46/33 and 10/33
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If you are unfamiliar with SRAM’s eTap shifting system, it’s simple: Unlike Shimano and Campagnolo, which have two buttons per lever, SRAM has one on each side, behind the brake lever. The left-lever button puts the chain in an easier cog, the right-lever button puts it in a harder cog, and pressing both buttons moves the chain between the chainrings.
The 12-speed group is wireless for shifting, and comes in rim-brake and hydraulic (HRD) options.
The AXS moniker denotes the unique gearing, as well as integration with any other component labeled AXS. That means you can mix and match — with some limitations — mountain bike and road AXS components.
Campagnolo and Shimano cassettes go down to an 11-tooth small cog; SRAM, thanks to a reworked cassette driver, goes down to a 10-tooth. This means you can get a wider gear range, and also use smaller and thus lighter chainrings.
After a few good gravel rides on the group, I’m struggling to understand why you’d want to pay more for the top-tier Red eTap AXS HRD group. Force eTap AXS HRD shifts and brakes cleanly, and integrates easily with computers like Wahoo’s Bolt or Garmin’s Edge models.
Force eTap AXS HRD batteries and computer integration
Aside from shifting logic, SRAM also diverges from Shimano and Campagnolo on electronic-drivetrain battery style. The former uses rechargeable and swappable batteries that snap into each derailleur, while the latter use a single battery to power the whole system.
The bugaboo with electronic drivetrains is keeping them charged. I’ve had batteries from all three companies’ systems die during rides, and it sucks on all of them. But it sucks the least on SRAM. With Shimano and Campy, when the battery is nearly dead, the front derailleur stops working, as it requires the most juice. And usually, you can limp home in the small ring, still shifting the rear derailleur. With SRAM, if either battery dies, you can just swap ’em around. Or, you can carry a spare third battery to swap in, as they’re pretty small and light.
eTap also uses replaceable coin batteries in the levers.
Last year, on a bike equipped with SRAM Red, I had a shifter battery die, but I was still able to shift by pressing the little buttons on the derailleurs. (Front shifting is sketchy but doable while riding; to shift the rear, you have to pull over and climb off the bike.)
One thing I really like about eTap is how it talks with modern computers like Wahoo’s Elemnt family, or Garmin’s Edge family. The displayed gear information is cool, whether presented through visual-indicator form, or in dorkier ‘how many times did I shift on the ride’ type information. But the practical usage is just having battery-life information in front of you.
Yes, the eTap derailleurs’ LEDs will light up red when you shift while the battery is running low — but who is looking at their derailleurs when riding? So, having your computer tell you is handy.
You can do this with Shimano Di2, also — but not out of the box. You have to buy a EW-WU111 Bluetooth adapter.
Force eTap AXS HRD gear range
With SRAM Force you have three cassette options, just like Red: 10-26, 10-28 and 10-33.
For chainring options, you get three with Red — 46/33, 48/35, 50/37 — but only the first two with Force. These three roughly correspond with traditional compact (50/34), sub compact (52/36) and standard (53/39) chainring configurations, but thanks to SRAM’s wide-range cassette, you get a bit more range on both ends of the spectrum with AXS.
For road bikes, I have preferred sub-compact for a few years now, as a heavier guy who lives in the mountains and still likes to race from time to time. For gravel bikes, compact is generally a great set-up. Testing the 46/33 on a gravel bike with a 10-33 cassette has been very positive, offering a wide range of gearing in an easy-to-shift system.
You can also get eTap AXS HRD groups in 1x configurations. Personally, I have never been sold on 1x road groups. But if you want it, you got it.
Force eTap AXS HRD first ride impressions
The group is pleasantly quiet. There are no shift cables or wires to rattle, or whistle in the wind. Notably, the Orbit fluid damper on the rear derailleur keeps chainslap to a minimum, so on dirt roads you’re mostly hearing rubber on dirt, not metal on carbon.
I haven’t yet tried the sequential shifting — where you reprogram the shift logic with an app, so the drivetrain automatically shifts the front derailleur for you. You just shift up or down for easier or harder gears. Frankly, I often forget about shift logic, and I’m switching between SRAM- and Shimano-equipped bikes. And now, some bikes are set up where the left lever controls a dropper post, instead of the front derailleur.
The new eTap 12-speed AXS shifts noticeably faster than the 11-speed eTap, and the brakes bite with less lever throw than the old HRD. Both of these are good things, in my book. Unlike Shimano Di2, you can’t change the shift speed.
The lever ergonomics are great, with a smooth bar-to-lever transition providing a flat perch under your palms. SRAM’s signature tall hoods make slipping off the front end of the lever all but impossible.
Shifting in any condition is easy, whether rattling on a gravel descent or commuting in snow, with lobster-mitt gloves on.
The VeloNews test bike has a Quarq power meter on it, and the data seems valid. I haven’t yet tested it against other meters, but I have tested other Quarq meters in the past, and found them to be reliable tools.
Force eTap AXS HRD initial verdict
After a couple-hundred miles, I would recommend this group over Red, for most folks. The functionality is all there, you just don’t get the cool-looking crank and chainrings of the top-end group, or the absolute lightest weight of Red, with hollow cranks and a hollow-pin chain. As for how it compares to Shimano Ultegra Di2: most of that is personal preference, really.
I’ll be riding this group more over the coming weeks, and will follow up with a full review.