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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.

Changing a Bike Chain in Ten Minutes… And What You Need to Know About Connector Links, Missing Links, Power Links and Old Worn Chains.

I do my spring maintenance on the family bikes throughout the winter to have something to tinker with.  Yesterday, after we rode on the trainers, showered and ate lunch, was dedicated to chains on the good bikes.  My Venge, and my wife’s Alias.

I use high quality chains for the good bikes.  A SRAM Red 11 for my wife, and a PC-1091r for me.  Why SRAM chains?  Simply because that’s what they carry at the shop.  I know, KMC makes a better chain, and yes, I’m fully aware I can save $20 online but I choose not to, because I want my local shop to stay open.  It’s actually a little tricky justifying doing the work myself in the light of that last sentence, but whatever.  I can live with it.  I LOVE tinkering on my bikes.

I get a full season out of the chain on my Venge because I take care of it so well, and that bike rarely sees a drop of rain, let alone a deluge.  My wife goes through two a year, but she rides her good bike through everything.

A few tidbits about chains:

  1.  They don’t come in the right length out of the box – your chain size will depend on your chainset and cassette combo – they make them big enough to cover all of the combos, so you’ll have to trim a few links off your new chain.
  2. You need a chain break tool for this.  I use a simple breaker on a cycling multi-tool (and an adjustable wrench or channel locks if you need extra leverage).
  3. SRAM chains come with a connecting link that is only meant to be used once.  When used more than once, the opening stretches and they don’t hold as well.  If you’re one who likes to remove their chains for cleaning use a Whipperman  ConneX chain connector (and you shouldn’t need a tool for this one).  SRAM’s links do fail if you reuse them (I don’t worry about once or twice, but more than that, no way).  It happened to me on a chain I used to take off every time I cleaned the chain, 15 miles into a 100 mile ride, downshifting from the big ring to the little to climb a hill.  Boom.  Slack.  Just like that, the link popped.  My friends rode away (after I called SAG) as I was looking for the other half of the link.  I did, miraculously, find it and caught them at the next rest stop.  KMC says you can reuse theirs two or three times before they need replacing.
  4. You want to replace your chain before they’re really sloppy.  Waiting too long will round out the cogs on your chainring set ($85 – $275) and your cassette ($35 – $310).  If you want to get every last second out of your chain “because the man is lying to you about how long they last to get you to buy more chains” (at $30 – $75, ahem), well go right ahead and use ’em till they brake.  While you’re at it, replace the chainrings and cassette, though, because now your shifting will skip when you put a new chain on if you don’t.  It’ll skip because you’re a knucklehead.
  5. Buy a chain checking tool and use it.  
  6. A new chain will shift crisper than a worn out, dead one… unless you let it go too long, then see #4.

So, to change your chain quickly, assuming your old chain was the right length, use a pair of chain pliers to remove the chain and set it down on a 6′ long stretch of paper towels, so it’s straight from one end to the other.  Take your new chain and set it down next to the old, lining up the links.  The new chain will be slightly shorter because the old one stretched out with use, so with your pointer finger, count each link together on the old and new chain till you get to the end of the old.  Then make a bend in the chain.  Remember this; you’re going to want to break the new chain so the outer plates go away.  I always go left to right, so the inside plates on the left, outer plates on the right at the bend.  Use your chain tool to break the new chain.  Clean the chainrings, cassette and jockey wheels, shift down to the smallest cog in the back, and install the new chain with the provided link.

If you screw up and break the chain at the outer plates, you’re going to have to push the pin back in using your chain tool.  Doing this is very bad.  If you don’t get it just right, your chain could fail on you.  If you do get it right, though, you’ll probably be fine.  I just took a chain off that I changed whilst hungry (not recommended, ahem), thus breaking the chain a half-link short.  You’ll have to get the old pin started in the hole to get everything lined up and back in the chain too.  You can press it in with channel locks or needle nosed pliers (this is not easy).  You just want to get it in there far enough it won’t move when you put everything in the chain tool.  Once you’re satisfied everything is lined up, crank it down and run the pin back in.  Don’t run it too far, either – you want the pin to set EXACTLY like all the others.  The important word in that last sentence is exactly.  Make it so… and hope for the best.  It worked for me, though pro mechanics will tell you to get a new chain.  It’s up to you, but I’m WAY too cheap for that.

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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