Today SRAM announces their latest RED groupset lineup, SRAM RED eTAP AXS for road and off-road. This groupset shifts from a more traditional 11-speed cassette arrangement to a 12-speed cassette configuration. It also eschews any mechanical only version of the setup, going with only their wireless eTAP shifting option. Along the way, the company switches to an XD/XDR driver body (which has serious implications for trainers), and last but not least they revamped their power meters. Got all that? Good.
In fact, this announcement is just as much gearhead as it is smart tech. But obviously, if you’re here you know you’re going to get a significant deep-dive on the smart tech parts especially; but fear not, I also cover the other road-focused elements a bit as well.
And of course, I’ll talk a bit about how it all works out on the road with some actual riding time on an AXS equipped bike. But, if you prefer pretty videos over words, then whack that play button below:
With that, onto the tech details and photos.
The Connected Basics:
Of course, by now you know that the most talked about change is the shift from 11-speed cassettes to 12-speed cassettes. But it’s also beyond that too, this new groupset is *only* offered in an eTAP wireless shifting configuration. There’s no ‘mechanical’ shifting version of RED anymore.
The shift is more towards a cohesive ecosystem where all the parts work together, even if you want to build something funky. By that, I mean you can actually blend road bike parts and mountain bike parts together from an electronics standpoint. Why’d you want to do that though? Well, gravel. It’s all about gravel bikes these days.
In a nutshell, you’ve basically got four Monty Python style choices to make:
1) Bars: Drop or Tri/TT (this dictates which shifters)
2) Brakes: Disc or traditional rim (this also dictates shifters/brakes)
3) Drivetrain: 1x or 2x (1x would be common for off-road, whereas 2x is more common on-road), and also if you want it aero or not
4) Power meter: Integrated or later upgradeable
Seriously, that’s the only four core choices you’re getting here. The idea being that no matter what you choose for those four choices, everything is mix and match if you want it to be. Note in particular that the only groupset options are with a power meter, or with a crankset designed to add a power meter to it later.
And actually, if off-road there are two more things you can add:
5) Do you want a dropper post?
6) And do you want the dedicated Reverb AXS controller for the dropper
All of those components listed above are connected via Bluetooth Smart now. From the shifters to the derailleurs, the power meter to the dropper post. Whereas in the past eTAP wasn’t actually enabled over Bluetooth Smart. It was only accessible externally via ANT+ with the ANT+ Gear Shifting protocol. That meant there wasn’t any viable way for you as a consumer to change settings within the system using a smart app, something that competitor Shimano offered in their setups. But more on that in a second.
Now to be fair, there are a few more nuanced choices you need to make. For example, you’ll need to decide on crank length as normal as well as which of the three chainring sizes you want. On the 2x chainrings they are:
And the corresponding cassettes are:
Now you can dive into the new SRAM AXS app, which allows you to add each of these components into the app and manage them in bike arrangements. That may sound like an obvious thing to do, but it wasn’t there previously.
But the real big ticket item here for having a smartphone app at all, is the configuration of eTAP. Previously there was no smartphone app, again, putting them at a disadvantage compared to Shimano which allowed customization of shifting. With AXS though you can start to do some customization akin to what Shimano offers with Syncro Shift.
Within the app there are two basic ‘enhanced’ shifting modes, sequential and compensating:
Sequential: In this mode your shifters change to simply increasing or decreasing how hard your gears are, and eTAP will *automatically* shift the front derailleur as it makes sense from a math standpoint. This gives you easier access to more gears sequentially. Again, same thing Shimano has had. In this mode you can always hold both shifters at once to front-shift like normal (effectively overriding it). Somewhat interesting here is that when shifting up versus down, it actually makes the jump in slightly different spots depending on the direction you’re going up/down the cassette.
Compensating: In this configuration, when you manually shift the front derailleur, the unit will automatically compensate by shifting one or two additional cogs in the back, depending on how you have it configured. The idea here is to ‘soften’ the blow between big and small ring shifts up front.
Here’s how this looks in the app:
Now – to be really clear: These are *optional* modes. You can turn this all off and just shift like you always have. Simple as that.
Next, as part of the ability to tweak eTAP configuration, you can also re-assign any of the buttons to different features. For example, you can instantly swap if you want the left paddle to make it harder instead of easier. Or you can tweak what happens when you dual-paddle hold. The world is your oyster. Well, sorta.
It’s not the same oyster yet as Shimano. Burger King this is not. As of today there is no ability, for example, to use some of the extra buttons as controls for your Garmin device, as there is on Shimano already. It does sound like this is in the works though, but SRAM is focused on getting AXS out the door first, and then will circle back on that.
Within the app is where you’ll be able to configure exactly what type of cassette you’ve got. That’s key of course for SRAM to be able to do the math for the compensating and sequential shifts correctly. If one had inputted their cassette wrong, it would likely result in a non-smooth shifting situation.
Finally, the same ‘security’ rules that were in place for the original eTAP apply here with the addition of Bluetooth Smart. Previously, all components could only be connected to one other set of components. Meaning, the derailleurs would only talk to a single set of shifters at a time, thus preventing someone from pairing up an extra set and overriding someone mid-race. In order to complete that setup you had to press the physical button on the shifter/derailleur itself to start the pairing process. This forced someone to have physical access to the bike.
The same is true with the phone app as well. The Bluetooth side of SRAM eTAP components only allows a single phone to be paired at a time. To wipe that pairing and add a new phone you’ve got to press the button on your components. One twist to this though is that SRAM stores the information in an online platform account you create. That doesn’t however have any bearing on the requirement to re-pair any new physical phone to the bike, as the online account is just saving settings information at this point.
So, to recap things a bit before moving on, there are technically three networks at play within this version of eTAP:
Airea: This is used for all control messages (SRAM component to SRAM component command messages), for things like shifting. In other words, anything that’s a command to do something from a control (like shift or dropper post) standpoint exclusively uses this protocol.
BLE (Bluetooth Smart): This is used for all smartphone app communication, including configuration and firmware. BLE is never used to actually command a component action (shift nor dropper), it’s purely for configuration and firmware updates of SRAM components. For example when Quarq rolls out DZero firmware updates, it’ll happen via BLE.
ANT: This is for head units to talk to SRAM components, but specifically on the rear derailleurs and Reverb only. So your Garmin for example won’t actually talk to SRAM over BLE or Airea, but only ANT+ (using the ANT+ Gear Shifting protocol). And specifically for shifting, it only discusses things with the rear derailleur, which knows the state of both front and rear. This is a notable design decision because in cases like a mountain 1x setup where you have no front derailleur, it’ll continue to work well from a design standpoint. If on a 2x setup you lose the battery on the rear, you’ll cease receiving ANT+ updates to your Garmin for shifting. Again, *no control* or configuration occurs over ANT+.
Here you can see the pairing process in the app:
Finally, before we dive too much further, this is as good a place as any to drop the full price list:
And speaking of dropping things, I know some of you would love to see the full press deck that was handed out. In actuality there was like 1.8GB of stuff given to press. Most of it things like high-resolution imagery, but also a number of really interesting decks.
There’s basically three documents/presentations that I found interesting out of all of them. The first two are the super technical FAQ ones. One for road, and one for mountain. If you’re looking for a nuanced answer that I might not have covered in this post (especially for gearing/selections), it’s probably in these.
First, here’s the road FAQ (the technical one), uploaded in easy imagery for quick browsing:
Then here’s the Eagle (off-road) technical FAQ:
And then finally the main SRAM RED AXS presentation. Obviously it’s a finely tuned piece of marketing material, but sometimes there are nuggets in there that aren’t seen elsewhere. There’s also things like weights in there and a bit more on the gearing side that’s slightly outside the realm here. So here’s all those slides for road:
And last but not least, the same for Eagle:
Got all that? Good, let’s keep on chugging.
Impacts to Trainer Compatibility:
One of the interesting ramifications of this new groupset is the change to the XD (off-road) and XDR (on-road) driver body, which is the piece the cassette attaches to. With that change you’ll likely find that your existing direct drive trainer won’t be compatible with your new bike/groupset. If you have a wheel-on trainer, then there’s no impact. Remember a direct drive trainer is one where you remove your wheel, like a Wahoo KICKR.
That’s because the spacing and alignment on this new 12-speed cassette means that all trainers produced today are compatible with Shimano and SRAM 9/10/11 speed cassettes, with a handful also compatible with certain Campagnolo configurations. But out of the box 12-speed configuration? Nope-de-nope.
But fear not, there’s a solution for that. I checked with all of the trainer companies and here’s what you can do:
CycleOps: $69 adapter available for Hammer series for both XD and XDR
Elite: $60 adapter planned to be available in the next month for both XD and XDR
Kinetic: $60 adapter available for the R1 (super limited stock of adapter right now though). XDR adapter coming shortly.
Tacx: $71 adapter for XD already, compatible with all FLUX/NEO trainers. XDR adapter expected shortly.
Wahoo: Adapter coming in Q2 2019, price TBD.
(Note: I’ve only focused on direct drive trainers here, since wheel-on trainers don’t matter)
So, all is not lost, but you will have to plunk out just a bit more cash for an adapter. But given how much you’re already throwing down for this new groupset, you probably won’t notice. But, just don’t forget to order the adapter from your trainer company at the same time. Also, remember to order an extra 12-speed cassette too, so you can put that on your trainer. Otherwise you’ll have a sad panda moment when you go to connect your bike to your trainer.
New Quarq Power Meter:
As part of the change-up to RED AXS, Quarq is pushing out a new power meter as well. Though rather than be a completely new design, this is considered part of the DZero family, and thus all existing DZero power meters will receive the same pile of software features updates. In other words – at the end of the day whether your DZero power meter is 18 months old or bought as part of a new AXS groupset, it’ll have the exact same set of features.
The new RED AXS road power meter comes in three chainring sizes, plus two aero sizes (these are pre-bolted/integrated for more ‘aeroness’). In addition, there’s the 1x variants.
As noted, the unit is exactly the same as the DZero from an electronics standpoint, though of course the physical aspects are slightly different to accommodate the new RED AXS cranksets.
Meanwhile, on the software front the new RED AXS units (and soon all DZero units) will receive the following new features:
– Adding fully automatic zero: Right now you can manually zero your DZero, but Quarq wants to get to the point of, in their words “never touch it, never think about it” calibration type zeroing. Remember they already do the temperature modeling within their ovens during manufacturing.
– Adding ‘rev count’: This counts revolutions of the crank. The idea behind this is to start to do some logic on chainring wear, though it won’t be enabled immediately, likely later this spring. There’s a bit more environmental aspects they want to get right first (i.e. account for poor weather riding meaning more wear than sunny riding). But ultimately, rev count for drivetrain related functions is a better indicator than straight hours/kilometers.
– Adding voltage output for battery: This is primarily a service related item, but can be useful for better determining actual battery life left.
In addition to these features, Quarq will sunset their existing Quarq Qalvin smartphone app and roll everything into the AXS app (even ‘German Compatibility Mode’). This app will carry forward all the exact same features, but add in the ability to manage multiple bikes and the entire electronic existence from a SRAM standpoint (so other devices such as ShockWiz and such).
You can see some of this already in the beta app I tried:
This has the benefits for shops as well, who are trying to prep bikes with multiple power meters and groupsets around, to keep track of what bike is what. So it’s more than just a consumer-focused thing. And of course, it’ll allow you to do firmware updates from the app as well.
Note that you should expect this set of features to roll out to both AXS and existing DZero power meters between now and April. There’s a few more things up Quarq’s sleeve for April that I think will really gel together what they’re doing on/in the electronic space. It could be really fascinating if they execute it right – potentially one of the more exciting things I’ve seen hinted at for 2019.
Now, there is one big downside here: With the new chainring and DZero design for AXS, it comes as a single cohesive unit. This means you can’t swap the chainrings anymore. One could posit that means throwing away your power meter when you have to swap chainrings.
But in reality, it’s more of a swap program. SRAM is going to offer swaps for 50% off, so the actual price for a new power meter/chainring in that scenario is $410. Which is expensive, definitely. But not terribly much more than the cost of the dual chainrings anyway, which for AXS is $300 by itself. In other words, you’re paying a $110 tax for what Quarq says is higher accuracy over time because the solidified chainring connection wouldn’t drift any.
Back to early January while in town for CES 2019, I headed out to the desert (again) to meet up with the Jim Meyer, founder of Quarq (now part of SRAM), and spend the day riding around the warmed asphalt and rocks near the Hoover Dam. We spent some time going through all of the new features, and then simply riding them.
While I brought my own extra power meter to do some comparisons against, the reality is that with just two power meters you wouldn’t really know who was right or wrong. But, you would be able to spot extreme oddities. So, to start things off on the power meter front – there were no extreme oddities (data here):
And the easier to see mean/max graph:
The two were offset slightly here, but given I only had two units and hadn’t done any settling of the Vector 3 (at all) on this bike, I wouldn’t overthink it.
And here’s the cadence data:
In fact, the only thing I’d classify as an extreme oddity on this ride was this herd of bighorn rams grazing in suburbia on the grass of a hotel of some sort:
Also in the extreme oddity department on this ride, this is a legitimate department of transportation road-sign in the great state of Arizona, only a few hundred meters from the Hoover Dam near our turnaround point. #NotKidding
So what about the shifting side of things? My main interest was the sequential shifting, which meant that it would automatically shift front and back derailleurs by me merely saying I wanted gearing easier or harder. It does the math and then automatically finds the correct next gear.
