Shimano's 850g Ultegra SL compact crankset (including bottom bracket cups), costs just US$240, but performs like a crank twice that much.
Since making the jump to 9-speed technology in 1996, Shimano has been a little slow in raising the bar of technology. It's hard, especially when Shimano, like Honda, designs and makes stuff that works well and lasts a long time. Shimano's two-piece Hollowtech II crankset with outboard bearing technology, introduced on the 2004 Dura-Ace gruppo, has been a blessing to shop mechanics everywhere: the simple assembly and mainenance are a spanner's dream. Now, its Hollowtech II cranks are winning over riders as well, while influencing other crank makers along the way.
Simply put, it's hard to beat Shimano's forging process. When it started making hollow alloy cranks, other crank makers took notice. Yes, several other crank makers have jumped on the carbon crank band wagon of late (as has Shimano), but for durability, performance and affordability, Shimano has the market cornered.
The Ultegra SL compact cranks have a 110mm bolt circle diameter (the distance between the five bolts), just like the old standard mountain bike cranks, but with chainring sizes of 50 tooth (large) and 34 tooth (small). The pro peloton experimented with triple chainring cranksets in the mid 1990s (Spaniards Miguel Indurain and his look-alike compatriot Abraham Olano tried Campagnolo's Racing Triple), but the solution of low gearing for high places came about through Tyler Hamilton's ill-fated broken collarbone exploits in 2003, where his mechanics determined spinning in a lower gear would take the strain off Hamilton's aching bones.
Granted, the standard race-ready 53/39 gearing is still preferred in the pro peloton, but for most everyone else, including me, a 50/34, combined with an 11- or 12- to 25-tooth 10-speed cassette is all the gearing I need, even in the steep Santa Cruz Mountains around my California stomping grounds.
Shimano has its SG-X aluminum anodized chainrings, designed to work best with its Hyperglide (HG) chamfered chains, measuring just 5.88mm. I've also used a SRAM 10-speed chain with the Ultegra SL crankset with no problems. I use either ProLink Progold or Pedro's Synthetic lube on my 10-speed chains, which cuts down premature wear and tear on the chainrings.
As someone who's installed thousands of cranks of varying quality the past 20 years, the spanner in me appreciates the simplicity of Shimano's two-piece crankset technology. It's important to use Shimano's own crank and bottom bracket tools, because the aluminium cups are somewhat soft. Pay close attention to the torque specs on the pinch bolts as well, because they're responsible for keeping it all together.
Some testers have had issues with the crank's finish rubbing off. I noticed this when testing the new Trek Madone in late May, but haven't experienced this with my test crank sample. I've enjoyed some of the best cranks ever made: Mavic 631, SunTour Superbe Pro, Ritchey WCS. The stiff and light Ultegra SLs fall in the same category as these titans, and the two-piece configuration certainly makes installation and service a snap.
There was no discernible flex while climbing, and like most of Shimano's forged pieces, the pedal threading is perfect.
As a 6'1" 185-pound cyclist, I need less flex in anything bicycle related. This is usually most evident in cranksets, pedals and the frame's bottom bracket area. I was happy to get power out of my downstroke, and the Ultegra SL cranks performed as advertised on climbs, sprints and high-cadence jaunts throughout my routes. The chainring bolts never needed tightening, there was never a worrisome squeak, and the bottom bracket cups were smooth when I transferred them over to a different frame.
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