What is a groupset? Should you pick Shimano, SRAM or Campagnolo? Here's your complete guide to this essential piece of road cycling kit

What is a groupset?

On bikes, the term groupset, or “gruppo”, refers to any mechanical or electronic parts that are involved in braking, changing gear, or the running of the drivetrain. That means the shifters, brake levers, front and rear brake calipers, front and rear derailleurs, crankset, bottom bracket, chain, and cassette.

If you’re buying a bike, then, after the frame, the groupset is the second thing that you should look at, and is a key determining factor in working out whether the bike in front of you offers good value for money or not.

Shifters

campagnolo disc brakes shifters 2

Campagnolo shifters use a thumb shifter on the inside of the hoods to shift up

The shifters on a road bike are used change gear.  Shimano’s STI (Shimano Total Integration) shifters are the most common design.  The brake lever can be pushed inwards (sideways) to change up into an easier gear. To change down, there is a second lever behind the first that can be separately pushed inwards.  To apply the brake, both levers are pulled backwards, towards the rider.

With shifters from Campagnolo and SRAM you brake in the same way but shift slightly differently. With Campag you shift down using a shifter behind the brake lever, and change up using a thumb shifter on the inside of the hoods.

On mechanical SRAM groupsets, you shift up by pushing the lever in one notch, and change down by continuing to push it in slightly further. However with SRAM Red eTap, the American company’s electronic groupset, you shift up at the back by pressing the right shifter, down at the back by pushing the left shifter, and push both simultaneously to shift the front derailleur.

Brakes

wilier cento 10 air shimano dura-ace direct mount brake

Direct mount brakes are more aerodynamic and give better performance

The most common brakes found on road bikes are cable-operated calipers that engage with the wheel rim. Recent advances have seen the introduction of hydraulic calipers, although these are not widely used, and an increasing number of road bikes are being equipped with disc brakes.

>>> Disc brakes: everything you need to know

Currently, disc brakes are not UCI-legal (meaning they can’t be ridden in UCI road races) but they can offer much improved braking power and modulation. In addition, because the wheel rim does not have to be reinforced to feature a braking surface, the rim can be lighter. Direct-mount calipers are also being seen in increasing numbers and offer superior performance to single mount calipers, but they are only compatible with specific frames.

Chainset

campagnolo chorus crankset

Chainsets with a number of different chainring combinations

Chainsets housing the front gears can be split into two main categories – doubles and triples.  A double has two chainrings while a triple has (you guessed it) three.

Double chainsets are available in different ratios, with 53/39t being the standard combination favoured by road racers (for those new to cycling, the numbers refer to the number of teeth on the chainring and the bigger number, the bigger the gear.  A bigger front gear is harder to push but can achieve higher speeds).

>>> Is it the end for the 34t chainring?

Compact chainsets have a 50/34t ratio and are currently the most common gearing equipped on road bikes.  The smaller 34-tooth chainring makes this kind of chainset ideal for riding in hilly terrain.  A third, increasingly common ratio known as mid-compact, with a 52/36 ratio, is also available, and is good if you want to be able to push a big gear down fast descents, but also want a small inner ring to fall back on in the hills.

Triple chainsets are being used less frequently these days, but they are often found on touring bikes as they offer the greatest range of gears, which is useful when riding a bike laden down with heavy kit.  The most common ratio is 50/39/30t.

>>> Are shorter cranks better?

The chainset also features the cranks, which attach to the pedals.  The length of the crank arms can vary, typically ranging from 160mm to 180mm.  The length of the cranks that come fitted to a complete bike is usually related to its size — for example, a 56cm frame will often have 172.5mm cranks.  Longer cranks offer a bigger mechanical advantage and larger effective gear, but can be harder to turn.  Shorter cranks are sometimes favoured in criteriums, as they offer more ground clearance to let you pedal around corners.

