PICKING THE BEST GROUPSET FOR YOU AND YOUR ROAD BIKE
“Are you still riding that?” one of my training buddies asked me at the end of a long climbing ride, pointing to my 53/39 crankset. “You’re too old to be turning cranks that big. I moved to a 50/34 a long time ago.”
It was a humbling moment. Spartacus, the name I had given him for his steady and strong riding style, was essentially telling me it was time to grow up and open my eyes. Or, at least, it was time to acknowledge that I shouldn’t plan on riding the same way and with the same components forever.
While I was well aware of my age, I’d been subconsciously putting off a decision to upgrade my groupset for some time. Sure, I’ve changed out the bottom bracket before, replaced the chain many times, put on a new cassette every spring, had new cables run and the shifters and brakes tuned-up when needed. I thought I was keeping on top of things with my components.
But, when I upgraded my frame, I merely moved my still perfectly good, now couple generations old Dura-Ace components over to the new bike. I hadn’t thought much more was needed. I had a great bike, liked my components, and had gotten used to them.
Spartacus’ question motivated me to look into what was going on with groupsets – the shifting, braking and drivetrain components on my bike. What I learned, and what you should know, is that much has changed in the last several years. Eleven-speed groupsets were introduced a few years ago and are now pretty much standard on new performance road bikes. Electronic shifting is now in its second generation of consumer use and provides superior performance over traditional mechanical shifting. Disc brakes and hydraulic shifters are coming fast to road bikes and offer better and safer braking.
Taken together, these developments are game changers for road cyclists. They are more significant and will have a broader impact on road cycling than any other groupset innovations we’ve seen in many generations. They are for the better and there is no going back. You can continue maintaining what you have, but if your groupset is more than five years old or you plan to buy or build a new bike, you should really be open to buying a groupset that operates differently and performs better than the kind you may have been using.
For this review, I evaluated the top 2 tiers of mechanical groupsets and the electronic groupsets available from the 3 companies that have comprehensive offerings – 13 groupsets in all. Below, I’ll first tell you what criteria I used and recommend what you should buy and where you should buy it from stores with the best prices and good customer service. I’ll then get into the details – answer the key questions about groupsets, lay out what has and is changing about them and share my views on the sets from the leading manufacturers. You can also find links to good stores with the best prices for the recommended sets below my recommendations and in the right hand column, and for all Tier 1, 2 and 3 road bike groupsets at the end of this review.
As with the other reviews you’ll see on this site, I do them to be informed or ‘in the know’ about what gear to get next and where to get it and I share them with you in hopes we’ll all enjoy cycling more with the right gear.
If you are new to In The Know Cycling, welcome. I started this site for road cycling enthusiasts like you and me who want to know – but don’t have the time to do all the research, product and price comparisons to figure out – what gear you should get next and where you should get it. I bring a rider’s perspective; I’m not a member of the cycling media, don’t run ads on the site or go on bike company-paid new product introduction trips, have never been biased by working for a bike company or in a shop that only sells certain brands, and I buy or demo and return everything I test.
If you like what you read, you can save yourself time and money and support the site at the same time by clicking on and buying your cycling gear through the red store links or anything at all through these links at eBay Cycling and Amazon. The red store links take you directly to the listings for the gear I’ve evaluated, at stores that have that gear in stock, at the best prices, and have excellent customer satisfaction ratings. I update these links regularly by looking at over 60 stores I track that sell gear online. About half of these stores pay a small commission to the site when you buy through the links but I pick the stores based on price, stock and customer satisfaction, same as when I’m shopping for gear myself. There’s more on all of this at the about and support pages.
I’ve now spent many hours researching different groupsets, talking with product experts and experienced cyclists, pulling the nuggets out of expert reviews and user comments, riding different groupsets and trying to figure this all out and present it to you in a useful way. If you don’t feel I’ve got it right on some point or another or if you think I’ve overlooked something, please do let me know and I’ll dig into it. I plan to update this review as new products come out and more feedback – hopefully including yours – comes in on what’s out there.
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WHAT I RECOMMEND
For all In The Know Cycling reviews, I evaluate product-specific criteria in four groups – performance, design, quality and cost. The criteria that matter most in those categories for groupsets are:
Performance – Shifter responsiveness, predictability, speed, smoothness, and load management. Derailleur accuracy (chain moving to right location) and chain engagement. Brake modulation and smoothness or grab.
Design – Groupset weight, shifter and brake lever ergonomics, fit with your hand, throw distance, feedback (tactile, audible), multi-shift capacity, programmability, and component materials.
Quality – Component durability (how long before it wears out), reliability, service shop availability and experience, and product warranty.
Cost – Purchase price, cost of ownership and replacement cost.
Considering the range of options the road cycling enthusiast has in choosing a groupset, I’m recommending products in two categories: Best Performer and Best Value.
The Best Performer is selected independent of cost and based on the performance group criteria mentioned above. The Best Value considers both performance and cost criteria. Design shows up (or not) in performance so I don’t judge it alone. Two products with similar design parameters may perform similarly or very differently so the design is a means to an end. And quality is either a go or no go in my recommendations. I won’t recommend anything that doesn’t have an acceptable level of quality according my criteria but I’m not going to recommend something that has superior quality but under-performs or has higher costs. When two groupsets perform more or less the same, I do consider quality and cost criteria in recommending one as a Best Performer.
The Shimano Ultegra 6870 Di2 is my recommendation for the best performing groupset. As an electronic unit, it performs better than mechanical ones, is more enjoyable to ride, and requires less service. It will enable you to go faster than you would with the best mechanical groupset for reasons I describe in more detail later in this review. Updated in 2014 and as a second generation electronic groupset, the Ultegra Di2 brings the advances in electronic shifting technology, ergonomics, weight savings and even a hidden battery that are market leading.
Shimano Ultegra 6870 Di2 Groupset
Despite not being Shimano’s top-of-the-line Dura-Ace electronic groupset, the Ultegra Di2 performs the same as the esteemed leader of Shimano’s road groupset line and has carried forward all the innovations that came to the Dura-Ace Di2. It weighs a few hundred grams more than the Dura-Ace groupset but, unless you are a very fit and regular racer, you probably won’t notice that weight difference in your groupset like you would if it was in your rims. You will notice that the Ultegra 6870 Di2’s market price is half that of the Dura-Ace 9070 Di2 and the same or slightly less than the Dura-Ace 9000 mechanical gruppo. So for the same performance level, buy the less expensive set.
The Ultegra Di2 is also superior to Campagnolo EPS units. It has better auto trimming, it is more reliable, replacement parts and service centers are more available, and it costs less. You may prefer the design of the Di2 or EPS, but the design differences don’t affect the relative performance. SRAM, the only other complete groupset manufacturer, has not introduced an electronic groupset and appears to be at least a year away from doing so.
Groupsets and components from all the manufacturers are available from almost all outlets at significant discounts off the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) or recommended retail price (RRP). The stores listed below provide amongst the best prices I’ve found for this groupset in the most common size combinations and have the set in inventory. The links will take you directly to their groupset pages.
These same retailers will also have amongst the best prices for individual components if you only need a replacement or upgrade. You will usually receive your order within a week and without additional shipping or international costs for most orders to most countries.
