Punisher decal.

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There’s a big gap between a really good bike and a perfect bike.  Really good will get the job done.  It’ll get you where you want to go, as fast as you want to go, provided you’re willing to give it the effort.

You’ll give your perfect bike a double-take when you walk by and it’ll be a pleasure to ride.  That’s when you know you’ve got it right.

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