08 SRAM RivalGroupset


SRAM Rival Pro Review - By Steve Cooper

Component Weights as listed on SRAM website
  • DoubleTap shifter/brake levers: 340 grams
  • Rear Derailleur: 188 grams
  • Front Derailleur: 102 grams (band clamp version tested)
  • Compact Crankset with BB: 830 grams
  • Brakeset: 287 grams/pair
  • MSRP: $899
The temptation to introduce melodramatic themes into a SRAM Rival review is great. There's the classic road group rivalry between Shimano and Campy, with SRAM, the plucky upstart, ratcheting up tensions as it jumps into the fray. For colorful metaphors you could draw comparisons with major religions, game platforms, and even burger joints. But this is a review focusing on function, not the fancy; it's practical stuff, so let's get down to it.

SRAM unveiled their first complete road component groups, Force and Rival, at the Sea Otter Classic in spring of 2006. New terminology was introduced to the road cyclist's lexicon such as DoubleTap shifters, 1:1 Exact Actuation and OpenGlide cassettes. The product launch was well managed, well hyped and made plenty of buzz in the cycling press and in the race community. Following the success of Force and Rival, in spring 2007 SRAM announced Red, an evolutionary step beyond Force that was clearly a shot at Dura Ace and Record. Ultimately, over the last two and half years, SRAM has pried loose a strangle hold maintained by the road bike industry's two dominating forces behind road components. And that opening has sparked many comparisons between the entrenched and the untried.

As SRAM's entry point into their family of road components, Rival is graced with many of the important new features in their more expensive bits but at a bargain price. List price for the front and rear derailleurs, shifters, brake set, crankset, bottom bracket, chain and cassette lists around $1000 USD, with deeply discounted deals for those willing to hunt around. At Rival's affordable price point, you could build-up a race-ready crit or cross bike that could be ridden "no-regrets aggressive" in even the sketchiest pack.

For our review, we selected a 50/34 compact crankset in 175 with a 12-26 OG-1070 cassette and a PC-1070 HollowPin chain.

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Component details
Some observations of the Rival group as whole? The polished aluminum finish has a simple, classic appearance; none of the components are overly polished, nor are they tinted with anodizing (only exception being the warm gray hard anodized chain rings). The look is very traditional, clean, almost retro, and that same impression is carried over to the physical lines of each piece in the group.

On the functional side, all the derailleur and brake clamping and cable fixing bolts are well positioned with enough offset to allow for use of long allen keys. The DoubleTap clamp bolts are easily tightened by folding forward the flexible brake hood rubber. Rear derailleur limit screws are on the face of the derailleur body for easy access. But setting brake pad position is a little challenging due to the short caliper arms.

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There's a slightly boxy, yet soft sculpting to the Rival OCT hollow-forged AL-6066 crank arms that stylistically reminds me of mid 90's Dura Ace. The drive side's lightweight Open Core Technology axle passes though a GXP Team bottom bracket with outboard bearings and its trick clear waterproof sleeve. The left side crank arm has an integrated extractor bolt. The pedal ends of both crank arms are stout and use a thin washer between the pedal spindle and the arm to prevent damage from over-tightening. On the backside of each crank arm is a smooth, forged channel that reduces weight while reinforcing longitudinal rigidity. Rival's PowerGlide 7075 chainrings are hard anodized for durability with shift ramps and pins to provide quick gear changes between rings. The crank's design is mechanically old school in execution, but perfectly functional. It may not have as much sex appeal as a hi-buck, all-carbon, aero crank, but at Rival's price point; surrendering a little elegance in favor of utility is a fine trade-off.

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Rival DoubleTap aluminum lever controls are an ergonomic joy. In my XL hands, I found them very comfortable on the compact-sized hood tops, providing quick, three finger brake lever access, with a near perfect girth for wrapping my middle, ring and pinkie fingers around the body during climbs. Brake and shift levers angle outwards slightly, situating both levers into position directly under relaxed fingers, with the middle finger falling naturally on the single shift lever. The design allows for simultaneous index finger braking and either up- or downshifting. Another plus for SRAM's DoubleTap controls? Both brake and shifter cabling runs cleanly under the bar tape.

DoubleTap's major innovation is a single lever for both up- and downshift, with a 15 degree long, inward sweep for downshifting singly or multiply into easier gears and a quick tap in for quick, single gear upshifts. Techniques for subtle shifting are mastered over time when coming from either Shimano or Campy systems. Once you gain confidence with the Rival DoubleTap rear derailleur controls, it's easy to sweep into 2, 3 and even 4 gear downshifts, and precisely execute multiple tap upshifts.

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The front derailleur control takes a mix of patience and very precise cable tension and limit screw adjustment to produce clean shifting with minimal crossover chain rub. The DoubleTap front shifter has four detent positions, two for the inner ring, and two for the outer ring. Correct cable tension (follow the front derailleur's set-up instruction very carefully) is critical. The innermost position needs to be set with just enough clearance between the chain and the inner cage to not rub when on the inner rear cog. The second position is determined by cable tension, and with careful adjustment almost all chain rub can be dialed out. The shifter's third position moves the chain to the outer chainring, and if tension is set properly, you may be able to use your inner cassette cog, if it's a tight cassette (an 11-23 had slightly less crossover rub than the supplied 12-26). The fourth position provides the trim needed for your big gears.

