Shimano GRX vs SRAM AXS vs Campagnolo Ekar - Best Bike Groupsets
We love our gravel bikes, and part of it is for the innovation and new technologies sprouting up. With as much innovation and change as is happening, however, finding the right groupset for your needs (and wants) can be difficult. What is someone to do to parse the differences and advantages of each Campagnolo, Shimano, or SRAM gravel bike groupset option? You come to Contender Bicycles obviously.
Looking for your next gravel bike group? We break it down into five categories to help you find what best fits your needs, wants, and budget (Gearing, Ergonomics, Features, Performance, and Price). Are we missing anything? Let us know in the comments below.
We break it down into five pieces: gearing, ergonomics, features, performance, and price.
Gravel Bike Gearing - Choosing 1x vs 2x
The debate of 1x versus 2x has raged on in the public eye for nearly a decade at this point, and for better or worse everyone looking at building a gravel bike needs to consider gearing, especially 1x drivetrains versus 2x drivetrains.
The traditional rule of thumb has been if you’re riding less than 50% dirt or gravel on your bike, then a 2x, or double drivetrain, is the way to go. 2x drivetrains typically offer a combination of wide range and smaller jumps between gears when paired to a 10, 11, or even a 12-speed cassette. The wide range means you could theoretically go fast on the descents and climb the steep and loose stuff with ease.
Not to be outdone, 1x drivetrains can offer plenty of range as well. SRAM famously touts their Eagle cassette with either 500% or 520% range. Campagnolo Ekar isn’t too far behind with a 467% range, roughly equivalent to a Shimano GRX 2x drivetrain. These are the most popular options out there, though if you’re looking at used options they are likely to come with a 10-42t or 11-42t cassette, offering far less range.
There are a huge number of gear options available - 10 or 11 in Shimano GRX, 12 in SRAM, and a massive 13 in Campagnolo Ekar. Adding more gears adds smaller jumps between gears to keep you at your preferred cadence for longer, sometimes at the expense of additional complexity. To note, our Campagnolo Ekar drivetrains have been set and forget, though 13 mechanical gears will always mean tolerances are smaller than Shimano.
Ergonomics - Which Groupset Feels Best?
Shimano - three guises of shift lever - two mechanical and one electronic
Shimano has three guises of shift levers - two mechanical and one electronic. In regards to Shimano mechanical, the guises - GRX RX400, RX600, and RX800 - largely follow the ergonomics of Tiagra, 105, and Ultegra respectively. The difference with GRX is that the brake lever blades themselves are done in a matte finish and are scalloped slightly to hold on to the levers a little better.
It isn’t until you get to GRX Di2 that there are noticeable changes to ergonomics. The lever is narrow, with ridges in the hoods to give weary hands better purchase on the lever. The top part, usually where a hydraulic piston might reside, is narrow but hooked slightly inward to keep your hands in place. Further, the brake lever blade itself is redesigned even compared to Ultegra Di2, scalloped to offer better grip on the lever over bumpy terrain. Importantly, Di2 shift paddles are textured to make them easier to feel with gloves on.
SRAM - Two lever styles to choose from
SRAM Force and RED share the same lever ergonomics. The lever body has a smooth transition between the bar and the hoods. The hoods themselves are about as wide as Shimano mechanical hoods and only slightly wider than SRAM mechanical, so while they look big they’re about the size that most people on mechanical shifting bikes are accustomed to.
SRAM Rival AXS shifters, however, feel a bit more like Shimano Di2 shifters. They’re narrower in shape and less bulbous up by the peaks. Smaller hands might find a happy home here, though they lose the lever throw adjustment that SRAM Force and RED offer.
The shifter buttons themselves are wide and flat. SRAM shifting can be easy to understand - left is a downshift, right is an upshift - but it's different than the standard Shimano lever design. And if you prefer, this setup can be changed around to your liking through the SRAM AXS app.
Campagnolo - classic Campagnolo, just with a hydraulic piston
Campagnolo has made a concerted effort to ensure their hydraulic brake levers feel the same in the hand as their rim brake equivalents. That means you get the same curvaceous shape throughout. The hood is as narrow as Shimano GRX Di2, but trades angles and ridges for curves and smooth lines. The brake lever itself is done in a partial matte finish to improve grip.
Campagnolo Ekar levers use a unique C-shaped upshift lever. This lever is flat up top to make shifting from the hoods easy, but it curves down in a C-shape to make accessing the lever from the drops easier than any other Campagnolo lever.
It should be noted that all of these brakes offer a reach adjustment for lands large and small that brings the brake lever blade closer or farther out depending on their preferred feel.
See our Campagnolo Ekar first thoughts HERE.
Shimano GRX Features
Shimano's features are largely tried and true and are generally shared throughout the Shimano line. All GRX derailleurs feature a clutch - derived from mountain bikes - to limit the chain bouncing against the chainstay - that can be turned off to facilitate rear wheel removal. All GRX levers also offer the option to add an in-line brake lever, perfect for those who want to reach the brakes from the tops of their handlebars.
The options don't end there. There is a choice of 1x or 2x drivetrains, as well as the option to run an integrated dropper lever on 1x mechanical drivetrains. Further GRX is the only gravel groupset to be offered with both mechanical and electronic drivetrain options, both in 1x and 2x options. Folks want
SRAM AXS Features
SRAM offers mechanical drivetrains, but they're fairly long in the tooth at this point and are hard to find. As such we will focus on electronic only. Their electronic AXS drivetrains offer an array of 1x and 2x options. SRAM drivetrains offer native power meter upgrade options built into either the chainrings, chainring spiders, or the crank spindle.