If your budget doesn’t allow or you’ve decided not to invest the money needed to buy the best performing groupset, the Shimano Ultegra 6800 mechanical groupset is the best value Tier 1 or Tier 2 groupset you can buy. Also introduced this year, it has many of the benefits of the Ultegra 6870 Di2 (with mechanical instead of electronic shifters and derailleurs) while providing the technology and innovations that have ‘trickled down’ from Shimano’s top-of-the-line Dura-Ace mechanical groupset.
Shimano Ultegra 6800 Groupset
In fact, if you are on a 7800, 7900 or older series Dura-Ace, the Ultegra 6800 will be superior at half the price of what you paid for your old set. The Ultegra is 11 speed which allows you the option of choosing a cassette which makes climbing easier while making rear shifting smoother and the front derailleur has been elongated to make your front shifts easier and as well.
Campagnolo competes with its Athena and SRAM with its Force 22 mechanical groupsets against Ultegra. Both are very capable sets that you wouldn’t go wrong with and you may prefer for ergonomic reasons – the way they shift and the way your hands feel operating the shifters and brakes – though I think the design of any of these three are similar enough that you could quickly get comfortable with each of them.
The Athena and Force 22 weigh almost the same as an Ultegra, an amount that I argue would be indistinguishable on your rides. They are priced $50 to $150 more than Ultegra’s current market price of $700, £500 or €615. As the dominant player in the groupset market, Shimano has strong service and parts networks around the world and more regularly updates its product lines.
The Shimano Ultegra 6800 is new for 2014, the Force 22 came to market in 2013 and a new version of the Athena will be introduced in 2015. You will also find the Ultegra mechanical groupset on most new bikes priced between $2500 and $5000, what most cycling enthusiasts pay for a new ride. There’s a visual later in this post which shows what gruppos come on new bikes from the leading companies.
If you need to replace your current groupset and don’t plan to invest to upgrade your bike with higher performing wheels or an electronic groupset, the Ultegra 6800 is the best value play out there.
As above, these links will take you to the Ultegra listings from stores with the best current prices who also provide good customer service for this groupset and its components.
As of October 5, 2015
What components make up a groupset?
With the exception of you, your wheels and your pedals, today’s mechanical groupset is every piece of equipment on your bike that makes it go…and stop, specifically:
- Left and right shifters
- Front and rear derailleurs
- Left and right brake levers
- Front and rear brakes
- Cabling that connects brakes levers with brakes and shifters with derailleurs
- The ‘chainset’ (front chainrings, attached crank arms and bottom bracket that spans the two crank arms inside your bike. The chainset is often called a ‘crankset’ in the US)
- Cassette (rear set of ‘cogs’)
An electronic groupset includes everything in a mechanical one with wiring replacing the shifting cables and adding a junction box and battery to control and power the electronic shifters and derailleurs.
If you are buying a hydraulic rim brake or hydraulic disc brake equipped groupset, you change out the brake levers in the case of the former and both the levers and cantilever style brakes for disc brakes in the latter. (More about electronic groupsets and hydraulic and disc brakes in the section below about key developments.)
For every groupset, you select from amongst different component options to fit your bike frame and among specific components including cassettes and chainsets to suit the kind of riding you do (flat to mountainous), and your leg length and leg strength (or age, as Spartacus intimated). You also must have wheels whose rear hubs are compatible with your groupset (more on this later.)
A groupset used to include the front and rear wheel hubs, but those are now integrated with your wheelset. Also, some of the groupset companies also make wheels and pedals that share the same family name as the groupset but aren’t part of it and these and other companies make individual groupset components that work within a named groupset.
All of the components that make up the groupset are also sold individually. Only three companies – Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM sell complete groupsets. Other companies sell individual components, though mostly the drivetrain components like chainsets, chains and cassettes.
Lastly, and to provide a modest amount of culture to this rather dry section of the review, groupsets are often called ‘gruppos’ amongst cyclists around the world. Gruppos is Italian for ‘group’ and perhaps is used as an homage to the Italian bike maker Campagnolo or ‘Campag’ and ‘Campy’, where the modern groupset was first developed.
Why buy a groupset?
When you buy a new bike you are essentially selecting a frame and a groupset combination. Many road racing and endurance bikes are sold with the option of selecting between groupsets made by different manufacturers though most come with a unique combination.
Of course, if you are building a new road bike starting with your frame of choice, you can pick whichever groupset you want to fit your riding and budget objectives. This may be a second (or more) bike and your groupset choice may be influenced by wanting to stay with the same family of components you have now for service familiarity or parts considerations. Alternatively, you may want to go in a totally different direction if you plan to use this bike for different purposes, e.g. for winter riding, triathlons or cyclocross riding.
Finally, many people buy a groupset when they decide to replace or upgrade their existing one. Needing to regularly replace a worn-out chain or cassette, or even a derailleur every couple years like I’ve done shouldn’t prompt you to change your entire gruppo. On the other hand, when some combination of your shifters, brake levers, derailleurs and chainrings start to go after several years and many miles, it may be time (and cheaper) to change out the old gruppo for a new and updated one.
If your riding has changed – say you are incorporating more climbing and doing longer rides or you are doing more racing – you may also be prompted to get a new, higher performing or more suited groupset than the one that originally came on your bike. You may also want to change to one that incorporates some new technology, like electronic shifting or disc brakes (though disc brakes may require a frame change as well).
Replacing or upgrading your groupset can be a hard decision. You first have to decide that it’s time to give up on your existing set and chose among the new groupsets out there. To use a car analogy, when the wife and I started having kids, I had to first decide it was time to give up the two-seat rag top (or maybe I was told to?) and then I had to figure out whether a sedan, hatchback, SUV or minivan was next. Not easy!
How much should I expect to spend on a groupset?
In my review of the best all-around wheelsets, part of my characterization of the road cycling enthusiast was someone who initially spent between $2,500 and $5,000 for their bike. New road bikes in this price range are primarily distinguished by their frame design, frame and fork materials, and groupset. The wheels, handlebars, seat posts and saddles are typically basic and not on the same performance level as the frame. Many of us upgrade or change out some of these components immediately (e.g. seat and seat post) or over time (e.g. wheels) to fit our riding preferences or allow us to get the full potential out of the frame. Since most frames and forks on bikes in this range are carbon these days, the frame design and groupset are the key differentiators. The groupset has become so identified with the bike’s value in the consumer’s mind that it is often part of the bike model name, for example: Trek Madone 5.9C Red 22. (Red 22 is the top-tier mechanical groupset made by SRAM.) This is similar to the way some personal computers used to be sold, often with the ‘Intel Inside’ branding and chipset model called out prominently in the PC description and marketing.
In the chart I prepared above you can see the groupsets sold on many of the road bikes marketed to cycling enthusiasts from 14 of the world’s leading bike manufacturers. This is a relatively complete though not exhaustive list of bikes from these companies. For comparison purposes, I plotted bike prices using the 2014 manufacturer’s suggested retail prices (MSRP or RRP) though many can be purchased at prices below these levels depending on when and where you buy.
Note that bikes in the $2700 to $4200 price range are typically equipped with a Tier 2 mechanical groupset, mostly Shimano Ultegra ones. Only 8 of the 63 bikes charted selling between $2500 and $5000 have an electronic groupset installed on the bike, all being Ultegra Di2 and on bikes selling for $3500 or more. While you can buy a handful of new road bikes selling in the $4000 – $5000 range with Tier 1 groupsets, these gruppos go most frequently on high-end road racing, time trial, and triathlon frames selling well north of $5000.
