SRAM eTap Hydro Gravel Makeover

About 5 years ago I asked Litespeed to make me a gravel bike. Both of us (Litespeed and I) were pretty naïve to what gravel meant, in terms of geometry and position, back in 2013, but I knew what I wanted: a bike that would go anywhere and do anything. Even if it’s rider couldn’t.

After about 9 months of horsing around on the design, the thing was born and I outfitted it with SRAM, all cabled, because at that time SRAM was hiccupping its way to hydraulic road. I had a lot of fun abusing that bike as originally outfitted (you can see what that bike looked like originally), and I thought it was ready for a parts upgrade.

SRAM had dialed in its road hydro in the intervening years, and here’s the new and improved (and barely recognizable) version of my 2014 Litespeed, along with my thoughts after a half-dozen rides.

SRAM Red eTap Hydraulic

I didn’t see any reason to get a new crank, because the old SRAM Red crankset and BB worked fine. What I did want mostly were new brake calipers, not so much because of the switch to hydraulic (the old brakes worked fine) but because my heel would occasionally hit the caliper. The new Red hydraulic calipers are more inboard (see below). Problem solved. Ahhh!

I bled the brakes, my first time doing so, and one great thing about SRAM is they provide all sorts of videos, such as this one on hose shortening and bleeding. There's a fair number of steps, but I followed the directions and, well, I pull the brake lever and the bike stops, so I guess I did it right.

Here's the video to install and adjust SRAM eTap. Easy peasy. There’s some pretty neat things about this group, which I didn’t realize until I had it installed, such as: You can micro-adjust the RD shifting while you’re riding.

I’m going to have to change course on my prior, stated, view about SRAM front derailleur performance. I’ve always felt that Shimano’s biggest performance advantage over SRAM was in front derailleur shifting. And I still feel that way about the older cabled systems. But with eTap, both the set up, and the performance, is outstanding. It’s on par with Shimano, just, my experience is limited to how the two groups perform on my personal bikes. There really isn’t bad news for either group: Front derailleur performance on both Di2 and eTap, on my bikes, is perfect. I still believe that FD performance is the thing that makes electronic shifting most worth it.

eTap FD adjustment is simply via the hi/lo limit screws. And, as far as set up goes, not only is it very easy because there are no electronic wires, if you find that the FD shifting performance is off a little, you can adjust the height and rotation of the front derailleur without having to loosen and retighten the cable (because there is no cable).

About RD performance, yeah, I’d say Shimano still has it over SRAM slightly. That said, I started cycling when cleats were nailed the the bottoms of shoes, and we had 5 friction shifted gears in the back (and a choice between 13-21 and 13-23). So, I’m like the guy who just spent 3 months on the Pacific Crest Trail and you want me to tell you what’s least comfortable, a room at the Four Seasons or one at the Ritz Carlton.

I’ve been riding around on Shimano Synchro on my tri bike via Shimano’s 1-button shifters. SRAM’s eTap works very much like that, where you press one paddle on the left, you shift inboard, you hit the shift paddle on the right, you shift outboard, just like each Shimano button on my tri bike’s extensions (and pursuits). But, with Shimano Synchro, the system decides for you when it's time to shift into a different chain ring. Because eTap is so like Shimano’s 1-button shifting I forget to put my gravel bike into the big chain ring. Weird. Anyway, you hit both paddles at the same time with eTap, and whatever the chain ring you’re in, the bike shifts it to the other. Very, very easy and intuitive.

The one thing I’d say that I like about SRAM Red cabled versus Hydraulic is that I think the cabled group’s hoods are a little more ergonomic. I replaced the front end of this bike with a Zipp Service Course SL-70Ergo handlebar, quite comfortable, and which fairly well matched the geometry of the handlebar on there previously. But the position still felt too long. I rotated the hoods up about a centimeter and that solved it well enough. Bear in mind the hydraulic cylinders are in the hoods, which SRAM must engineer around when choosing a hood shape.

I went into a neighborhood Trek store and bought some Bontrager IsoZone Handlebar Padding and some Bontrager Velvetack tape. It was a pricey venture, at about $50, but I will say it is comfortable.

Wheels and Tires

I wrote a little about Zipp’s 303’s, and how easy it was to mount Specialized Trigger Pros to them. I really like these tires, and I like them in 38mm. You see the tires and wheels just below.

They’re great in everything from asphalt to sand to rocks to you name it, and they seem pretty fast even down to 45 or 50psi (or lower). They are rated up to 90psi but honestly they don't shine, in my opinion, at that pressure. They really like lower pressures.

Zipp Seat Post

Zipp just released its Service Course SL Seat Post and not a moment too soon. I liked its former carbon posts, but I resorted to workarounds when I used them. Two things about its prior posts: First, the forward of the two bolts was buried up inside a cavity that made it very hard to adjust if you have Park or Pedros Allen wrenches. You could only use the ball head in there, because the P-handle wouldn’t fit in the cavity, and a standard elbow wrench would only fit if you used the long end. I don’t like to use the ball head end except when I really have to.

Second, I like fore and aft bolts that are straightfoward: You screw down the forward bolt the saddle noses down; the rear bolt the saddle noses up. The old posts had the forward bolt kind of in the middle. It was a little confusing.

This new seat post is simpler, the bolts are accessible, it works like a seat post should. There is a zero offset and a 20mm offset, which is what I need.

If you look at these pics closely you'll see I now have orphaned braze-ons. Maybe I'll figure out some use for them.

The only other thing to mention is the Wahoo Elemnt. My gravel bike now has information available. I don't know how I feel about that. Part of the fun of this bike is my retreat from the information age.

What Needs Remain?

I have a small gearing problem. And I mean that in every sense of the word. It’s not a large problem; and the problem is limited to my smallest gears.

Gravel bikes are getting very good at what they do, to the point where, as the bike and the rider get better, you can go more places. Simply put, I’m running out of low gear.

As I get older I get weaker, but my gravel bike (and its tires) get better at going up steeper, rockier, sandier sections. I never thought I’d need a gear lower than a 34x32, which is what I have on this bike (50x34 and 11x32). But, that 34x32 isn’t low enough anymore. I can’t go smaller than 34t on my current road crankset, and I my cassette can't handle cogs larger than 32t when using the Red eTap WiFli RD. What my bike, and my legs, and my heart, really want is to put an 11-36 on the rear (but, no can do with this groupkit).

So, maybe I need to move to another crankset. But if I do that, I’ll need – what? – maybe a 44x28 set of chain rings, but then I lose the high gear. So that means I’ll need a 10t cog.

If I put an MTB crankset on the bike, say a 44x28, then I move from a road (145mm to 150mm) q-factor to something between 172mm and 175mm. I don’t want that. I want the same stance width, same q-factor, as road.

One could imagine a road crank, with a different bolt pattern that lets me use a chain ring down to 28 teeth, along with a 10-32 cassette, 11 speeds, which I’d place aboard an XD Driver that’ll slide onto these Zipp 303s. This makes some sense, if you’re SRAM, because 10t is sort of a thing you do already, both with SRAM cassettes and Zipp wheels.

But I'm not complaining! I usually have something to whine about whenever I review a whole suite of SRAM and Zipp products at once, but not this time. Everything works just great. Very happy with this makeover. I reckon I'll just try to ride a little more, weigh a little less, and enjoy this bike.