First Impressions: iSSi Clipless Pedals

How does a new company stand out in the sea of off-road clipless pedals? Well, if you’re iSSi, you do it by offering SPD-compatible pedals in a variety of sizes and colors. In addition to their original XC-style pedal, the Minneapolis-based company now offers a mid-sized Trail model. iSSi pedals are available with your choice of sealed bearings and bushings or with three sealed bearings. For maximum pedaling efficiency and comfort, spindles come in standard (52.5 mm), +6, or +12 widths. And for those fashion-conscious riders, iSSi pedals are available in eight colors.

I tested the minimalist iSSi II pedal ($75.00 MAP) in the bright silver colorway. With so many colors available, you’re probably wondering why I chose the plain silver finish. To be honest, I originally requested some of iSSi’s other colors, but due to their popularity, they happened to be sold out. So whoever said that cyclists don’t care about their bikes’ looks was either wrong or lying. At 308 grams for the pair, our sample pedals with 52.5 mm spindles came in under the advertised 312 gram weight. The Shimano SPD-compatible cleats weighed in at 52 grams including mounting hardware.

Right out of the box, clipping into the iSSi pedals proved easy and intuitive. As the cleats and retention claws broke in, entry became smoother and required less effort. Even with the pedals’ adjustable tension set to their easiest, audible and tactile feedback left no doubt that the cleats had engaged properly. Testing the iSSi pedals with mountain bike shoes from Five Ten, Louis Garneau, and Pearl Izumi didn’t reveal any difficulties clipping in or out. Despite running the release tension at the stock (i.e. lightest) setting, I never experienced any unwanted or unplanned exits. Unlike some pedals, the iSSi pedals’ tension builds up gradually as you approach the release angle (which is very easy to detect). This allows for plenty of body English in technical terrain, but doesn’t require that you crank down the tension to keep your feet securely planted (which can make entry more difficult).

With the majority of my testing taking place during late summer and early fall, dry trails were the norm. What little mud I did encounter didn’t affect entry or exit, but look for a follow-up review after the iSSi pedals have been through a typical Colorado winter. Despite a lack of wet weather testing, the pedals’ seals and bearings did survive multiple bouts with my gas-powered pressure washer. Should you need to service your pedals, only a 6 mm hex key and 9 mm socket are required. Like many clipless pedals on the market, the iSSi’s pedals are installed or removed with an 8 mm kex key. While I definitely prefer traditional wrench flats, swapping the pedals between multiple bikes was easy with the aid of a shop-length Allen wrench.

If you find traditional clipless pedals (or cranks, for that matter) to be too narrow, iSSi offers both models with +6 and +12 spindles. These add an extra 6 mm or 12 mm per-side, which can be particularly useful on fat bikes or for riders who have large feet or unique biomechanical requirements.  Best of all, the wider versions cost significantly less than similar pedals from competitors. I tested the stock 52.5 mm spindles with the aforementioned shoes, and found the clearance to be adequate on road, gravel, and mountain bikes (despite my heels-in pedal stroke).

Whether you’re looking for a wider stance or just want to add some color to your bike, iSSi’s line of pedals has a lot to offer. Stay tuned for a follow-up review after I’ve been able to log some winter miles on the iSSi pedals.

Disclosure: iSSi provided review samples for this article, but offered no other form of compensation in exchange for editorial coverage.

First Impressions: SRAM Force 1 & Rival 1 Components (Part-II)

When SRAM released their CX1 components in 2014, the purpose-built group delighted gearing-nerds (including yours truly) who had previously cobbled together road and MTB parts to come up with road-worthy 1x drivetrains. The Chicago-based company followed up with the 1x™ Wonder (11-36) cassette, and in April of 2015, SRAM announced the Force 1 and Rival 1 component groups which offered even more gearing options.

Over the past nine months, I’ve logged nearly 2,000 miles on SRAM’s 1x (pronounced one-by) road components. Starting with the CX1 group in late 2014, I added the aforementioned 1x Wonder cassette to the mix, and then in May of 2015, I upgraded to the new Force 1 components. During this period, I tested four different X-SYNC™ chainrings (38t, 40t, 42t, 44t), three different cassettes (11-32t, 11-36t, 10-40t), and two X-Horizon™ rear derailleurs (medium- and long-cage). Braking duties were handled by Force hydraulic discs. Wheelsets tested included Rolf Prima’s VCX Disc and Zipp’s new 30 Course tubeless hoops.

Why would someone want only one chainring? According to SRAM, 1x road drivetrains are quieter, more secure, and offer a the rider a more simplified user experience. Getting rid of the front derailleur and second chainring also leaves more room for fat(ter) tires and fenders. An added benefit is that 1x drivetrains are easier to clean and maintain.

If you’ve spent any time riding a geared bike on dirt or gravel roads, you’re probably familiar with the sound of the bike’s chain slapping against the chainstay. It’s certainly annoying–and what’s worse–it can be the last sound you hear before the chain jams between the tire and chainstay. After riding thousands of offroad miles on bikes with 2x drivetrains I didn’t realize just how noisy they were until I started testing the SRAM 1x drivetrain. My Force 1-equipped Salsa Vaya was eerily quiet on the local trails. With chainslap all but eliminated, the only noise came from the bike’s tires crunching on loose dirt and gravel.

