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Review: Riding the new SRAM Apex

Lennard Zinn tries out the new budget-friendly SRAM Apex group on the roads of Laguna Seca.

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Shortly into the Laureles Grade climb on the opposite side of the valley from the Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway, the Euro-style Robley Road branches off.

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SRAM Apex group with 3-piece PowerSpline crank, 11-32 cogs, and 34-50 chainrings

The road offers a great test of components designed for cross-gearing over a range so wide that you only seem to need the big chainring, but how about the brakes? Those are put to the test shortly afterward on a fast descent on San Benancio Road. Some deep, unexpected braking bumps in the asphalt preceding a decreasing-radius curve inspires a brief fear of flying off the edge of the road, a fear that is reignited at the apex of the curve by a kamikaze squirrel slamming on his own brakes, skidding on his little heels to avoid becoming like members of his kin seen on the Internet jammed between a hapless rider’s front spokes and fork legs. Turns out, the dual-pivot brakes that come standard with SwissStop brake pads calm the excitement and react immediately, powerfully, and predictably. By the time you have looped back down to the base of the steep climb back up to the motor speedway that serves as the home of the Sea Otter Classic, you’re riding this $1,500 bike like it’s a $7,000 Tour de France-ready thoroughbred.

While perhaps a bit heavy for today’s Tour de France riders, SRAM’s new Apex group is nonetheless exactly the group you’d want for riding the steepest grades in the Alps or the Dolomites. Or it’s what you should make sure is on your wife’s bike before you set out on your Euro cycling vacation so she’s not cursing you constantly when the road heads up toward the clouds.

Why is that? After keeping you on the road after being bumped airborne going into a blind turn, you know it can get you down the switchback descents with aplomb. What makes it so great for alpine climbs, though? Try this: an 11-32 10-speed cogset chained up to 34-50 compact chainrings. A low gear of 34-32 (28.5 inches) can get you up almost anything, even when towing your grandmother on her tricycle with her umbrella hooked around your seatpost.

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SRAM Apex 2-piece GXP integrated crank and 3-piece PowerSpline crank

SRAM’s road marketing brain trust sat around lunch or perhaps beers or martinis and came up with “WiFLi” for “Wider, Faster, Lighter,” to describe what Apex offers. (Get it? It sounds and looks like WiFi!) The “wider” part of the catchword does not refer to what happens to your butt because you won’t want to ride it. No! Quite the opposite; it stands for a wider gear range than even a 30-42-52 triple with a 12-27 cogset offers so that you will want to ride. It also has less gear duplication throughout the range than a triple does.

It’s “faster” because, well, you can shift faster with it than with a triple. “Lighter,” is clear: the compact double crank with wide-range cogset is claimed to weigh 274 grams less than a Shimano 105 group with a triple crank; that’s well over a half pound less you’ll lug uphill. Maybe that’s where the “faster” comes in…

The Apex shift/brake levers feel and work just like SRAM Red, Force, or Rival – nicely, that is. Like those levers, the Apex levers can be adjusted to fit smaller or larger hands – the position of the shift lever as well as that of the brake lever can easily be adjusted.

The front derailleur moves the chain back and forth well between the small compact chainrings and beats the heck out of having to shift a triple in order to get such a wide gear range as this group provides. If you decide to use the non-compact (130mm BCD—Bolt Circle Diameter) crank with 39-53 or 38-46 chainring options instead of the 110mm BCD spider attached to 34-50 chainrings, this same derailleur will still work.

The mid-cage rear derailleur shifts crisply over the wide cog range of the model PG-1050 cogset, available in 11-23, 11-26, and 11-28, as well as in the groundbreaking 11-32. And soon, you can also get a Rival-level PG-1070 cogset (same cogs; better spacers and lockring) in 11-32 along with a Rival mid-cage rear derailleur to upgrade your SRAM Red group for the Giro d’Italia uphill time trial to Plan de Corones.

Actually, some of the genesis of this group came from precisely that event. Alberto Contador went into that stage 16 ITT from San Vigilio di Marebbe to Plan de Corones wearing the pink jersey, and he intended to keep it. He did not want to pedal with the slow cadence of a rider from The Triplets of Belleville, even if he wouldn’t have to tow his grandmother on a tricycle.

His form was still coming on, and he did not want to pay the price of overgearing in the subsequent mountain stages, especially since Riccardo Riccó (who would not get popped for doping until the Tour) was putting up a huge fight on the climbs. He also didn’t want to ride a triple, like Roberto Heras had used in winning the Alto di Anglirú stage on his way to overall victory in the Vuelta a España.

Some of that same crew of mechanics who converted Heras’s Dura-Ace equipped Trek on U.S. Postal in 2003 were on hand to re-jigger Contador’s Red-equipped Trek on Astana in 2008, and this time, rather than putting on a third front chainring, they used a modified mountain-bike rear derailleur, a 10-speed cogset that topped out at 30 teeth, and a 34-50 compact chainring setup. The rest is history; El Pistolero won the stage by 41 seconds over Riccó, stuck with the Italian in the remaining mountain stages, and won the overall.

Where were we? Oh, yeah, discussing a new price-point SRAM road group that rides like it costs a lot more. The Apex cranks are nothing to write home about regarding weight or looks, but they work just fine. They are available in a stiff GXP (Giga X-Pipe: SRAM/TruVativ crank system with external bearings and integrated 24mm spindle) version or as a less expensive 3-piece crankset with a PowerSpline cartridge bottom bracket (a smaller spline than ISIS).

The arch of the dual-pivot brake calipers will clear a 25C tire. And did I mention that this group that sells for $800 comes stock with sweet-stopping SwissStop brake pads, normally found only at far higher price points?

It may not quite be the pinnacle of performance, but it is the Apex. To get to the pinnacle, you can upgrade components to Red (or Force or Rival) piecemeal, as they are all completely compatible.