Your complete guide to SRAM road bike groupsets — explore the range and choose the best SRAM groupset for you
Component manufacturer SRAM makes a range of groupsets for road bikes and mountain bikes. In this guide to SRAM’s road bike groupsets we’ll walk you through your options from SRAM’s innovative wireless electronic shifting systems to the entry-level Apex groupset.
The American-based component maker was founded in 1987 and SRAM’s first product was Grip Shift, a twist-grip shifter for road and triathlon bikes that was subsequently adapted for mountain bikes.
Of the three main road bike groupset manufacturers – Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo – SRAM is the ‘newcomer’ but it has an extensive range and a big slice of the market.
SRAM essentially has four road groupsets, and the good news is that you should be able to get a setup that suits both the type of riding you do and your budget. All four have hydraulic disc brakes as options, and there are still some mechanical rim brakes to be found in the range.
From low to high in terms of price, Apex is their entry-level groupset, followed by Rival, Force and Red. Red eTap is SRAM’s lightest and most expensive groupset – the one used by SRAM’s professional road racers. Though it came to the party much later than Shimano’s Di2, SRAM has pioneered electronic shifting since SRAM Red eTap was released in the summer 2015.
However, it’s more complicated than that – it always is! SRAM’s mechanical groupsets are still 11-speed, whilst their three top-tier groupsets. Rival, Force and Red. are available in 12-speed wireless electronic versions. Below is SRAM’s groupset ranking:
SRAM mechanical groupsets:
SRAM has focused on single-chainring ‘1X’ (pronounced one by) systems, initially for mountain bikes, then for cyclocross, gravel bikes and road bikes. All versions of Force, Rival and Apex are available in 1X configurations (with a single chainring instead of a double).
With Red being a few years old now and a new Force groupset just launched, could 2023 see SRAM Red go to 13-speed? We’ll wait to find out, but for now here are all your SRAM groupset options for drop bar bikes.
SRAM Red eTap AXS
Read our first ride review: SRAM Red eTap AXS
It’s getting on for four years old now (and after new SRAM Force was revealed in March 2023 we anticipate a revamp soon) so you might already know about SRAM’s top-of-the-range groupset, the Red eTap AXS wireless groupset which replaced SRAM Red eTap.
SRAM Red eTap AXS is the second incarnation of SRAM’s wireless electronic groupset. Shifting is actuated by switches on the brake levers, which send a signal to the derailleurs to do their thing.
Clicking on the right-hand button moves the rear derailleur to larger sprockets, while a click on the left-hand button takes you to smaller sprockets. Clicking both at the same time shifts the front derailleur.
Red eTap AXS is a 12-speed group, with a 10-tooth smallest sprocket on each of the three available cassettes. Those cassettes will only fit on wheels with SRAM’s XDr freehub body, which is 1.85mm wider than the mountain bike XD body so that the chain clears the spokes on the largest sprocket.
You can choose from 10-36, 10-33, and 10-28 cassettes with a 36t-max derailleur and 10-26, 10-28, and 10-33 cassettes with a 33t-max derailleur.
There are double- and single-chainring chainsets, and all of them have smaller chainrings than most current chainsets. Your double-clanger options are 46/33, 48/35 and 50/37. That generally yields gear ranges with a higher top gear and lower bottom gear than in previous widespread use.
The chainsets are available with an optional power meter. Controversially, in most versions, it is built into the chainrings, so when the big ring wears out, you’ll have to replace the power meter too.
SRAM says that this makes for a lighter, stiffer crank-based power meter.
One rear mech rules them all, for the road at least. It works with all three cassette options and single or double chainrings.
There is an internal Orbit chain management with fluid damper which SRAM says makes it quieter, simpler and more efficient.
There’s also good news for gear tinkerers: the mountain bike Eagle AXS rear derailleurs will work with drop-handlebar controls so you can put together a 1X system with a super-low gear if that’s what you need.
Red eTap AXS is customisable via a smartphone app that communicates with the system, meaning you can set it up however you like. Whether that’s switching the way the shifting works so a right-hand tap yields lower gears rather than high or getting the system to take care of shifting the front mech for you so you only have to tap one button at a time. you can do them both.
The app also monitors battery level and updates will be able to detect chain wear and tell you how many shifts the system has executed.
The chain is dubbed Flattop because the outer edges of the links are flat. There’s no backwards-compatibility with first-generation Red eTap.
