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by Matt Wikstrom
June 22, 2015
Photography by Matt Wikstrom
SRAM’s RED 22 hydraulic road groupset may have suffered a major hiccup after its initial release, but the company has rectified the issues that prompted the major recall and now RED 22 offers more braking choices than any other groupset on the market. In this review CTech editor Matt Wikstrom takes a look at RED 22 and compares the performance of the two hydraulic braking options, rim brakes versus disc brakes.
SRAM introduced its RED 22 groupset in 2013 after adding an extra rear cog to its re-vamped groupset from 2012. SRAM may have trailed behind Campagnolo and Shimano in developing an 11-speed transmission but they promised two important points of distinction: first, they referred to their groupset as “True 22” because there was no need to trim the front derailleur to use every ratio on offer; and second, they were adding options for hydraulic rim and disc brakes to the groupset.
The latter was indeed an important distinction, capturing plenty of consumer attention, but it was only a matter of months before SRAM issued an urgent and total recall. Two small defects had been identified, one in the master cylinder and the other in the caliper, that had the potential to sabotage the brakes, especially in cold temperatures.
With the number of affected groupsets numbering around 19,000, the recall was as profound as it was embarrassing. There was also immense pressure on SRAM to deliver the re-designed brakes as quickly as possible, which turned out to be mid-2014. The recall served as a good opportunity to refine a few features, including the shape of the lever body and shift paddle, the bleed port design, and the performance of the brakes at very low temperatures.
Since the re-release there have been no more issues for SRAM’s hydraulic brakes. The company now offers hydraulic brakes for all of its road groupsets (i.e. RED, Force and Rival) with a choice of rim or disc brakes. For this review, I had the opportunity to not only ride SRAM’s RED 22 hydraulic groupset, but also compare the rim brake version with the disc brake version (albeit on different bikes) thanks to Monza Imports.
The hydraulic version of RED 22 is identical to the non-hydraulic version in every way except for the levers and calipers. The hydraulic lever retains most of the non-hydraulic lever’s proportions, however there is a very obvious protuberance at the front of the hood. This is where the master cylinder is housed along with a bleed port and a banjo attachment for the brake hose.
The hydraulic rim brake caliper looks very similar to a cable-operated caliper, though the brake hose is oriented a little differently. A single piston operates the caliper with a conventional spring for arm return. Installation is identical to a conventional caliper, with a single centre bolt.
The disc caliper utilises two pistons to operate the pads with a spring positioned in between for rollback (i.e. retraction of the pads and pistons). The disc calipers are designed for direct mounting to post mounts and suit 140mm or 160mm rotors.
According the SRAM, RED 22 hydraulic rim brakes weigh 387g/wheel (lever, caliper and cable) compared to 449g/wheel (lever, caliper, hose and 160mm rotor) for the disc brake option. Thus, opting for rim brakes will offer a significant weight saving when compared to disc brakes, but they aren’t as light as cable-operated calipers.
SRAM have optimised their road hydraulic brakes for DOT 5.1 brake fluid. One advantage of DOT 5.1 is its high boiling point plus its ability to absorb some water, which inevitably infiltrates any hydraulic system. The performance of DOT 5.1 deteriorates once it gets wet (i.e. absorbs water) and should be replaced annually, regardless of use.
Bleeding the RED 22 calipers is a simple process though a dedicated bleed kit is required, which comprises a couple of syringes with purpose-built hoses that attach directly to SRAM’s bleed ports. Fresh fluid is introduced via the bleed port in the caliper and collected at the lever. Air bubbles are extracted under pressure (i.e. by pulling back on the syringe) before the syringes are removed and the ports closed.
The reach of the brake lever can be adjusted with a screw located in the lever body. Similarly, there is an adjustment screw for the shifting paddle. The hydraulic rim caliper can be adjusted in the same way as a conventional caliper with a quick release lever for wheel removal and a barrel adjuster for the brake pads. In contrast, the disc caliper offers no adjustment for the brake pads.
Looking at the components in the rest of the groupset, the RED 22 crankset has hollow carbon arms available in six lengths (165-177.5mm) with choice of a BB30 or GXP axle. There’s also a choice of four chainring combinations (53/39, 52/36, 50/34, 46/36), which have all have been optimised for use with SRAM’s Yaw front derailleur.
SRAM uses “Yaw” to describe the action of the RED 22 front derailleur because it actually rotates a few degrees as it moves from the small chainring to the large. The design makes for a significant improvement in the quality of front shifting when compared to a conventional front derailleur, plus, it eliminates the need for a trimming function. Another nifty feature is the integrated chain catcher that fits over the mounting bolt and has a small screw for adjusting the position of the catcher.
The RED 22 rear derailleur has an alloy body with a carbon cage in one of two lengths lengths: short or medium. The short cage suits rear cogs up to 28T while the medium cage will accommodate cogs up to 32T. Both versions are supplied with pulley wheels equipped with ceramic bearings.
The 1190 X-Glide 11-speed cassette completes the RED 22 groupset. Ten of the 11 cogs are machined from a single block of steel to create a one-piece dome with elastomers fitted between the cogs to reduce the noise of the cassette. The final (and smallest) cog is made out of heat-treated aluminium. SRAM offers the 1190 cassette in five variations: 11-25, 11-26, 11-28, 11-30, and 11-32.