Cassette

thomas voeckler BH ultralight evo tour de france bike shimano dura-ace di2 cassette chain 11-23t

You can change get cassettes in different sizes to suit the sort of riding you’re doing

The cassette refers to the collection of sprockets on the rear wheel.  These are available in wide range of different ratios. An 11-speed cassette will have 11 sprockets on the cassette, which can be arranged in a close ratio such as 11-23t, which will be good for time trialling and racing on flatter terrain, as the close gears allow for fine adjustment and very smooth shifting, or a wider ratio like 11-32t, which gives you more gears to choose from when riding in hilly terrain.

You can change your cassette and it is common for cyclists to own a few different ratios. However it is important to remember that the size of the biggest ring on a cassette is limited by the length of the cage on the rear derailleur, so check with your local bike shop before you splash out on that 32-tooth granny gear!

Chain

alberto contador specialized s-works tarmac k-edge chain catcher

Chains come in different widths depending on the number of gears

The type of chain is dependant on the range of gears, i.e. a 10-speed groupset requires a 10-speed chain.  An 8-speed chain is considerably wider than an 11-speed chain. More expensive chains feature alloy coatings that are more resistant to wear, and are often lighter. Chains, like cassettes, wear over time, so will need to be replaced periodically.

Derailleurs

campagnolo potenza rear derailleur 11

The rear derailleur is arguably the most important component of a groupset

The derailleurs (also called mechs) are responsible for guiding the chain from one sprocket to the next.  A cable is usually responsible for the shifting, but electronic groupsets, such as Shimano Ultegra Di2, SRAM Red eTap, or Campagnolo EPS, use small motors to move the derailleur.  Front derailleurs are either band on, or braze on, so make sure you select the correct option if purchasing separately from your frame.  Band on refers to a circular clamp to attach to the frame. This is not always possible, as bike frames are not always round.  To counter this, braze on derailleurs are riveted or bolted to the frame.  The more expensive rear derailleurs feature ceramic bearings in the jockey wheels.

Electronic vs mechanical shifting

The Revelator Prestige comes with a full Dura Ace Di2 groupset

Electronic groupsets set the gold standard in shifting speed and precision

If you’ve got more than £3,000 to spend on a new bike then you will likely be faced with a choice of whether to go for electronic or mechanical shifting. Which you choose to go for depends really upon what you’re priorities are and the sort of riding you do.

>>> Six reasons why electronic groupsets are better than mechanical

For out and out performance, electronic groupsets are the natural choice, as shown by the fact that all but a handful of riders in the professional peloton now choose to use it thanks to the slightly sharper shifting and the ability to shift through multiple gears at once. And don’t be put off by the fact that the batteries have to be recharged (once in a blue moon) or the idea that it might be susceptible to the elements (in fact we’d argue that gear cables are much more vulnerable to wet and muddy roads and electronic wires).

>>> Six reasons why mechanical groupsets are better than electronic

Of course there are still many benefits to mechanical groupsets. The shifting on most mechanical groupsets is still very good, and if something goes seriously wrong then it’s much easier to be fixed than electronic. But perhaps most importantly, it’s also considerably cheaper, with the Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 costing £1,000 more than standard Dura-Ace, while Campagnolo Super Record is a massive £1,200 dearer.

Groupset manufacturers

There are three main manufacturers of groupsets and bike components.  Shimano is the largest and best known, while the other two of the “big three” are Campagnolo and SRAM.  All three manufacturers offer a range of groupsets at competing price points.

Shimano

Shimano 105 groupset 201504

Shimano groupsets are found on the vast majority of off-the-peg road bikes

Shimano currently offers the largest range of groupsets, starting with Claris and Sora, which are often found on entry-level road bikes between £500 and £800. Tiagra comes next and is followed by 105, which is generally found on bikes between £1000 and £1800. 105 is considered Shimano’s first performance groupset, and for many people it is the best option in combining, performance, value and longevity. Ultegra is next and is very similar to Dura-Ace in terms of performance, though Dura-Ace is lighter.  Shimano currently produces Ultegra and Dura-Ace in electronic versions, denoted by Di2.

What’s more, the company recently announced the latest iteration of their Dura-Ace Di2 model, which comes with the option of disc brakes. We were able to ride the new groupset at its launch in Calpe and you can read our first impressions on Shimano’s Dura-Ace R9150 Di2. It’s due to come into stock on in February of 2017. RRP is likely to be around the £2800.

