Advertisement

Sign up for our newsletter

Advertisement

Buyer's guide to SRAM road and gravel groupsets

Joseph Delves
3 Feb 2022

A complete guide to the SRAM groupset hierarchy with key differences explained

One of the two largest component makers, SRAM makes a huge range of parts for road bikes and gravel bikes. Component brands organise their ranges into groupsets at different price points. The term groupset covers all the bits on a bike related to gears and brakes.

These include the drivetrain (derailleurs, chain, cassette, crankset, bottom bracket), combined shift and brake levers, and the brakes themselves.

Generally, all of these these parts on a bike will come from a single groupset, although there's some scope to mix and match components to suit a particular bike build, or budget.

There's a hierarchy of groupsets with affordable, basic components at the bottom, and expensive ultra-light, high-performance components at the top.

At the premium end of SRAM's range, you'll find the SRAM Red eTap AXS groupset. Featuring a 12-speed cassette and wireless electronic shifting, it's what you see in use at the Tour de France.

By comparison, five steps down the ladder at the entry-level, you'll find the 10-speed Apex, which allows only for mechanical gear changes.

SRAM groupset hierarchy

SRAM eTap AXS wireless groupsets

  • SRAM Red eTap AXS
  • SRAM Force eTap AXS
  • SRAM Rival eTap AXS

SRAM mechanical groupsets

  • SRAM Force 1
  • SRAM Force
  • SRAM Rival 1
  • SRAM Rival 
  • SRAM Apex 1
  • SRAM Apex

What's the difference between groupsets?

Higher-end groupsets will tend to have more gears, offer lower weight, and potentially provide you with more features. At the same time, many groupsets share technology, so critical areas like braking power are often standardised across multiple tiers.

Below you'll find a brief explanation of each of SRAM's major road and gravel bike groupsets, along with a list of their key features and variants.

We've included retail pricing for the sake of completeness, but treat these as a guide only – it often has little bearing on how much groupsets really cost. 

A note on 'eTap AXS' and 'XPLR'

The designation eTap AXS denotes SRAM's latest wireless electronic shifting technology (the first generation of wireless groupsets were simply 'eTap').

Now standard on SRAM's top-end Red groupset, some cheaper options still come with a choice of mechanical or electronic shifting.

The XPLR tag distinguishes versions of SRAM's groupsets specifically adapted for gravel riding. Using the same brakes and shifters, these can accommodate incredibly wide 10-44t cassettes for off-road use, often employ single chainring cranksets, while all feature derailleurs with clutch mechanisms that improve chain retention.

eTap AXS road components can also be combined with Eagle AXS mountain bike components in what SRAM calls a 'mullet' configuration. This opens up the possibility of running a mountain bike rear derailleur and a huge 10-50t or 10-52t cassette with road levers.

SRAM road and gravel groupsets compared...

SRAM Red eTap AXS

  • Cyclist's verdict: Other groupsets might now boast wireless electronic shifting and 12-sprockets, but this supremely smooth option still manages a few fresh tricks

Already long since wireless and electronic, SRAM's newest Red groupset features a tiny 10-tooth sprocket on the cassette rather than the more common 11-tooth, allowing for correspondingly smaller chainrings.

This means non-traditional ratios – SRAM calls its system X-Range – but there are choices to cover all tastes and it works really well.

Where road groupsets previously came typically with 53/39, 52/36 and 50/34 crank options, SRAM's X-Range equivalents are 50/37, 48/35 and 46/33, with a  43/30 option for gravel purposes.

Unlike Shimano, rather than connect its electronic derailleurs to a separate battery, SRAM simply clips them to the back of each unit.

The derailleurs communicate wirelessly with the shifters, and the whole arrangement makes for very easy set-up and great aesthetics.

Next, gearing. Fitting within the same space as a standard cassette, Red's 12-speed cassette needs a SRAM-specific XD-R freehub.

However, on the plus side, this allows the 12-speed cassette to start with that tiny 10t cog. The result: a vast potential spread of gears but with relatively small jumps.

Shifting is smoother than previous versions despite the diminished size of the sprockets and chainrings.

At the same time, chain security is enhanced via the addition of a hydraulic damper to the rear derailleur. Reducing chain bounce over bumpy ground, front shifting feels improved too.

Less headline-grabbing details are also finessed. These include the ability to adjust the shifters for reach. Great for riders with small hands, ergonomics have also been improved with softer rubber hoods and a newly textured shift paddle.

Red's updated styling is also a big draw, with the flat-top chain being perhaps the most striking element of the whole ensemble.

