I got to the ride tents around noon, when the event started, and while they transfered my pedals over to the test bike I had a chance to talk to the local SRAM sales representatives and the techs that were there. Once they had the test bike set up, they gave me a quick overview of the components that I would be riding as a part of the experience. I was going to be trying out the SRAM Force22 group set, along with Zipp 404 Firebrand wheels and a complete Zipp carbon cockpit (stem, handlebars and seat post). After a few minutes of training on how SRAM double-tap functions, and a chance to try it out on a pair of shifters, they had me do a quick loop and make sure everything was set okay on the bike.
The drive train is the real reason that I was interested in the Ride Experience - I've done the homework on SRAM, from how double-tap works to weight and function of the derailleurs, and I was really interested in trying it out. The 22-series is designed to give a wide number of gears with a limited number of overlapping selections. One of the features that they showed me was how the front derailleur has a trim function to allow for a wider distance from chain ring to cog, allowing for less chain rub than a traditional setup. I had a 11-32 cassette on the rear, and a compact (50-34) crankset. The shifting on SRAM is also unique, as they use a single lever design for shifting each derailleur. A single slight throw moves the rear derailleur to a smaller cog, and varying longer throws move the rear derailleur between 1 and 3 cogs larger.
The representatives at the booth also gave me a complete rundown on the Zipp 404 wheel set that I was going to be riding on. I was honestly a little nervous about riding on carbon wheels, as my size typically puts me at the top end of the usual weight scales. The other added worry is that because of my size I put a lot of stress on brakes as I attempt to slow down. I was assured that these wheels were rated to 240lbs, which should have no issues handling me at a measly 205lbs. They also educated me on the material and shape of the rims, and how they had spent the time to develop the rim such that it wouldn't overheat while braking, and that cross winds would not cause steering issues even given the deeper nature of the rim. Given that it was a rather blustery day, I was sure to test out if they were accurate with the rim shape!
The last thing that they talked to me before I headed out was minor, but I really wish they had it. SRAM earlier this year released bar mounts for the Edge 500, 510, 800 and 810 series cycling computers. The test bike was equipped with a mount on it that I could have placed my Garmin on, if I didn't have an Edge 305 right now (which uses a different mounting system). The SRAM guys told me about an adapter they released recently that allows my Edge 305 (or a 605 or 705) to connect to their bar mount! Alas, they didn't have any of the adapters on them and I just placed my garmin into my jersey pocket before I headed out. I will definitely be visiting Bike Street to get one VERY soon.
In order to give it a real shake down, I decided to ride up the Swamp Rabbit Trail and give a go on Paris Mountain. I do this climb fairly often, so it would give me a good chance to see how the bike acted and how the shifting worked. On the way up to Paris Mountain, I never had a reason to leave the small chainring (34 tooth). The selection of gears that I had available to me was quite sufficient to have plenty of speed (the top speed on SRT is 20mph) with a good feeling of cadence. The shifting, while quite different from the thumb shift of my Shimano Sora shifters, was quite natural. There were a few times where I'd accidentally shift gears the wrong direction, mostly when I was playing around in being in the largest cog and attempting to downshift further.
Once on Paris Mountain, I wasn't attempting to necessarily get a personal record up the climb, but I wanted to see how everything worked together. Having a super light bike, light wheels, and a high end drive train should mean that I would have little issues with climbing, right? Well, that really isn't the whole story, but I'll say that I found that no matter where I was on the climb I always had access to a gear ratio that allowed me to climb without having to put out extra effort. In fact, up until the last grunt, I felt more inclined to climb in the saddle than be standing and really putting power into the crank. I attribute some of this to bike fit, but a lot of it was that I was comfortable enough in the saddle and could keep a cadence that didn't make me feel like I had to stand to keep going. When I finally got to the top, I still had a energy to spare, meaning that I could have put more into the climb than I did, but not being completely drained when I got done was quite nice. I noticed the power of the brakes as I attempted to turn around, making me hop a couple of times because of the angle of the road where I chose to make my U Turn.
Descending Paris Mountain was going to end up giving me a real feel for how the Zipp 404 really handled. The wind was blustery on the north side of the mountain, giving a good cross wind to the descent. Also I've already been working on attempting to not bomb downhill, but rather keep control, so I'd be testing out the heating of the wheels and the feathering of the brakes. Several times during the descent I got a good solid wind gust hit me, and I could feel the bike being pushed around. Even during those pushes I never felt like the steering was impacted, or that I had anything but 100% control of the bike. While I didn't attempt to go super slow on the way down, I did keep my speed in check. A couple of times I could hear the brakes start to get noisy, but at no time did I feel like the wheels were overheating or that I was losing braking power. Even at the stop sign at the bottom of the hill I had plenty of braking power to not be using a "Kung Fu Grip" to get the bike to stop. The ride back to the start point was very uneventful, but I did spend more time playing around with the shifting on the way back.
After returning to the event booth and getting my pedals put back on my bike, I rode back over to work, my lunch break being over. The last part of the experience was for me to get back on my trusted steed after being on such a high end machine. I now had a tactile way to understand what I'd get if I upgraded to a new high-end bike. The only way that I can explain it to non-riders would be to say it's like the differences in a Camry and a Lexus. My Scott is very functional, shifts when I want it to (mostly) and takes just about everything I throw at it from day to day. Getting onto the test bike I could feel that it was significantly lighter and more responsive, and that shifting was much more crisp. It never hesitated to react when I gave it power, and overall it had a very muted and comfortable ride compared to my Sportster. From a comfort perspective the cockpit was much easier to keep my hands in a comfortable position, and I felt that shifting was always very easy to reach no matter where my hands were on the hoods or drops. Braking was powerful and snappy as well.
So in the end, I had a fantastic time trying out the various pieces of SRAM equipment, and I gained some very valuable insight into these components and what to expect from SRAM when I get new components. While a major bike upgrade for me is more than likely more than a year away, knowing what I like and how various components act and feel is going to be vital in making my next bike purchases wise ones. I wish I had an opportunity to try out disc brakes, and maybe a power meter, what I tested was definitely in line with what I'd like to get in the nearer future. At this point I'd put Zipp cockpit and drive train upgrades pretty high on my wish list of components, although I have to say I'm still in love with my Boyd Wheels, and riding the 404's really didn't change my opinion of that.