Now, this isn’t terribly different from Shimano’s Syncro Shift. It’s actually sort of a blend of Shimano’s two full and semi modes, since it can be configured to jump either one, or two gears as part of the shift. Whereas in Shimano’s case they offer two distinct modes for that piece. Frankly rather subtle differences.
During my riding with it, it worked exactly as I expected, though it was oddly quite loud between shifts, which you can hear in the video. Since there were only two bikes (mine and Jim’s), it’s unclear if this was just an issue specific to these two bikes or not, but it was definitely noticeable. Way rougher sounding than just normal shifts.
Trying out the normal mode where you simply shift using the two shifters like you would have on eTAP previously was exactly as expected (I run eTAP on my primary road bike, so this was totally normal to me).
Note that in either mode you can still manually shift the front ring by just dual-holding the two shifters. This is useful if you’re thinking far enough ahead of the bike to know what you’ll need before the bike knows what you’ll need. For example, coming into a sprint or something and you just want to be in the big ring now, versus it doing it mid-sprint.
One interesting quirk here was that the Edge 1030 I was using wasn’t correctly understanding the 12-speed nature of the bike. It would only allow me to select 11 rear gears when I had two chainrings in the front. In talking with both Garmin and SRAM about this, they believe the gap is on the Garmin Edge side, and Garmin confirmed they’ve already got the ball rolling to correct it. [Update Mar 3rd, 2019: Garmin has issued a firmware update fix that solves this.]
Finally, I did play around with the app a bit to see how you could start customizing some of the different functions and mixing various SRAM components together. Because everything is now connected via Bluetooth Smart you can blend different SRAM components from the road and mountain families. For example, you can take a road groupset and then customize one of the shift functions to control a dropper post, which could be interesting on a gravel setup. SRAM officially calls that the ‘mullet’ configuration. You can see this in my video as well.
Remember that all of these components are locked to a single master. So you can’t just take-over a buddy’s bike and start pairing parts to yours, unless you’ve physically held down the pairing buttons on his bike while he’s not looking. Which of course, is totally legit. Nothing like popping his dropper post from yours.
The only challenge is that if you were to pair his shifting to your controllers, you’d be SOL on shifting – since you can’t control more than one set of derailleurs from one set of shifters. It’s purposefully 1:1 only. Of course, none of this has really changed very much from the first generation of eTAP, it’s just that now they’ve added the BLE app pairing for setup/config purposes.
Ultimately I don’t have a ton of rides on it, so this isn’t some sort of full review. Instead, once I’ve had a bike for a longer period I’d be able to dig into longer term impressions.
But for me coming from an eTAP bike as my primary bike, this felt like the relatively perfect incremental update for me from a tech standpoint. It wasn’t a drastic change. And while the terrain on our ride was hilly enough to lend itself well to the 12-speed setup and increased shifting range, I honestly didn’t notice a significant difference in terms of available gears. Perhaps if I were to have ridden an 11-speed setup on the exact same route as part of a weekly ride or something I’d have noticed it, but it’s less likely when the terrain is somewhat foreign to you.
Like any major groupset changes, this one will likely take some time to sink in. There’s a ton of pieces changing here, both on the physical aspects (in terms of cassettes, chains, chainrings, etc…), but also in the smart realm as well when it comes to apps and integration. Obviously, from my standpoint I’m most excited about the electronics side of things, whereas some of you may be more interested in the hardware/gearing aspects.
Still, what’s almost more noticeable is how SRAM is changing their delivery plan here. Unlike with the initial eTAP announcement where availability (or lack thereof) dragged on for many many many months, SRAM has distributors stocked as of today. The same goes for a pile of bike manufactures that have bikes ready to go today with SRAM AXS built into the bikes. In theory, you should be able to phone up your local bike shop or online retailer and find the SRAM AXS parts you want with immediate availability.
Of course, the best laid plans don’t always pan out – but that’s the theory. I suspect we’ll still see some stock shortages in the near-term, but even if that is the case it’s a significant departure from not only how SRAM has handled in the past, but also Shimano – which can see availability backlogs and delays stretching upwards of a year. An oft-discussed pain point of many in the bike industry.
As for my full in-depth review of the new AXS system, that’ll probably come later this spring, perhaps tied to some of the planned updates/announcements around the Sea Otter timeframe in April, as that might illuminate a bit more of the entire digital side of the ecosystem.
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