On my first test ride, it took several tweaks to get the front derailleur cable tension properly set. When off the work stand and on the road, you're obviously transmitting pedal forces that will slightly deflect the bottom bracket and crankarms, so tuning the cable adjusters on a set-up ride can do wonders for quiet operation across the full range of gears. (NOTE: Exercise care when adjusting the front derailleur limit screws, they can be tight.) If you're like me, it may take several set-up rides and a some patience to get the front derailleur dialed. But now it is.

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In contrast, setting up the rear derailleur was a breeze. I swear- the limit and b-tension screws were just about perfect in their default positions. The rear uses a traditional looped cable housing as opposed to SRAM's MTB straight cable design. 3mm steps between gears match Shimano's 10 speed spacing, so cassettes can be freely swapped - big kudos to SRAM for enabling cassette ubiquity! The 1:1 Exact Actuation design shifts quick and precise. The OG cassettes have a cut-out tooth design to speed up shifting, I found that downshifts, even under hill climb force would lock onto a gear in less than a third of a crank stroke, if the shift lever is held in place until the gear is fully engaged. Upshifts were nearly instantaneous with a quick tap. In contrast, a Shimano cassette shifts slightly slower on hill climb downshifts.

Visually, the all-aluminum rear derailleur is slightly boxy and angular, with the outer pulley cage accenting the squared off minimalist design. The individual pieces of the derailleur are all very compact and tight in form, again leaning towards the functional end of the scale. The barrel adjuster is handsomely designed, looking like a rook from a miniature chess board.

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Bringing the whole Rival group to a screeching stop would be the cold-forged aluminum, dual-pivot, skeletonized brakeset with a stainless steel pivot. The arms have a triangulated profile and are stiffly sprung; that combo translates to a quick, snappy feel at the lever with plenty of rigidity for smooth modulation and powerful locking force in heavy handed braking situations. For pads, the SRAM compound rubber is in a fully adjustable standard cartridge holder, expect easy pad compound upgrades. A great touch? The indexed brake release - if you need to open the calipers slightly to account for an out of true wheel, these releases are a charm. Lastly, that cable adjuster I liked so much on the rear derailleur, the same adjusters are supplied on the brakes. In another pleasant nod to old school, Rival uses a flat wrench ready surface on the pivot to center the caliper.

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On the road
The Rival group has been thoroughly flogged over many hundreds of miles throughout the last six weeks. Testing has included uber-hill climb work-outs, near centuries, fast group rides with the requisite sprints and short hill pack-splitters, casual coastal jaunts and day to day commutes, and even a mid-day coffee run or three with a grande latte in one hand, shifting and braking with the other. That's diverse terrain.

As mentioned earlier, the SRAM Rival shifting takes a little getting used when compared to the Dura Ace 7800 group I've been riding over the last few years. "Practice makes perfect" has been the operational phrase. Rival shifts a little heavier; more mechanical, and slightly louder than Dura Ace. While upshifts are quick with a tiny tap, downshifts require you to be a little more deliberate and patient with the lever. Doing a direct shifter comparison between DA and Rival isn't very fair (Red DoubleTaps would be though), but at least you'll get some perspective. And though there is a difference, I've been riding and enjoying the Rival equipped bike a lot more than the DA bike.

How is comfort on the DoubleTaps? Every rider will have their own preference. My observations are that the levers and hoods are ergonomically shaped to permit near perfect contact points for braking and shifting while providing a stable platform for hand support. On the bends, the reach to the levers is fine. From the tops, brake actuation is easy, and with a little time invested, simultaneous braking and shifting can be mastered.

I've been very pleased with Rival braking performance. Even on sloppy, misty morning rides, the pads clear quickly and modulate very well. On fast steep descents down roads not much better than a paved goat path, the brakes' stopping power provides plenty of confidence. Over time, a more aggressive set of pads will get swapped in to see if there are any significant changes in braking force or feel.

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Strengths
  • Very affordable
  • Functional, race-ready components
  • Clean, retro design
  • Alloy finish hides scuffs and scratches
  • Great ergonomics on DoubleTap controls
  • Single shift lever
  • Brakes work great
  • Rear derailleur upshifts very quickly
Weaknesses
  • Downshifting is not as quick or precise as upshifts
  • Front derailleur adjustment can require patience to fine tune
  • Groups lacks bling factor (Is that weakness? May be for some)
Bottomline
In overall function, SRAM's Rival is easily an equal to Ultegra, with the only comparative weakness being Rival's slightly more mechanical delay when downshifting. Ultegra has a fancier finish as well. But given the choice, Rival would be top of my list for setting up a criterium or cyclocross race bike. It's durable, the finish looks like it will stand up to racing abuses, and if I crash, it'll likely still work fine, or be affordable enough to replace if it does break. Rival is all about function, at a bargain price. Those are powerful attributes these days.

Value
4.5 Stars
Overall
4 Stars