With conventional 2x drivetrains, the front derailleur does double-duty as a chain retention device. Even then, many riders rely on some type of chain catcher/keeper to prevent the chain from jumping off the small chainring. Having seen my share of dropped chains over the years, I was somewhat skeptical that SRAM’s X-SYNC chainring would be able to keep the chain securely in place. It turns out that my fears were completely unfounded. After logging nearly 2,000 miles on SRAM 1x, I’ve never a dropped a chain. It hasn’t been for lack of trying, either. I’ve bunnyhopped curbs, hit expansion joints at 30+ mph, and launched the bike off dirt kickers. Not once has the chain fallen off.

For most riders, shifting gears is a pretty simple process. Sure, things have become easier with the advent of integrated brake/shift levers, but the basic concept remains the same. One lever moves the rear derailleur, and the other lever controls the front derailleur. Rocket science it is not. Could removing one of the shift levers really change the user experience? It’s very subtle, but the answer is yes. The next gear–whether it’s higher or lower–is always just one shift away. You no longer have to worry about whether you should be in the large or small chainring because it’s simply not an option. If you do find yourself suddenly needing a much easier gear, you can shift up to three cogs in one sweep with the Rival 1 and Force 1 levers.

Will 1x drivetrains make 2x (and 3x) setups obsolete? The answer is, it depends. If your riding style or terrain demands a wide gearing range and small gaps between the gears, a 1x drivetrain may not be the best choice. While SRAM’s XG-1180 cassette offers eleven gears with a 420% spread, the gaps between gears are greater compared to a drivetrain with 50/34t chainrings and an 11-32t cassette. For commuting and non-technical off-road use, I found the combination of a 42t chainring and 10-42t cassette to be more than adequate (and quite enjoyable). That said, my 2x-equipped bike was usually a better choice for fast, hilly club rides where the smaller gaps between gears enabled finer adjustments to cadence (and speed).

Whether you’re converting an existing bike to 1x or building one up from scratch, be aware that SRAM’s XG cassettes (the ones with 10t cogs) require XD-compatible rear hubs or drivers. Most hub manufacturers offer XD drivers, but some wheels will require re-dishing after swapping freehubs. Also note that a standard 114-link chain may not be long enough for certain gearing combinations or frames with long chainstays. When testing an 11-32t cassette, 40t chainring, and medium-cage derailleur, a standard-length chain was all that was needed. Moving up to a 10-42t cassette, 42t chainring, and long-cage derailleur, however, necessitated adding a few extra lengths to the PC-1170 chain.

With the Interbike trade show right around the corner it will be interesting to see how many 2016 bikes are spec’d with SRAM’s Rival 1 and Force 1 components. Some manufacturers–including Marin–have announced models with 1x drivetrains, but will more follow? Stay tuned for GRAVELBIKE’s coverage of Interbike and reviews of more 1x-equipped bikes.

Disclosure: SRAM provided review samples for this article, but offered no other form of compensation in exchange for editorial coverage.

Second Look: SOMA C-Line Tires

When we reviewed the New Albion Cycles Privateer frameset last summer, the bike’s SOMA C-Line 700×38 tires really stood out–and not just because of the terracotta-colored tread. The tires’ mild tread and supple casings made it easy to transition between paved and unpaved surfaces. To help test the new Zipp 30 Course wheelset, we decided to give the C-Line tires a dedicated second look.

GRAVELBIKE.com gravel grinder SOMA C-Line Panaracer Pasela Compass Barlow Pass Zipp 30 Course

Manufactured in Japan by Panaracer, SOMA’s C-Line tires ($59.99/ea MSRP) share the same tread pattern as the company’s New Xpress line of tires. Unlike the New Xpress, however, the C-Line lacks the former’s Hypertex casing. Why not go with the more cut/puncture-resistant Hypertex casing? Easy–superior ride quality. Adding extra material to the casing makes it stiffer, which in-turn makes the tires less supple.

Mounted on 25 mm wide Zipp rims, our sample tires measured 37.8 mm when inflated to the maximum pressure of 90 psi. Both tires came in under the claimed 400 gram weight, tipping the scales at 387 grams and 395 grams. And although we fitted the tires with inner tubes for our testing, we were able to seat the tires (sans-tubes) on tubeless-compatible wheels from HED, Rolf Prima, and Zipp (although some combinations did require a compressor or COcartridge).

Despite being rated to 90 psi, we rarely inflated the C-Lines over 65 psi. On paved roads, our testers found that 50 psi front and 60 psi rear worked best for unloaded riding. When it came to dirt and gravel, dropping the pressure by 7-10 psi improved traction and comfort without inviting pinch-flats. Our test period took place during unusually wet weather in Colorado, and the black tread offered plenty of traction on damp roads. The classic tan sidewalls received numerous compliments, but we’d like to see SOMA offer a version with black sidewalls, too.

How do C-Lines compare to Panaracer’s popular Pasela family of tires? You know that expression about having your cake and eating it, too? If you want Paselas with folding beads, they’re only available on models with puncture-resistant casings. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, many riders prefer the livelier ride of the more supple casings found on the SOMA tires (and wire-bead Paselas). Knowing that we’d get asked to compare the C-Lines to Compass’ similarly sized Barlow Pass tires, we spent plenty of time switching between the two. The verdict? For pavement, we preferred the Barlow’s minimal tread, but on dirt and gravel, the C-Lines offered a bit more traction and control.

Disclosure: SOMA Fabrications provided review samples for this article, but offered no other form of compensation in exchange for editorial coverage.