Finally, we can talk about SRAM RED eTap AXS. We’ve had limited-edition OPEN UP bikes built with eTap AXS locked up in our basement for the past few weeks, and we’ve chomped at the bit to share it with you all.
Here’s the big move here: AXS isn’t just an excuse to go 12-speed on the road, nor is it an excuse to make their road and mountain bike groupsets cross-compatible. Together with the SRAM AXS mountain bike groupset, SRAM is looking for this to be the start of something completely new.
Eagle AXS sees a number of key components retained in the switch to electronic shifting, but RED eTap is completely overhauled. The only “holdover” (if you can call it that) is the basic hood shape of the rim and disc brake shifters. But even then there are a few key changes, all in the name of improved performance, anywhere, any time.
Details, Details, Details
It’s hard to find a place to start, but it’s important to note that RED eTap AXS (or as I’ll call it, eTap AXS) is much more versatile than before. eTap AXS is now offered in 1x or 2x chainring options, disc and rim brake options, and the availability of an integrated power meter. 1x gearing setups are available for road, cyclocross, gravel, and time-trial bikes as well. eTap AXS is a more versatile group than ever before, and arguably the most-versatile group on the market today.
Making all of this adjustability possible is a new rear derailleur. The rear derailleur gets revised geometry to accommodate the added cassette width, and is tucked more under the bike to protect it in an accident. Further, SRAM has eliminated the popular WiFli option in favor of one derailleur that is designed to work with wide-range cassettes. This single derailleur features now features a quicker motor and larger cage pulleys for faster shifts, and SRAM’s Orbit damper. Instead of a friction-based clutch (like that on SRAM Eagle or Shimano Dyna-Sys), Orbit is a silicon fluid damper system that places no additional resistance on the derailleur spring under slow or light movement in order to reduce chain bounce. Orbit is speed sensitive, meaning that only high-speed rotations from rough roads will activate the system.
While CyclingTips debunked the idea that clutches added friction to drivetrains, they found that standard springs do. The Orbit hydraulic clutch means that any possible addition of friction is gone from the equation. It also means that the drivetrain is noticably quieter over cobblestones and rough roads compared to a standard drivetrain or even a clutched drivetrain.
The front derailleur receives some love too. Many wanted to use the previous RED eTap on their gravel bikes, but the front derailleur battery limited tire clearance. This new version offers ample clearance for a 700 x 42c tire; anything bigger and SRAM recommends switching to a 1x drivetrain. Additionally, the cage profile is optimized for the smaller jump in chainrings (13 teeth as opposed to 16 teeth of a standard 2x chainring) for faster shifts, regardless of chain load.
About these chainrings: they’re maybe the biggest change to the entire group. SRAM front shifting has always been a weakness of their groupsets, but smaller chainrings lead to smoother, faster shifts and claimed improvements in cadence and efficiency between shifts.
Nearly SRAM eTap AXS chainrings are now all direct-mount, and have a claimed 50% longer lifespan than their previous RED 11 chainrings. Translation? Regular road riding means these chainrings should be replaced every seven and a half to nine years, as opposed to every five to six years of other modern chainrings.
This bodes well for SRAM’s new power meter options, which are largely built into the new direct mount chainrings. SRAM claims accuracy within +/-1.5% with power measured from both left and right legs. They also claim no need for recalibration when swapping chainrings, and the direct mount aero chainrings offer improved aerodynamics over a standard crank-based power meter. 48 and 50t chainring options are fully integrated power into a direct mount aero chainring, while 36-46t 1x variants have spider-based power.
Chainrings are only as good as the chain that surrounds them, and SRAM has paid great attention to their new RED chain. This polarizing asymmetrical chain features an unbroken, straight line up top, in the name of providing more space between the chain and cogs. The idea is that the chain is allowed to be narrower and lighter, while still providing enough space in between tooth profiles to shift quietly and quickly.
Similarly wrapped up in the chain is a new 12-speed cassette. Like previous SRAM RED cassettes, the new XG-1290 cassette uses a one-piece design for significant weight savings. RED cassettes are typically among the lightest in class while managing to be long-lasting, and we expect the same with their new cassette. The highlight here? Seven one tooth jumps on most RED cassettes, while competitors have four or five jumps. Smaller jumps between cogs means smoother cadence, and greater efficiency.
RED chainrings are available in 48/35t, 50/37t, and 46/33t combinations. Although the 48/35T sounds small, chances are good that it’ll end up being the default for many riders, as the 48-10T high gear is virtually identical to a conventional 53-11T, and the 35-28T low gear is close enough to a 34-28T that most riders can have the low gear of a compact crankset paired to the top end range of a standard crankset. SRAM will offer 10-26t, 10-28t, and 10-33t cassettes.
Among other things, you’ll find a switch to SRAM’s XDR driver standard, which is essentially the same as the XD driver standard with 1.85mm more space to accommodate the SRAM RED cassette. All Zipp wheels made after 2012 can be swapped to an XDR driver, with a wide range of manufacturers already offering XDR compatibility. Rim brake calipers are redesigned for greater tire clearance, swallowing a 28c tire with room to spare.
Basic hood shapes are unchanged in both rim brake and disc brake options, though they do receive newly-textured hoods and shift paddles.
On the Road
As much as SRAM loves to call shifting with RED eTap AXS a “touch of a button”, we like calling it a click more. Even though Shimano has moved away from their Di2 shifters feeling like a worn-out mouse click to a more tactile feel, eTap AXS still offers more of a resounding click than Shimano, and right on par with Campagnolo EPS. The only reason you’ll miss a shift is if you’re still acclimating to the unique shift logic of eTap AXS, which has become second-nature for us and preferred by many. SRAM eTap AXS is also friendlier to gloved fingers, with just the one textured button attached to each shifter.
While we weren’t able to test out the rim brake variant, we found the disc brakes to be responsive, with controllable power. Hoods feel a little softer than before but don’t twist as much as the previous generation SRAM hoods.
Many felt that the RED eTap 11-speed shifted a touch slower than Shimano and Campagnolo electronic groups, but in reality it’s nearly impossible to distinguish whether eTap is actually slower to shift than Di2 or even mechanical RED, particularly in the rear derailleur. Shifts up front are noticeably quicker and smoother, thanks largely to the smaller 13-tooth gap in between chainrings and the updated chain profile. The redesigned front derailleur fits up to a 700 x 42c tire without any rub, which isn’t much more than before but enough to make a difference. Anything wider, and SRAM recommends their 1x solution.
SRAM couldn’t leave good enough alone, could they? We definitely enjoyed RED eTap for its intuitive nature and quality feel, both of which overshadowed the whole wireless technology idea. eTap AXS builds on that with improved front derailleur shifting, greater versatility, and a fat helping of polish along the way.
If you enjoy 11-speed eTap, then eTap AXS is going to be both more of the same, with some substantial improvements along the way for good measure. Few groupsets, regardless of manufacturer, cover the gamut of riding styles in the same way that this does, between 1x and 2x, rim and disc brakes, and aero and standard chainring profiles. And in the case of wanting to run drop bars and a dropper seatpost with a wide-range 1x drivetrain like SRAM Eagle? They pair up very nicely right out of the box.
We aren’t ready to say this is the best groupset in cycling, but the new SRAM RED eTap AXS groupset is definitely the most exciting group on the market today, and one we are happy to have in our shop.
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