The top of the line Red set the technology standard a few years back with etap. Can the trickle-down technology of the new 2020 Force AXS setup keep up?
To be fair, I have been riding Shimano for the past 7 years. Having had multiple groups of DuraAce, Ultegra and Di2 on various bikes, I am familiar with the in’s and outs plus the sensations associated with Shimano. Oh, I also have a downtube 105 group on an all weather rain bike – so reliable! On the SRAM side, I have ridden mountain bike groups and reaching back long while ago I had a road Force groupset when it first came out 2006? and a ultralight Red 22 groupset, 2010 or 2011 but since that, its been Shimano.
The two big things that made me switch to SRAM this time were wireless and gear ratios. Theres a whole list of features but in my mind these were the two that closed it for me. Wireless is the future, yes Di2 is great, but initial wiring and diagnosing cables when they go bad is not fun. The AXS gear system is really well designed so the gear ratios don’t overlap and with 12speed, you get 24 different gear ratios – that is cool in my books. I purchased a mixed setup. Force Shifters, brakes, front and rear mech, coupled with a Red crank and red cassette and chain.
Theres almost nothing to write here, except for 3 meh things, First, The front derailleur setup is wrong and kinda of a pain if you follow SRAMs instructions (see correction and update below). The markings on the derailleur are incorrect, maybe they have fixed it by now. Then secondly you need a 12spd specific chain tool. Park Tool make one, an 11spd wont work. Third thing, micro adjustment of the rear derailleur could be easier, but its not a huge issue just a bit of a pain compared with the easier Shimano setup. Everything else is cake, actually super delicious cake.
Tips. Charge your batteries and download the AXS app before install. And if you haven’t installed hydro brakes before, get your bike shop to do it, or get real familiar with the system before attempting anything, its much more complex than a wire cable.
Update: 7/24/2020 – I gained some information that SRAM have a new front derailleur set up tool. This is amimed to make things easier.
Coming from a long time on Shimano, I was worried. What if I detested the shifting sensation like I did on Red22. Did I just waste all my money? Given that I had already struggled a little with the install of the front derailleur and the shifts in the stand sounded kinda clunky, I didn’t have massive expectations.
On the road, my tune changed, the feel of rear and front shifts were leaps beyond the stand. The rear shifts were not quite as butter as Shimano, but firm and engaging without being overly clunky. The front was positive, but I think I might tweak on it and see if I can make it better. I think the shifts are ever so slightly slower than Di2, that might be a perception thing.
The shift buttons, lets talk buttons. It’s going to take me a while to get used to the up and down levers coming from Di2. On Di2 all the rear shifting is done on the right lever, both up and down the cassette. On SRAM, the left shifter shifts up the cassette (to bigger cogs) the right lever shifts down the cassette (small cogs)
To shift the front derailleur you press both buttons at the same time.
The one I have been stumbling on is the rear downshift, my hands don’t associate the left shifter as thats normally where the front derailleur is.
The phone thing, yeah thats right theres an AXS app on iphone and android. Eat that Shimano. And you know what, the app is easy to use and well designed. One of the first settings I modified was the amount of shifts up and down the rear cassette. The default is hold down and it continues shifting through the the whole cassette I changed it to 2 stops, I find this really cool as I can just press and hold without dumping the whole cassette. Its secondary benefit is that its pretty much traffic light friendly when going from a stop.
Robotic bleeps and clunks
Couple of things, the electronic sound. Let’s face it Di2 sounds downright robotic during shifts, especially the front. Some may love the robotic sound of Di. , SRAM is less robot, the AXS electronic sound is quieter when in use, the mechanics and servos are quieter. Back when I had SRAM Red22, it was loud, the works, cassette, drivetrain, chain you name it. Now its actually very quiet, as quiet as my mechanical Shimano Duraace.
The funky ergo hoods
I heard a lot from people and in other reviews that the hoods are massive. Sure, the feel different than Shimano, but are they massive?, no. I need to ride em some more, read on.
