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Shimano v Campagnolo v Sram: The state of play in the groupset wars

In-depth
30 Jan 2020
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Delve into the developments that will define the future of the battle between the big three groupset manufacturers

Words Sam Challis Photography Danny Bird

Spend some time considering the dynamics of how the groupset market works and you’ll notice it bears a striking resemblance to the calendar of major football tournaments.

The big daddy, the World Cup, occurs every four years, just like each revision of road cycling’s most popular top-tier groupset, Shimano Dura-Ace. Four years is a long time to wait between editions, but thankfully there are other events in between to keep up the momentum.

A Shimano Ultegra update occurs around the halfway point, just like the European Championships. Sram redevelops its Red and Force tiers at offset intervals too, so those updates fall each year like the Copa América or the Africa Cup of Nations.

Then there’s Campagnolo, which updates one element of its range at the same time every year, creating an event similar to the Champions League.

Just as in the beautiful game, the structure of this system fosters rapid development where innovation and success ebb and flow far more quickly than in other areas of the bike market. So although it hasn’t even been two years since Cyclist last looked into the groupset world, its landscape is now unrecognisable.

Disc brakes are the future

The most significant development is that disc brakes have now been fully accepted as the future of road bike stopping systems.

‘This year we’ve seen the technology stabilise,’ says Paul Kantor, road category manager at Sram. ‘It caused a bit of paralysis in the market for a couple of years, with people unsure whether to make the switch, but discs becoming the new normal is a good thing all round. It stops purchase confusion and customers can go into a bike shop and just focus on buying the best bike for their money or application.’

Lorenzo Taxis, communications director at Campagnolo, has an interesting take on the move to discs: ‘It has been a paradoxical evolution. Technical innovation has always been taken up first by pro riders, then by amateurs, but in this case it has been the other way around.

‘That is because discs are needed much more by amateurs than pros. It has turned into one of the biggest win-wins in the history of the bicycle. The industry gets to redevelop everything, since traditional rim-brake wheels, frames and groupsets aren’t cross-compatible with discs, and the consumer gets better performance.’

For the moment, it could be said that only certain attributes have been improved – disc systems still can’t equal the weight of rim brakes, for example – but the consensus is that discs open up other opportunities that more than offset any drawbacks.

As well as braking performance, Taxis believes they are better aerodynamically, while Shimano’s Ben Hillson is optimistic that, given enough development, discs could overhaul rim brakes in every department.

‘A typical disc brake calliper weighs less than a rim brake calliper, but that’s evened out by the weight of the rotor and hoses. So basically any weight saving would need to come from the STI lever, but whether or not we’ll see big weight savings depends on future materials and manufacturing techniques,’ he says.

Integration is an essential element of modern frame design, so given the wholesale changes being made to accommodate discs, is now a good time to consider how to better integrate groupsets into frames?

‘I believe that is the next frontier and sooner or later it has to happen,’ says Taxis. ‘But how do separate parties go about developing together? Do frame manufacturers start making groupsets, or should we start making frames? I’d say it would be easier for us to make frames but sometime soon someone will take the plunge and the market will follow.’

Kantor at Sram broadly agrees, but is a little more cautious. ‘We’ve sketched out solutions before, like making the calliper fully integrated into the fork – you know, all that fantastic stuff you can do on a computer.

‘But then you have to work through the reality of living with it. When you start thinking about how to change the pads, align everything or service parts, suddenly it doesn’t seem that fantastic.’

Hillsdon suggests Shimano may be open to the idea: 'We have a history of working on co-development projects where we can bring developments for the entire industry. For example, the mid-2010s saw co-development work on flatmount disc brake caliper developments with the biggest manufacturers to create a widely adopted standard. Where we see opportunities for industry-wide benefits there’s always a conversation to be had.'

Although Hillsdon makes no mention of definite plans in the pipeline, so it might be a while before we see the super-sleek, Tron-like bikes of a sci-fi future. 

Campagnolo and Sram turn it up to 12

Gearing is another book that has been rewritten over the past year or two. Both Campagnolo and Sram have gone up to 12-speed cassettes, albeit with slightly different approaches.

Campagnolo has introduced a 16-tooth sprocket mid-cassette and sought to narrow the jumps between gears. Now the smallest seven sprockets of Campagnolo’s 12-speed cassettes have one-tooth jumps between them, whereas Sram has introduced a 10-tooth sprocket but more compact chainrings to increase the total gear range.

‘Cadence is so important to road riders and we already have enough range on offer, so we thought smoothing out gear progression was the best way to improve the riding experience,’ says Taxis.

‘From our perspective, no one is asking for harder gears,’ says Kantor. ‘The 10-tooth sprocket still gives riders the gears at that top end, but a progressive cassette and smaller chainrings give a better spread of manageable gears further up the range.’

With Sram’s AXS groupsets also adding an extra sprocket earlier this year, Shimano is conspicuous in its absence at the 12-speed party. That’s no surprise – Shimano’s update cycle changes for neither man nor beast, and a new Dura-Ace isn’t due until 2020.

The advantage of such a rigid schedule is that it could give Shimano the time to add not just one, but two contemporary technologies: 12-speed and wireless shifting.

Hillsdon holds the brand’s cards close to his chest: ‘If you look at Shimano’s current 11-speed gearing options, we have a lot of available ratios, which allows riders to have either close ratio drivetrains or big range drivetrains.

‘We also think that a wired groupset currently offers the best level of performance in terms of reliability, connectivity and battery performance. However, we listen to the demands from our customers, which gives us a steer for future product directions.’

Kantor suspects Shimano will soon join the club: ‘12-speed improves the customer experience and, while I can’t speak for them, I suspect if they were coming to market today for the first time, they’d likely go wireless.’

By contrast, Taxis suggests that wireless is not necessarily as appealing as it might at first seem: ‘Our EPS is still wired. I must say of course that wireless is something that attracts the consumer, at least emotionally. In our experience, though, wired systems are better than wireless in performance terms.

‘This is not just an impression, but is based on feedback from WorldTour athletes. We have always been performance-oriented and use the racing environment to understand and develop our products. For us wireless is not a viable solution yet, in that it can’t better our current EPS.

‘That said, electronic evolution moves very fast so there might soon be the right circumstances where the tech allows us to offset the problems we think exist today.’

Sram committed to 1x

As well as wireless, Sram differs from the other two in its approach to transmission as the only company that is a vocal proponent of 1x systems (a single chainring up front), remaining the only one of the big three to provide specific 1x solutions for road bikes.

‘One of the main reasons we like 1x is there are fewer decisions for the rider to make,’ says Kantor. ‘The left lever makes it easier, the right harder, and that is all you need to know. We spend a lot of time thinking about how we can allow the rider to make fewer decisions.’

Kantor admits it solves more problems in mountain biking, because front derailleur interplay with rear suspension is a hassle. ‘It’s less essential on road, which is why the tech is more nuanced and controversial. 1x might never be fully accepted in road riding, but that’s OK.

‘Ironically enough I could see a world where gravel is 1x, the WorldTour is 1x because they are all just so strong but the rest of us riding endurance road use 2x as the best solution.’

Shimano seems to be as conservative about 1x for road as it is of going wireless. ‘For road riding, or more specifically for road racing, we think the vast majority of the market still places a lot of importance in maintaining a smooth cadence with small gear steps, for which a double chainring setup has greater advantages,’ says Hillsdon.

Taxis largely echoes Hillsdon, although he doesn’t dismiss the idea of a Campagnolo 1x groupset in the future: ‘We keep an eye on all trends, and 1x has certainly got our attention.

‘It is not correct nor intelligent to discount technological progress. 1x can be good – we like the simplicity of it. What isn’t present cannot be broken; it is a “less is more” attitude. From a user point of view, if 1x is all you need then why not?’

Gravel riding is the future

While the popularity of 1x is a mixed bag in the road scene, in the ever-expanding gravel discipline it is far more accepted. Small changes in cadence are not as critical and having no front derailleur frees up tyre clearance. And gravel is an area that all three of the big manufacturers are moving into.

Campagnolo says this is a top priority, Sram explains its latest AXS groupsets are just as well suited to gravel as to the road, and Shimano has gone one step further and produced the GRX range – a groupset line that is specifically designed for off-road drop bar riding.

‘Riders need dedicated features such as improved brake power, lower gear ratios, grippier hoods and more secure brake lever feeling to get the most enjoyment from their gravel rides,’ says Hillsdon. So Shimano has mixed elements from its road and mountain bike products and homogenised them under the GRX name.

Sram’s Kantor thinks this is an uncharacteristically bold move from the Japanese brand: ‘It’s an interesting path they’ve taken, but we’re not sure how necessary it is. In WorldTour races like Strade Bianche those guys are just racing normal groupsets.

‘The main features you need for gravel are good chain management, which can be achieved with a clutched derailleur, and gearing that accommodates less than a 1:1 ratio if necessary. Our Red and Force AXS groupsets both have that.’

There is no specific design yet from Campagnolo, but Taxis gives the impression that we might not have long to wait. ‘Pretty soon you may or may not be hearing some news,’ he says. ‘We were the first to 12-speed, which has its own advantages, but sometimes when you are the last one you have the ability to learn from other designs.’ 

The rise of clutched derailleurs

Kantor thinks gravel riding has driven the recent inclusion of clutched derailleurs in groupsets. Clutches are supplementary mechanisms in the rear derailleur that stop the cage from bouncing up when riding over bumpy ground and help to keep the drivetrain under tension.

This reduces the risk of a chain dropping off the chainring, but early clutch systems made it harder to change gear and increased drivetrain friction. Now, though, Sram’s AXS groupsets have them, Shimano has GRX and Ultegra RX versions, while Taxis alludes to Campagnolo working on its own design.

‘They are arising now because groupset manufacturers are realising the benefits clutches provide in other disciplines can be applied on the road with little penalty now,’ says Taxis. ‘For us, if we can improve the user experience and bring more people to Campagnolo, it has to be considered.’

Shimano and Sram’s clutches offer similar chain management but couldn’t be more different in execution. Sram has designed an ‘Orbit’ fluid damper, a chamber attaching the cage to the derailleur body filled with fluid at a particular viscosity.

It allows low-speed movements such as changing gear but resists high-speed movements caused by jarring impacts. Think moving your hand through water: easy at low speed, harder when it’s fast.

‘We found you don’t need quite the same type of chain management for road because there is a lot of low-violence input into to the derailleur, but fewer big hits,’ says Kantor. ‘The fluid damper mechanism boosts chain retention but is far easier on battery life [as the derailleur needs less power to shift gear].’

Shimano has gone for an on/off tension lever switch, so the rider has the option to free up the derailleur on smooth ground, then lock it down over rougher terrain.

‘This design offers us the best solution for chain management in terms of quality, usability and price,’ says Hillsdon. It is a typically clinical rationale from Shimano.

The same but different

In an age when brands are making products ever more similar – race bike frames now seem to be cured in the same mould – it is reassuring to find that each groupset maker’s approach remains as idiosyncratic as ever.

Shimano continues its inexorable march towards total precision; Sram is still willing to experiment with new technologies; Campagnolo continues to make components as stunning in form as they are in function. This independent technological progression can only be a positive thing for the user and the bike market in general.

The business of shifting and stopping is in a good place right now, and it looks like it will be moving into some equally exciting areas in the future, too.

Shimano GRX RX810

Gravel gets its own groupset

Shimano has taken cues from both its road and mountain bike groupsets and blended them together to create some unique components that the brand says are optimised for gravel.

The drivetrain is mostly inspired by Shimano’s mountain bike products – the rear derailleur has a similar clutch and architecture to the brand’s XT and XTR derailleurs, while the cassette is straight from XT, branding and all.

The GRX levers are a unique blend, though. They have grippier hoods than Shimano’s road designs and a new, textured lever shape with a revised pivot point – it has been moved up 18mm for better brake leverage when riding on the hoods.

Full groupsets from £1,499, merlin.com


Campagnolo Super Record EPS Disc

A hydraulic electronic jewel to adorn premium road bikes

Campagnolo was last to disc brakes but first to 12-speed, and marries both in its Super Record EPS Disc groupset. In contrast to Sram’s approach of creating more total range with 12-speed, Campagnolo opted to introduce a sprocket in the middle of the cassette, explaining it believes a smoother progression through the gears is the most important benefit to the user experience.

According to Campagnolo, Super Record sits above the top tier of other groupsets. ‘Our heritage brings pressure to maintain the reputation for quality that keeps Super Record at that level,’ says Lorenzo Taxis.

‘Plus we think we make the most beautiful groupsets. We don’t even have a specific product designer. We are Italians, so naturally gifted to provide something visually pleasing. Being the only niche groupset maker puts us in a good position to produce things that are special.’

Full groupsets from £4,256.99, wiggle.co.uk

Sram Red eTap AXS

Unique features for top-end road and gravel riding

Sram’s wireless eTap was revolutionary when it was released a few years ago, and this year’s AXS update has moved the technology another step forward – not least by incorporating an extra gear.

Sram says its AXS products should be viewed as a mix-and-match family, with each product compatible with every other part of the groupset. For example, the same levers could be used with 1x or 2x setups, and road parts can be used with AXS MTB components such as dropper posts. The groupsets are suitable for gravel use too, as the derailleurs have an ‘Orbit’ fluid clutch system.

The Red and Force AXS groupsets take a new approach to gearing, introducing a 10-tooth sprocket but pairing cassettes to smaller 50/37, 48/35 or 46/33 chainsets to create more range. The chainsets are even available with built-in Quarq power meters.

Full groupsets from £3,349, tredz.co.uk