Lastly, the AXS app is easy to use and allows the rider to set up the shifting precisely as they desire, while also checking battery status or updating firmware. As a premium groupset, there's the option to add an integrated Quarq power meter to the carbon-armed crankset.

All in, it's a very attractive package. Plus, with weight on par with its rivals, there's very little reason not to opt for SRAM's Red groupset if your budget allows.

  • RRP: £3,363 / $3,632 / €3,641 (2× disc brake groupset without BB)
  • Cassette: 12-speed
  • Widest cassette: 10-33t (standard), 10-36t (with Red Max 36T rear derailleur option)
  • Shifting: Wireless electronic only
  • Brakes: Hydraulic disc or conventional caliper
  • XPLR gravel option: Yes

SRAM Force eTap AXS

  • Cyclist's verdict: All the best bits of Red at a more digestible price. Splendid shifting and now with multiple gearing options too

SRAM echoes Shimano by furnishing its second-tier groupset with almost exactly the same features as its poshest option, yet at a much-reduced cost. This means you get the same wireless electronic shifting, the same 12-speed gearing range, and the same easy configuration via the AXS phone app.

Again you'll need to swap your freehub to an XD-R standard one if you want to use this groupset. However, doing so means you'll be unlocking a range of ratios that includes a sub 1:1 option for effortless climbing.

Really, it's hard to pick out differences. There's the same Orbit hydraulic damper system, which aids retention of the 12-speed flat-top chain and reduces chain slap.

There's also the same option to play around with a 1× drivetrain set-up or go adventuring by swapping in an XPLR gravel mech and cassette.

Tweakers and time trialists will also find a full range of remote shifters to dot around their handlebars should they so wish, while there's an optional Quarq power meter version of the cranks.

So, where does Force diverge? As SRAM itself says, 'generally speaking, Force uses less expensive materials and manufacturing processes. Some chainring options are available only at the Red level. However, both groups' internal technologies are the same, so performance on the bike will be indistinguishable'.

This difference in the materials used is noticeable in the crankset whose arms swap from carbon to aluminium.

It's the most conspicuous of a few slight changes that add about 300g to the groupset versus its costlier sibling. However, unless you're preposterously flush, we think Force is still by far the better value option.

  • RRP: £1,606 / $1,953 / €1,801 (2× disc brake groupset without BB)
  • Cassette: 12-speed
  • Widest cassette: 10-33t (standard), 10-36t (with Force Max 36T rear derailleur option)
  • Shifting: Electronic only
  • Brakes: Hydraulic disc or conventional caliper
  • XPLR gravel option: Yes

SRAM Rival eTap AXS

  • Cyclist's verdict: Raising the bar for mid-tier groupsets, SRAM Rival eTap AXS has all the features you want with only marginally increased weight

Daring in introducing new technology, the Rival eTap AXS groupset now brings that tech to the masses. This sees riders benefit from trickle-down technology, including wireless shifting, a 12-speed cassette, plus app-based customisation and diagnostics.

Possessing the same headline features as its two posher relatives, you'll need the same XD-R driver body on your rear hub, and you're good to go.

So how does Rival manage this? Predominantly by changing the materials the groupset is created from while also ditching some of the more specialist functionality.

However, while this process of slight downgrading is barely noticeable between Red and Force, by the time you hit Rival, it's more apparent.

For example, the crankset is now solid aluminium rather than the hollow metal or carbon construction seen on SRAM's upper tiers.

You still get the option for a power meter, but its integration is different, and it'll measure left-side output only.

Stopping your chain flapping, the rear derailleur features a clutch; yet rather than being a sophisticated fluid damper, Rival uses a more cost-effective mechanically sprung version.

As Rival is less likely to be specced on specialist bikes, you also lose out on the expansion ports for satellite shift controls. It's not a feature many will miss.

However, it's annoying to find the more generally helpful ability to fine-tune the lever reach absent. On the plus side, the levers have themselves shrunk, so they're now more likely to be more universally comfortable.

Still, all the elements that provide real benefit to the rider remain present; it's just that weight is now more noticeably increased. Meaning the complete disc groupset will add around 3 kg to your bike's weight; this is nevertheless still only around a 400g increase over what you'd suffer if you opted for Force.

