Tech editor Symon Lewis finds if there's more than just an extra sprocket on the new Red eTap groupset
SRAM has had to do it differently compared to the likes of Shimano and Campagnolo, with both its rivals going either electric or 12-speed on the road before the American outfit did.
However, SRAM was the first to go wireless and following the design of its first electric groupset four years ago it cemented its reputation as one of the most advanced drivetrain companies on the market, creating its own protocols and systems to rival all. It’s all change for its latest version of eTap too, which again looks to have changed the way we think about the groupset.
SRAM Red eTap AXS: more than 12
SRAM says the modern-day cyclist has changed: we’re very different from the rider of old and bring with us new demands. According to SRAM the modern rider is looking for a smooth, quiet and reliable drivetrain that can be personalised for each user’s individual requirements.
So what SRAM is giving us is more than just an extra sprocket.
Everything is new here and there is no backwards compatibility with the old Red eTap groupset apart from with the brakes of course, which have a new look, and with the battery where the new technology is good enough not to drastically reduce the old battery’s life.
The new groupset takes on a new dynamic in terms of gearing: everything is literally geared around the new 10-tooth sprocket. Reducing the size of the chainrings and moving the range to the back means that working upwards from that 10-tooth sprocket you get the range and smaller incremental jumps too.
It works – and very well. I had the 50/37 chainset with a 10-28 cassette, which is the largest double-ring set up SRAM offers at the moment. Ideally I would have gone for a 48/35 for riding around the Hampshire lanes. A shocking thought, I know. Don’t tell my ride mates!
But there’s nothing to be ashamed of: the basic idea is that SRAM wants you to stay in the big ring for longer, especially over rolling terrain. The smaller outer ring at the front does allow you to do this and ultimately eliminates the big change at the front, meaning you are overall more efficient.
If anyone has any doubt that the gearing will be too small for you, you’ll be wrong. A 50×10 is bigger than a 53×11. And the other end is smaller than a standard gear ratio, so you really do get the best of both worlds: there’s an increased range and smaller steps between the gears at the back.
Better than before
So yes, the groupset is better than its predecessor but maybe not in all the ways you’d expect. Another aspect SRAM focused on was to make the new eTap AXS groupset quieter than anything before it.
SRAM did this by narrowing the chain, not in order to fit a 12th sprocket in as the spacing between the cogs are the same as 11-speed, but instead to help with a smoother and quieter running.
The new Flattop chain, flat at the top to re-strengthen the narrower chain, runs almost soundlessly. The effect is amazing.
It isn’t until you don’t hear the drivetrain noise you realise how loud it actually is. The Canyon Aeroad I was testing this groupset with had deep-section DT Swiss wheels that make a very cool, but very loud whirling noise – classic deep section carbons – but this was the only noise I could hear.
Gear changes are slick and precise and I really like the tactile nature of the buttons. They feel clunky and assured, giving an audible click so there’s absolutely no doubt you’ve pressed it to change gear. It feels like a nice action at the rear too, a marked improvement on the previous Red gear change I would say.
Downside to the disc groupset is the hood size. This is not just us – plenty of the comments on the launch video and story question the dimensions of the hoods. SRAM has a lot to contend with here. Wireless tech, battery in either hood, fluid reservoir to name but a few, so it is understandable that they can’t go as small as Shimano hoods.
Ergonomically I think they are comfortable and do allow for some nice aero tuck positions whilst still holding the hoods. It’s mainly an aesthetics thing, which I totally understand.
As stated above the disc brakes have only had an aesthetic update. SRAM says here the performance is good enough, which I agree with, although SRAM brakes have a very bad habit of being insanely loud once the weather outside turns a little damp.
The rear mech is the master of the system as it was before. When you need to pair between components you work from the rear mech. The most interesting feature is that the rear mech is both one-by and two-by by compatible and will work with all chainrings and cassette ratios and only the chain length needs to change.
It is a fantastic bit of tech and enables a smooth shift holding the gear nicely in place. I noticed the odd clunky gear change and despite SRAM saying the shift is two times faster than the previous version I still think Shimano wins out here.
The rear mech’s damper function works impressively well seemingly soaking up minor bumps along with performing its main function of soaking up large bumps in the road. It even has the ability to take very hard hits from the side without damaging the mech or dropout returning to position once absorbed. A colleague had a mishap and managed to take a rather large chunk out of his SRAM AXS rear mech, which works absolutely fine albeit a little roughed up looking.
AXS is the system that holds the entire ecosystem together. It allows for personalisation, which isn’t a new thing for groupsets, but it is for SRAM and it has done a very good job with its app. Anything with the AXS logo is compatible with each other, so crossover between mountain and road is possible.
First of all, you don’t need the app to use the groupset so if this doesn’t interest you, don’t worry! However, if you don’t like a certain shift function, or want to add some more buttons you can change them all around.
Something to note here is that if you change the front change to a single button, you can actually speed up the rear changes! SRAM confirmed this, as its tech needs to allow a small amount of time to see if a double tap is being actioned. Take that away and you save yourself the smallest amount of shift speed.
The app is very good – SRAM has done a great job here and it is so easy to use. You can use its enhanced modes, enable them via the app and then switch them on and off via the function button on the inside of the lever. That is either the auto-shift function that’ll change the front chainring when you reach a certain high or low point on the cassette or compensation shift that’ll shift up or down one depending on which way you shift the front chainrings. I don’t like these functions and didn’t use them!
Weights and price
It is a costly business running anything top-end in the bike industry and sadly that is also the case with the new SRAM Red eTap AXS groupset. However, compared with current Shimano and Campagnolo top-end groupsets, SRAM does very well. Campag Super Record disc will set you back £500 more but at least is similar in weight terms.
Shimano Dura-Ace is now a few years old and if we follow the standard four-year cycle we won’t see anything new until 2020 but that’ll still set you back £3,214,82 weighing 2,389g compared to SRAM’s Red eTap AXS with disc-brakes groupset which will cost £3,349 and weighs 2,518g complete.
SRAM has upped its game once again and improves on its previous Red groupset. I really like the idea behind the gearing and I feel it works for the majority of the market and not just the pros. Not only that – the quietness of the drivetrain is noticeable and SRAM delivers on its promises – although you do have to pay for it.