It's always exciting when a new groupset is launched but few have caused such a stir as SRAM's new Red eTap AXS, which not only goes 12-speed but takes a radical new approach to gear ratios in an attempt to better cater for the diversifying nature of cycling.
At the worldwide launch for the new groupset, I was given the opportunity to ride the new groupset on two rides on two different bikes. The brevity of the riding doesn't permit me to make a full and thorough assessment – that'll come when I get my hands on the groupset for a longterm test – but first impressions are often invaluable and provide a good indication of what to expect with further testing.
My first ride was on a beautiful Specialized Tarmac SL6, a bike I know very well from my S-Works review a while ago. Out into the Arizona desert on rolling roads with lots of cracks and rough surfaces to contend with, set to a backdrop of a million cactus, and I immediately felt at home.
I'm not one to jump to conclusions, but colour me impressed! There's a familiarity to current eTap, but it's what happens when you start shifting up and down the cassette that you get a feeling for what SRAM has achieved.
There's no adjustment or relearning needed to get your head around the new groupset. It just works. The Tucson terrain isn't dissimilar to my local Cotswolds roads (if you swap the cactus for cottages) with frequent gradient changes that require a lot of gear changes. If you're fussy about your cadence this is a huge benefit and is one of the biggest appeals of the new groupset.
Press a gear button and the gear change comes very quickly and with very little perceptible noise; the new distinctive Flattop chain has more clearance between the cassette sprockets and in any gear combination there was almost no noise. SRAM has updated the motors and chips and says the shift speed is quicker, but to be honest it's difficult to say in this isolated test whether it really is more rapid. It still doesn't feel as lightning fast as Shimano's Di2.
Spinning along on a 48/35 chainset with a 10-28 cassette, a gear range that is wider than a comparable 52/36 and 11-28 setup, and all felt very normal. On paper, the range is wider, with more top and low end, but identifying that is tricky without first riding the same test loop on the other groupset. I will say the gears were suitable for the rolling terrain around Tucson.
By far the most appreciable difference is the increased single-tooth jumps on the new cassette. This 10-28 cassette provides seven single-tooth jumps, compared with four on an 11-28 or 11-30 11-speed cassette. It's something you can feel straight away, and I was able to maintain a happy cadence on the rolling roads we were shown by local guide Gordon Fraser (2004 Canadian national road race champion and three-time Olympian, and a really nice guy with a lovely collection of classic road bikes).
The new rear mech with its Orbit fluid damper is another bonus too. The Tucson roads are in places rough and severed by huge cracks, but the rear mech kept the chain taut and minimised noise and stopped the chain flapping about, with seemingly no impact at all on the shift performance.
Its benefit was much more apparent on the gravel ride. For this I swapped to a Scott Addict CX with SRAM's widest range setup, a 46/33 chainset with a 10-33 cassette, which provides 1:1 gearing for winching up steep grinds. I would have loved to have tried out the new 1x configuration but unfortunately there weren't enough bikes to go around. There is still a lot of love for 2x on gravel and adventure bikes, though, so let's not write it off just yet.
Scudding across the top of the washboard dirt road with clouds of dust kicking up in my slipstream, the groupset performed flawlessly. The Orbit rear mech kept the chain securely on the sprockets – there wasn't one dropped chain in our group – and it also ensured our progress was conducted with no chain slapping noise.
Front shifting performance has often been criticised on SRAM groupsets over the years. This new groupset is a big improvement, largely thanks to bringing the size difference between the two chainrings down from 16t to 13t. SRAM has tried to reduce the reliance on front shifting by moving the range to the cassette (so yeah you can stay in the big ring longer!) but every time I did change rings up front it was smooth, quick and quiet.
While I had no issues during the two rides, I did spot a few other journalists struggling with dropped chains during the road ride. It'll need a lot more testing on familiar roads over a longer period of time to really get under the skin of this new groupset and properly give it a hammering to see how it stands up to demanding use.
Ergonomics are largely the same as current eTap. Some might have hoped SRAM would have reduced the size of the hoods, which are taller than Shimano Di2, but it hasn't, they are the same as they were. But SRAM has fettled with the rubber and added some texture to improve the feel and grip in the hands. It's also textured the shift paddles, which makes the shifting experience nicer.
The brakes are the same hydraulic discs; no changes here other than the new rotors, and power and feel seem broadly the same as what I'm used to with current SRAM Red eTap.
The integrated power meter connected easily to the Wahoo Elemnt Bolt computer I was using to track my rides, and delivered numbers consistent with those being pumped out by my Powertap P1 pedals.
I was able to use the AXS app to customise the shifting of the new groupset, and experimented with the two automated modes: sequential (similar to Shimano's Synchro Shift) and compensating (similar to Shimano's semi-Synchro Shift).
Sequential takes care of front shifts which makes riding easy as you don't need to worry about what chainring you're in. I'll admit to preferring to control the front mech myself. More useful was the compensating mode, which, following a front shift, moves the rear mech to maintain your cadence. This worked very well on the rolling Tucson roads with their short, punchy rises.
If during a ride you decide to switch back to manual mode (you can't use the app to make changes when you're moving), you can simply press a small button behind the shift lever to get back complete control.
It's neat stuff and adds to the increased customisation of the new groupset. You could do other things like changing the shift button layout from the default too, and assign blip buttons and so on.
Cycling is changing. Bikes are changing. SRAM has taken this into consideration with its new flagship groupset and stepped away from the norm and dared to make a few brave decisions that, on paper at least, offer the tantalising benefits of wider gear ranges and smaller ratio gaps.
For too long cyclists have fixated on the equipment used by pro racers, but that's starting to change and there's been a big shift towards gear setups that are actually better suited to normal people in real-world riding.
With this increasing range comes bigger gaps between the sprockets – not good if you're fussy about cadence – but SRAM's new groupset attempts to solve this issue and provides a wider range than any comparable groupset while also closing up the gaps for smooth shifting progression. Plus you can mix and match mountain bike and road components and customise the groupset to meet your particular demands, all brought together by the optional AXS smartphone app.
Based on my two short rides, Red eTap AXS works brilliantly. If you want a wider range and closer ratios, SRAM Red eTap AXS is easy to recommend. Is it enough to warrant upgrading from current eTap or any other 11-speed groupset? That is harder to say; I'd like to spend a lot more time on the new groupset before coming to any conclusion.
It's not compatible with any other groupset on the market, even Campagnolo's 12-speed groupset, and I'll go out on a limb and say it probably won't be compatible with Dura-Ace 12-speed whenever that happens. So it's all in or nothing.
It's also jolly expensive, but this is a flagship groupset aiming for the very best performance, so it was never going to be cheap. Like most new technologies, there is always a premium until development costs are paid off and the technology trickles down the range to more affordable lines. So while it might be out of range now, in a few years' time it will be more accessible. Especially with SRAM revealing that Force eTap is coming in April.
With all that said, I'm impressed that SRAM has dared to do more than just sling on a 12th sprocket. It has devised a whole new approach to the groupset that delivers key benefits that give it the edge over current groupsets and, I feel, does better cater to the way cycling is changing. I think there's even more potential in this groupset that we've not yet seen.
The real test will be how it's received by the people expected to buy it, so time will tell if SRAM's new approach pays off. I have a hunch it will do.
Stay tuned for a full review soon...
Radical new groupset impresses with wide range and smaller cassette gaps but it's jolly expensive
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road.cc test report
Make and model: SRAM Red eTap AXS First Ride Review
Size tested: 48/35t, 10-28t
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?
Road riders are going beyond where we've ever gone before. We're going further and faster. And when the road stops, we keep going. One thing hasn't changed: We want to push those boundaries without any distractions. Exploring new limits has never been easier. SRAM RED eTap AXS™ - Simply Beyond.
On tarmac or gravel, 1x or 2x, eTap AXS™ gives a quiet, secure, and smooth ride. Thanks to the ultra-lightweight Orbit™ fluid damper and a unique Flattop™ chain, you'll ride more confidently and efficiently than ever - no matter the terrain.
Road bikes are faster and more capable than ever before, and riders are expanding what's possible with drop bar bikes. X-Range™ offers wider range, more useful and smoother gear progression, as well as smarter shift settings - enabled by AXS™.
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
SRAM lists these features:
12-speed for wider range and closer progression
Control, personalise and monitor components via the AXS app
Enhanced shifting options with Sequential or Compensating modes
Orbit chain management with fluid damper; quieter, simpler and more efficient
XDR mounting system to enable the use of cassettes with fewer than eleven teeth
Compatible with previous eTap batteries
It's not cheap! It is SRAM's flagship groupset aimed at racers and premium bikes.
Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose
Based on two short rides, it impressed.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
Works brilliantly with quick and quiet gear changes, and with wider range and more single-tooth gaps.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
Not backwards compatible, expensive, heavier than current eTap and Shimano Dura-Ace Di2, divisive looks.
How does the price compare to that of similar products in the market, including ones recently tested on road.cc?
In the configuration I tested with a power meter it's more expensive than Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 but it does provide a wholesale new approach to gearing.
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes
Would you consider buying the product? Yes
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your overall score
Based on first impressions, the groupset impresses but further testing will be needed to provide a detailed review.
About the tester
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: 10-20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, time trialling, cyclo-cross, commuting, touring, mountain biking
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.