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Important questions about eTap, answered

We take an in-depth look at the strengths and weaknesses of SRAM's wireless eTap drivetrain — on the whole, it's a terrific group that rivals the best.

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We liked the low-profile shape of the hoods and the big shift paddle. It was easy to find the paddle from all hand positions. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews
We liked the low-profile shape of the hoods and the big shift paddle. It was easy to find the paddle from all hand positions. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews

I’m going to be your doctor and tell you the bad news first about SRAM’s new eTap group. Okay, lab coat and stethoscope on. Is SRAM’s eTap rear shifting slower than its competition? Yes.

Is it so slow that it compromises ride quality? No. An exceptionally intuitive shifting layout, easy installation, great battery life, and superb front shifting create a remarkable package. Pros like Alexander Kristoff and Megan Guarnier have built their resumés with eTap-equipped bikes, a further testament to SRAM’s ability to prove itself as a major force in the drivetrain world. The eTap system as a whole is very, very good.

The front derailleur shifts as well as Shimano’s Di2 systems, which is a big endorsement. Shimano has long been the standard setter for front shifting, but the eTap front shifting is as smooth and as quick as any electronic system I’ve used. It does not self-trim like Di2 front derailleurs do, but in my extensive use, I’ve not once needed it. Every shift has been smooth and exact. Chalk that up to SRAM’s Yaw tech that essentially changes the angle of the front derailleur as you shift so it’s always parallel to the chain. Considering SRAM recently held an elegiac memorial for front derailleurs, they sure did some fine work with eTap’s front mech.

 

As the very dirty drivetrain indicates, we got plenty of miles on SRAM's eTap group. It's a solid group that pushes the envelope of drivetrain development. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews
As the very dirty drivetrain indicates, we got plenty of miles on SRAM’s eTap group. It’s a solid group that pushes the envelope of drivetrain development. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews

If you’re making the switch from Shimano’s Dura-Ace Di2 or Ultegra Di2 systems, or if you’ve spent time on Campagnolo’s EPS systems, you’ll notice eTap’s rear derailleur isn’t quite as quick as its competitors. You’ll bemoan it. And then you’ll probably forget about it. SRAM did this on purpose to address what they call chain management: ensuring smooth shifts every time, increasing the life of the chain and cassette, and even preserving battery life of the derailleurs. The overall shifting experience, from the shift paddles to the installation that will save you hours, overshadows the slight delay.

[pullquote align=”left”]The eTap system as a whole is very, very good.[/pullquote]
And if you’re coming from any mechanical group, you’ll notice eTap is smoother than any mechanical system out there.

We tested the group with a Shimano 105 cassette and shifting speed improved. It still wasn’t as quick as Di2 or EPS, but it mad-dash shifting kept up nicely heading into hard sprints. That may have something to do with the tooth profiles on the Red cassette, which likely prevents that ‘slam-it-in-place’ feel you often get with Shimano shifting. It’s worth experimenting with SRAM cassettes too, like the PG-1170.

The shifting layout is different from both Shimano and Campy, so there is a learning curve. It lasts all of twenty minutes. Left paddle: easier gear. Right paddle: harder gear. Both paddles: front derailleur. Once you’re past those initial twenty minutes of riding, this shifting layout becomes intuitive. This is how shifting should be: no thought required so you can think about the road ahead.

Batteries are easy to swap out quickly. Just pull up on the tab and pull the battery out. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews
Batteries are easy to swap out quickly. Just pull up on the tab and pull the battery out. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews

When the derailleurs aren’t moving, they go dormant, cutting off battery power so the battery doesn’t drain. That means your derailleur batteries should last several hundred miles before needing a recharge. Indicator lights on the derailleurs help you know when to throw the battery on the charger, and charge times are very quick — about an hour for a full charge. Since both derailleurs use the same batteries, you can swap between front and rear should one battery die out on a ride, adding exceptional versatility.

We’ve mentioned before that installation is incredibly quick and easy. That’s a win for mechanics, but also for racers who travel. If you’ve traveled frequently with a bicycle, you know what it’s like to pull your bike out of your travel case to find a bent derailleur hanger or worse, a broken derailleur. With eTap, just take the derailleur off entirely. Problem solved.

Adding Blips — remote shift buttons that can be positioned at various locations on the bar — takes a bit more care than you might think. Just pop it on, right? Well, yes and no: Blips install easily with just a wire that plugs into a port on the shifter, but positioning the Blip correctly is very important — more important than positioning, say, a sprint button on Di2. Blips take a positive push to activate, unlike Di2 remote shift buttons that usually require a light touch. While accidental shifts aren’t likely with Blips, if you don’t position them correctly, you may find yourself missing shifts entirely because you can’t push the Blip hard enough to activate.

Will we ever see wireless Blips? Probably not. “The original goal with Blips was to have different shift points and to use them for triathlons,” says Brad Menna, SRAM’s road product manager who worked closely on eTap’s development, “but [wireless Blips] would involve managing another battery in each Blip, another PC board, another radio, and then it becomes too heavy and bulky. It becomes an inelegant solution. It would also make the Blips cost the same as one eTap shifter.”

What about that wireless signal? What happens when it gets hacked, or otherwise intercepted? “We have a whole team constantly looking at how a hacker could get in,” says Menna, “but it would take so much time and effort, and from what they tell me, it’s one shift if you actually did it. It’s not like taking the system down.”

So while a really determined hacker could probably shift your gears without your consent, it seems exceptionally unlikely. And even if that hacker did manage to do it, the impact would likely be minimal.

SRAM has very much succeeded in positioning itself as a major player in the road group market — a feat unto itself, considering the long-held pole position Shimano has dominated, and the deep history that buoys Campagnolo. It has created a viable group that pushes the boundaries of what a drivetrain should deliver. Racers will revel in this wireless powerhouse.

The front derailleur shifting is exceptional — on par with Shimano's best. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews
The front derailleur shifting is exceptional — on par with Shimano’s best. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews