Shimano vs SRAM

Shimano vs SRAM

Written by Contender Bicycles, on April 29, 2024

“Which one is better?” is a question that has been asked for as long as we’ve had things to compare. Likely dating back to “rock vs stick”, the pantheon of classic product debates is vibrant and rich in history, covering everything from cars to guitars, as well as literally everything in between. Since the dawn of product production, we’ve thrown our favorite things into the ring of “this vs. that”. 

The cycling world is of course no exception, and the debate of who does it better covers every aspect of our sport. Component choice is one of the more lively debates, as choosing a build group for your bike is both a sizable investment and a choice that’s not easily reversed. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), the choice has largely been narrowed down to Shimano vs SRAM. There are of course additional options on the market including Campagnolo, Rotor and FSA, but statistically speaking, the Shimano vs SRAM debate is firmly in center stage. Shimano and SRAM have established themselves as the two dominant component manufacturers in the cycling industry, and the vast majority of bikes you will find in the current market are equipped with either SRAM or Shimano drivetrains. 

We’ll take a look at what makes each brand stand out, where they shine, where they could do a little better, and how they came about and ended up competing for the “Best Bike Components” crown. Best bike component is intended to be very tongue-in-cheek, as personal preference, brand loyalty, price and availability all play into everyone’s ultimate build decisions. Shimano and SRAM products both perform amazingly well and their advancements in technological application and execution are mind-blowing, compared to industry benchmarks even within the last decade. As end users, we’re fortunate that SRAM and Shimano are both working so diligently at besting one another. 

A brief history of Shimano and SRAM

While both the Shimano and SRAM brand names are equally familiar to us in our current day, their origin stories and rises to respective market segment dominance are quite different. 

Shimano American Corporation is established in New York.Shozo Shimano (left) at Shimano American Corporation office in New York - 1965 | Photo Courtesy Shimano


Shimano was born in Japan in 1921 with the development of a bicycle freewheel that was an improvement over anything available at the time. This innovation served as the company's cornerstone for 35 years until the introduction of external and internal gear changers, including a groundbreaking internal 3-speed hub. High quality, innovative road bike groupsets that included groundbreaking advancements like the first indexed shifting helped establish Shimano’s industry position over the next decades. In the early 1980s, Shimano entered the off-road world and the now well-known entry-level Deore XT mountain bike groupset was launched. High-end MTB groupsets like the XTR groupset followed, and in 2019, the gravel-specific GRX groupset made its debut. Shimano has also led the way in reliable, mass-production electronic shifting with the Dura-Ace Di2 road groupset arriving in 2009. Over 100 years of continuous progress and innovation has solidified Shimano as a go-to for high-quality components. 

SRAM was founded in Chicago, Illinois in 1987 and hit the scene with a lone, yet innovative product: The Grip Shift. Not the Grip Shift you might be familiar with from your early ‘90’s Klein Attitude MTB however, the original SRAM Grip Shift was an indexed shifter that wrapped around the ends of road bike drop handlebars. The original Grip Shift allowed riders to change gears without removing their hands from the bars and helped pave the way for further advancement in handlebar-mounted shifters. *There were bar-end shifters that pre-date SRAM’s O.G. Grip shift, but the more natural hand position and secure hold the rider could keep on the bar make the Grip Shift a more positive experience for many riders. This innovative product helped pave the way for SRAM to establish itself as key player in the cycling industry with the introduction of an MTB version of Grip Shift, along with forward-thinking, well designed mountain bike derailleurs, and complete MTB groupsets. With their advancements in the MTB world alongside a constant stream of exciting and innovative road bike products, SRAM has taken great pride in becoming the main competitor of the century-old Shimano. 

SRAM's founder and first CEO, Stan Day
SRAM's founder and first CEO, Stan Day | Photo Courtesy SRAM


Who does what how?

Much like most of the products that compete for our attention and hard-earned dollars in other facets of life, both Shimano and SRAM offer top-of-the-line components throughout their entire respective ranges. Even the entry-level offerings from both brands are remarkably better than the high-end components from cycling’s not so distant past. While this is good news for all riders no matter the preferred discipline, both SRAM and Shimano do tend to edge each other out when it comes to certain specifics. Like other comparisons (Ford vs Chevy, Fender vs Gibson, New Coke vs Pepsi), part of the ultimate decision will come down to personal preference based on experience, ergonomic preferences or simple brand loyalty. But there are distinct differences in almost every aspect of the products that Shimano and SRAM produce, and there are valid arguments for what makes one of the two brands “better” than the other in a given application. 

