SRAM are the newest kids on the block out of the ‘Big Three’ groupset manufacturers (joining Shimano and Campagnolo), but they have left a sizeable impression on the market and have been instrumental in pushing the other brands with their rival technologies. SRAM generally start at a higher price point than Shimano, who is by far the dominant groupset manufacturer, and offer groupsets from the mid-range to the pinnacle of the sport. Here are seven areas where the American manufacturer succeed and seven aspects that they can improve on.
SUCCESS: Positive Shifting
Although some regard SRAM’s shifting as clunky, I love the fact that the shift is very positive. You know when you’ve changed gear as there is a satisfying ‘ker-clunk’ both when you action the shifter and when the rear mech derails the chain from the gear that it’s on and moves it to its selected gear. SRAM have also brought this over to their wireless groupsets, which makes it seem less alien and more akin to a mechanical system, even though it is far from it. Shimano’s shifting is more accurate and much faster, but markedly more vague.
FAIL: DUB Chainsets (and GXP)
A major turn-off when considering a SRAM groupset, why oh why do the crank bolts on SRAM’s chainsets require a Herculean effort to undo?! SRAM prescribe a very high torque of 48-54NM (most other chainsets of this design that feature one 8 or 10mm hex bolt tend to be around the 40NM mark) and trying to undo the bolt often resorts to exasperation if you’re trying to break the bolt by hand, an assistant (or two) to either help break the bolt or hold the bike, breaker bars of large proportions, swearing, impact guns, heat, freezing and more swearing. This was a big problem on their older GXP / BB30 chainsets but is even more prevalent on their DUB chainsets, a standard that was meant to simplify everything!
My most successful method is to try and undo the crank bolt before you start working or stripping the bike so that you don’t have to try and undo the bolt once you’ve removed the wheels and / or the rest of drivetrain. I like to use a toe strap to hold the non-driveside crank arm to the chainstay to stop it from moving and then use a ‘big boy’ breaker bar.
Once you’ve finally broken the bolt free, you hear a sound reminiscent of a gunshot, often infused with the smell of smoke. If the bolt has been previous overtightened, it makes life even harder and I have seen some chainsets in the workshop of the company that I work at being left on as to remove it would require destructive methods.
This really shouldn’t be a thing and I would highly recommend making sure you maintain the chainset regularly to avoid it seizing any worse. SRAM have also brought out a little-marketed steel crank bolt that weighs twice as much as the aluminium bolt that is used when you buy a chainset off-the-peg, which I have bought and recommend every owner buying, as it makes life much easier down the line for whoever is working on the bike.
SUCCESS: Wireless Technology
SRAM are perhaps most famous for pioneering wireless groupsets with their original eTap groupset and have now developed with their eTap AXS ecosystem. There are no wires whatsoever from the shifters to the mech, the shifters communicate with the mechs via AIREA (essentially SRAM’s version of Bluetooth) and both mechs have removable batteries on them. It’s a refreshingly simplistic and innovative system and it’s always satisfying when you are working on a bike that doesn’t require the hassle of internal cable routing as you can literally just bolt on the four (or three if you are running 1x) components of the system once they are paired. If you’re working on one of the latest integrated bikes where cables or wires run through the bar, stem and then down the side of a proprietary profiled steerer tube before heading through the frame, it makes the job even easier as you just have the hydraulic hoses to route.
At the time of writing, both Campagnolo and Shimano’s electronic groupsets are wired and in the case of Shimano, their upcoming, redeveloped Dura-Ace groupset doesn’t seem to be completely wireless from some publications’ sneak peeks.
FAIL: Front Shifting
SRAM’s front shifting has never been on par with Shimano or Campagnolo and the Yaw front mechs are particularly finicky to set up. SRAM’s Yaw technology denotes that the mech will work with the chain in every single gear combination and won’t rub as the mech pivots slightly to compensate for the alignment with the chain, rather than with Shimano and Campagnolo where you have to ‘trim’ the mech. A nice idea but a real headache to set up perfectly as it requires the mech to be at an optimum height and angle and there is no leeway for error. Even when it’s set up perfectly, the shifting still isn’t on the level of the brand’s rivals.
SUCCESS: 1x Drivetrains
Perhaps as a result of their inability to manufacture a proper front mech, SRAM have pioneered the 1x system. A 1x removes the front derailleur and the chainset has a single chainring, whilst the cassette has a wider range cassette to compensate for the lost gear ratios. You save a little bit of weight as you omit the front mech, cable and housing for it and the front shifter, although the rear mech and cassette’s are heavier so the weight saving is marginal. Chain retention is much better as the rear mech has a clutch in it to stop the chain from slapping on the chainstay and the chainring has a narrow-wide tooth set up, again to better hold the chain and stop it from dropping. The result is a reliable and eerily quiet system which just plain works and SRAM’s Eagle mountain bike groupsets have further developed the scope of the technology with their now whopping 10-52t cassettes that are 12-speed. 1x isn’t the solution for every style of riding but I certainly think it is the case for off-road where the front mech is a mud magnet and both Shimano and Campagnolo followed suit reticently after SRAM’s market success.