Based on the best price you would pay today if you were to buy an Ultegra groupset separately (in the low $700 range), these components make up 15% to 25% of the bike’s MSRP across the range of bikes shown. Even if you assumed the bikes were discounted 10% or so, that would bring the groupsets in at the low to mid 20% range for most of the bikes shown. This seems like a bargain considering how important pedaling, shifting, and braking is to your performance and satisfaction and how significant the groupset is to the bike’s perceived value.
So with a better understanding of what’s on bikes like yours or those you may be considering, how much should you spend on a new gruppo to replace your worn out one or put on your new bike? Bottom line, I would suggest you plan to spend between $700 and $1500 on your next groupset.
I answered this question not only by considering groupsets – the current product lines, their true market prices, and the bikes they are going on – but also by considering the relationship of your groupset to your frame and wheelset choices. Most new bikes typically come with ‘stock wheels’ which typically perform below the potential of the frame and groupset. On bikes in $2500 to $5000 range, these wheels would cost $400 to $1000 if you were to buy them separately. This is slightly less on a percentage basis than the groupset’s portion of the price. If you are happy riding on these wheels, stay with the groupset in the Tier 2, $700 range like the Ultegra, a great value for the performance it delivers.
If, over-time or immediately, you are not satisfied with the performance of the wheels that came on your bike, you are not alone. Wheelsets are usually the first and most important upgrade you can make to you bike and riding performance. A good all-round wheelset (like those I recommend in the wheelset review mentioned above) are going to run between $1500 and $2500. If you are looking for that level of performance, I’d recommend you equal it by moving to an electronic groupset. New, a Tier 2 electronic groupset will cost you roughly $1500. Upgrading your existing Tier 2 mechanical groupset with the necessary electronic components (shifters, derailleurs, junction box, and batteries) will run you approximately $1100.
It’s also important to note that the groupset MSRPs or RRPs published by the manufacturers and listed by shops are fantasies. Most gruppos are sold broadly in the competitive market for 30%-40% off the MSRP and their prices are shown in the chart above. You can find links to the stores with the groupset prices below and, for recommended gear, in the right hand column.
Why does my bike and others I see for sale have a mix of components from different groupsets?
Some bikes are sold with mixed sets and groupset components made by different manufacturers. Indeed, my Specialized bike came with Shimano Dura-Ace shifters and brake levers, Shimano Ultegra brakes and cranks made by FSA. Many of the bikes sold by the larger manufacturers like Giant, Trek, Specialized and others mix components.
There are at least a few reasons for this. First, mixing components save bike companies money. These are usually a mix of perfectly good components and you don’t incur a big weight or performance penalty by mixing in less costly ones a tier down from the same or another company. I continue to buy Ultegra chains and cassettes for my bike even though it initially came with Dura-Ace ones because they cost a whole lot less and don’t add enough weight to make a difference to me. When I moved from a 53/39 to a 50/34 crank, I did change out the FSA crank with a Dura-Ace one to get better performance but I could have saved money going with another FSA one.
Secondly, while none of the companies that make bikes make complete groupsets, some make individual components themselves or have business relationships with manufacturers of individual components. For example, Trek owns Bontrager and you see a lot of Bonti brakes (and wheels) on Trek bikes. FSA cranks also show up on a lot of bikes made by different companies. While most companies that sell individual components rather than entire groupsets target the replacement or upgrade ‘aftermarket’, FSA’s appears to focus on the OEM market.
Lastly, many people probably don’t know what makes up a groupset or that they are getting mixed components in theirs. If they do, they aren’t bothered by it. Part of what leads to this may be the use of the term ‘drivetrain’ which most refer to when speaking of the combination of the chainset, chain and rear wheel cassette. These parts (another way to remember them is the ones that get lubed and greasy) are often thought of as a group unto themselves. Frankly, I’ve spoken with many mechanics who have different lists of what components are in a groupset so I’m not surprised that consumers or bike makers mix and match components within sets. Even Campagnolo uses the terms drivetrain and groupset interchangeably in their brochures.
The only reason I can think of for an enthusiast like me or you for buying a mixed set is to save money without being bothered about paying a weight penalty on the margins. So you can buy the shifters, brake levers, front and rear derailleurs from the higher tier set and the chainset, brakes, chains and cassettes from a lower tier one. Alternatively, if you are a real weight weenie and want to save a hundred or so grams on the margin, you can buy, for example, the meatier components like cranks, brakes, chains and cassettes from the lighter Tier 1 set to put into your new Tier 2 set and save a few hundred dollars over what you’d spend if you were to buy the entire Tier 1 set. The shifters, brake levers and derailleur performance in the top two tiers are not recognizably different to most cycling enthusiasts.
Will a shop install a gruppo I bought online? How much will I pay to get it installed?
Most shops of any decent size run their sales and service businesses separately. Smaller shops won’t typically stock groupsets or more costly components and know they can’t (nor should they try to) compete on Tier 1 or Tier 2 groupset pricing. They’ll order a set for you as a courtesy but you’ll pay well over market price for it. Also, most shop managers know that the profit and growth of their business is greater on the service side. They’ll be happy for the service business regardless if it is on a bike or components you bought elsewhere. The sales people should love to have you come in for service in the hopes that you’ll pick up something else you need while you are in the store.
Think of how things have changed in the automotive business. You don’t get dirty looks anymore when you bring a car you may have bought elsewhere in for service. They are thankful for the business and are thrilled that you come into their dealership for any reason. The bike industry is similar.
To install and set up your groupset, most shops will charge you between $100 and $200. Add $25-$40 more if your frame has ports for internal wiring. Also plan to replace your bar tape which will wrap over wires and or cables coming out of your shifters and brake levers. It shouldn’t cost you any more to install an electronic gruppo. You may get a slight discount in the product price or installation cost if you buy the groupset at a shop, though the cost to buy the set there in the first place will probably be well above what you could get from an online retailer. So, I suspect you will still be may be paying more from the shop in total than you need to if you buy your groupset there. You shouldn’t get charged extra to install the groupset you bought outside the shop and you shouldn’t get charged for removing your current set off your bike.
What are the key developments that might affect my selection of a groupset?
There are 3 major developments that have or will change groupsets as we knew them. First, and I think most significant is the introduction of electronic groupsets. When you push your shift lever or button, these sets use servo motors inside the derailleurs to electronically move your front or rear derailleur and chain to the gear setting you desire. The brakes are still operated mechanically.
Wires run from your shifters and derailleurs to a junction box and replace the cables that used to run between them. The unit is powered by a lithium battery that either goes inside your seat post or is hung elsewhere on your bike. The battery only needs to be recharged every 1500 to 2000 miles. Amazingly, an electronic groupset weighs about the same or slightly less than its mechanical version. The components in the groupset that don’t relate to shifting remain the same. Simon Crisp, a prototypical cycling enthusiast living in the UK, posted an excellent long-term review describing his experience setting up and riding Campag’s EPS groupset over this past winter. Chapeau Simon.
Electronic groupsets have been available in the commercial marketplace for over 5 years, been through a couple of generations already and are used by most of the riders on the pro circuit. Shimano was out with theirs first. Campagnolo reportedly had theirs under development for 20 years and followed Shimano shortly after the later entered the market.
The third complete groupset manufacturer, SRAM, first publicly resisted developing an electronic groupset and extolled what it stated were the relative benefits of mechanical groupsets. They lost half of their pro sponsorships in a couple of years and considerable market standing by taking that position. They’ve apparently changed their stance and began testing their first electronic units on the pro road circuit at the Tour of California in May. They appear to be upping the ante by going with a wireless design, likely to be released to the consumer market in 2016.
Shimano and Campagnolo are already producing electronic groupset versions for their Tier 1 and Tier 2 groupsets. For the 2015 model year, Campy recently announced the addition of its third Tier 1 electronic groupset model (Chorus EPS) and will stop making one for their Tier 2 model (Athena EPS).
Bottom line, electronic groupsets are the future but they are also the present. They are here, they work and are winners with pros and enthusiasts like me and you. Why? They out-perform mechanical sets in many significant ways and make you a better, faster, happier rider. They are hassle-free and their cost of ownership is minimal. Their design offers far more features than mechanicals. Their initial purchase cost is 2x what you pay for a mechanical set in the same tier which amounts to $700 or so more on an Ultegra gruppo. This is not a lot when considering all the performance, design and service benefits your get. And, the Tier 2 electronic groupsets now cost the same or less than the Tier 1 mechanical ones.
I’ve summarized the pros and cons of electronic and mechanical shift technology in the chart above. While hopefully self-explanatory, a few points are worth emphasizing. First, with an electronic groupset, every shift ends up putting the chain precisely where it should go. You don’t need to hope that the chain gets there or trim it when the derailleur undershoots or overshoots. Second, no matter how much load you have on the chain when you are pedaling full-out up a hill or in a pull or during a sprint or in whatever ring and cog combination, there is no added resistance or rubbing during the shift. (See a summary of the wattage gains from these and related drivetrain efficiencies here.) Third, there is no need to adjust the derailleurs as your do with mechanical shifters when your new cable stretches, as it picks up road grime over time, or when you as your chain extends over its life.
A fellow enthusiast summarized it well on a user forum:
“The best thing about it (electronic shifting) is simply the removal of all the problems of mechanical groupsets – the uncertainty, the chain rub, and the lack of smoothness and the fact you had to fight the things sometimes.”
A fellow cycling enthusiast blogger at Riding Against The Grain wrote:
“The other advantage of the Di2? If if needs adjustment, all you have to do is press the little inline trim button by the brifter (the integrated brake lever and shifter – ed.). No stopping to turn the barrel adjuster. No trying to remember which way to turn it. No worrying about running out of adjustment or cable tension. Just press the button.”
Because electronic shifters do exactly what you want when you want it, you can shift with complete confidence not having to worry about the right conditions or time to shift. You merely shift when you want to whatever gear you want. You don’t lose a revolution or have a skip in tension between shifts. You no longer spend time grinding the big gear at a lower than desired cadence to avoid a bad shift.
With this performance and the confidence it provides, experienced riders say they shift more often to keep the cadence they want and the power that goes with it. On this point, Jered Gruber of Peloton magazine writes the following about his change in shifting habits after adopting a first generation, 10-speed Di2 unit:
“Interestingly, I shift roughly twice as much as I do with mechanical systems. I don’t know quite what it is, but I shift a lot more, and because I shift a lot more, I always seem to be in a better gear. Call me lazy, but I will often just stay in a gear for the simple fact that I don’t feel like shifting. I’ve been cured of that habit with Di2 – shifting is a button click. It’s so easy, even the laziest of shifters (me) actually utilizes the wonderful world of twenty different gears.”
Electronic shifting will improve your ability to make better transitions as the road turns up or down and enable you to more smoothly keep up with the changes in pace ahead of you. You will ride more consistently and efficiently, translate more of your energy to the cranks, and go longer, harder and faster.
As one service tech who rides an electronic groupset put it to me simply “they are like night and day”.
In one of his columns for Slowtwitch, Greg Kopecky listed the questions he hears all the time about electronic shifting. You can read Greg’s answers for yourself but my answers to his questions below are as black and white as was the night and day characterization of the service tech.
Greg: Is it really the best thing ever?
Steve: Yes, it is the best thing to come to shifting and just a hair below the best thing since sliced bread.
G: Is it totally unnecessary?
S: No, it is totally necessary, if you want to ride faster that is.
G: Is it worth the money?
S: Yes, it will more than pay for itself by avoiding the hassle of regularly changing out cables and adjusting derailleurs.
G: Will the price ever come down?
S: Yes, it already has as seen by electronic shifting showing up on Tier 2 groupsets which sell for the same or less than Tier 1 mechanicals.
G: Will mechanical shifting completely die? Is it only a matter of time?
S: I think so. Electronic shifting will increasingly be seen on road enthusiasts bikes over the next 3-5 years at which point mechanical shifting will only be available on < $2500 bikes and specialty/novelty bikes costing more than that.
As you can see, I am convinced. Simply put, I recommend your next groupset be an electronic one.
The second major development in the last several years is the move from 10 to 11-speed group sets (or if you wish to be literally correct as SRAM is making a point to do in their product names and marketing, moving from 20 to 22 speeds). Where electronic shifting is a revolutionary change, this is more of an evolutionary one.
By going from 10 to 11 speeds you can either make your shifting smoother or extend the versatility of your cassette. First, that 11th cog on a typical cassette can be added into the middle of the cog stack to give a smoother gearing transition between shifts. This usually comes from adding a 16-tooth gear that doesn’t exist on 10 speed cassettes in between the 15 and 17-tooth ones on the typical 11-25 10-speed cassettes. Alternatively, you can put on a rear cassette with that 11th cog as the last one (either a 28 or 32-tooth cog) to give you that extra shift you often wish you had on the steepest climbs without taking anything away from your speed on the flats (from the 11-tooth cog) or pushing you toward a triple-ring crankset.
Perhaps the most important thing to know is that all new model Tier 1 and Tier 2 groupsets sold now are 11-speed ones. You will still be able to get 10 speed replacement components for several years. Any new all-round or event wheels you buy will be designed for 11 speeds but you can put an adapter ring in to make them work with your 10 speed gruppo.
The final development is the introduction of hydraulic and disc braking systems. While you can buy hydraulic brake levers to use with rim brakes and use mechanical levers on disc brakes, hydraulic brake levers and disc brakes are ultimately made for each other.
Hydraulic brakes provide superior ‘modulation’ or a more consistent force applied to the brake surface. Disc brakes, in turn, provide a far better braking surface than carbon brake tracks used on all-carbon all-round and aero wheels, reducing the braking distance and eliminating the possibility that the carbon wheels will overheat and blow out the tire or warp the rim and ruin the wheel.
While available to road bikes now, cyclocross bikes have become the proving ground for hydraulic and disc brake systems. (Mountain bikes have used disc brakes for many years.) Considering the environmental conditions that cyclocross riders experience, there is a far greater demand for better performing brake systems in the cross world currently than in the road bike market.
Hydraulic and disc brakes are coming to road bikes however, and for a couple basic reasons. First, despite significant improvement over many generations, rim brakes on all-carbon wheels still don’t perform as well as aluminum rim or disc brake bikes on long descents and on wet roads. Further, the all-carbon bike rim surfaces degrade over time and along with it, both dry and wet braking performance drops as well.
Second, the development cost for hydraulic disc brakes is being spread over several segments that are among the healthiest and fastest growing in the cycling business (mountain and cyclocross). It will not require much additional effort to bring this technology across to the road bike world. Indeed Shimano has been out front in introducing hydraulic and disc brake systems to the road market and SRAM is attempting to recapture its credibility in the road groupset market by just now re-introducing its hydraulic levering system after a costly recall.
Several things need to happen before hydraulic and disc brakes advance much further on road bikes. First, the International Cycling Union (or UCI) that governs the pro cycling circuit must approve them for pro riders and those riders must use them in races and establish their confidence in the technology. From what I read, UCI approval is a season or two away. While I do think consumers are ahead of the pros on disc brakes now, a certain tipping point occurs with manufacturers and enthusiasts like me and you when the pros buy in.
Secondly, more road frames that are built with the wider dimensions required by disc brakes must come to the market. They are coming slowly now but I think more will be available over the next couple of years. The wheelsets are already there and selling into the cyclocross market.
Finally, manufacturers need to coalesce around some standards, for example around the diameter of the discs. Another generation or two is needed to reduce the current 300-400g weight penalty of hydraulic disc brake systems and an estimated further 300g weight penalty for road frames and sturdier wheels that work with disc brakes. The weight and cost of this technology must come down for it to be accepted in the market by racers and enthusiasts, as it has in the case of other recent technology developments in the road cycling industry including electronic shifting and all-carbon wheels.
And even with all this, which I expect to take a couple of years in the best case, I think we’ll see hydraulic and disc brake systems become an option rather than the standard in the $2500-$5000 bike, far different from the way I see electronic shifting become the standard on bikes sold in that price range. The continued acceptance by road cycling enthusiasts of the inferior braking performance of all-carbon wheels tells me that not enough of us are riding in conditions that require better braking performance to cause hydraulics and disc brakes take over the market.
I’ll keep an eye on the hydraulic disc brake systems developments and post an update as the picture comes into better focus. If you are thinking about getting a new bike or frame in the next couple of years however, and you do a fair amount of climbing (and descending) or ride in wet or cold weather, both conditions that would favor a hydraulic disc brake set up, you should continue to watch these developments closely.
What did your groupset evaluations show?
You can hear and read a lot about the different histories, personalities and nationalities of Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM, the only complete road bike groupset manufacturers. It makes for good story telling, great branding and strong loyalties but can influence your view of each company’s groupsets and your own buying decision if you let it. In evaluating groupsets, I’ve set that stuff aside and kept my evaluation focused on each set’s performance, design, service and cost criteria as detailed above.
Perhaps more than any other major segment of road cycling, the top tiers of each manufacturer’s groupset lines are tightly integrated. Technology, design and much of the performance in each set ‘trickle down’ from tier to tier within the same or next model introduction. So, for example, Shimano goes to 11 speeds in its Tier 1 Dura-Ace model in 2013, in its Tier 2 Ultegra in 2014, and in its Tier 3 105 for 2015. Changes in the design and feel of the integrated shifter and brake levers, of the action of the shifters, of the length of the rear derailleur cage, of the brake aerodynamics, of the materials, etc. all follow from one tier to the next, often more closely than the Shimano example. Campagnolo’s newly announced 2015 model year mechanical groupsets incorporate many of the same changes across several lines at the same time. Same occurred with SRAM’s Red and Force introductions in 2013. And in one example of ‘trickle up’, Shimano’s second iteration of Di2 was actually available on Ultegra a year before it appeared on Dura-Ace, perhaps to bring their latest advances in electronic shifting developments to the larger Tier 2 market first, where it would likely have a better return from higher volume sales than that available from their pricier Dura-Ace groupset.
The major differences that exist between tiers within a company’s groupset line are the materials used and the prices charged. Carbon, titanium, and some aluminum alloy are used in Tier 1 gruppos, mostly aluminum and some carbon in Tier 2, and aluminum and steel in Tier 3. This creates weight and price differences that are greatest between Tier 1 and 2 and less so between tier 2 and tier 3. But, performance differences are almost indistinguishable. In fact, after evaluating Campagnolo’s three electronic groupsets, whose market prices I have found drop roughly from $4000 to $3000 to $2000 for the Super Record EPS, Record EPS and Athena EPS models respectively, Leonard Zinn, VeloNews’ longtime technical writer commented:
“Athena EPS provides the same snappy, accurate shifting (with overshift and return over the gear as well as auto-trim with chain angle) and whirring sound of the 12,000-16,000-RPM servo motors as Record and Super Record EPS. It also offers the same great ergonomics and hassle-free function in the cold, even with thick gloves, as its predecessors. The feel of the shifters with the “MultiDome” layers of domed spring steel under the lever is also the same. The entire Athena EPS group with aluminum Power Torque cranks weighs 2452 grams (using the Athena carbon Power Torque cranks cuts another 100 or so grams off its weight). Compare that to 2098 grams for Super Record EPS and 2184 grams for Record EPS. And there simply is no difference in performance.”
The same goes for Shimano, whose current Tier 1 Dura-Ace Di2’s market price of roughly $3000 is more than double its Ultegra Di2 $1400 price but whose first generation electronic shifters performed the same (as I think the second generation do as well) and better than the mechanical ones, according to James Huang who reviewed them for Bike Radar and wrote:
“Swap between a Dura-Ace Di2 bike and an Ultegra Di2 bike blindfolded and there’s no performance distinction between the two. Rear shifts are again remarkably smooth, quiet and precise – and substantially quicker than Shimano’s mechanical groups if you factor in lever travel. Front shifts are simply awe-inspiring on account of the powerful front derailleur motor, the clever stepped movement, and the ultra-stiff crankarm and chainring design.”
As far as performance of Tier 1 and 2 mechanical groupsets goes, the good news is that they all work well and have little to separate them along this evaluation dimension. Further, the mechanical parts of groupsets are mature technology. This is very different from, for example, all-carbon wheelsets makers who have recently introduced major innovations in rim profiles to improve direct and cross wind aerodynamics and begun adopting aerospace-grade resin materials to better distribute the heat generated from braking. There are major performance gains to see from these and coming developments in wheelsets.
While electronic shifting in gruppos from Campagnolo and Shimano has only a couple of generations of commercial experience, they already provide superior performance to long-established mechanical shifting. Electronic shifters allow you to measurably perform better (e.g., your shifting efficiency, energy transfer and bike speed will all improve) as described earlier in this review.
Bottom line, the ‘road cycling enthusiast’ will get exceptional performance from any of the Tier 1 or Tier 2 electronic groupset and very good performance from mechanical ones. The choice between them comes down to some combination of your personal design preferences, quality considerations, and your cost/performance trade-off calculation.
The three different groupset lines are designed to operate differently, principally in how they execute a shift. For mechanical shifters, you push a SRAM shift paddle with your finger a little to move the chain to a smaller cog or chainring and push it further to go down to a larger one. You shift up to a higher (more difficult) gear on a finger paddle and down to a lower (easier) one with a thumb switch to shift a Campy equipped bike. Shimano users finger the shift paddle into move to a smaller cog or ring and the brake lever sideways to move to a larger one. They all have slightly different distances you have to push the paddles to get the shift to actuate and have slightly more or less tactile and audible feedback. But, again, they all perform well and I think you can easily and quickly get used to the way any of these are designed to operate after a few hours. The differences in design don’t lead to performance differences.
Further, the designs appear to be increasingly converging. Campagnolo 2015 model groupset designs will have a 4-arm spider crank, similar to the one Shimano uses. Its front derailleurs will have longer arms, similar to Shimano’s Dura-Ace, to increase leverage and make shifting up to the big ring easier.