Many readers will already be familiar with the essential differences between how Shimano and SRAM do things, so we’ll try not to break it down into too much hair splitting and focus on what we’ve seen matter most to the riders we’ve worked with and helped out. If we miss something that’s important to you however, we’d love to hear about it! We’d love to know what influences your opinion and decisions in the Shimano vs SRAM debate. 

Road bike vs mountain bike drivetrains

Of all of the schools of thought swirling throughout the cycling world, “who makes the best road bike drivetrain” and “who makes the best mountain bike drivetrain” are probably the most common and elemental discussions out there. While the fact remains that there is no bad option or wrong decision between Shimano and SRAM, what we see in the market tends to paint a picture of what riders prefer. 

In the road bike realm, Shimano has established itself as the segment leader as far as overall quality, precision, and reliability. Especially in the high-end Dura Ace and Ultegra road groupsets, Shimano has always delivered quick, smooth and accurate gear changes, remarkably powerful brakes and component lifespans that often dip into several decades. Shimano was also the first to offer solid, lightweight and widely available electronic shifting for road drivetrains. Shimano pioneered both indexed shifting and integrated, ratcheted shifting housed in the brake levers, and have continued to refine and improve shift quality all the way around. Shimano’s STI integrated shifters paved the way for other brands including SRAM to follow suit and also laid the groundwork for how electronically integrated shifting would ultimately appear. 

As long as road bikes continue to employ 2x drivetrains using a front derailleur, Shimano will likely remain at the front of the pack. Remarkably accurate front shifting, easy actuation and overall tendency to keep the chain on the front chainrings are hallmarks of Shimano’s 2x performance on the road. 

While possibly overshadowed by Shimano’s legacy and legend in the road bike market, SRAM has not quietly sat on the sidelines. Innovations such as their Double Tap shifters, ultra-lightweight components, wireless electronic shifting and X-Range gearing demonstrate that SRAM will continue to push the envelope, innovate and fight for their place in the elite road peloton. 

Once the pavement ends, things change a bit. An extremely early adopter of both 1x and electronically shifted mountain bike drivetrains, SRAM component groups tend to find their way onto far more MTB builds than their Shimano counterparts. While Shimano XTR, XT and Deore mountain groupsets are still held in extremely high regard within the MTB world, over the past decade or so SRAM has presented riders innovation after innovation, essentially defining MTB standards. Shifting actuation and precision, number of front chainrings (1), number of cogs on the cassette (12) and the integration of electronic rear derailleurs (and dropper posts) are all hallmarks of SRAM’s pursuit of mountain bike dominance. Both SRAM and Shimano use 12-speed cassettes in their 1x MTB drivetrains, with the exception of Shimano’s electronic MTB drivetrains which are still 11-speed.

SRAM made bold statements in the MTB industry by both discontinuing the front derailleur and introducing the 12 speed Eagle drivetrain (circa 2016) that offered not only another gear than we were used to, but a whopping 500% gear range from its 10-50t cassette. SRAM was also an early adopter of electronic shifting for their MTB drivetrains. The entry-level GX Eagle is now SRAM’s only mechanically actuated rear MTB derailleur. 

SRAM Eagle AXS development & prototypes
SRAM Eagle AXS development & prototypes


The latest advancement to drop from the Chicago company is SRAM Transmission, which offers a new take on not only how the rear derailleur is mounted to the frame, but also a new level of claimed durability and the ability to reliably shift under load. Using a direct-mount to the frame instead of a derailleur hanger helps keep the Transmission rear derailleur both on the job, and traveling in a linear path up and down the cassette. The result is shifting even more precise and reliable than the already world-class non-Transmission XX-1, X01 and GX Eagle rear derailleurs. 

The 1x world

As seems somewhat typical of SRAM, they took their success with the 1x mountain bike drivetrain and ran with it into the neighboring world of Cyclocross and gravel bikes. A 1x drivetrain makes a lot of sense in both applications, especially on a gravel bike. No front derailleur means one less thing to worry about breaking, less weight (especially when accounting for one less chainring) and less adjustment and maintenance. SRAM’s 12-speed cassette and super-durable rear derailleur design made for an easy entrance into the emerging “All-road” market and their resulting dominance in all things 1x. 

SRAM has parlayed their 1x expertise into an entire range of gravel and off-road oriented drivetrains known as SRAM XPLR. Striking a balance between low-end climbing gears and top-end speed capability, the XPLR groupsets utilize SRAM’s AXS eTap electronic shifting technology and are designed for SRAM’s 10-44t cassettes. 

Shimano does offer their wide gear range GRX gravel groupset in both 1x and 2x platforms, and both Shimano GRX and SRAM’s lower-end Apex gravel groupset are available in mechanical versions. One additional mechanically shifted option is a “Mullet” gearing setup, utilizing SRAM’s GX Eagle mechanical rear MTB derailleur and 12-speed Eagle MTB cassette, paired with a 1x crankset and SRAM mechanical road shifter set. Electronic Mullet setups are also available of course, and increasingly popular amongst gravel bike fans. 

1982 The first SHIMANO 105 series and DEORE XT series are in the market.1982, The first SHIMANO 105 series and DEORE XT series are in the market.
Electric Avenue

Electronic drivetrains play a key role in the Shimano vs SRAM debate and as with the elements of the discussion we’ve mentioned so far, the two brands take a slightly different approach to the electric experience. Before we dive into the differences and pros and cons relative to electronic SRAM and electronic Shimano, it’s worth mentioning why the electric shifting story is important. 

Beyond the convenience, shifting speed, and frankly cool tech factor of electronic drivetrains, the platform of electronic shifting itself is largely shaping the future of cycling. A larger number of frames are being designed around the absence of derailleur cables, necessary routing accommodations and holes in the frame. The reduction in required maintenance associated with mechanical drivetrains benefits most riders and can make the ownership experience that much better, and shifting acuity no longer relies on a riders hand strength, or even position on the bars. 

Shifting can be customized via a phone app or computer to accommodate different preferences and even incorporate some automation in the shifting. Electronic shifting is a remarkable advancement, even if you still prefer the good old fashioned (and often satisfying) “press and clunk” of a mechanical system. As such, Shimano and SRAM are both at the front of the pack and pushing hard when it comes to the electronic shifting scene. 

Di2 vs AXS

When it comes to electric shifting, both Shimano and SRAM have made remarkable advancements, with each having taken a somewhat different approach. It can be argued that much like the mechanical versions of their drivetrains, Shimano’s Di2 system can be found at the head of the electric road shifting market, while SRAM’s eTap AXS system is the more preferred MTB and off-road platform. At the same time, SRAM’s latest eTap versions of their Red, Force and Rival road groupsets have made great strides in both functionality and popularity. So what sets them all apart? 

SRAM GX AXS shifters


The main difference between the Shimano Di2 road groups and SRAM eTap AXS road groups platforms are the wires. Shimano uses some, SRAM uses none. All of the eTap AXS drivetrains are truly wireless, with the derailleurs and shifters communicating via SRAM’s proprietary wireless protocol. Shimano’s latest iteration of Di2 has moved to a partially wireless system, where the shifters communicate wirelessly to a “brain” or control center located in the rear derailleur, The rear derailleur is physically wired to both the front derailleur and the main battery (usually located in the seatpost). The main Di2 battery should last 600 miles on a full charge, but this will depend on how often you shift, temperature, etc. Charging often is always recommended. 

Rather than a central battery powering both derailleurs, SRAM’s wireless eTap AXS system uses small, individual battery units at each derailleur. Each battery is charged individually and can be swapped from derailleur to derailleur in the event one loses charge (If the Di2 battery dies, both derailleurs cease operation). Charge span for eTap batteries is similar to that of the Di2 battery, but again charging often is always a good idea. 

Both the latest Shimano Di2 wireless road shifters and SRAM’s eTap AXS road shifters use common thin-cell batteries in the shifter units to communicate with the derailleurs. These batteries are estimated to last around 2 years. 

As far as electronic MTB drivetrains go, SRAM carries its relative dominance into the comparison between the two brands; Shimano’s Di2-equipped MTB groups are fully wired and only available in 11-speed. While some will argue the merits of wired vs wireless systems, most would agree that the increased gear range of the SRAM groups is a definite plus.

Braking - good!

In many cycling circles, one of the hottest subtopics within the Shimano vs SRAM discussion centers around the brakes. Similar to the rest of the drivetrain parts, both brands offer super high-quality brake systems that are a quantum leap in performance from past setups. When it comes to lever feel, modulation and ergonomics, the debate heats up faster than any of the brake systems in question ever will! As the era of rim brakes on road bikes seems to be sunsetting and we haven’t seen non-disk stoppers on a modern mountain bike for a number of years, we’ll focus on hydraulic disc brake systems from both brands. The “rim brake vs disc brake” (on the road) debate is still quite alive and well in spite of the market reality, but we’ll leave that for another discussion.

Both Shimano and SRAM brake systems feature cutting edge technology and materials, as one would expect. The top-level quality, fit and finish extend to both brand’s road and mountain bike brake systems, and it’s hard to go wrong with either brand. For road systems, you will be required to keep the brand unified throughout the drivetrain (Shimano derailleurs require Shimano shifters/brakes for example), but for MTB setups there is a certain amount of mix & match that can be done, especially with mechanical drivetrains.

The most noteworthy differences between SRAM and Shimano brake systems exist in the ergonomics and “feel” of the systems. There are important technical differences in the brand’s approach and execution of their brake systems (for instance, Shimano uses mineral oil as a hydraulic fluid, whereas SRAM relies on DOT brake fluid), but what hits home with the majority of riders is how the system works and feels for them.

SRAM Maven Brakes


Both on-road and off, Shimano disc brake systems tend to have a more “instantaneous” or immediate delivery of braking power. Some describe the Shimano brake feel as more “snappy” or even abrupt. While preferred by many riders and welcome in instances where fast, controlled braking is key, the “instant-on” feel of Shimano disc brakes can take some getting used to for some riders and isn’t welcomed by all.

By contrast, SRAM disc brake systems tend to have what is described as a more progressive feel, with braking power coming on less acutely, especially at the initial pull of the lever. Some riders find the SRAM brake feel to be easier to modulate and less “abrupt”, while other riders find the characteristic SRAM brake feel to be too soft for their liking.

How the two brands achieve their characteristic brake feel and performance comes largely down to the lever design. Shimano brake levers employ their “Servowave” technology, which uses a small internal fulcrum that effectively multiplies initial lever input and increases braking power right off the bat. Higher-end SRAM brakes use what they refer to as “Swinglink”, which is a small cam shape inside the brake lever that reduces “deadband” or initial dull brake feel while increasing progressive power throughout the lever pull. Brake lever length plays a role in how both Shimano and SRAM brake systems feel and perform, but most of what actually happens at the brake rotor is due to the internal workings of the levers and pistons.

Ergonomics also play an important role in brake system preference for both brands. While not directly linked to absolute performance, the way a brake hood feels on a road bike or how an MTB lever engages the rider's hand will affect how the system performs on the whole. Shimano’s road brake hood design has remained consistently comfortable and popular over the years, especially among riders with smaller hands. SRAM road hoods started out with a much more substantial girth, but have evolved over a few generations to something more akin to Shimano’s shape, and have gained popularity among more riders.

A verdict-less debate

The Shimano vs SRAM conundrum has been going strong for more than thirty five years, and shows no signs of letting up. This is a good thing for all riders and enthusiasts, as more competition between the two brands will continue to drive innovation and performance. Top-level component technology eventually finds its way into the lower-tier lines, and brands outside the “Shimano vs SRAM octagon” tend to be encouraged to keep up, and are sometimes even known to surpass the industry leaders. We certainly haven’t covered every aspect of the discussion, so if there’s something you’re wondering about or would like to share your thoughts on this now age-old discussion, let us know! Give us a call, drop us an email or reach out on the chat and we’ll be happy to help out.

DURA-ACE 7400 series with Shimano Index System (SIS) is released
DURA-ACE 7400 series with Shimano Index System (SIS) is released


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