Cyclocross: Amazing new products from Shimano (yawn)

I guess cyclocross has become big enough that both Shimano and Campagnolo decided to show up at the party at last. Well, for Shimano I can understand that they’ve gotten tired of losing OEM sales to FSA, SRAM, and the throngs of Asian OEM parts makers…after all, the offerings for complete cx bikes are more numerous than ever, and they go pretty upscale nowadays. There’s money buried in that mud. As for Campagnolo, who have all but given up entry- to mid-level OEM competitiveness…frankly I think their parts, particularly their 11-speed drivetrains and bottom bracket designs are so poorly suited to the filthy rigors of cx from the start. I don’t understand why they even bothered since their bits are inherently less versatile (e.g., dumb chainring standards), expensive for what they are, and hard to work on (e.g. anyone who says otherwise obviously hasn’t tried to service a Power-Torque crank).

Shimano is this huge juggernaut that must break free of immense inertia to get a product to market. The new CX70 cyclocross mini-group is slated to be available late fall this year….as an aftermarket offering. Because if they were going to be spec’ed on complete 2012 bikes, they would have needed to convince product managers last winter, during or before the Taipei Bike Show that units would be ready for deliver to assembly houses this summer….and clearly they didn’t/couldn’t. Part of this is because Shimano generally operates on a 3yr development cycle…but hell, Shimano first started floating rumors of CX-specific components to product managers a decade ago. Anyways, Shimano has a mini-group, here’s why you might care:

Crankset. Shimano is super obsessive on chainrings; the Dura Ace 7900 and 7950 big rings are perhaps the most sophisticated and best shifting rings ever created. During shifting the dramatic depth to the rings acts to make a shallower ramp up from the small ring, as well as aiding shifting by stiffening the ring as the front derailleur presses the chain against it. That’s the DA 7900/50 chainring (as well as the Ultegra 6700/6750)….these CX70 chainrings ain’t that sophisticated. The CX70 rings aren’t hollow and deep like the newer road rings…but they do have more shift pins and ramps to help shifting. All I can guess is that either Shimano making hollow rings for CX was too expensive for the price point , or they just decided that marketing a CX-specific was more advantageous. I have not had a chance to ride the CX70 crank, but I have no doubt that it shifts beautifully. However, one could argue that it’s all overkill since so many cross racers choose single ring setups.

And there are plenty of aftermarket CX rings that work quite well in Shimano drivetrains. Compared to the difficulties FSA and Campagnolo were having in making early 10sp compact road rings shift (a 16tooth jump from 34 to 50T), the 10 tooth jump from 36 to 46T just isn’t that hard to solve. Back then Shimano was slow to bring a compact road crank to market, but when they did they solved it by having the best chainrings on the market. Shimano had really set the standard and then upped it with the latest generation of DA and Ultegra, partially in anticipation of the needs of electronic Di2 front shifting. So after everyone else has already debuted CX-specific rings, it just seems like the CX70 rings are kinda halfway…lacking the first-level sophistication of the DA and Ultegra, they’re not really distinguishable from the industry pack.

Front dérailleurs. There are two significant features of the new CX70 front derailleurs. First, the cage curvature is optimized for smaller big rings (e.g., 46 tooth vs 50-53T of road rings) which should mean faster shifting and less chance of throwing the chain. Second, as unique amongst derailleurs that work with indexed front road shifters they are available in a top-pull cable configuration. Both top-pull and traditional, bottom-pull are available to fit clamp 31.8/28.6mm, clamp 34.9mm, and braze-on. The top-pull option is perhaps the most forward thinking aspect of the CX70 mini-group, as it will allow frame makers to run the derailleur cables on the top tube without the cable-reversing pulley. A pulley that invariably needs to be placed exactly were all the mud wants to cake, behind on the seat tube right above the BB shell.

New cantilever brakes. Well, the CX70 cantis are certainly unusual looking, and it seems reasonable to assume that the brakepad-on-a-stalk idea might discourage mud build-up. However, they don’t look like they offer versatility in set-up like the Avid Ultimate Shorty, nor the skeletal lightness of the reinvented Mafac legions (Spooky, TRP, etc). And as far are quality goes, I guess it was too much for me to expect sublime quality equal to the XTR V-brake. To my eye, these brakes will be more of an OEM thing, since Shimano cantis have traditionally been designed for ease of installation; in that light, the CX70’s lack of set-up versatility was doubtlessly a deliberate decision. Still, the product leaves me underwhelmed…after all, Shimano had plenty of time to come up with a badass brake.

So finally Shimano officially recognizes the value of cyclocross, and though consumers can be assured of dependable quality, the company have done little so far to raise the bar for CX components. However, if Shimano brings out a system of brake/shift lever integrated with hydraulic disc brakes, they can/will put everyone else on the back foot. But don’t look for that just yet…remember: 3-yr development cycle.