Not to pick on any one company, note that SRAM’s DoubleTap shifting mechanism that was so successful in distinguishing the company from its competitors when SRAM first entered the road groupset market has been designed out of their new electronic shifter design, according to an excellent analysis done by Bike Radar. And of course Shimano then SRAM followed Campy’s lead into 11 speeds and Campy and now SRAM are following Shimano into electronic.
As you can see then, groupset designers are not wedded to their unique designs. You shouldn’t be either.
Electronic shifting is programmable so you can pretty much set up the shifting how you like. You can decide, for example whether you want the right or left hand to control each derailleur or the number of gears to skip up or down while holding the shift paddle.
Because of their design and material choices, groupset weights vary… but only slightly and I would argue imperceptibly to all but the most fit racers among us. Tier 1 groupsets are approximately 200-300g lighter than their Tier 2 brethren but electronic and mechanical models of the same groupsets weigh about the same. SRAM and Campagnolo each claim to be the lightest but looking across figures of all three companies shows their groupsets are all within 150gs of each other and usually less for a given tier.
Similar to wheelsets, it’s hard to tell the whether the component weights claimed by manufacturers are the actual weights of the components you put on your bike. I’ve spent a few hours trying to sort through claimed versus actual weights by going over company releases and weights measured by reviewers who put components on their scales but, unfortunately they don’t line up.
Do the amount of weight differences between groupsets we’re talking about even matter? On a wheelset where you are spinning the weight, you will notice a weight difference starting at 150-200g (5 to 7 ounces) when you are accelerating. This is ‘rotational mass’ and really, it’s the weight in the rotating rim rather than the hub that matters the most. If it is non-rotational or ‘dead weight’, like the weight of most of your components, I don’t believe you will notice a couple hundred grams of weight difference.
Don’t agree? Still pondering doubling your spending to buy a Tier 1 over a Tier 2 groupset or buying one brand over another because of small weight differences? Well then, tell me whether you answer yes to any of these questions. Are you measuring how many ounces of food you are taking in at each of your meals? Do you know how much weight you are adding by carrying a second water bottle? Do you know how much the bars and gels weigh that you are stuff in your jersey pocket? Could you afford to drop a few kilos or pounds (or more)? Sorry, that last question was a low blow.
If you answered yes to only the last question, well then work on your own weight first, forget about the added grams of a Tier 2 gruppo or the 50 or 100g claimed weight difference between Brand X and Brand Y, and put that extra money back in your jersey pocket (paper is light) or into an electronic gruppo or a better wheelset.
Ergonomics are probably the most significant design difference between groupsets. While the latest generation of all these groupsets now fit hands large and small (earlier ones didn’t always), you may want to go to a shop and wrap your hands around different front shifters and brake levers to make sure you aren’t uncomfortable with any of them.
Another design difference – Campy electronic shifters have the tactile feel and audible sound of their mechanical shifters. Shimano’s Di2 has a more electronic feel and sound, which means not much of either. This is in line with the quiet shifting of their mechanical units.
People I’ve spoken with who have switched from mechanical to electronic gruppos and who aren’t romantic about the past are perfectly fine with less tactile resistance and hushed click sounds. Some people prefer not to broadcast to riders around them that they shifting up or down when they are in the bunch while others absolutely want the decisive feel and sound that confirms their shifting action.
This argument about the feel and sound of electronic shifting makes for good copy. Bike Radar’s respected tech writer James Huang is a somewhat cynical fan of strong tactile feedback. Reviewing Campagnolo’s electronic shifters, he wrote:
“Lever feedback is heaps better than Di2 – Campagnolo have done an excellent job of convincing your fingers that you’re actually doing something when you press a lever. Lever throws are very short but significantly longer than Di2 and you can feel the click-through your fingers when you’ve hit the switch – a good thing since the audible click is pretty easily drowned out by wind and road noise.”
Bicycling magazine’ reviewer says the electronic groupsets from Campy and Shimano match the shifting feedback characteristics of their mechanical ones:
“Remarkably, the transition to electric shifting has not changed the signature qualities of Campagnolo shifting. Just like Di2 shifting is unmistakably Shimano—all smoothness and silk with hardly a vibration or noise except for the whine of the front derailleur—Campagnolo EPS cracks and snorts as it fires off shifts, with the aftermath of a completed shift echoing through the frame. Precise and solid, yes; quiet, no. Solid kuh-thunks sound as you drop into higher gears and chick-chick-chicks as a lower gear is selected.”
The writers at the leading biking magazines do point out design differences between products, but then say almost none of them are significant to the performance of the groupset. It’s as if they have to make these distinctions – it’s their job and I personally appreciate their professionalism – but at the same time it’s as if they don’t want any single factor or combination of them to affect your decision. A great example of this comes from Caley Freetz, the VeloNews tech reporter who wrote the following when he reviewed the first generation Ultegra Di2 in 2012, comparing it to the earlier introduced Dura-Ace Di2 model.
Rear shifting is equally snappy and predictable. Here, though, the system does lose a bit to Dura-Ace Di2. It’s slightly louder, and dropping the chain down a cog feels less refined. When under sprint loads, each gear clunks rather than slides into place, as they do with DADi2. Regular shifts, under regular loads, are indiscernible from Dura-Ace.
Our guess is that a combination of increased flex in the rear derailleur and a less refined motor are the cause. Still, these are nitpicks — the rear shifting is still phenomenal (my emphasis.)
I’ve taken ah lot of your time writing about the electronic groupsets design because that is where most of the innovation has been in the last few years. While groupsets have moved to 11 speeds, the mechanical parts of the all groupsets and the mechanical shifters and derailleurs have seen notable but slower and more evolutionary changes in their design and performance compared with the introduction of electronic components.
The new Super Record, Record and Chorus mechanical models that Campagnolo just announced for 2015 bikes are the first updates in those lines in four years. I noted the key changes they revealed just a couple of paragraphs into the design section of this review.
Shimano began their latest round of mechanical set updates with their Dura-Ace 9000 line in 2013. The components are lighter, the ‘brifters’ (integrated brake levers and shifters) are more compact and have a shorter throw, the rear derailleur runs closer to the chain and front derailleur has a longer arm all compared to the prior version. All of this results in less shifting effort and better, smoother braking power, measurably so according to Shimano and noticeably so according to independent reviewers and fellow riders who have put many miles on it.
With the Dura-Ace 9000, Shimano also moved to the 11-speed design Campagnolo introduced in 2009 and gives you the option of wider range cogsets (up to 11-28 or 12-28, these numbers referring to the number of teeth in the smallest and largest cogs that make up the rear cassette). Putting an extra cog in the set (from 10 to 11 which gets you the 11th speed) allows your rear shifts to be smoother and more linear especially when the chain is running between gears in the middle range of the cassette. Providing wider range cogsets gives you a better chance to keep your cadence up on the steeps by giving you that extra cog with 28 teeth in it, much easier to turn than one with 25 that was the largest available on the 11-25 tooth 10-speed cogsets.
Shimano also cut weight by going to a four versus five arm crank and hollowing out the arms.
Most of these design changes have been carried forward into the new Shimano Ultegra 6800 line that came to market in 2014 and will show up in the new 105 5800 model for 2015. Ultegra added the option of an even wider range 11-32 cogset (only necessary if you regularly climb >10% grades and don’t want to get a third ‘granny gear’ ring). This cogset also requires a longer rear derailleur which they now offer. Both are available to trickle up to the current Dura-Ace set and down to the Tier 3 105s next year and make Shimano competitive with SRAM’s WiFli 11-32 equivalent, out for a year now.
SRAM make the Tier 1 Red 22, Tier 2 Force 22 and will make available the new Tier 3 Rival 22 later this year. In their most recent groupset updates, they went to 11 speeds in their Red and Force products in 2013. The Red 22 was introduced just 11 months after 10-speed 2012 Red came out, the latter a completely revamped design over the prior model that was then over 4 years old. Unfortunately, moving to the 11-speed Red 22 so soon after the long-awaited 10-speed upgrade really annoyed some people who had purchased the new 10-speed model. You may enjoy reading a funny, tongue-in-cheek rant (or at least I think it was intended that way) on SRAM and by extension the whole cycling industry on this topic here. Note that SRAM continues to sell the 10-speed Red and Force versions whereas Campy and Shimano no longer sell 10-speed Tier 1 or Tier 2, and soon Tier 3, sets.
The 2012 Red changes had major improvements to their components that continued in their Red 22 Tier 1 groupset, most notably a unique front derailleur technology (‘Yaw’) which made cross chain riding possible without chain rub. For 2013, Force 22 incorporated all of the developments brought to 2012 Red and the 11-speed design. Branding both models ‘22’ made the point that all front and rear gear combinations are perfectly suitable to ride without the compromise of chain rubbing and all the pedaling efficiency losses that go with it, something that electronic groupsets now handle without compromise.
SRAM’s groupsets are well-regarded by many cycling enthusiasts and independent writers. Its relatively light weight, DoubleTap and Yaw front derailleur innovations are frequently mentioned as design pluses that made these standout gruppos when first introduced. But, Yaw was mentioned by both Bike Radar and VeloNews writers as a difficult component to set-up and adjust in otherwise very positive reviews. When not adjusted properly, you will get chain rub and there is no trimming mechanism to overcome it. I’ve heard similar concerns about the need to set up the brakes just right on the new 22 models. My suggestion – if you aren’t handy or have a shop near you that you are confident can deal with fussy adjustments, you might want to steer clear of these groupsets.
The Force 22 update comes six years after the last Force model (which was SRAM’s first road groupset) and includes all the technology and updates made on the Red 22. This makes for a dramatic design and performance improvement over the older model though despite a few grams weight advantage (and a hundred-dollar cost disadvantage), it’s hard to find a reason to recommend it over the other Tier 2 sets, Shimano’s Ultegra and Campagnolo’s Athena, unless you prefer their DoubleTap system and the feel of their hoods. On the other hand, if you do a lot of riding with gloves on in the colder months … may the Force be with you … as it has been for Feed The Habit’s Jason Mitchell.
As part of its 2013 Red 22 introduction, SRAM was first to the market with hydraulic road brakes for both rims and discs in addition to their regular mechanical lever brakes. Unfortunately, the design and manufacturing of the hydraulic levers had problems and all 19,000 units sold were recalled. SRAM is just now coming back to the market with a new design. The attention they’ve given to being first out with their hydraulic road brakes and then having to redesign them under the pressure of a recall as well as their efforts to catch up with two generations of Shimano and Campagnolo’s electronic groupsets have likely prevented them from introducing significant new mechanical groupset innovations since the 2012 Red.
Fortunately for SRAM, their previous developments including the DoubleTap shifting and Yaw front derailleur technology along with their ability to consistently design components that are lighter than Shimano’s and as light if not lighter than Campy’s has enabled them to have very competitive mechanical groupsets in the market. That and the fact that mechanical groupset technology is, as mentioned earlier, mature, converging and innovating slowly, keeps SRAM’s in the game.
It’s also important that you know that the designs of the 11-speed cogsets and chains of all three manufacturers are now compatible with any 11-speed wheel. You can read the results of the test Lennard Zinn of VeloNews did to confirm this. Compatibility wasn’t the case during the age of 10 speeds when Campy and Shimano required different rear wheel freehubs that aligned with their groupsets. SRAM’s components were compatible with Shimano.
Note that a Campagnolo wheel with 9 or 10-speed freewheel body can be used on an 11-speed groupset. However, 10-speed wheels built for a 10-speed Shimano or SRAM cassettes have freehub bodies that are too short for 11-speed cassettes, with the exception of Mavic wheels with M10 freehub bodies. So if you have a 10-speed Shimano or SRAM compatible wheel, you either need to redish it – which isn’t always easy and doesn’t always work out as simply as it does in the video – or try to sell it and get an 11-speed one.
Going to a newer generation mechanical groupset may improve your performance incrementally depending on the amount of change between your last one and new one. Even if your old set has been well maintained, shifting should be a little easier (especially if you are moving from 10 to 11 speeds), braking a little better, weight a little less, and gearing options a little greater with a new one. If you regularly ride on rolling terrain, do climbing rides or are getting older, you will notice an improvement in your ability to do it all by changing out from a 53/39 to a 50/34 and from an 11-25 to a 11-28. I have.
Of course, you certainly will notice a performance difference if you replace your old, worn out set with a new one. Make sure it’s a combination of components that are worn before you get a new set. If the shifters and brakes are in fine shape and all you really need is a new chain or cassette, just replace them and save yourself some money by not buying the rest.
If you are ready for a new set, you may wonder whether selecting between current 11-speed Campy, Shimano or SRAM mechanical groupset designs will give you relatively better performance. In my evaluation, designs of these groupsets may drive preference but they don’t drive a performance difference. The ergonomic differences may affect the comfort of your hands or the voice inside your head and result in a happier rider. But, I’m not sure it will allow you to go faster even if you are happier. A move to electronic shifting, even if you are an efficient, experienced mechanical gear shifting maven, will enable you to go faster.
Generally speaking, mechanical groupset components are durable. Shifters, derailleurs, brake levers, brake calipers, chainsets – essentially everything in a mechanical groupset except your chain, cassette and cables – are designed to and do last many years past their warranty period. Riding your bike 2,000 to 5,000 miles per year as most road cycling enthusiasts do should easily ensure you 5 years of trouble-free riding on Tier 1 or 2 mechanical groupsets. Most problems come about from allowing road dirt to build up and from a lack of regular service (minimally once every 5,000 miles). Fortunately, most issues can be addressed with cleaning, lubricating and adjusting. So, wash and tune-up your bike and you’ll avoid most issues. If you are a serious cyclist, there’s no excuse to not take care of your machine.
Campagnolo owners speak about their ability to rebuild any component. Their mechanicals are built to last a lifetime and be torn down and rebuilt as needed. Shimano and SRAM components are not built to that standard (and likely cost less because of it), but I’m not aware of any issues that suggest their parts require more frequent repairs or replacement within the reasonable life of the groupset.
Materials and workmanship warranties span 3 years for Campagnolo components, 4 for an entire 11-speed groupset. Shimano offers a 3-year warranty on its Dura-Ace line and 2 years on its other groupsets. SRAM groupsets are covered by a 2 year warranty. All of these warranties apply only to the original purchaser who has his receipt.
Campagnolo EPS and Shimano Di2 groupsets have been on the market for only a handful of years. I’m aware however of no reported systematic manufacturing defects reported in these units. While happy customers usually don’t take to user forums to heap praise on the reliability of their units, unhappy ones do speak out when they have problems. My unscientific scan of several user forums do show many instances of users returning their EPS units for making unpredictable gear changes and then ceasing to change at all. Replacing the units has taken between 3 and 4 weeks. I’ve seen no user forum comments about Di2 reliability. This doesn’t mean that Di2s don’t have issues or have fewer issues than EPS. It just means that I’m not aware of them.
SRAM has had issues with their hydraulic brake levers and proper set-up and adjustment of their Yaw front derailleurs. I mentioned these above. The brake lever issues are certainly black marks on an otherwise well-regarded company that built its reputation and product experience on the more reliability-challenged mountain bike circuit.
Anecdotal discussions with service shops suggest that Shimano products are generally reliable.
Campagnolo’s new groupsets tend to come out less frequently and be less market driven than Shimano’s. They were first to the market with 11-speed when no one else thought the market needed it. The others saw its value and followed. On the other hand, Campy came to the market with electronic shifting after Shimano did despite having worked on it, they claim for 20 years.
Shimano introduces road groupsets more frequently than Campy or SRAM. Some users have accused them of planned obsolescence though each introduction appears to attempt significant rather than incremental improvements over the prior one. It also tends to space out its introductions between tiers more so than the others, both of whose top two or three groupset lines are getting simultaneous upgrades. I don’t see any of these product life cycle management strategies reflecting positively or negatively on any of the companies.
Shimano is a huge company in the cycling industry and has over 10 times the worldwide cycling revenue of Campagnolo, both of which make other cycling products, notably wheelsets. The US market is less than 20% of Campy’s overall revenue and their full-time US employee base numbers in the single digits. SRAM is larger overall than Campagnolo, larger in the US (though likely smaller in Europe), and larger in road groupsets even though it has been in the road groupset market since only 2008. SRAM also has a large mountain bike business, owns Zipp and Quark along with several other mountain-bike focused cycling brands.
Why do I go through all of this? Service is an important criterion in the quality category evaluation. Much as I admire Campagnolo’s products, fewer sales and direct employees can translate to a smaller number of service shops, fewer trained repairmen, slower roll-out of service training for new groupsets, and few parts available through a smaller distribution network. If you live in the US, you should thoroughly examine how many qualified service shops (not dealers) Campagnolo has near where you ride, what training their shop techs have had, and how experienced they are installing and servicing the groupset you are interested in. You should also ask how long it takes to get key replacement parts (for example, a derailleur or electronic control module) before buying a Campy groupset. Same goes for SRAM’s road cycling products outside the US. I would still check but would be less concerned about Shimano since they are the dominant groupset supplier in most markets.
As you can see from the earlier chart of Groupset Models and US Market Prices, Shimano groupsets are currently less expensive than SRAM’s or Campagnolo’s, which are roughly equivalent across all three top tiers. The differences are at least
– Tier 1 electronic: $300 or 10%
– Tier 1 mechanical: $250 or 18%
– Tier 2 electronic: $300 or 21%
– Tier 2 mechanical: $50 to $150 or 7% to 17%
– Tier 3 mechanical: $50 to $75 or 9% to 13%
These are not insignificant differences in the electronic and Tier 1 mechanical sets and should add into your decision, and did into my evaluation, though not dominate it.
For groupsets, the purchase price is obviously a key factor in evaluating the product cost. But because some of the components in a groupset wear and need to be replaced and others need to be periodically tuned, the cost of ownership after the initial purchase must be considered. You should plan to periodically replace out your chains, cassettes, brake pads (same) and cables (same). Depending how much and how your ride, expect to spend a $100 to $200 a year plus service charges to replace these, more for Campy parts than those from the others.
New cables stretch in the first couple hundred miles of use and mechanical derailleurs and rim brakes need to be tuned periodically as cables and components are affected by operating and environmental use. You can have this done as part of an annual service visit for a $100 or so or do it yourself.
Your shifters, derailleurs, brake levers, brake calipers, cranks, front rings, junction box and wires should hold up fine over the life of a good groupset like those I’ve evaluated for this review, though if you take a fall and damage one of these, you may need to replace it. Shimano seemed to be conscious of this when they designed their electronic derailleurs which somehow are supposed to get out-of-the-way if they sense contact.
Some cycling enthusiasts are good with a wrench and can significantly reduce their cost of ownership by maintaining their own groupset. For those used to going to the shop, the trips to replace and tune your components can add up in both money and time. I’m always adding to my own little service area in the basement to fix some of the things I can do myself and reduce my cost of ownership while avoiding the hassle of making those trips to the shop and losing riding time. The cost of getting the tools and such are probably almost a wash compared to what you’ll save doing your own maintenance in the first year, but you’ll be ahead after that. It will also make you more aware and confident about what’s going on with your bike. If you want to do more of your own maintenance, check out the video series on BikeRadar or VeloNews, both very good.
Where will I get the best prices and customer service?
With groupsets evaluated against these criteria of performance, design, quality and cost, you can select which groupset is best for you by looking at how you ride and what your goals are. For us cycling enthusiasts, this is somewhat of a binary choice. If you are going to race a fair amount and weight is really important, consider going with a Tier 1 groupset – you’ll save 300g or so over a Tier 2 set but you’ll pay a heavy price for it. If you only race now and then and even if you put on a lot of miles riding and training each year, you will do really well with a Tier 2 groupset and save a lot of money in the process. And if you can afford it, and I’d suggest you find a way, I’d strongly recommend you go for a Tier 2 electronic groupset (at 2x the purchase price but with a reduced cost of ownership) over a mechanical Tier 2 as there will be a notable performance difference. Finally, if you are considering a Tier 2 electronic vs. a Tier 1 mechanical whose purchase prices are about the same, I and everyone I’ve talked to believe strongly you should go with the Tier 2 electronic gruppo.
While I made my recommendations earlier, I recognize that you may view it differently. With that in mind, you can find links below to each of the current model year Tier 1, 2 and 3 groupsets from stores who carry them and offer the best prices I’ve found. If you only need to replace or pick up a couple of components, these same stores have some of the best prices and inventory on individual components too.
If you plan to buy something I covered in this review or any piece of cycling gear for that matter, please remember there’s an easy way to save money and keep the cranks turning on more reviews like this one. Simply click on the store links in red in the posts or right hand column and buy any of your cycling gear through the stores you connect to. I update these links regularly by looking at over 60 stores I track that sell online. About half of these stores pay a small commission to the site when you buy through the links but I pick the stores based on price, stock and service, same as when I’m shopping for myself.
Recommended stores with inventory at best prices listed below and updated as of October 5, 2015
- Dura-Ace 9070 Di2: eBay Cycling, Wiggle, Ribble
- Dura-Ace 9000: eBay Cycling, Wiggle, Merlin
- Ultegra 6870 Di2: ProBikeKit, Merlin
- Ultegra 6800: ProBikeKit, Tweeks Cycles, Merlin
- 105-5800: ProBikeKit, Merlin
- Red 22: Competitive Cyclist, Merlin, Ribble
- Force 22: Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle, Merlin
- Rival 22: Wiggle, Merlin, Ribble
- Super Record EPS: eBay Cycling
- Record EPS: eBay Cycling, ProBikeKit, Evans
- Chorus EPS: Evans, Ribble
- Super Record: eBay Cycling, Evans, Merlin, Ribble, PlanetX (80th Anniversary Set)
- Record: eBay Cycling, ProBikeKit, Evans, Merlin, Ribble
- Chorus: eBay Cycling, ProBikeKit, Evans, Merlin, Ribble
- Athena: eBay Cycling, ProBikeKit, Evans, Merlin, Ribble
- Veloce: ProBikeKit, Merlin, Ribble
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