Buying Red eTap AXS
Groupset pricing varies based on brake type selection, 2x or 1x drivetrain selection, and aero or spider-mounted 1x chainring type selection where applicable.
- double chainset/disc brakes ( optional power meter)
- double chainset/rim brakes ( optional power meter)
- single chainset/disc brakes ( optional power meter)
It’s also still more common to be offered the derailleurs, brake levers and brakes as a set, then add your choice of chainset, sprockets and so on.
You’ll also need wheels, a new rear wheel with an XDr freehub body or to replace the freehub body on your existing wheels with an XDr body.
A complete 2x groupset with disc brakes includes:
- Sram Red D1 DUB Chainset
- Sram Red XG-1290 Cassette
- Sram Red D1 Chain
- Sram Red eTap AXS HRD Shift-Brake-System left front/right rear with Flat Mount calipers. 2×12 Speed
- Sram Red eTap AXS rear derailleur. 12 Speed
- Sram Red eTap AXS Front derailleur. 2×12 Speed
- 2 x Sram AXS Batteries
- 1 x Sram Centerline XR Centrelock Rotors. 140mm
- 1 x Sram Centerline XR Centrelock Rotors. 160mm
- Sram AXS charger
SRAM Force eTap AXS
SRAM introduced an electronic, wireless and 12-speed version of its second-tier Force groupset in its last round of significant updates in 2019/20, and for 2023 Force eTap AXS is now in its second iteration.
After previously addressing issues like the lack of customisation, migrating 12-speed technology from mountain bikes and coming up with a new approach to road bike gearing to develop a Force version of Red eTap, making it far more than just a heavier version of SRAM Red, what’s new this time around? Well, the performance appears to be even closer to Red than ever, and the groupset is also a bit lighter than the outgoing version with new integrated chainrings and new power meter options.
The shifter hoods have also got smaller and neater on this update, although pretty much all the braking components are the same as previous-gen SRAM force.
There are a number of cassette sizes with a 10-tooth small cog as before, and there is now a 50/37 Force chainset alongside the 48/35 and 46/33 options. You can choose from 1x or 2x set-ups, and the double chainring cranksets on Force are now integrated. SRAM says this makes front mech shifting faster.
There is new Force power meter crankset options as well, with the new Force AXS Power Meter Crankset (shown above) offering a power meter integrated into the chainrings rather than the spindle. There are also spindle-based power meters in the Force range, but these measure your left-side power only and use that to calculate total watts.
As before, there is also SRAM Force Wide options if you want lower gears and an even wider spread of gearing. The Force Crankset is available in a 43/30T Wide version with a longer-than-normal spindle for both road and mountain bike width frame bottom bracket standards. This has non-integrated chainrings and is used with the SRAM Force AXS Wide Front Derailleur.
“Our 43/30T chainring combo combined with a wide chainline increases tyre clearance while providing ideal gearing for venturing off-road,” says SRAM.
Buying Force eTap AXS
- double chainset/disc brakes ( optional power meter)
- double chainset/rim brakes ( optional power meter)
- single chainset/disc brakes ( optional power meter)
As with Red eTap AXS you’re going to need a whole groupset if you want to switch from whatever you’re riding now, plus a new rear wheel with the XDr driver to accommodate SRAM’s 10-tooth stop sprocket. There’s no upgrade path from first-generation Red eTap.
A complete 2x groupset with disc brakes includes:
- 1x SRAM Force eTap AXS complete front brake/shifter lever with flat mount caliper
- 1x SRAM Force eTap AXS complete rear brake/shifter lever with flat mount caliper
- 2x SRAM Centerline XR disc rotors 160mm, Centrelock brake rotor mount
- 1x SRAM Force eTap Rear Derailleur,
- 1 x SRAM Force etap Front Derailleur, Braze-on
- 2x SRAM eTap batteries
- 1x SRAM Charger and Cord
- 1x SRAM Force 12 Speed cassette
- 1 x SRAM Force 12 Speed Flattop Chain
- 1 x SRAM Force Chainset
A Cannondale SuperSix EVO 4 Carbon 1 with new SRAM Force has an RRP of £6,750, while the Liv EnviLiv Advanced Pro AXS has an RRP of £6,999 at the time of writing.
SRAM Rival eTap AXS
Last to turn electric was SRAM’s third-tier groupset launching in April 2021. SRAM Rival eTap AXS makes electronic shifting available to more riders than ever before.
Rival eTap AXS is a 12-speed system, like Red and Force and is also available in 1x and 2x chainring options.
