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Gravel Gear

The Grind: SRAM vs Shimano gearing for gravel

Based on testing a wide variety of options, here is what I recommend and why.

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The Grind is a weekly column on all things gravel.

A few readers have asked for my opinion on SRAM versus Shimano gearing for gravel bikes, since I’ve tested a number of bikes with various configurations of both groups recently. My answer is pretty simple: SRAM for 1x, and Shimano for 2x set-ups. Here’s why.

SRAM: Wide range is key

SRAM 11-50t Eagel cassette
The Eagle 10-50 cassette is 12-speed and requires an XD driver.

If you’re keen to run a 1x system — or you have a bike that only works with a single ring — then I recommend SRAM’s eTap AXS group because it offers the widest-range cassette for a drop-bar group with the 10-50t Eagle option.

Sure, gearing choice is like tire choice: Much is dependent on where you live and where and how you like to ride. I live near the mountains, and I like to ride up and down things. Also, I’m heavy. So I like having a tiny gear to grind up and still have a decently large gear to spin down.

I tested the new Specialized Diverge Pro Carbon with a 42t ring and the 10-50t cassette, and found that 12-speed configuration to have plenty of rope on either end.

Conversely, Shimano’s widest-range option is an 11-46t XT cassette. (The largest ‘official’ option from Shimano’s gravel-specific GRX 11-speed group tops out at 11-42 with the GRX RX817 derailleur.) Right now I’m riding an Allied Able with a GRX group that has a 42t ring paired to an XT derailleur and that 11-46 cassette. I’ve been enjoying some great rides on it with plenty of elevation change, but have found myself wanting bigger and smaller gears a few times on most rides.

Shimano: Front derailleur is better

Shimano XT 11-46t cassette
Shimano’s widest-range 11-speed cassette is this XT 11-46 model.

But of course you don’t have to have a single-ring gravel bike. Having a front derailleur is a perfectly civilized option. If you’re going 2x, I prefer Shimano because I find their front derailleurs to be better than SRAM’s. You could just chalk it up to personal preference, but I find Shimano’s front derailleurs to be easier to set up and reliable over the long haul.

I’ve really been digging the Di2 electronic edition of the GRX group, but the mechanical levers work great, too.

I’ve been riding a Trek Checkpoint SL 5 with Shimano 105, both as a gravel bike and — with a switch of wheels — a road bike for Project 14er or just local zippy spins. Perhaps it’s just old habit, but I love two rings for rolling terrain.

Other factors aplenty

Obviously there are a number of other differences between Shimano and SRAM groups for gravel. Cost, weight, looks, wires, cables, ergonomics, and more factor into what group is ‘best’ for you. And all those are real things. But for me, having enough gear, having smooth transitions between the gears, and having reliable shifting between the gears comprises a pretty big part of riding a bike. So my recommendation at this point for gearing for gravel riding is to go SRAM for a 1x bike and Shimano for a 2x.