Shimano groupset hierarchy

Groupset Speed RRP (from) Buy now
Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 11 £2404.81  £1849.99
Shimano Dura-Ace 11 £1436.91 £1250
Shimano Ultegra Di2 11 £1302.83  £904.99
Shimano Ultegra 11 £751.91 £498.99
Shimano 105 11 £517.91  £349.99
Shimano Tiagra 10 £448.91 £264.99
Shimano Sora 9 £403.91
Shimano Claris 8 £349.91

Campagnolo

Bianchi Specialissima campagnolo super record chainset

Campagnolo is the oldest of the three major groupset manufacturers

Campagnolo, affectionately referred to as “Campag” or “Campy”, is a company rich in cycling heritage. The Italian brand can boast of equipping the winning bikes of the 2014 Giro d’Italia and Tour de France. Historically it is  famous for inventing the rear derailleur and many other key innovations, such as quick release skewers.

The entry-level groupset, Veloce starts higher than Shimano and sits above Sora and Tiagra.  Potenza competes with Ultegra and SRAM Force, with Chorus sitting just below the Record components, while Super Record sits atop the Campagnolo hierarchy.  Campag offers three electronic groupsets, which are denoted by the term EPS (Electronic Power Shift). Super Record EPS is the most expensive commercially available groupset.

Campagnolo groupset hierarchy

Groupset Speed RRP (from) Buy now
Super Record EPS 11 £3078.87  £2469.99
Super Record 11 £1856.91  £1199.99
Record EPS 11 £2564.87 £2018.99
Record 11 £1459.91  £1199.99
Chorus EPS 11 £1873.88 £1349.99
Chorus 11 £1020.92  £779.98
Potenza 11 £694.92  £525.95
Veloce 10 £423.92 £299.99

 

SRAM

sram red etap rear derailleur

SRAM is the first company to release a wireless groupset

Illinois-based SRAM is the newest of the three main brands and offers the lightest commercially available groupset in SRAM Red, and the only wireless groupset in SRAM Red eTap. Apex is SRAM’s entry level and roughly comparable to Tiagra. Next up the ladder is Rival, which was named to rival Shimano 105, and SRAM Force sits above Ultegra and below Dura-Ace. The three lower models in the SRAM range are also available with just a single ring at the front, and every model in the range is also available with matching disc brakes.

SRAM groupset hierarchy

Groupset Speed RRP (from) Buy now
Red eTap 11 £1988 £1180
Red 11 £1578  £1374.95
Force 11 £830 £706.92
Force 1 11  £1040 (hydraulic)
Rival 11 £568 £332.99
Rival 1 11  £843 (hydraulic)
Apex 10 £496 £299.95
Apex 1 10  £715

Rotor

Rotor uno groupset rear derailleur

Rotor Uno will be available to buy soon

Spanish manufacturer Rotor has long been making cranksets and power meter, but has recently unveiled it’s first groupset, the Rotor Uno hydraulic groupset. This groupset uses hydraulic fluid to move the derailleurs (and brake calipers) rather than cables or wires. The result is an exceptionally light groupset, although we haven’t yet been able to get our hands on one to put through its paces.

FSA

fsa groupset shifters 3

FSA’s electronic groupset is still in the prototype stage

Another new name that is also set to join the groupset market is FSA. Best known for its cranksets and finishing kit, the Italian company is currently developing an electronic groupset that has been ridden at the Tour de France, but isn’t yet available to buy.

What do you get for your money?

Groupsets vary in price a great deal, but what changes as the price goes up?  The first thing to consider is weight.  A lighter bike will accelerate faster and climb quicker than a heavy one, but components also need to be strong and stiff. As the price of components increases the weight decreases.  In order to maintain strength, durability and stiffness of the lighter components, more expensive materials are required. For example, an entry level groupset will likely have a steel chain, with a top end groupset featuring a titanium chain.