We should probably get this one out of the way and theres a lot of articles out there comparing weight for weight. Basically, it weighs more than a rim brake mechanical groupo – yes. It weighs about 100g more than a comparable setup Shimano 11spd Ultegra Di group. So if you are choosing between a Disc brake Di or Sram eTap setup, weight is not a thing to worry about.
Settling In and more riding
After a few rides now, about 500miles, the subtleties of this AXS group are settling in. The first impressions were important, but having some longer time on the bike means I can really evaluate the subtle aspects.
Forget the past, the AXS is way beyond that. Sram 22 sounded very mechanically clunky, especially on a carbon frame, but this Force group is quiet and smoother. The drivetrain is nearly silent, as quite as Shimano. The big difference in noise is when peddling hard uphill and switching into easier gears but not a deal breaker. Is it Shimano shifting smooth you ask. Not quite, but pretty dang close. If Shimano smooth is 10, then this is 9.
One of the features I really like is the ability to program the shifters to the number of gears you want to move when you hold the shift button. I find two shifts perfect and is programmed through the AXS app.
For those of you who are used to “Shadow” ie the rear derailleur link design that helps Shimano’s mechanism sit as close in to the cogs as it can, the the Sram derailleur might be a little of a shock. It sticks out much more 30-40mm more than Shimano, is this a big deal. I don’t think so but I certainly noticed it.
If you are used to cable actuated mechanisms, you will certainly notice this unit seems a lot bigger, because the battery hangs off the back, but it doest get in the way or change anything.
The front mech’s performance is awesome, in the stand it sucks, with the proper cadence on the road it is great. Crisp clean, no overshifts. No complains here, and thats in comparision with a DA9100 shift, which in my books doesn’t get much better.
You will notice that the new front derailleurs are designed to give a lot more tire clearance than of the past, even on a tight fitting road geometry, I ws using 30c tyres and had plenty of clearance, probably to take a 37c, not that my frame would fit that however. For those that need more, bear in mind there is also AXS Wide which gains you even more clearance.
Front Derailleur Setup update 8/1/2020:
Earlier in the review I had complained about the setup, this was true and horrible, but SRAM did send me a new tool they developed for setting up the front derailleur in an easier manner. Its a small plastic widget that aligns the chainring to the cage before you tighten down the bolts. Very good! double thumbs up.
Stopping is great. period. Its also great on Shimano. The lever action is a little more linear on SRAM, feels a touch more like high end cable, and I like that. Both feel powerful and give you more confidence. In general on hydro you will find yourself descending quicker because you have more braking confidence.
I have the Sram centerlock rotors and after the factory burn-in of pads to rotors, I found that the brakes were a little noisy for the first 35miles. After that they have been great, even after hard, long breaking. No pinging, no rubbing.
Sram made a switch from a unibody brake caliper design (ie single piece housing) to a two piece for better manufacturing and easier setup. The two piece design was engineered with slightly more pad clearance and i’m grateful for that, easier setup, less pinging.
Braking update: 7/17/2020
The pads seem to have settled in nicely. After wearing off some of the pad material in the initial miles, the brakes, (especially the rear) feel a lot better, with better “featherability” meaning you can subtly control the pressure in the rear. With the shear power of any hydrobrakes on a road bike you will always be limited by the physics of the tyre, so feathering is especially important in lower traction situations like wet.
Braking update: 8/15/2020
After about 1100miles I found the brakes to be going “soft” and when I say soft, I mean noticeably more lever travel. The fix was easy here and made breaking feel fresh new and awesome again. A brake RESET as SRAM call it. It takes about 5 mins per brake caliper and you reset the amount of travel in the pistons by removing teh wheel and pads and squeezing against the space that comes with the brakes. Very easy, a note that I have never had to do this with Shimano brakes.
My brain has finally made the switch to understanding easier gears with the left shifter. It took 385miles! but I finally have it.
The shape of the hoods feels nice, there is certainly more area to grab than Shimano, but it doesn’t feel bad. I will add that I have larger male hands. The reach is easily adjustable but people with smaller hands should definitely have a feel before committing. I measured the girth and its also identical to a Shimano 9100 shifter, about 35mm. As you can see in the pictures below, the hoods do stand up, but its not crazy.
Why did I skip gearing?
I skipped a whole section about cranks, gears, ratios and so forth a little. I talk a little about it here, but for one, I’m using the Red Crank 48 /35 (which technically is the same ratio as a Force crank) with a cassette 10-28
But also, to be honest I’m still in the process of evaluating and learning. The gearing is very different sensation than a 52/36 chainring 11-28 cassette setup. The charts below really show you on paper whats happening.
I typically don’t look down at the gears when I ride, I select the most appropriate, Sensation wise I can tell you that on AXS sometimes it feels like I am riding in the big ring, but I am still in the small ring on the 10t cog. Its noticeable. The other noticeable thing is the granularity of the jumps. In the charts below this is shown as the number of 1tooth jumps. I like it but its taking some getting used to.
Gearing update: 7/7/2020
I finally managed to put my sensations into words.
With close to 800miles on this new group now I am realising that in the past my brain was very used to certain 2 tooth gear shifts on the rear cog. 15-17 and 17-19 being the most obvious. The SRAM AXS setup doesn’t have this… they have 1 tooth shifts at this point. Is that a good thing? yes for cadence, no for my brain getting used to it! Your brain gets trained to the feel, force, sensation of a shift and cassette. The last cassette I used for years was a duraace 11spd 11-28 with much different jumps than Sram’s as shown above in gear chart.
The other area my brain struggles with is the SRAM shift from 21-24 on a Shimano cassette this jump is 21-23, this gear for me and my terrain is quite a critical gear when in the big ring.
But in general my brain is adjusting and I’m enjoying the 1 tooth jumps more.
SRAM batteries are pretty small in size and look like they don’t hold a lot. Claimed a battery life is 60 hrs.
I managed to get 49 hours before hitting the red indicator.
(There are 3 stages Green, Red and Flashing Red – less than 10%)
My 49 hours and 715miles, involved a lot of climbing of 52,205ft, which also means a lot of shifting, so I count this life as pretty good.
Recharging time was about 60mins per battery.
The braking blows me away, as they are really good. The shifters hoods are nice shape, feel and the shifting is great on the rear and excellent on the front. So far I have not had to charge it yet, but I am expecting that will come soon. Real soon 🙂 . I will be back in touch regarding the gearing, but the jury is still out, I need some more miles and more conditions, I can tell you I don’t hate it at this point.
Frame: Moots Disc RSL Road Titanium frame
-BSA Threaded Bottom Bracket
-142 12mm rear
– Titanium seatpost clamp
Enve Road Fork – 12mm thru
Chris King – Threadfit 30 BB – Violet
Chris King Road Dub Adapter kit
Chris King Inset 7 Headset Violet
– Titanium 10mm spacer, Moots.
Chris King R45 Violet Hubs 24holes – XDr driver (freehub body)
HED Belgium Plus rims with Sapim cXray Spokes in 2x
Vittoria Corsa 30mm TLR version, black sidewalls
Red AXS Crank – Dub interface – 48/35 chainrings
Red Cassette – 10-28 range
Red Chain 12spd
Force AXS Shifters
Force hydraulic disc brakes
Force front and rear derailleur
Sram Centerlock rotors 160mm
Zipp Ergo 70 SL carbon handlebars
Zipp Speed SL 110mm Carbon stem
Zipp Speed SL 27.2 Seatpost
Specialized Carbon Romin Saddle
Spurcycle bell in custom King Violet.
Current build weight is 17.5lbs, (7.9kg) there is probably some areas for weight saving, but not a bad start.