There is one derailleur option: 36t cog max derailleur that works with 10-28, 10-30, 10-33, and 10-36 cassettes. There is the option of a Quarq power meter inside a DUB crank spindle.
Like Force eTap AXS, there is a wide crankset option with 43/30T chainrings for bikes with up to 700x45c or 27.5×2.1 tyres.
Buying Rival eTap AXS
- double chainset/disc brakes ( optional power meter)
- double chainset/rim brakes ( optional power meter)
- single chainset/disc brakes ( optional power meter)
A complete 2x groupset with disc brakes includes:
- SRAM Rival eTap AXS HRD shifters
- SRAM Rival Flat Mount calipers
- SRAM Rival eTap AXS medium cage rear derailleur, including battery
- SRAM Rival eTap AXS front derailleur, including battery
- SRAM Rival AXS DUB Power Meter chainset
- SRAM XG-1250 12-speed 10-36t cassette
- SRAM Rival AXS 120 Links with PowerLink 12-speed chain
- SRAM 160mm Paceline Center Lock rotors
- SRAM AXS charger and cord
SRAM Force 1
SRAM Force is also available as a 1x system designed for road, gravel, adventure, fitness and triathlon applications. This means you get a single chainring and a wide-range cassette.
SRAM says that a 1x system is simpler because there’s no front mech or front shifter, there’s no chance of the chain rubbing on a non-existent front mech, and it’s quieter on rough surfaces. SRAM also says that the interface between the chain and chainring is better because their X-Sync rings have tall, square teeth edges that engage the chain earlier, and the traditional sharp and narrow tooth profile helps manage a deflected chain.
The 1x system comprises three elements. Those X-Sync single chainrings are available in a range from 38 to 54 teeth; wide-range 11-speed cassettes are available in 11-36, 11-32, and 11-30, plus the whopping 10-42 introduced for the original mountain bike 1x, which needs a special XD freehub body. Finally, there’s the clutch mechanism rear derailleur which prevents chain slap.
A 1x transmission can offer a very wide range of gears. A 46-tooth chainring with the 10-42 cassette gives a slightly wider gear range than a 50/34-tooth compact double with an 11-25 cassette.
We’ve used Force 1 and we did notice the fairly sizeable jumps in gear ratio size across the wide-range cassette. You sometimes find your legs spinning far quicker than you’d expected, or far slower, but you soon adapt. Although it’s not the best option for everyone, we’d say that 1x certainly has a place.
SRAM Force 1 is available with both hydraulic and mechanical brakes.
SRAM Rival 1
Like mechanical Force, Rival is still available in a 1x configuration with just a single chainring and a wide-ranging cassette. It has no direct rival from Shimano or Campagnolo.
The most important part of the groupset is the Rival 1 X-Horizon rear derailleur. Inside its bulky exterior is a clutch mechanism that prevents unwanted chain movement. It eliminates chain slap when you’re riding over bumpy terrain.
It won’t be for everyone, but Rival 1 offers shifting simplicity, a useable range of gears, and powerful hydraulic brakes (or mechanical brakes if you prefer).
It’s also easy to use. You have one shift paddle to move the derailleur across the wide-range cassette. You quickly adapt to the simplicity of the shifting, and while the actual gear shifting is a little clunky – it doesn’t have the lightness or quietness of Shimano – there’s no mistaking a gear change.
There are slightly bigger leaps between certain gears which will put off cyclists who like to be in the cadence sweet spot all the time. This is one of the biggest compromises with this groupset, but for solo riding it’s not nearly as problematic as you might expect.
Anyone building a gravel, adventure, touring or cyclo-cross bike might be interested (and lots of new cyclo-cross and gravel bikes are shipping with this groupset), but it won’t appeal to road racers, where the gear jumps and simple lack of range will limit its suitability.
SRAM Apex 1
Where the double-chainring version of Apex is ten-speed, the single-ring version goes up to 11, which is probably the smallest number of sprockets that can provide both the wide gear range gravel bikes need and comfortable spacing between the gears.
Like Rival 1, Apex 1 uses SRAM’s X-Horizon rear derailleur tech, with a roller clutch to control chain slap, and in pretty much ever other respect, Apex 1 is a budget kid brother to Rival 1, so the same Комментарии и мнения владельцев apply, and it’s common to see Apex 1 on single-chainring gravel bikes, a niche SRAM had almost to itself until Shimano’s launch of GRX in 2019.
