A little love for the crosser

February 8, 2023 § 2 Comments

My cross bike has been back in action in the great Return to Riding, along with all of my other bikes. It’s a 2002 but it is in good shape and has needed minimal attention. I had intentions of racing more when I first got it. Here I am in 2004 racing on the UCSD course. But life intervened and it is quite possible this is the only race I ever did on it. At times it had road tires and served as my commuter or alternate road bike. It was also ridden on dirt, albeit sparingly. Story for another day but at one point I tried to use it in the location that is now my nearby cross riding location and never found the good trails, I gave it up as having too deep sand and not being any fun.

At any rate, the bike was ready for duty without much maintenance when Covid struck. I think I put some new brake pads on at one point and I put on 38 mm Ritchey tires, nice and meaty/floaty. That’s about it.

I like to cruise it on rides that mix pavement with dirt paths, the dirt road shoulder and some sandy areas.

In addition to mixed surface rides from home, I discovered a nearby fun race. Very casual, about a 2 mi loop with two sets of barriers and one modest sand hill that can be ridden most of the time. The crosser has held up fine in these ~60 minute efforts. Conditions are usually dry and sandy and the course mostly flat. This race was designed by folks who prefer to run single speed fixed gear crossers. Yeah. That flat.

I also have taken it on some tougher trails occasionally. The “easy” mountain bike trails are a bit of a fun challenge on the cross bike. It runs road gearing- 39×52 rings and a 11-27 cluster. Compared with a hardtail MTB it offers much less tire flotation, no suspension fork and limited range of gearing. It’s a lot of fun to be under-biked, as they say.

The drivetrain still works really well. In particular the rear ErgoPower shifter is going strong. Oh. Right. I had the bike built with Campagnolo Centaur, derailleurs and crankset. The Ergopower shifters were supposed to be Centaur, but Excel Sports put Chorus ones on at no extra charge.This was the next higher group so I wasn’t complaining. 2002 was when the Centaur name was first put on the gruppo that was previously called Daytona, so it is quite possible that the shifters with the right name were not yet available. My experience with Athena, and then Chorus, on my road bikes made this the only choice. A theoretical advantage to keeping it in the Campy family was compatibility for any future tinkering. Indeed, when the 2000 Chorus shifter on my road bike developed shifting problems, this was the antecedent to eventually making some changes on the cyclocrosser.

This is because I got a fairly inexpensive Centaur 11 speed derailleur, shifters/levers and cassette for temporary duty on the road bike. Inexpensive because at the moment, Centaur sits fourth, and last, in the Campy road lineu, behind the now 12 speed Super Record, Record and Chorus gruppos. To the extent one can still find 11 speed versions of those higher groups, Centaur falls even further down the quality list. This is Campy, however, and Centaur is targeted at what I term the enthusiast entry level, roughly where Shimano 105 falls. The first reason is that I didn’t want to rely on my attempt to fix the shifter to rapidly put the road bike back into service. (It turned out to be a wise idea, I rode the road bike for many months before fixing the lever. The second reason was this: Now that the 11 speed Centaur is no longer needed on the road bike, it is available for the crosser.

Why switch if the drive train on the cyclocrosser is working fine? Well….reasons. Mostly having to do with obtaining lower gearing for the times I use it on the easy MTB trails. The swap out is attractive because of a little compatibility problem that prevents easy cassette changes for gear lowering purposes. This may also help with a gear range issue because the 10 speed Centaur is a pretty traditional road derailleur and has a listed max of 27 teeth if I recall [ETA: Branford Bike’s site says it can handle a 29 tooth cog, not much of an improvement.]. And also a related problem lurks ahead should the cassette wear out and need replacing.

Throughout their recent history of products up through 10-speed cassettes, the major road gruppo companies of Shimano and Campagnolo used slightly different spacing in between the cogs. This limited hub and wheel choices, particularly for Campy fans since Shimano had much larger market share.m. It was possible to get Campy sized spacers and build a cluster with individual Hyperglide cogs back then, but this is harder to do now that cassettes come with several cogs mounted as a unit to a spider. So what? Campy cassettes still fit on campy hubs, right? In fact the Centaur 11 speed slid right on my Campy road hub. So what gives?

My 2002 Redline cross bike has disc brakes. The company was an early innovator on this, and this frame was part of a revolution that was quickly squashed by the UCI when they disallowed disc brakes on cross bikes in November 2003. It took until the 2010-2011 season for disc brakes to be allowed in cyclocross. Seems ludicrous now, doesn’t it? At any rate, there were no Campy hubs set up for a brake disc in 2002. The folks at Excel Sports built my wheel on a Deore XT hub, down spacing the axle width from 135 (MTB standard) to 130 mm (road and cyclocross standard) to fit the frame. They then used an aftermarket cassette from Wheels Manufacturing which had Campy spacing and Hyperglide freehub compatibility. This is no longer made by that company, perhaps because 11 speed clusters changed the compatibility game.

