Back in December we did a First Ride report on the new SRAM Apex groupset. At the time, we liked it. Move on two months and we've done a bunch more miles on the Apex-equipped test bike, and we still like it. We like it a lot, in fact.
But before we gush any further, let's have a look at the kit in more detail. The Apex range is less expensive than SRAM's other well-established ranges - Rival, Force and Red - so rather than carbon, we're talking mainly Aluminum alloy here, plus some steel on the obvious bits such as the cassettee cogs and front mech cage. The colour is mainly gloss black, with the steel bits being, er, steel coloured.
The groupset includes crankset (cranks and chainwheels), cassette, brakes, controls (combined brake and gear levers), front and rear derailleurs, bottom bracket and chain. Here's how we rate the individual components...
Chainset & Cassette 8/10
As with SRAM's other ranges, under the Apex banner there's a wide choice of sizes for chainwheels (eg 53/39 or 48/34 - for cyclocross) and 10-speed cassettes (eg, 11-23T, 12-25T or 12-28T), but the headline option - and the set-up we're testing - has standard 50/34 compact rings and a 10-speed cassette with 11-32T.
Was that 32T? On a road bike? Yes indeed. It may look like a mountain bike cassette, but teamed up with a compact chainset it gives low gears that you'd normally only get with a triple. But that's where the similarity stops. The chainset weighs less than an equivalent quality triple. You also get a lower Q-factor (ie, the bottom-bracket axle is shorter, so your feet are closer together) meaning pedalling is more efficient than with a triple. It seems to be a win-win situation. SRAM's marketing blurb bills it as 'WiFli' - meaning wider, faster, lighter. And to cap it all, it's less expensive than a triple set-up of comparable quality such as Shimano's 105.
All well and good, but does this set-up actually work? Yes. Nearly all the ratios are available, with chain-rub only in 50:32, 34:11 and 34:12, which you'd never normally use anyway. (To be honest, you'd never normally use the gears next door either - 50:28 or 34:13 - but they do engage.)
So another advantage of this compact chainset with a 10-speed cassette over a triple is a higher proportion of usable gears (17 out of 20) however the triple will still give you the greater number of useable gears.
OK, so the Apex 11-32 works, but do you *need* this granny gear on a road bike? In our view, it depends what you ride. If you ride sportives that feature steep hills (and there's a few that meet this description) lower gears make it easier. And that means less effort on the legs. And that means energy saved to use later on. And that means getting round in a faster time, or reaching the finish feeling slightly fresher than usual.
Here are some real examples: Through the 2010 season I rode a good batch of fairly tough sportives across the UK, with killer climbs including Mow Cop, Peak Hill, Winnats Pass and many other 25%ers. Where other riders were lunging all over the road to keep 34:27 turning (or simply walking) on these hills, we were still going nicely on 34:32. With the time gained and energy saved we were doing 100-mile sportives well under our personal objective of 6 hours. Not setting the world alight, but respectable accomplishments. So yes, I need the granny gear. That's why we like the Apex set-up so much.
To counter all these positives, there is one disadvantage: With 20 gears between highest and lowest (instead of a theoretical 30 you'd get with a triple) the jumps between the ratios are bigger. With a complete run of 11, 12, 13, 15, 17, 19, 22, 25, 28, 32T on the cassette on test, this means on occasion you find yourself wishing for a 14T or 16T cog that isn't there. But this is rare, and not a major issue. If it's something you think might be a problem, other Apex cassettes with closer high-to-middle ratios are available, such as 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 21, 24, 32T.
Weight: Chainset 889g
Weight: Cassette 12-32 318g
The controls feature a separate gear lever, behind the main brake lever. So to change gear you move the gear lever, rather than swinging the brake lever sideways as on Shimano and Microshift. Changing gear is via the 'double-tap' system common to all SRAM brakes, meaning you push the gear lever in the same direction to change up and down. Hard (two clicks) for up a gear; not so hard (one click) for down.
It takes a day or two of familiarisation if you're used to Shimano or Campag, and (like all SRAM levers) it feels a bit clunky compared to the cleaner lever-motion provided those other two brands. But down on the sharp end, changing is smooth and quick, with indexing precise and positive. No slips on the cassette. No sucks or jumps on the chainwheels. One major positive is that when you're on the drops you can pull the control lever back and use it to shift both up and down without having to go to the hoods or reach for a lever. That's certainly an improvement over either of the other two systems.
Like all indexed systems the cables can get out of register. If you've used Shimano or Campag gear you'll be used to 'feathering' changes when things aren't quite spot on, pushing the lever and feeling for the change. Sometimes the shift doesn't register, and you slip back down to the smaller cog. This can be annoying on a climb, but it's worse on SRAM: as soon as you're committed to a shift it's either up or down, there's no going back to where you came from. So if you miss a shift up the block on a hill you'll end up in a higher gear than when you started, and you'll grind to a halt on hills a couple of times before you remember to make sure it's clicked in
The gear lever is easy to reach when you're riding on the hoods, and especially easy when on the drops, as the separate gear lever is nearer your fingers. Comfort-wise, the hoods are big and well-padded enough to rest your hands on pretty much all day (we've done it), so no worries in that department.
Rear Derailleur 9/10
The rear mech on the Apex groupset comes in two varieties: short cage for most cassette sizes, and a mid-cage version for the 11-32T cassette on test. The longer cage is to hold the jockey wheels farther apart, which is required to take up the extra slack in the chain, which is a little longer than usual to deal with the wide range of chainwheel and cog sizes.
With the Apex being SRAM's entry-level range, this is where you might expect to see compromise in performance. But not a bit of it. In hundreds of miles of riding our test kit, the rear mech went up and down the cassette smoothly every time, never missing a beat.
Front Derailleur 8/10
These are available in to band on sizes: 31.8m and 34.9 as well as a braze on version. As with the rear mech, the front mech worked perfectly too. For adjustment, there just a medium setting between high and low, with no ability to micro-trim, but you don't need it. As mentioned above, the chain rubs on the cage only in gears you wouldn't use anyway.
In the road.cc test lab, and out on the road, we deliberately abuse the gears on a few occasions - simultaneously changing up on the rings and down on the cogs (or vice versa), and forcing the chain to drop from big ring to little ring half-way up a hill while keeping pretty much full pressure on the pedals - just to see if the mechs could cope. They did.
Brake Callipers 8/10
In terms of performance, there's only one thing you need from brake callipers: to control your speed. And once again, the Apex kit does the job perfectly well. On big descents coming into bends, the braking felt clean and positive every time. Riding on the hoods, there's easily enough leverage to bring the bike to a complete stop pretty damn quickly, without having to go onto the drops for extra force.
The reach on the callipers (ie, the distance between the top of the inside of the calliper and the lowest position of the brake shoes) is generous. There's room for mudguards, depending on your frame clearance, or larger tyres - SRAM says the brakes will take up to 28mm. You might even get 25mm tyres *and* mudguards in there - again depending on your frame clearance - ideal if you'll use the Apex on a winter bike or for audax rides.
The chain provided with the Apex groupset is the PC1031. It's relatively basic, compared to the 1051 and 1071 that come with Rival and Force groupsets, but once again it does the job perfectly, meshing neatly with cogs and rings and always changing smoothly.
The chain comes with a 'Powerlock' joining link. No tools are required to use the link itself when connecting the ends of the chain, but unlike some other brands, the Powerlink is designed NOT to be opened again.
Overall, we found the SRAM Apex groupset ideal for entry-level riding. And it's pretty darn good for more demanding riders too, or with more expertise, especially those that sometimes need lower gears.
When we published the First Ride report back in December, the discussion that followed in the Comments section was quite lively. There was a feeling among some correspondents that lower gears were some kind of a wimpish option. We beg to disagree. If you don't need anything lower than 34:27 to get up the steep hills that feature in many sportives, that's fine. And if you generally ride sportives in less severe landscapes, that's fine too. But if you ride sportives on gears that are too high as a 'challenge', deliberately spurning lower gears because it's somehow 'cheating', then why not - as another corresponded suggested - ride the whole thing on a fixie? And for good measure, why not screw down your back brake so it rubs on the wheel as well? For the rest of us, anything that makes cycling easier, faster or more enjoyable - and comes at a fair price - has to be a good thing.
For most riders tacking steep hills in tough sportives, lower gears will always come in handy, and the SRAM Apex groupset delivers them in a neat, light and inexpensive manner.
road.cc test report
Make and model: SRAM APEX Groupset
Size tested: 50-34 / 11-32
Tell us what the product is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
irst 11-32 cassette on the road. You like to climb long mountain passes, or your local hill, but don't want clumsy triple cranks on your bike? With the first 11-32 cassette for the road, and our new SRAM Apex compact crankset, you will have a wider gear range than the most popular triple combinations. A wider gear ratio means you can climb and descend more efficiently. You also get all of our unmatched technical advantages like Zero-loss, reach-adjust, and DoubleTap shifting. SRAM Apex, wherever the road takes you.
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes
Would you consider buying the product? Yes
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes
About the tester
Age: 50 Height: 5ft 10 / 178cm Weight: 11 stone / 70kg
I usually ride: an old Marin Alp My best bike is: an old Giant Cadex
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: A few times a week I would class myself as: Experienced
I regularly do the following types of riding: touring, club rides, sportives, mtb,