Two different bikes were used for this review: I got to know the hydraulic rim brake version of RED 22 while riding Cannondale’s Synapse HI MOD earlier this year while the disc brake version was used to build up Colnago’s V1-r disc frameset.
I had no difficulty installing the hydraulic RED 22 groupset. Routing the brake hose through a frame adds some time to the build, as does filling and bleeding the brakes, but that’s not really surprising. DOT 5.1 brake fluid needs to be handled with care, as it has the potential to ruin any paint finish as well behaving as lubricant if spilt on to disc brake pads and rotors.
The hydraulic RED 22 groupset has a recommended retail price of $3,800 with rim brakes and $4,160 with disc brakes and rotors. For more information, visit Monza Imports and SRAM.
I had my first outing on RED 22 while reviewing Canyon’s Ultimate CF last year. I was immediately impressed with the groupset, which offered high quality shifting and braking that was on par with its competitors.
Overall, the hydraulic version of RED 22 preserves much of this performance with only one niggle: the addition of the hydraulic master cylinder to the brake hoods compromises the ergonomics. I’ve always liked to drape my hands over the top of the hoods but this was impossible with the master cylinders in the way. So while the non-hydraulic levers gave me a choice of a few comfortable hand positions, I could only find one with the hydraulic levers.
The hydraulics had no effect on the quality of the front and rear shifting of RED 22. The generous shifter paddles offer plenty of leverage, minimising the effort required, while SRAM’s distinctive doubletap action has been preserved. Every shift is felt as much as it is heard. There’s no risk of ever missing a shift however you will be broadcasting every gear change to your riding buddies and fellow competitors.
SRAM’s Yaw front derailleur provides a very smooth shifting action that is helped by the design of the large chainring. The chain never hesitated during upshifts though it struggled a little under load. The promise of “True 22” is perhaps a little overstated, because the chain will rub on the inside of the big ring when the 11T cog is used with the small chainring while the cage is not so wide as to avoid chain rub caused by flex in the bottom bracket.
What about the brakes? To start, the hydraulic rim brakes offered virtually the same quality of braking as conventional rim calipers. Indeed, the braking action was very familiar, offering the same kind of power and modulation as non-hydraulic calipers. The hydraulics levers offered a slightly lighter touch; otherwise, I couldn’t find much to separate the two.
In contrast, braking with the hydraulic disc calipers was more immediate and felt more powerful. Most of that immediacy can be attributed to the distance between the disc brake pads and the rotor, which is much smaller than a rim brake. While it is possible to set up rim brakes to offer the same kind of immediacy, there will always be the risk of brake rub that won’t affect disc brakes.
Disc brake pads are also much firmer than rim brake pads, so when they start biting into the rotor, there is none of the sponginess associated with a rubber brake pad. The RED 22 disc brakes utilise an organic brake pad that offered plenty of grab straight out of the box—no run in period was necessary—so they easily out-performed the rim brakes during this review.
The disc brakes also proved to be strong performers in the wet but there was one unfortunate downside: once wet, they started squealing. And it was loud. The next day, when the weather had cleared, the noise was gone and I was grateful for it. Brake squeal is a common complaint for disc brakes yet it continues to plague the system. MTBers have had to contend with squealing discs for well over a decade and they are still waiting for a solution.
One of the greatest promises of hydraulic braking is how much it can reduce the effort of braking because there is much less friction in the system when compared to cable-operated brakes. Both groupsets offered a slightly lighter braking action but this never translated to any kind of saving during my daily rides in Perth. What I really needed was a long alpine descent where the hands can really suffer from the effort of braking. Regardless, the promise remains.
What I was able to test was the effectiveness of each hydraulic brake when braking at 40km/hr. In this test, I measured the distance required to come to a stop after I started braking while travelling 40km/hr on a modest slope. Interestingly, I found a difference: the disc brakes were more effective with a 15% reduction in braking distance (rim brakes, 22.2±0.10m; disc brakes, 18.8±0.36m).
Despite a relatively short period of time (seven years) in the marketplace, SRAM’s RED groupset has managed to prove itself as a worthy competitor for Shimano and Campagnolo. Moreover, SRAM has managed to steadily refine and improve their flagship road groupset to keep pace with development in the industry while developing a variety of distinctive traits. The addition of hydraulic brakes makes for another distinction that can only add to the appeal of RED 22.
I found that hydraulics were only able to offer a marginal gain for the performance of rim brakes. The lever action was slightly lighter; otherwise the quality of braking was remarkably similar to traditional rim calipers. In contrast, RED 22 hydraulic disc brakes offered greater immediacy in braking and were more effective out on the road, though the tendency to squeal (screech actually) in the wet was a major shortcoming. Thus, there is no clear winner, but SRAM have done well to offer consumers the choice of three braking options.
For those riders that are considering disc brakes for the road, hydraulic systems are unsurpassed in their braking performance. Such systems offer a lighter lever action and braking is more immediate, efficient and powerful than mechanical disc brakes. In this regard, SRAM’s hydraulic system compares well with Shimano’s, though the latter offers better ergonomics and a marginally lighter lever action. On the flip side, Shimano’s hydraulic road discs required a lengthy run-in period and suffered from more brake squeal. Once again, there is no clear winner but I expect that hydraulic road disc brakes will become more sophisticated and achieve higher levels of performance in the coming years.