Apex is SRAM’s entry-level road groupset, and it’s a 10-speed system. You don’t get the same level of technology as with the higher-end groups, but that’s to be expected. For example, the front derailleur doesn’t incorporate SRAM’s Yaw tech to avoid the need to trim the position as you move the chain across the cassette, but you do get DoubleTap controls and powerful dual pivot brakes.
Like all the other SRAM road groupsets, Apex is available in a WiFLi configuration meaning that you can fit a wide range cassette (12-32-tooth) with a long cage rear derailleur.
The Apex chainset comes in 53/39-tooth, 50/34-tooth and 48/34-tooth, options, but there’s no 52/36-tooth semi-compact available here.
Although it looks a little dated next to its more illustrious siblings, Apex is sound stuff and we like it very much. Plus, of course, it’s far more affordable so if you’re looking for good performance on a budget, this could be the option for you.
Discontinued (but still available if you look around).
SRAM Red 22, Force 22 and Rival 22 are all previous-generation mechanical SRAM groupsets that are no longer available as complete groupsets. However, SRAM retailers may still be able to access individual parts such as rear derailleurs and shifters, and you can find plenty of these parts at smaller bike retailers and on eBay.
For more info go to www.sram.com
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Road Bike Groupsets: Everything you need to know!
Everyone these days is looking to buy a geared bicycle. 18 speed, 24 speed, which one should I buy? Shimano Acera or Shimano altus? Ohh, there’s SRAM also. What’s the difference and how much should I spend?
While you’re surrounded by this Cloud of confusion, worry not. We are here to answer all your queries.
So let’s start with the basic.
What is a groupset?
A groupset is basically a collective name for all individual mechanic parts (gearing and braking)that are attached to the bike frame. Parts included are gears, brake levers. Disc or brake callipers, front and rear derailleur, cables, chainset, bottom bracket, cassette and chain.
A Groupset is categorised by manufactures. They name into different levels of pre and performance with each part clearly marked with the group names for easier identification. This not only makes buying and replacing a worn-out part easier but also helps in identifying the level of performance a bike is aimed at.
What companies make road bike groupsets/ bicycle gears?
Basically, there are three main companies that manufacture road bike groupsets.
Shimano – a Japanese multinational manufacturer of cycling components
SRAM (Scott, Ray and Sam) – is a privately owned bicycle component manufacturer based in Chicago, Illinois, United States, founded in 1987.
Campagnolo– is an Italian manufacturer of bicycle components with headquarters in Vicenza, Italy.
Can I mix and match the components?
These companies manufacture parts that look very similar. However, they are incompatible with each other’s systems. Indeed it’s often the case that different groupset from the same manufacturer doesn’t work very well with each other. Usually, this happens because each gear system has a pre-determined amount of cable pull and corresponding mech movement that differs slightly with each manufacturer.
The same applies when it comes to brake levers and calipers.
So if you’re tempted to mix and match gears, it’s surely not a good idea.
Besides, each group manufacturer recommends only using similar named Groupset component as some components may not work with a differing number of gears.
For instance, Shimano Dura Ace 11 speed must use an 11 speed rear or front mech as it is different in size to some of its lower tier groupsets.
So what does Shimano make?
Shimano is the world’s biggest bicycle groupset manufacturer. Their components are widely used and are very common in India.
Have a look at the hierarchy of Shimano Road groupset from Professional to entry level
1.Dura Ace Di2 (electronic shifting) 2.Dura Ace 3.Ultegra Di2 (electronic shifting) 4.Ultegra 5.105 6.Tiagra 7.Sora 8.Claris
So what does Campagnolo Make?
One of the oldest bicycle manufactures of cycle gears in the market is Campagnolo. They are the brand that invented the rear derailleur. They not only make grouspets for some of the best cycling teams in the world but also make stuff for regular riders as well.
Have a look at the hierarchy of Campagnolo groupsets from professional to entry level below: 1.Super Record EPS (electronic shifting) 2. Super Record 3. Record EPS (electronic shifting) 4. Record 5. Chorus EPS (electronic shifting) 6. Chorus 7. Athena 8. Centaur 9.Veloce
So what does SRAM make?
in the market of groupset manufacturer, SRAM have come with with a series of ingenious inventions which have quickly gained a wide fan base from professional to recreational with their alternative view on operating systems.
Have a look at the hierarchy of SRAM road groupsets from professional to entry level is as follows: 1.Red 2. Force 3. Rival 4. Apex
Bicycle gears is directly proportional to what you pay!
Companies make the groupsets by keeping a certain levels of rider and usage in mind. This is seen in the material finish and pricing of the groupsets.
The best material is usually saved for the high-end bicycle group sets where performance and weight reduction is of paramount importance.
Besides, almost all the innovation, and research and development goes into the top end groupsets. However, over the years, this trickles down to the lower groupsets. This only means that today’s mid-range group sets are packed with features that were available to professional riders only a few years ago.
Also, even low end groupsets are now packed with features that were unthinkable.
Performance and durability of bicycle groupsets:
Performance and durability are two vital factors when it comes to choosing a groupset. Most of the times, with bicycle groupsets, there tends to be a trade between the two.
Groups sets under this category are very light and work really well. However, the parts in such high-end groupsets are designed to be light and not necessarily for the rigours of everyday biking.
If you’re using them just for racing and ensure to maintain them well, they should last you longer. Do keep in mind, they are not the best for everyday or commuting purpose.
Offer a combination of performance, durability and weight. Compared to the top end groupsets, the pricing is way cheaper. In low end groupsets, you are likely to find parts that are of the same shape and feel but made from alloy and plastic instead of titanium and carbon.
Groupsets under this category offer basic performance and are neatly priced. This groupset is build with heavier material and can take a decent beating from everyday riding. However, don’t be surprised if they don’t live up to your expectation.
Our suggestion is to go for mid price bicycle groupset as they last longer and aren’t too expense or are heavy either.
Which Road Bike Groupsets should you buy?
Leisure riders –
If you are a leisure rider, then low end road bike groupsets are perfect for you. Bicycles with low gears offer an impressive performance and are inexpensive as well. Also, these bikes don’t usually see a great deal of sustained use or abuse. The gearing on the bicycles also tends to be lower with fewer gears. These gears will offer a good enough ratio to cover a variety of terrains.
Regular riders –
If you’re a regular rider, durability with great performance is the key. In such cases, consider choosing a mid-price groupset. Anything that’s below the high-end groupset will offer good technology at a decent price tag. However, there will be a slight penalty of weight. The chain and cassettes are more hard wearing then top end groupsets.
If you are a hardcore racer, go for the best performing groupsets in the market. These top end bicycle gears are packed with the latest features and are very light. Performance in terms of gears and brakes are much more efficient, smooth and precise.
On high-end bikes, the chain sets often tend to differ for better power transfer. Be prepared to spend on parts like chains and cassettes that wear out at a faster pace.
Got any questions regarding road bike groupsets?
Comment and let us know below!
Also, don’t forget to comment and let us know which road bike groupsets you’re using!
Road Bike Groupsets. SRAM Round up 2023
The relative new kids on the block – and we mean relative. SRAM have been one of the “big three” groupset manufacturers since the late 80’s and they’ve come a long, long way.
SRAM takes a slightly different approach to shifting gears on drop bar bikes compared to Shimano and Campagnolo. The latter two use a seperate leaver for up-shifting and down-shifting. SRAM however utilise a single “double-tap” lever that you throw a short distance to change up a gear and a longer distance to change down. We remember when the prospect of this was a little intimidating but we promise, you’ll have it cracked before you reach your first mile. It’s super intuitive and if you’re as lucky as we are and often get to switch between bikes you might find yourself finding two levers annoying having used the double-tap system. What a time to be alive.
This is of course, talking strictly about the mechanical versions of the groupsets, but SRAM have taken a slightly different tact with their electronic shifting, too.
Shimano and Campagnolo use up and down-shifts on each shifter, a pair of buttons for the front derailleur and a pair for the rear. Simple.
SRAM, however, have one button/paddle on each side. The right button shifts up a gear, and the left down. In order to change the front chainring, you push/throw both paddles at the same time and it will change you to the one you’re not in. It’s clever.
And this is typical of SRAM. A lot of the design decisions don’t take into account the same sort of legacy as Shimano and Campagnolo. It feels like SRAM have been a bit bolder than the competition in recent years and it’s up to you to decide if you feel like that’s a good thing or not!
Like our Shimano round up, we’re going to start mid-table.
SRAM Rival 11 speed (mechanical)
The name isn’t a coincidence. We’ve mentioned elsewhere that Shimano 105 is the groupset of the people. Legend (and in fact, a couple of interviews, too) suggests that SRAM Rival was named as to directly pit it against Shimanos best value offering, and unsurprisingly there’s very little between them.
They’re both 11 speed. They’re both within a few grams of each other. They both work flawlessly. To choose between them is to leverage the luxury of subjective analysis. Stick with us here.
To some SRAM provides better feedback of shifting at the hands. You can’t miss a shift, you can feel it and hear it. To others, It’s agricultural and clunky, and Shimano’s delicate snick is preferable.
To some, SRAM brakes offer better modulation and a more linear braking experience. To others, there’s too much lever throw and Shimano has a faster ramp up.
To some, SRAM double tap means less moving your hands around and is slightly lighter. To others It’s easier to miss-fire and having two levers rather than one is easier to manage.
The good news is, you can’t really go wrong with either Shimano 105 or SRAM Rival. Come and speak to us, feel how they feel in your hands, and choose the one that’s on the best offer. (Look at us, providing actual consumer advice).
SRAM Rival AXS 12 speed eTap
Providing SRAMs entry level into electronic shifting, the AXS denomination is something that will follow through the higher end groupsets. There’s a bunch of funky technical reasons it’s called AXS but for now we’re safe to use this to refer to the fact they go “Zzzt” when you change gear.
What is worth mentioning, however, is that unlike Shimano’s electric gear system, SRAM AXS is completely wireless. The Front and Rear derailleurs connect to the shifters through a proprietary wireless connection system that behaves awfully like bluetooth – but it’s not called bluetooth. Either way, in our experience it connects instantly and behaves impeccably.
SRAM Rival AXS is currently the cheapest way to get electronic shifting. Don’t get us wrong, it’s certainly not cheap, but it’s a damn site cheaper than the entry level electronic options of even just 2 years ago – even with the price increases the industry has seen.
SRAM take a slightly different approach to gearing, and that’s evident here as well. The 12 speed cassettes have a 10 tooth smallest cassette, which doesn’t sound like a major difference but compared the 11t of Shimano that’s a whole 10% “faster”. With this, comes the ability to use smaller chainsets. 46-33 is the semi-compact equivalent that most of us will be using currently. These chainsets are lighter (smaller=lighter) and technically more aero – although we’ll admit we raised an eyebrow at that, too.
We’ve used it, and the shifting is as smooth as any of the competition. The brakes across all of the AXS systems are a marked improvement compared to the mechanical options too, with much more feedback at the lever and less throw before engagement.
SRAM Force AXS eTap
It would be easy to write “as above, but lighter” here – but there are a few nuances worth mentioning. First is the rear derailleur. The jump from SRAM Rival AXS etap to SRAM Force AXS eTap gains you some extra technology in the rear changer. At Rival level you’re getting a spring system to create the tension needed to keep the chain on the right sprocket – much the same as derailleur systems of the last few decades. However, when you make the jump to force, you get an additional neat bit of technology called Orbit that uses a “silicon fluid damper with a one way valve” that creates resistance against the jockey wheel cage when going over bumps. Because it’s fluid based it’s naturally exponential so the harder the bump, the more resistance it applies.
What does this mean in the real world?
Quieter drivetrain, reduced chain slap, and better chain retention. We have anecdotally found slightly smoother shifting too but not sure if this is as a result of the chain retention.
Now, onto weight. Force does make marked savings against rival in certain areas. We were astounded when we found out a pair of Force shifters are almost half the weight of the Rival equivilent. That’s ~400 grams. In the cycling world, that’s massive! To which we will say, SRAM Rival is excellent, but if you’re racing or time keeping, Force is a worthwhile upgrade.
The chainset also looks loads sexier – but that’s just like, our opinion.
SRAM Red AXS eTap
The Creme de la creme. Much like it’s Japanese cousin, Dura-Ace, SRAM Red marks the lightest and most expensive offering from the Americans – and also like it’s Japanese cousin doesn’t really represent any major performance advantages unless you’re chasing every gram. Outside of racing or really treating yourself (which is something we’re experts at) We’d usually recommend Force giving the best high end value.
SRAM Red has been all but crippled by ill availability through the pandemic but we’re almost thankful for the case as it seems they have focussed energies on the more wallet friendly options with availability of Rival being much better than alternatives.
What’s the difference between a gravel groupset and a road groupset?
Actually, for the first generation of gravel bikes, that’s exactly what manufacturers did, as there were no two chainring gravel-specific alternatives.
A few years back I rode plenty of gravel bikes with Ultegra groupsets. The mix of a 50/34T chainset with an 11-34T cassette gives adequate range if you’re riding mixed off/on-road. Some came with a 46/36T cyclocross chainset. One gravel bike I rode even came kitted out with a 52/36T chainset and an 11-30T cassette, upping my hillwalking quotient.
But there are good reasons for going for a gravel-specific groupset.
What’s different about a gravel groupset?
Modern gravel groupsets have features, often shared with MTB gearing, that make them a better choice for riding off-tarmac than a road bike groupset.
That starts with their clutched rear derailleur. The clutch helps keep the chain under tension when you’re riding over uneven surfaces, thus preventing your chain from slapping against the chainstay. That makes for quieter running and helps keep the chain planted on the chainring, meaning that you’re much less likely to lose your chain.
Gravel groupsets give you much lower gearing options too. A 1:1 ratio is fine if where you’re riding is fairly gentle, but as soon as you try to ride a hill off-road, particularly if the surface is loose, you’ll benefit from something lower that lets you spin up rather than trying to ride out of the saddle. Try to power up a loose, muddy climb and you’ll probably lose traction and spin your rear wheel and you may end up having to give up and walk.
How much lower than 1:1 you need obviously depends on the conditions and how fit you are, but particularly if you want to use your bike for a bikepacking adventure you’re gonna need a bigger sprocket. Take a look at our guide to bikepacking to see just how much you might need to carry.
Actually, it’s not just bigger sprockets but also smaller chainrings that gravel groupsets specialise in. The “super-compact” chainset is now a feature of most two ring gravel groupsets. That usually means either a 48/32T or 46/30T chainset (or something similar) paired with a conventional 11-34T cassette.
Coupled to those low ratios to tackle off-road obstacles, once you hit tarmac you want enough top end gearing to ride at pace, so gravel groupsets will be designed to offer a wide gear range. That’s usually expressed as the percent difference between the highest and the lowest ratio and will often exceed 500% for the widest range options.
It’s also useful to consider gear inches to make sure your available gears will work for your riding. With the smallest super-compact chainsets it’s relatively easy to spin out on faster road sections, but they can be a godsend on muddy tracks. There’s a good gear inch table here.
The chainline of gravel groupsets tends to be slightly wider side-to-side than road groupsets too. That means that you can’t always mix and match road and gravel components, but it does give a bit more clearance for wider tyres.
We’ll get onto single chainrings next and the gravel groupset options from Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo afterwards.
Why go single ring?
Single ring (also called “one-by”) has the advantage that there’s less to go wrong and to collect mud than with a front derailleur. There’s less to interfere with tyre clearance and it’s lighter too.
A big plus of single ring groupsets is that, since the chain isn’t expected to jump between rings, the chainring can be designed so that it shouldn’t jump off the ring at all. A single chainring has much deeper teeth than a double set-up and alternate teeth are wide and narrow, so that they mesh more precisely with the chain links and also help shed mud. You could fit a chain guide to improve chain retention even further, although that’s not usually needed.
Another advantage of going single ring is that you only have one shift lever to deal with. The left lever is often a “dumb” brake lever that’s much less expensive than a combined brake lever and shifter. But it’s also freed up to operate a dropper post, which is becoming a popular option on gravel bikes.
The downside of single ring groupsets is that you have fewer gear ratios to play with and larger jumps between them. The difference to double ring groupsets is actually less than it first appears though, as two rings tend to give you some gear ratios on the large ring that are close to those on the small ring, so the actual number of discrete, different gear ratios is a lot less than the 20, 22 or 24 permutations that the gears offer.
With those ratios spread over 12 or 13 speeds, the jumps between them are getting ever-smaller too and the overall gearing range of some single ring groupsets can approach or better two ring set-ups.
Shimano or SRAM or Campagnolo?
Shimano’s gravel specific GRX groupsets come in 10-speed and 11-speed format. 10-speed is designated RX400. 11-speed comes in two spec levels, RX600 equivalent to 105 and RX800 equivalent to Ultegra. RX800 offers a mechanical and an electronic Di2 option, the latter designated RX815. All come in single chainring and double ring flavours.
Do the maths and GRX doesn’t offer quite the range of SRAM and Campagnolo’s options: 380% for single ring and a best of around 475% for two rings. That’s largely due to the cassettes starting with an 11 tooth smallest ring rather than 9T or 10T, but it’s probably enough for the majority of riders in most conditions and you can go below 1:1 for both single and double rings.
The clutch in Shimano’s GRX rear derailleurs can be switched on and off. there’s marginally less friction in the drivetrain with it off. GRX shift levers have a different design to Shimano’s road levers, with a little more to grab hold of and a matt finish that should stand up better to rough wear. Unique to Shimano, you can also fit an in-line hydraulic brake lever on the bar tops, to give you a second braking position.
With GRX having an 11-tooth smallest sprocket, a cassette will fit on a standard Shimano/SRAM 11-speed road freehub. Shimano doesn’t have specific GRX cassettes, but uses standard ones from its road and MTB groupsets.
SRAM was actually the early mover in gravel gearing and you can still buy its impressive single ring 11-speed mechanical Force 1, Rival 1 and Apex 1 groupsets. These run a 10-42T or 10-36T cassette with a clutched derailleur and a range of chainsets with between 38T and 44T suitable for gravel riding.
But SRAM has even more options for gravel riding with its XPLR 12-speed wireless electronic groupset range, available at Red, Force and Rival levels. XPLR repackages some of SRAM’s earlier eTap AXS components into a single ring gravel gearing ecosystem which uses a 10-44T cassette and can be paired up with a range of chainsets starting with a 36 tooth chainring. As with its road gearing, the 10 tooth smallest sprocket, rather than one with 11 teeth, lets SRAM use smaller chainrings to achieve similar gear ranges to Shimano’s.
If you prefer a two chainring groupset, SRAM’s got that covered off too with its eTap AXS Wide chainset. This has 43/30T chainrings, shifts the chainline slightly to the right for extra tyre clearance and gives you up to 516% gear range. It needs a specific Wide front derailleur. There’s also a wide single ring option, which again gives you a little more tyre clearance than a standard single ring chainset. Many of SRAM’s gravel chainsets can be upgraded to a power meter.
SRAM also gives you the option of a “mullet build”, where the shifters and single ring chainset from a gravel set-up are coupled with a SRAM Eagle eTap AXS 12-speed MTB rear mech and cassette, as the MTB rear mech uses the same wireless comms protocol as SRAM’s road and gravel groupsets. That gives you a huge 10-52 cassette for a 520% gear range. the largest available for your gravel bike. You may not need such low ratios or such a wide range, but it’s a useful option for extreme gravel riding and for bikepacking.
You’ll need a wheelset with an XDR freehub body to run SRAM’s cassettes, rather than a standard Shimano/SRAM 11-speed freehub.
Campagnolo was late to the gravel party, but its Ekar gravel groupset offers something different. For starters, it’s 13-speed and it’s very lightweight. It also has three cassette options, including a 9-42T that gives you a really wide 466% gear range with the first seven sprockets having one or two tooth jumps. There are also 9-36T and 10-44T cassettes available. At present Ekar offers mechanical shifting only.
Like SRAM’s gravel cassettes, you need a rear wheel with a specific freehub body to run Ekar though, in this case Campag’s new N3W standard. It is, though, backward compatible with 11 or 12 speed Campagnolo cassettes with an adapter and all Campag’s new wheels will come with an N3W freehub as standard.
Take a look at SRAM’s excellent post on gravel gearing options if you want more on gear ranges and ratios for different types of gravel riding.
Electronic v mechanical
If you want to go electronic with your gravel groupset, the top tier of Shimano GRX, labelled RX815, uses the Di2 shifting system and all SRAM’s 12-speed gravel options use wireless eTap AXS shifting.
The swift, precise shifting of electronic drivetrains is well adapted to off-road conditions. For two chainring set-ups, electronic shifting also gives you the option to set up compensating shifts in the rear mech when you swap between chainrings, which can be useful off road to help keep you in the best ratio so you don’t lose momentum.
SRAM’s single paddle per lever right to shift up, left to shift down system is handy off-road, as it reduces the chance of mis-shifts from hitting the wrong shift paddle. You can emulate it with Shimano Di2 and the spare button on Shimano shifters can be handy to control a computer or other kit if you add a DFly wireless unit to your bike. The option with electronic groupsets to add satellite shifters on your bar tops is also useful, so you can keep your hands on the bar tops as you ride.
Not just the shifting
Gravel groupsets aren’t just about the gearing: all come with hydraulic disc brakes too. We’ve not discussed this and although the different brands have their own take on the tech you get, they all work just fine if you look after them.
So which gravel groupset you choose is largely a matter of your preferences and how much you want to spend. SRAM definitely has the greatest number of options and the most versatility if you want to go electronic, whereas Shimano has more mechanical offerings. Campagnolo may only have one gravel groupset, but it has some unique features and comes with the brand’s customary flair.