Campy and Shimano 11 speed cassettes are now spaced the same. The distance between cogs is identical. And this means that I can use a Shimano 11 speed Hyperglide cassette on my Deore XT hubs and shift it with any Campy 11 speed shifter/derailleur combination. in theory.

There is a little bit more to the story, and additional research was required. Shimano made their Hyperglide road freehub a little bit wider to accommodate their now slightly wider 11-sp road clusters but for some reason kept the MTB clusters and freehubs the original width. Oh we’re cooking with tinkerer gas now!

But the Campy Centaur derailleur is listed as having a max cog of 32 and the Shimano MTB cassettes are all super wide range for 1x- a 42 tooth large cog is the smaller one. Sad face.

I could possibly just bolt the new longer freehub onto my hub. Switching out freehubs is not that difficult, I had to replace one on my hardtail recently. But that would cost some more cash. I kept looking. It turns out that there is one specific Shimano 11-speed cassette option in their “road” collections that comes with the shorter body width….it’s the 11-34. Perfect! My previous low was a 27 so this is a pretty good gain in gear range. It has the 27 as the third cog and a 30 tooth as the second. I bought a 105 level one (CS-HG700) and it fits easily onto my old XT hub. Clearance is good.

Wait. “You just said the Centaur 11-sp derailleur has a max limit of a 32 tooth cog”, you say. Yes, well those limits are notoriously conservative. And the derailleur clears the cog with room to spare, I didn’t even have to mess with the B limit. [Actually, it turns out adjusting cog clearance on recent Campy derailleurs has different screws doing different things. Good idea to read up.] I opted for a KMC X11.93 11 speed chain just to check out the brand- not impressed with this one, it feels cheap. Admittedly this is positioned as a lower than premium chain. With the right chain installed, the indexing dialed in with the usual adjusting. No particular drama.

Time will tell, but I do consider the 11 speed Campagnolo Centaur items to be a step down in quality from the 10 speed Centaur. Campy is frustratingly variable with the level of their named gruppos, but there is a reason for my perception. For Shimano, the relative quality of their Dura Ace, Ultegra and 105 has remained fixed over decades, in my experience. Relative. Similarly, the XTR, XT, SLX, Deore levels of off-road equipment have been relatively static, although the off road designation of the then third-level Deore LX disappeared as a MTB group, when the now third-level SLX appeared in 2008 The term “Deore” unmodified has been around for decades, but has moved around a bit from touring to MTB applications. My experience with Campy road groups is that the names and group level quality is more complicated. My entry into Campy road was with the early-mid 90s Athena, at the time the third group and of good quality. Lots of aluminum, minimal or no steel, and crisp ErgoPower shifters. There’s some discussion in an old r.b.tech thread from Campyphile Peter Chisholm that suggests when Daytona was introduced to replace Athena at the third position, it was a quality downgrade of significance in some particulars. Some of the lower tier Veloce and Mirage features were incorporated. His description also highlights how Campy sometimes just slaps parts together from existing groups in a mish mash, presumably to achieve a price point. The 10 speed Campy Centaur in 2002 was the evolution of the Daytona group, supposedly renamed over trademark issues. The Centaur name was recycled from one of Campy’s first MTB specific groups (I think I still have a crankset) which appeared in 1989 but had been discontinued since 1993. My 2002 road Centaur parts seemed very similar in quality and design to the 2000 Chorus on my road bike. The 11 speed Centaur feels cheaper. Less crisp. Looks to be slightly less durable. The upshift button only moves one gear at a time, unlike the multiple upshifts available on the 10 sp Chorus shifters. This feel and function, btw, is why I was keen to put the 10 speed back on the road bike. Also, the profile of the 11 speed shifters is just….uglier.

I also changed out the front brake.

The disc brakes are mechanical, of course. When I got the bike there was no such thing as an integrated road shifter set up for hydraulic brakes. So the Avid BB5 cable operated disc brake was the option. This has worked out pretty well. More powerful than cross cantilevers would likely be, albeit the modulation is sucky. Mostly because road bike levers pull less cable than a MTB lever. I’m pretty sure the Campy cable pull is even less than Shimano (see observation from Lennard Zinn), so I was particularly out of whack. This added up to a brake you had to set up to use most of the lever travel to get to the full braking power.

Jumping forward two decades, there are now some improved brake options. Several different brands, new models and even a hybrid design that has hydraulic pad piston drive at the caliper but is operated via cable. There are also brakes differentiated by road versus offroad use. This is an advance because lever cable pull varies between road (shorter) and MTB (longer) brake levers. Avid now makes their cable pull discs in a road version that is designed to operate with less cable pull. So I put the road version of the BB7 brake on the front to see if braking feel and modulation improves. Initial setup was a fail. I have some rub I wasn’t able to immediately solve, can’t tell which direction the disc is warped and on bed in, I got a lot of shrieking. I’m going to see if I have a new disc of the right diameter in my parts bin. (Turns out that I do!)


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