Saturday, October 4, 2008

Breaking News: SRAM to make big bar-end shifter debut in Kona Wednesday

Well, it seems Interbike wasn’t good enough to do a launch. And triathletes get the benefit of it.

I’ve just gotten word that SRAM is making a major presentation Wednesday in Kona, revolving around its time trial/triathlon shifting system for triathlon. The rumors that have abounded for over a year will be answered at a press conference Wednesday.

The press release says:
“This new SRAM shifter has been in development for over three years, it’s like no other gear changer on the market, and will redefine aerodynamic efficiency and comfort – so please join us to be the first to see it.”

Man, I love being in the media. There’s nothing cooler than getting the first look.

There had been rumor, as far off as a year ago, that a new shifting system was in the works. The new Red group came and went without an update to the carbon shifter that came with the debut of the brand’s first road group, Force. Many, myself included, were beginning to think it was wishful thinking, vaporware.

But this is SRAM, which has been exceptionally progressive. Progressive in not only in presenting three tiers of road groups (top-end Red, mid-tier Force and so-called entry level Rival) but re-designing the two latter groups inside a year’s time. Hell, major Shimano lifer (well, at least until a week or so ago) Lance Armstrong will be rolling his debut on SRAM.
I became a fan of SRAM when they debuted Force the first time. The above shot was from their press launch at Sea Otter a couple years ago…. I’m in the center, with SRAM’s Alex Wassman on my left and respected VeloNews scribe Lennard Zinn to my right. From there, they’ve stepped up the product, functionally and ergonomically. We have a Rival group in our office to test, and while most cases would see me not too jazzed about stripping a bike to put on an entry-level groupset that costs just $919 complete (compared to the $2,099 Red gruppo)

At Sea Otter this spring, SRAM did debut the 500 level alloy shifter and alloy brake levers, in alignment with the Rival group. They were very nice and represented a great value, but there was nothing truly innovative, despite my optimism.

Now, SRAM turns its attention to triathlon, and is making the debut on the world stage in Kona. I’m thinking they won’t trot out a revamp this time.

Now, consider that the bar end shifter was never meant for use on tri bikes. They were created well before Boone Lennon created the first aerobar—Campagnolo had ones with rubber covers in 1953. In the 70s and mid-80s, SunTour created barcon shifters that mounted on the bottom end of drop bars, where bar plugs typically go today.
So basically, while advances in tube shaping, frame materials, water bottle shapes, training, nutrition have evolved over the years, the lowly bar end shifter remained untouched, unevolved and neglected for decades. The most radical thing that happened came three years ago, when SRAM made the lever out of carbon. Sexy, yes. But functionally, it was the same thing.

Then along comes SRAM, which has been one of the most excitable brands in the market today. When you’re pushing the envelope, I guess it’s hard to not get jazzed. SRAM road PR manager Michael Zellmann is a big guy. If you’re in Kona and see a 6’3 dude traipsing around town, that’s your guy. He’s also a time trial powerhouse—think Torbjorn, just without the ability to swim. (Sorry Michael—but you’re welcome to throw on your tangerine Speedo and prove me wrong at Dig Me Beach next week).

Seriously though, being a SRAM marketer aside, as a TT guy I think MZ’s presence in Kona means he has a truly vested interest in delivering this debut. He was here to do the first count of groupsets last year at the pier. I think this year, he'll see a bigger presence in the race.

“We are excited to be launching our third bar-end shifter into the triathlon market in three years at this years Ford Ironman World Championships,” Zellmann told me this past week after sending the press release. “Triathletes have been underserved on drivetrain and shifting options for years.”

If they're on par with what they’ve delivered across the rest of their road range the last three years, I don't think I'm off base in saying we can expect to be wowed.

So what does that mean? Zellmann was mum. The rumor, as far as I have heard, involved something different than a traditional lever that moves up and down, pulling on the cable. Some of the Triathlete mag staff were in Chicago for the Chicago Triathlon this spring and visited the SRAM offices, taking a tour. Ad sales rep Sean Watkins said he was accidentally send into a room where something was on a table that he couldn’t sort out, and he was quickly whisked out.

Further, sponsored pro Michellie Jones has been spotted training in San Diego testing the prototypes. I’ve not seen ‘em. The term “trigger” has been bandied about, but for the last year, and despite my incessant badgering, SRAM has confirmed nor denied any of it.

So after the “how rad and revolutionary is this gonna be” question comes the “will anyone be running it in the race” question. Considering the tech-o-philes that SRAM sponsors, including Chris Lieto, and Normann Stadler, perhaps there’s a chance.

We’ll find out all Wednesday. Michellie is slated to be there to talk about her experience with it, and SRAM and Zipp will have several of their other goods on display, including the new SRAM S40, S60 and S80 wheelsets, and the new Zipp SLSpeed Stem… one of the newest objects d’art from Interbike.

I must say, I’m glad SRAM opted to make Hawaii the debut instead of Vegas. Further proof that SRAM is recognizing the tri market as an entity unto itself.

No comments: