Review: SRAM Force CX1 drivetrain with HydroR disc brakes

For pure cyclocross racing, you'd be hard pressed to find a better set-up

Cross Disc Parts
Less is More

SRAM whittled away its shift paddle, providing greater finger clearance.

Let’s Talk About Brakes

While not required to run a CX1 system, this test also included extended time on what SRAM calls its MY15 HydroR hydraulic disc road brakes, which is another way of saying these aren’t the brakes that they had to recall in January of 2014.

Our first experience on SRAM’s hydraulic road brakes was actually on a set of the recalled version. Fortunately we never had any issues. In fact, then as now, modulation and power was impressive. Anyone worried that disc brakes on road or cyclocross bikes are dangerous because they’re too powerful simply doesn’t understand how they work. The predictable leverage ratio of hydro disc brakes delivers better control and modulation with less hand effort. Whether ripping down a paved mountain descent or diving into a muddy corner in a ’cross race, hydraulic disc brakes (be them SRAM or Shimano) slow you down in a precise and controlled manner. Racers can carry more speed and brake later going into corners.

What don’t work well oftentimes are cantilever brakes, which in my experience, squeal, cause fork shudder, and generally create a feeling of uncertainly as you plummet down steep inclines. Yes, I’m a passionate disc road convert even if there is, as Powers noted, a half pound weight penalty.

Our pro cyclocross mechanic took a similar stance, saying he had no complaints at all. “It’s hard to believe after all the screw-ups with the first generation that these worked flawlessly for our team all season,” he said. “They are easy to bleed, which we hardly ever had to do. They are easy to install and they were reliable. We didn’t even run through brake pads very often. No, the lever feel still isn’t as good as Shimano, but functionally, they’re on par.”

No arguments from this tester. All else being equal, we’d opt for the smoother feel of Shimano’s R785 hydro brakes, which we rode during tests of ’cross race bikes from Specialized and Trek. But it’s not a huge difference — and until Shimano makes a serious play in the 1x ’cross arena, we’d accept the slight drop in braking feel for the gains of the simple, lightweight and reliable CX1 drivetrain for pure racing applications.

Here’s a look at some of the changes SRAM incorporated into the brakes following the January 2014 recall.

Hold Tight

While some balk at the height of the SRAM HydroR hood, it certainly provides more to grab onto.

SRAM also gets props for making some nice on-the-fly improvements between the recalled brakes and this version. While still a little boxy, hood ergonomics are improved. It also trimmed the size of the shift paddle, which provides more finger clearance when braking, and is especially invaluable if you’re wearing thick gloves.

What Say the Euros

Until the final race of the 2015 UCI world cyclocross championships, it was common to wonder why the top European pros had been slow to adopt disc brakes. Powers blamed it on a combination of old school mechanics and weight.

“Weight will always be an issue,” the U.S. national champ admitted. “I still have a canti bike that I race in certain situations. I think in some cases it’s a course thing. In the U.S. we have a lot of blazing fast courses where we need disc brakes on our bikes. But a lot of the courses in Europe are slower because it’s always wet so you don’t have to come off high speed as much. That’s when the weight matters more. But I also think it’s about the Euro mechanics not knowing the technology. It’s a lot of old Belgian and Dutch guys and you just cant say you have to start bleeding these brakes and switching pads and deal with different hub widths. It will take time for whole sport to get their heads around the change.”

Da Man's Machine

Jeremy Powers Focus race bike with full SRAM CX1 and HydroR.

That change may come sooner than later. We interviewed Powers in December. In late January, two of the top 3 riders in the men’s elite race were on disc equipped bikes, including new world champion Mathieu Van der Poel.

“Top level European racing always seems to be hesitant to adopt radical technologies,” added SRAM’s Newton. “But we are starting to see that change with some of the young pros who are on disc and winning. I’m actually surprised to see how fast adoption is happening.”

What Does the Future Hold?

We’re aware that cyclocross season ended a few days ago for the pros, and probably at least a month ago for most people reading this review. Thus we’d be remiss if we didn’t try to look into the future and guess what improvements the next iterations of SRAM Force CX1 and HydroR might have.

Reduced weight is always the obvious starting point, and SRAM’s Newton says that is certainly in the realm of possibility. “As soon as we told Jeremy Powers about the group, he wanted a Red version,” said Newton. “Higher — and lower — cost 1x systems are certainly possible. And right now because of the 110bcd chainring and the same cable pull as other shifters, you can already use a Red crankarm or Red shifters if you want.”

“Also the rear derailleur is obviously not the lightest we’ve ever made but a lot of that comes from really essential parts,” added Newton of a difference that’s about 100 grams more than a Red 22 derailleur. “The clutch will always add a few grams but it’s a really key part of the system. Of course we are always keeping our options open.”

Swap In

Powers saves weight by swapping in a Red crankarm to what is otherwise a Force level offering.

As for improvements of the brakes, Newton points to the sport’s governing body as holding the key. “We really hope that disc brakes will be UCI legal for road racing soon,” he said. “Once that happens getting feedback from the pros will be key. Right now I feel like our system has great power and modulation. But overall weight remains an issue, especially for road applications. I can’t tell you how we change that at this stage. But given that we’ve already solved a lot of important issues, and we’re only two years into this, it’s fair to say there are plenty of improvements that are still possible.”

And while that possibility probably doesn’t mean totally killing off the front derailleur like what’s happening in mountain biking, SRAM Force CX1 may well have application beyond cyclocross.

“The next step is to figure out how to expand the gear range to make the group more plausible for more uses,” explained Newton. “When we introduced the group in January of 2014, we didn’t have the 11-36 yet. But now with that cassette option, you have a gear option that is 13 percent lower than the 11-32. That might not sound like much, but if you have a 42/36 combination you can pedal up just about anything. Or you can go up to the 46t chainring and have a 46/11 that’s not too bad in a highspeed road situation. We don’t see the 1x being an end all for all road use, but for crits or triathlon or some gravel races where chain security is really important, it could be the way to go.”

It’s certainly an appealing concept — and one we plan to put to the test. With ’cross season done, we’ll swap an 11-36 cassette, 46-tooth chainring, and a set of 40mm tires onto our test rig. Then what was a dedicated CX race bike will be ready for everything from steep road climbs to gravel grinding to light duty singletrack. More fun is sure to follow — and that’s what it’s all about.

For more information visit www.sram.com and make sure to check out the extended photo gallery below for more details on SRAM Force CX1 and HydroR, as well as pictures of Jeremy Powers national championship winning race bike.

About the author: Jason Sumner

An avid cyclist, Jason Sumner has been writing about two-wheeled pursuits of all kinds since 1999. He’s covered the Tour de France, the Olympic Games, and dozens of other international cycling events. He also likes to throw himself into the fray, penning first-person accounts of cycling adventures all over the globe. Sumner, who joined the RoadBikeReview.com / Mtbr.com staff in 2013, has also done extensive gear testing and is the author of the cycling guide book "75 Classic Rides: Colorado." When not writing or riding, the native Coloradoan can be found enjoying time with his wife Lisa and daughter Cora.


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