Performance

Manufacturing tolerances are much more higher on a top end groupset, which means that with an increased price, you get improved shifting between gears.  More expensive components are smoother, more precise and quicker to shift. Electronic groupsets are currently the benchmark in shifting performance, offering smoother shifting when changing gear under load, such as when riding out of the saddle or grinding up a hill.  In these situations the lower end groupsets will be very clunky and strained, whereas the electronic shifting is sublime.

Something to consider is that the shifting performance does tend to level out for the top two tiers. For example, the shifting quality between Ultegra and Dura-Ace is very similar, and the difference between the two primarily comes down to weight.

Braking performance also improves as the price goes up, with the calipers becoming stiffer up the hierarchy. This translates to more power, feel and modulation. The more expensive chainsets tend to be lighter and stiffer too. This can transform a bike, as a stiff crankset is more efficient at transferring the power from the pedals into forward motion. A chainring that flexes slightly under load will absorb energy, and decrease shifting performance too.  For these reasons the big sprinters, such as Marcel Kittel will favour very stiff chainsets.

Durability

As one would expect, durability generally improves as you move up in price.  Quality mid-tier components such as shifters and derailleurs last a very long time if properly maintained. However it is important to consider that the top-tier groupsets, such as Super Record and Dura-Ace, are not designed for workhorse everyday use. These components are designed to be the lightest, with everyday use a secondary concern, which means that durability of groupsets tends to peak around the second highest tier.  Running costs should also be factored in, as chains and cassettes are expected to wear out and be replaced several times throughout the lifetime of a bike.  Replacing a Super Record chain and cassette will incur a much greater cost than a Chorus equivalent.

Top Tips

When buying a bike look at the components it comes with. It is common for bike manufacturers to supply a bike with a whole groupset, minus the brakes and chainset.  These are sometimes (but not always) swapped out for cheaper parts to bring the overall price of the bike down. If you are unsure, enquire to establish what you are getting.  In some instances it can also be worth investing in a quality frame with a lower end groupset, with a mind to upgrading the components at a later date.

  • AndyP

    Disraeli Gears best of all time

  • André Wheeley

    Great, but pronounce derailleur correctly please! Not “de-rail-e-yer”, just “de-rail-yer”.

  • C Dibble

    Calm down now you sound like a lap dog, you can have ur crampy

  • Eric Peterson

    I purchased a Trek Madone with SRAM components. The bike cost me almost 7k. I finally had to buy Shimano group set. SRAM is complete garbage! I had everything under the sun done to get it tuned and nothing worked. Chain pops, clunky miss shifts. And not to mention the damage it did to my lower frame. The added weight of Shimano I don’t notice at all. The bike is faster and shifts like a dream. I was constantly in my tall ring with SRAM or I would spin out completely. I can get close to the same speeds ridding in my small ring with Shimano. I think anyone saying SRAM is a better product because its lighter than other group sets are probably in buyers remorse!? Or they don’t have the funds to replace it

  • Andrew Bairsto

    Campagnolo.

  • reece46

    If you’re getting 30 years out of your groupset why are you concerned about a (clearly right wing) groupset buyers article? or is it that twice in a lifetime purchase time again?

  • Dexter Ace Carolino

    Read the article title. It says “ROAD bike groupsets”

  • Huw Thomas

    Interesting but what about all the other Shimano ranges out there – Deore, Acera, Tourney, Alivio. Where do they fit into the list?

  • Skeptic Bee

    Sram has been around for awhile now. I’ve been riding Force and Ultegra since 2011 and they both have pro’s and con’s. I wouldn’t say I have a huge preference but if I had to choose I would go with Force for the crisper upshifting.

  • Bob

    So why is there a picture of cruddy SRAM Force at the head of the article? Which bike component companies have been around longest? Which manufactured the first quick release mechanisms, derailleurs, indexed gears, dual control mechanisms? Which companies have the greatest the racing heritage and have achieved the greatest number of wins in major races? Which companies have produced components that still work flawlessly after 20-30 years of hard use? But no, we are in the UK, land of America’s lapdogs, so it has to be SRAM.