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, Red eTap being the lightest and most expensive – the one used by SRAM’s professional road racers – followed by Force, Rival, and finally Apex at the entry-level.
However, it’s more complicated than that – it always is! – because SRAM has variants of its top three tier groupsets. Red is available in a wireless electronic version called eTap, Force, Rival and Apex are available in 1x configurations (with a single chainring instead of a double), and all four have hydraulic rim and disc brakes as options, as well as mechanical rim brakes.
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.
Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the last month, you'll have seen the media saturation of SRAM's new baby, the Red eTap AXS wireless groupset.
Meanwhile, here's the executive summary.
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 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. (The teeth of the huge sprockets of SRAM's mountain bike 12-speed cassettes sit inboard of the inner edge of the freehub body.) You can choose from 10-26, 10-28 and 10-33 cassettes
There are double- and single-chainring chainsets, and all of them have smaller chainrings than most current chainsets. Your double-clanger options are 50/37, 48/35, and 46/33. That generally yields gear ranges with a higher top gear and lower bottom gear than in current general use.
New motors and electronics in the gear mechanisms and shifters yield faster shifts than first-generation Red eTap.
One rear mech rules them all, for road at least. It has an internal fluid damper to reduce chain clatter and works with all three cassette options, and single or double chainrings. But there's 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.
It's customisable. With a smartphone app that communicates with the system, you can set it up however you like. Want to switch the way the shifting works so a right-hand tap yields lower gears rather than high? You can do that. Want 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 have that too, or you can have the system compensate for front mech shifts by taking you to a rear sprocket that minimises the size of the gear jump. The app also monitors battery level and in coming updates will be able to detect chain wear and tell you how many shifts the system has executed.
The chainsets are available with an optional power meter. In most versions it's — rather controversially — built into the chainrings, so when the big ring wears out, you'll have to replace the power meter too. SRAM says this makes for a lighter, stiffer crank-based power meter.
There's a new chain, dubbed Flattop because the outer edges of the links are flat.
There's no backwards-compatibility with first-generation Red eTap.
As you might expect, it's not cheap. You can add £445 to each of these RRPs if you want a power meter.
|Double chainset/disc brakes||£3,349|
|Double chainset/rim brakes||£3,159|
|Single chainset/disc brakes||£2,849|
Buying Red eTap AXS
While SRAM is already shipping Red eTap AXS, it doesn't yet seem to be possible to order a complete groupset. Instead, you order the derailleurs, brake levers and brakes as a set, then add your choice of chainset, sprockets and so on. You'll also need wheels, or at least a new rear wheel with an XDr freehub body.
Here are some typical options and prices:
|Derailleurs, levers, disc brakes & rotors for double||£2,300.00|
|Derailleurs & levers for rim brakes & double||£1,800.00|
|Derailleurs, levers, disc brake & rotor for single||£1,800.00|
|Chainset with power meter||£1,070.00|
|Rim brake caliper (each)||£155.00|
There's still plenty of Red eTap v1.0 in retailers, so we've left the following sections on the rim-brake and disc-brake versions largely unedited. Prices have been updated, though they haven't come down very much.
If you've got a disc-braked road bike and want easily-set-up electronic shifting, then this combination of SRAM's eTap wireless shifting and hydraulic disc brakes has your name on it.
The eTap HRD groupset uses the same derailleurs as the regular eTap (see below) but the brake levers are different. The hoods are smaller than the company’s previous hydraulic brake levers which got a fair bit of flak for their size, so SRAM has addressed this and the result is a more aesthetically pleasing brake lever. The new hood is taller than regular eTap but only but a small amount.
Both the reach point and bite point can be easily adjusted so you can customise the feeling of the brake levers. New one-piece flat mount brake calipers save weight and they manage heat better than the previous design. And the rotors now get rounded edges.
The price above links to a £1,199 offer for the brakes, gears and shifters. You'll also need:
RRP £2,060 (complete SRAM Red groupset with eTap shifting)
Red eTap is the electronic version of SRAM’s top-level groupset, the first wireless shifting system on the market. The range comprises two shifters, a front derailleur and a rear derailleur, each powered by its own battery, plus the option of satellite shifters, called Blips, that are powered by what’s called a BlipBox.
When we say ‘wireless’, that means there are no cables between the shifters and the mechs, and there’s no cable between the two mechs either. The components communicate with one another using SRAM’s own communication protocol, not ANT+ or Bluetooth, and the brand doesn’t believe that system is susceptible either to interference or to deliberate hacking. The only wires visible are those running from the Blips to the main shifter body, however, they're covered completely by the bar tape.
You upshift at the rear (move to a smaller sprocket) by pushing a paddle behind the right brake lever. You downshift at the rear by pushing a paddle behind the left brake lever. If you want to perform multiple shifts you can hold each paddle in its shift position. You move the front mech by pushing both paddles at the same time.
There is also a HRD version for use with SRAM's hydraulic disc brakes.
You can position Blips on the tops of your handlebar (under the bar tape, above) for use when you’re climbing, or on the drops for shifting when you sprint. You can also use Blips on time trial/triathlon bikes for shifting from both the base bar and from the ends of the aero extensions.
The derailleurs’ rechargeable batteries offer power for over 1,000km (625 miles) of typical riding while the CR2032 batteries in the shifters will need changing on average about once every two years, according to SRAM.