FAIL: Road Shifter Cable Insertion
A problem now solved with the fact that their road groupsets are now almost exclusively wireless, it is often pot luck when you are trying to install a new gear cable in the shifter that you will get it through on your first couple of tries. Unlike Shimano where the cable logically emerges from the side of the shifter when you route it and you can then guide it into the outer housing, SRAM thought it was a good idea for the cable to route through the underside of the shifter where it then takes a tight 180 degree turn around a spool before emerging from the side of the shifter. A plain stupid idea and I’m glad it’s now mostly not a thing.
SUCCESS: Powerful Brakes with Excellent Modulation
A controversial point as many take offence to SRAM’s brakes in that they use DOT fluid, which is corrosive, and from the legacy of Avid brakes, particularly the Elixir’s, which I will agree were awful. But SRAM have reinvented their history with their past couple of generations of brake. I find SRAM brakes to have a confidence-inspiring level of power and they have excellent modulation. I’ll concede that perhaps DOT fluid is not the nicest of fluids to be dealing with but as long as you follow SRAM’s bleeding method, you will have a successful bleed far more than you would with Shimano. Shimano’s brakes suffer from a myriad of problems in their construction and the braking is more binary with more of an ‘on / off’ feel. SRAM’s contact adjustment of their higher level of brakes is a system that works really well and unlike Shimano where you have to cut the hose whenever you undo it (and then often have to replace it when you cut it too short if you are working on an integrated bike), this isn’t really a problem with SRAM.
FAIL: Quality Below Rival / GX Eagle
There has always been a marked difference in quality and reliability of SRAM’s components between groupsets, whereas Shimano’s groupsets often use the same technologies, just with heavier materials. On the road side, there is a marked difference between Apex (their entry offering), Rival and Force. Force feels far more smoother in its use of carbon construction and quality of the pivots / bearings.
There is a greater difference between SX and NX Eagle (SRAM’s entry mountain bike Eagle groupsets) and GX. Both SX and NX are very plasticky and the shifting is quite crude and I’ve seen many of the rear mech’s suffer ghost shifting. Shimano have the upper hand on the entry to mid level of mountain bike groupsets and their Deore groupset blows SX and NX out of the water. There is also a great difference between GX and XO (the first of SRAM’s two top offerings, with XX1 being the lightest weight, money-no-option groupset). The shift feels so much better on XO as the shifter uses a bearing and the chain is far smoother and longer-lasting.
A clear separation of quality between groupsets isn’t a bad thing and it’s the reason why users would spend more or less on one and SRAM perhaps take this a little too literally.
SUCCESS: Innovative Nature
SRAM have always been the best out of the ‘Big Three’ in announcing innovative products and trying to change conventions. Whilst in the case of DUB or Yaw front mechs, this isn’t for the best, in the case of their wireless groupsets or their unconventional chainring sizes on their road groupsets, they have completely reimagined the widely accepted gear ratio options. I’d rather see a brand take an ambitious risk and fail than adopt an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mindset and you have to admire them for trying to shake things up.
FAIL: XD and XDR Standard
I appreciate that SRAM had to introduce a new freehub standard to work with the 10t cog on their cassettes but the XD / XDR standard isn’t quite there. The threads that the cassette fits onto are very fine and if you don’t religiously remove and maintain your cassette / freehub regularly, I have seen examples of cassettes fusing onto the freehub and having to be cut off. This shouldn’t be a thing and I hope SRAM can improve the system.
SUCCESS: Universal Mech Hanger
Although not all that prevalent at the time of writing, SRAM’s universal mech hanger is another example of the brand’s positive innovation and trying to redefine the generic constructs of cycling technology. Every frame uses its own proprietary mech hanger, which results in a careful Internet search of what hanger will work with your frame and then corroborating your findings by matching the profile of the hanger up with the profile on the screen. SRAM have introduced one universal standard and both Trek and Santa Cruz (as well as some other brands) have started to adopt this standard on their frames. I hope more brands get on board as this will resolve a problem that shouldn’t really exist.
FAIL: Bottom Brackets
The quality of SRAM’s bottom brackets is pretty shocking. Both Shimano and Campagnolo’s offerings are bombproof but SRAM’s are plasticky and don’t last very long. They just plain suck. SRAM have tried to simplify bottom bracket standards with their DUB system and the threaded variations seem better, but they are not up to standard compared with the competition. The press-fit DUB bottom brackets aren’t great and often require an ungodly amount of whomping to remove them from the BB shell.
Although perhaps an unfair topic due to shortages in the coronavirus pandemic, I really admire that SRAM have always announced a product and it is in stock almost instantaneously, rather than announcing something where you then have to wait a while before you can actually buy it. Both Shimano and Campagnolo need to take a leaf out of SRAM’s book on this front.
FAIL: Road Lever Shape
SRAM’s hydraulic road lever shape on their current generation of shifters isn’t a patch on Campagnolo’s, which is by far the best or Shimano’s, which is impressively small in profile but not quite as comfortable as the Italian brand. SRAM’s shifters are more bulbous and knob-shaped, which isn’t particularly ergonomic. Their previous hydraulic road or CX1 shifers were much better because even though they were taller, they were less bulbous in their circumference and far more ergonomic in the hand.
What are your thoughts on SRAM and where they succeed and fail? Let me know your opinions in the comments. If you enjoyed this article, you can read my article on Shimano’s successes and aspects they can improve on here.