SRAM Force/Rival/RED derailleurs have a fluid clutch, that while cannot be turned on and off to facilitate rear wheel removal does work to limit how much a chain might bounce. SRAM Eagle AXS derailleurs feature a lock to release tension in the chain when removing the rear wheel.
SRAM AXS also offers compatibility with the Rockshox Reverb AXS dropper post, making wireless dropper installations easy to add to 1x drivetrains.
Campagnolo Ekar Features
Campagnolo is fairly simple in comparison. The Ekar derailleur features mechanical lock when removing the rear wheel much like SRAM Eagle. While it doesn’t fully lock the cage, the process is a simple one-handed maneuver unlike SRAM. Campagnolo also includes discrete end caps on their carbon cranks to protect against rock strikes and other obstacles. Besides that, it's as simple as it gets.
Campagnolo fans will immediately come to appreciate how Ekar shifts. There is a purposeful ‘ka-thunk’ in between gears. While very smooth, you feel the shift happening both at the lever and through your pedals.
13 gears sound like a whole lot, but it does a great job. While lacking the out and out range of SRAM 1x, it makes up for it with a combination of small jumps in each of the bike’s first six gears before opening up at the top end, again with just enough jumps to feel natural. The small jumps make it easy when you’re looking to maintain a standard cadence.
Also to note, Campagnolo’s Ekar group is the lightest group of them all here and can be made even lighter by using Campagnolo alloy brake rotors, rather than the steel ones that come with Ekar. Braking is right in between Shimano’s quick bite and instant high power and SRAM’s smooth, linear power.
Shimano performance varies greatly depending on how much you spend, what gearing options you choose, and whether you go mechanical or electronic. Needless to say, however, it’s exactly what you expect: smooth, sometimes to the point of being near-imperceptible. The levers require little effort when shifting and again offer a full smoothness that is uniquely Shimano.
Doubly impressive is that you can get a majority of this performance regardless of how much you spend on mechanical shifting.
Braking power across all brake levers can be best described as snappy; lots of power right from the onset at the expense of a bit of fine control. The Di2 levers are particularly eager to pour on the braking power early on, to the point where some might call them grabby. Lots of people like that brake feel, however, and they seem to have infinite amounts of power.
One of the benefits of having gone all-in on electronic shifting is that shifting performance is surprisingly similar regardless of whether you choose a standard SRAM Rival AXS group or a blinged-out SRAM RED AXS group. Of course, there are differences that come down to the finishing quality of Rival chains and cassettes compared to Force and RED. But we’re happy to report that besides weight, feel is similar. Force and RED are a bit quicker to shift and a touch quieter. But even Rival AXS feels quick, and like other electronic drivetrains, Rival will shift cleanly even if you're putting it through a sprint or the like.
Shimano wins when purely looking at a cost basis, as 10 speed GRX doesn’t cost much more than standard Shimano Tiagra. That extends to GRX RX800 mechanical drivetrains, where builds on an OPEN UP complete bike builds are fairly inexpensive.
SRAM is typically costly, most of which comes down to it being a wireless electronic drivetrain. The new SRAM Rival AXS groupset the least expensive way to get into electronic shifting, though, its complete groupset price isn’t far off from Shimano GRX mechanical. Prices increase from there depending on you how you build up your SRAM kit.
Campagnolo is often synonymous with premium expense, and while Ekar is the most expensive gravel drivetrain available, the price is lower than most other Campagnolo groupsets. There is far less mixing and matching between other Campagnolo components here, however, so overall groupset cost is much less varied.
Shimano GRX vs SRAM AXS vs Campagnolo Ekar Price, Weight, and Gearing Differences
|GROUPSET||PRICE (estimate, starting at)||WEIGHT (estimates)||Chainrings||Cassettes|
|Campagnolo Ekar||$1,764||2,385g (with a 9-36t cassette)||38T - 44T (1x only)||
9-36t (1x13); 9-42t; 10-44t
|Shimano GRX||$1,300||2,406g (1x); 2,512 (2x)||38T - 42T (1x); 46/30T (2x); 48/31T (2x)||11-42t (1x11); 11-34t (2x11)|
|Shimano GRX Di2||$2,100||2,485g (1x); 2,762g (2x)||
38T - 42T (1x); 48/31T (2x)
11-42t (1x11); 11-34t (2x11)
|SRAM Rival eTap AXS||$1,420||2,776g (1x XPLR); 3,080g (1x Mullet); 3,205g (2x)||
38T - 42T (1x); 48/35T (2x); 46/33T (2x); 43/30T (2x)
|10-36t (1x12); 10-44t; 10-52t; 10-36t (2x12)|
|SRAM Force eTap AXS||$2,150||
2,663g (1x XPLR); 2,811g (1x Mullet); 2,985g (2x)
36T - 46T (1x); 48/35T (2x); 46/33T (2x); 43/30T (2x)
|10-36t (1x12); 10-44t; 10-52t; 10-36t (2x12)|
|SRAM RED eTap AXS||$3,630||2,390g (1x XPLR); 2,750 (1x Mullet); 2,518g (2x)||36T - 46T (1x); 48/35T (2x); 46/33T (2x); 43/30||
10-36t (1x12); 10-44t; 10-52t; 10-36t (2x12)
There are a lot of differences in the gravel bike drivetrain world, particularly when choosing between Campagnolo, Shimano, or SRAM. Each has its dedicated fans, and for good reason: they’re all great groupsets! Ultimately, we recommend figuring out what your budget looks like and then going from there.
Most people will likely have an idea of what they’re looking for in a groupset after reading our guide. But for those who don’t, or want to get into the true minutiae, the build experts of Contender Bicycles are here to help. We love talking bikes to bike people over the phone or by email.