The maximum sprocket size the standard rear derailleur can handle is 28 tooth. There's also a version that will handle SRAM's 11-32 WiFLi wide-range cassette.
We got the chance to try out Red eTap in August and we found it super-easy to use. You get the hang of the new way of shifting in no time, the lever feel is very positive, and it works well, even when changing from the small chainring to the big one under load. It’s also very easy to brake and change gear at the same time whether your hands are on the tops or on the drops.
If you're happy with your current brakes, sprockets and chainset, you can get the shifters and derailleurs for about £950.
Buy if: you want simple and accurate electronic shifting on a professional-level groupset.
RRP From £1,500 (mechanical braking) and from £1,793 (hydraulic braking)
SRAM’s Red mechanical groupset is the lightest option out there. The brand changed Red from 10-speed to 11-speed in 2013, although it actually calls Red a True 22 groupset in that you can run the chain in the large chainring and the largest sprocket, and in the small chainring and the smallest sprocket, so you get 22 different combinations. SRAM doesn’t specifically encourage cross-chaining but it can be done, and you don’t need to trim the front mech when moving across the cassette to avoid chainrub.
Shifting is via SRAM’s DoubleTap system which uses a paddle that sits behind the brake lever. A short lever push moves the chain in one direction, a longer push moves it the opposite way. SRAM uses DoubleTap across all of its mechanical road groupsets.
The mechanical Red groupsets offer SRAM’s WiFLi technology. This means that with a long cage rear derailleur you can use sprockets up to 32-tooth for some really small gears to get you up tough hills.
You can have either mechanical rim brakes or hydraulic disc brakes with SRAM Red. The first generation hydraulic brakes were recalled after problems with sealing in cold weather but new designs have been out for some time now with no such issues. SRAM originally listed a hydraulic rim brake too, but that seems to be now only available at Force and Rival levels.
SRAM was the first of the three major groupset manufacturers to include a power meter within a groupset; the Quarq chainset-based system is an option with Red.
Buy if: you’re after a professional-level groupset and you’re more interested in lightweight than in electronic shifting.
RRP From £830 (mechanical braking) and £1,040 (hydraulic braking)
SRAM took its Force groupset up to 11-speed – or True 22, if you prefer – at the same time as Red.
Force benefits from trickle down technology, boasting many features first introduced to Red. The shift levers are essentially a previous Red 10-speed design but with 11-speed compatibility, and the chainset is a modified version of a former Red design too. Although Force is a little heavier than Red, it offers a similar level of performance and it’s considerably more affordable. You still get high-end touches like carbon-fibre crank arms and brake levers.
We’d say that Force is pretty much a direct competitor to Shimano's Ultegra groupset, and like Ultegra it's an excellent system. It's lighter than Ultegra R8000 and the real-world cost is higher. Even so, SRAM's second-tier groupset is a great choice for the privateer racer, or anyone building or buying a lightweight bike for fast riding.
Force 22 is available with mechanical rim brakes, hydraulic rim brakes and hydraulic disc brakes. You don’t see many of the hydro rim brakes about but the disc brakes are specced on many complete bikes.
Buy if… you want a high-level performance and don’t mind the addition of a little weight in return for a big price saving.
RRP From £888 (mechanical braking) and £1,180 (hydraulic braking)
SRAM Force is also available as a 1x (pronounced ‘one by’) 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.
Buy if: you want the simplicity of a single chainring setup in a high-end package.
RRP From £575 (mechanical braking) and £803 (hydraulic braking)
SRAM’s Rival 22 groupset shares a lot of technology with Red and Force, including 22 usable gears with no need for front mech trim, hydraulic brake options, and the same comfortable ErgoFit shift/brake lever design. Rather than carbon fibre cranks, levers and rear mech cages, Rival has aluminium and it’s a little heavier than its more expensive stablemates, but it works in exactly the same way.
We’ve reviewed Rival 22 with hydraulic disc brakes here on road.cc and think that for many people Rival 22 offers the ideal combination of performance and price for an all-purpose bike. The shifting is precise, if a little heavy, the overall weight is decent, and the price stacks up well against the opposition.
The hydraulic braking performance is really good: predictable, with lots of power on tap for very little force at the lever. The overall braking experience is very similar to that of Shimano's hydraulic road brakes. Shimano's units feel a little more powerful overall but the SRAM brakes are a bit more progressive through their range of power. If we had to choose one or the other, the SRAM brakes would probably edge it. They're a bit more keen to squeak when they get wet, but there's less rotor rub after heating the discs up on a long descent.
The hydraulic levers look bulky, but ergonomically they're easy to use and comfortable (with a caveat if you have really small hands), and the rest of the Rival system is all solidly made and doesn’t wear too quickly.
Unlike SRAM’s other three road groupsets, Rival doesn’t offer a 53/39-tooth chainset although you can get 52/36-tooth, a 50/34-tooth compact, and a cyclocross-friendly 46/36-tooth.
Buy if: a mid-range groupset with a solid performance across the board appeals to you
RRP From £545 (mechanical braking) and £916 (hydraulic braking)
Like Force, Rival is 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.
Buy if: You’re after durability and simplicity at a reasonable price.
RRP From £524 (mechanical braking) and £849 (hydraulic braking)
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.
Buy if: you’re looking for a decent performance and plenty of value
For more info go to www.sram.com
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Mat has worked for loads of bike magazines over 20+ years, and been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. He's been road.cc technical editor for eight years, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a past winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer.