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Sram Force eTap AXS groupset review

26 May 2021
Verdict:

All the tech of Red at a lower price, great shifting and now with plenty of gearing options

Cyclist Rating: 
Price: 
£2,274
For 
Superb shifting • Innovative tech • Flexible configuration
Against 
Slightly clunky front changes in sequential shifting mode

Sram stole a march on Shimano when it launched Force eTap AXS. Its second tier electronic groupset is similarly priced to Ultegra Di2 but gives you 12 speeds instead of 11, wireless shifting that’s easier to install on a bike and easier configuration via the AXS phone app.

The 12 speeds don’t just give you more ratios over the same range though, as Sram Force eTap AXS includes cassettes that spread them out to give you a lower bottom end. That means that you get more climbing grunt, but also that you can use the large ring over more terrain before needing to downshift.

 

By starting off with a 10 tooth sprocket on the cassette, Sram can use smaller chainrings than with a cassette that starts at 11 teeth, while still giving you similar top end ratios, and saving a bit of weight. This does mean that you need a rear wheel with a Sram XD-R freehub body rather than the more standard Shimano/Sram version though.

There are five Force cassette options, going from 10-26 teeth up to 10-36 teeth. I’ve ridden both the 10-33 option with a 48/35 chainset and 10-36 with a 46/33. While the former gives you a fairly normal road bike set of ratios, the latter gives you a huge range, going below 1:1 at the bottom end.

 

Fitted to the BMC Roadmachine 01 Three, that puts pretty much any ascent on road within grasp, although it did mean that I tended to achieve slower overall climbing speeds than with a higher geared bike.

It’s worth mentioning that Sram makes two versions of its rear derailleur and that you can’t use either with the full range of cassettes: the shorter version covers 10-26, 10-28 and 10-33 cassettes, while the longer one handles 10-28, 10-33 and 10-36 ones.

Both derailleurs get Sram's Orbit hydraulic damper system, which aids retention of the 12-speed flat top chain and reduces chainslap on the stays.

Shop Sram Force eTap AXS now on Wiggle

Want even more range? The latest Wide variant of Force eTap AXS offers a different chainset and front mech that shifts the chainline outboard by 2.5mm to up clearance for wider tyres and has a 43/30 ring combination. We’ve more info on the Wide tech and Sram's extra-wide gear ranges here.

There’s the option to go single ring and to pair Force components with Eagle AXS MTB parts for a mullet build with a 10-52 cassette, giving you an ultra-wide range set-up.

 

Comfortable shifters

Another march that Sram has stolen on Shimano is the more intuitive shifting with eTap. It’s fairly easy to hit the wrong shifter button on Di2, especially if wearing heavy gloves. But with only a single shift paddle on each lever, eTap avoids this.

You just push the right hand paddle to shift up the cassette and the left one to shift down. Hold the paddle down and the rear mech will multishift – you can configure how many sprockets using the AXS app. Hit both paddles at the same time and the front mech will change rings. Again, this is reconfigurable in the AXS app if you want.

 

Sram's levers are comfortable too. They’re slightly larger than Shimano Ultegra, which makes holding them a bit more comfortable when riding on the tops and they’re grippy, with ridged upper surfaces. The brake levers are a bit larger than Shimano’s too and offer rim brake or hydraulic disc brake options.

You can wire in a set of Sram's Blip satellite shifters to give you the option to shift from the bar top or the drops.

Shop Sram Force eTap AXS now on Wiggle

Flexible shifting configuration

As well as standard shift mode, Sram's AXS groupsets give you two options to have the groupset do some of the thinking for you. Using the smartphone app, you can set it to perform sequential shifts, where it automatically swaps between chainrings when you reach a certain point on the cassette.

Whereas Shimano Di2 lets you choose where up and down shifts occur, Sram does this at fixed positions: upshifts occur around the middle of the cassette and it drops to the smaller ring once you try to shift down from the next-to-largest sprocket, in each case moving the rear mech to compensate – you can choose whether by one or two sprockets.

The fixed positions in Sram's shifting mean that it’s easier to configure and there’s less opportunity to set up something that doesn’t work well than in Di2, although the latter does have two pre-set shifting patterns you can select as well as offering you DIY configuration.

 

By the time you’ve reached the point at which the large to small ring change happens, there’s quite a bit of chain noise, despite the yaw system built into all Sram's front derailleurs that makes trimming unnecessary.

The change down is usually occurring under load too, as you’re likely to have hit a hill by this point, and I found it was often noisy and jerky. There’s a lag between the front shift and the rear shift that adds discontinuity to pedalling. You can press both levers at once to initiate a front change before you reach this point, but that rather negates the point of having sequential shifting.

Changing up to the large ring was smoother and quieter though, as by mid-cassette you’re likely to be spinning more rapidly under less load.

 

I found the compensating shift option more useful. Here, when you change chainrings the rear mech automatically shifts up or down the sprockets to put you in a gear closer to the one you had been using.

You can set the system up so that it shifts either one or two sprockets – I found two worked well for me. It’s smooth and fast and means that shifting chainrings is a one step process, rather than needing you to think about the rear changes too.

Although battery life is less than with Shimano Di2, it’s more than adequate. I got 24 hours of riding in without making an appreciable dent in either the front or rear battery level. It’s simple to check charge via the AXS app and the batteries are easy to remove from the mechs for recharging using the charging station when they do need a top-up.

Unlike Red eTap AXS, Force eTap AXS uses a conventional spider in its chainset, so you can replace the chainrings more simply and cheaply when they get worn. You can fit a Quarq power meter to Force too.

Despite its downshift from Red, Force eTap AXS isn’t cheap to replace parts for though. Full price a cassette will cost you £170 and a chain £65.

Shop Sram Force eTap AXS now on Wiggle

So Sram Force eTap AXS is slick, sophisticated and versatile. As an aftermarket option, it’s comparable in price to an Ultegra Di2 groupset, gives you more gears and is easier to install on your bike.

It’s a shame that more bikes aren’t sold with Force eTap as an alternative to Ultegra Di2 and that those that are are often more expensive than the Shimano-equipped option, as the Sram system’s ease of use, wide range and extra gear make it a very attractive groupset.

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