  • RRP: £1,268 / $1,370 / €1,411 (2× disc brake groupset without BB)
  • Cassette: 12-speed
  • Widest cassette: 10-36t
  • Shifting: Electronic only
  • Brakes: Hydraulic disc or conventional caliper
  • XPLR gravel option: Yes


SRAM Force

  • Cyclist's Verdict: Tech-wise, the mechanical Force groupset has been overtaken. Still, it's light and works well enough, plus the single-chainring version is worth a look

With Red now electronic only, Force becomes the most advanced mechanical groupset SRAM will sell you, and it's one that hasn't changed fundamentally since it launched way back in 2013, an age in bike tech terms.

An 11-speed groupset, Force is available in both single (1×) and double (2×) chainring and configurations.

With one less sprocket than its electronic siblings, it uses a standard freehub body. However, while this suggests it's likely to be compatible with more bikes, it does mean you miss out on the smaller 10t sprocket and similarly shrunken chainrings of SRAM's newer groupsets.

Nonetheless, before you write it off as completely outdated, it's worth considering Force's many upsides. For one, you can often pick it up at a reduced price.

It's also very light. While it's hard to find reliable weight figures for complete groupsets – there's no standard way to weigh them – Force was for a long time the lightest option in its class, although we're not talking about huge margins here. It achieved this partly thanks to its lightweight carbon crankset.

SRAM's 1:1 actuation ratio makes for crisp shifts and easy adjustment of the mechanical gears, although it feels slightly primitive if you put it up against the latest Shimano mechanical groupsets.

SRAM Force 1 crank

Also, some now standard features are missing. You don't get a clutch on the rear derailleur in standard road guise, although the front derailleur does have a nifty chain catcher. With a maximum 32t sprocket on the road version, it offers a decent spread of gears, although not quite as giant as some alternatives now offer.

That said, it's worth noting that Force's single chainring 1× version ('Force 1') uses quite a few different parts to the 2× road-focussed variant.

With the ability to accommodate a 10-42t cassette and featuring a clutch on its derailleur, Force 1 feels – psychologically, not mechanically – somewhat more modern, and it's commonly seen on mid-range gravel bikes.

  • RRP: £1,459 / $1,298 / €1,634 (1× disc groupset without BB)
  • Cassette: 11-speed
  • Widest cassette: 11-32t (2×), 10-42t (1×)
  • Shifting: Mechanical
  • Brakes: Hydraulic disc or conventional caliper

SRAM Rival


SRAM Rival 22 shifters

  • Cyclist's verdict: Long neglected in its road configuration, the mechanical Rival groupset fares better in its gravel-focussed 1× format

Another solid road groupset that's been let go to seed. Sporting 22 gears in its standard road version, the mechanical Rival groupset is perfectly serviceable stuff, as you'd expect from what was once SRAM's third-tier racing group.

However, released in 2015, it's starting to show its age much like Force, feeling somewhat unrefined compared to some of the competition.

As is the way of these things, Rival shares many features with the groupset above it in the hierarchy, but with more basic materials and a somewhat increased weight.

Released more recently, with its wider ratios and clutch mech, the gravel-focussed 1× version is a more appealing prospect. 

  • RRP: £1,134 / $1,120 / €1,268 (1× disc groupset without BB)
  • Cassette: 11-speed
  • Widest cassette: 11-32 (2×), 11-42t (1×)
  • Shifting: Electronic only
  • Brakes: Hydraulic disc or conventional caliper
  • NB: Also available in 1x format.

SRAM Apex

  • Verdict: Ignore the outdated 10-speed Apex road groupset and progress straight to the more modern 11-speed 1× version

Apex is SRAM's entry-level road groupset. However, unlike Shimano, which seems to pay equal attention to its offspring regardless of price-point, Apex hasn't been updated in ages.

With 10-speeds and no disc brake option, it feels distinctly old-school. It's a fact reinforced by the simple crankset.

Luckily, Apex isn't one to avoid altogether. Much more current is the 1× version. Offering a more comprehensive range of 11-gears, it provides far better versatility, along with the option to run hydraulic disc brakes.

Essentially a totally different proposition, it's this version you're more likely to encounter.

Featuring a clutch mechanism that helps keep the chain in place, the firm's X-Sync chainring technology boosts this quality for reliable and low-cost off-road shredding.

With multiple gearing options, it means the 11-speed Apex groupset is a solid and versatile performer on entry-level gravel and utility bikes.

  • RRP: £898 / $891 / €1,005
  • Cassette: 10-speed (Apex), 11-speed (Apex 1)
  • Widest cassette: 11-32t (Apex), 11-42 (Apex 1)
  • Shifting: Mechanical only
  • Brakes: Rim brake, hydraulic disc (Apex 1 only) or mechanical disc

While we've got you, don't miss our detailed guides to Shimano groupsets and Campagnolo groupsets

Read more about: