SRAM Force eTap wireless electronic groupset arrives at last

SRAM Force eTap wireless electronic groupset arrives at last

Almost since the release of Red eTap in 2015, fans of SRAM’s innovative wireless electronic road groupset have been clamoring for a less-expensive Force edition. That day has finally come.

As we expected, Force eTap AXS is virtually identical to Red eTap AXS in terms of function, with the same 12-speed gearing format, downsized chainrings, 1x or 2x drivetrain configurations, and customizable AXS wireless protocol. Material changes add about 100-450g relative to Red eTap AXS, but those come with a significant price discount of roughly 30 percent.

For those of you who have been waiting patiently, those numbers will look pretty darn good, and you won’t even have to wait as all of this stuff should be available to buy right now, both aftermarket and on complete bikes.


TRICKLE-DOWN TECHNOLOGY

SRAM has a long history of bringing the functionality of its higher-end groupsets down to more affordable price points, and Force eTap AXS faithfully continues that tradition. Although this second-string groupset is obviously quite different from Red eTap AXS in terms of aesthetics, with its more subdued grey-on-black finish, there’s virtually no difference at all when it comes to how it performs on the bike.

SRAM’s new Force eTap AXS wireless electronic groupset offers nearly identical functionality as the top-end Red version, but at a dramatically reduced price.

First and foremost, SRAM has brought over the X-Range gearing concept from the flagship model almost fully intact. Although the double-chainring cranksets have tighter gearing than traditional setups — 48/35T and 46/33T — the cassette now has a much wider available range, but similarly tight jumps, as current 11-speed clusters. According to SRAM, the 48/35T crankset and 10-28T cassette have more total range than an 11-speed 52/36T and 11-28T, for example, while the 46/33T and 10-33T setup have more range than a traditional 50/34T and 11-32T.

There’s also a 10-26T cassette option and single-chainring cranksets for riders that prioritize still-tighter gaps, live in flatter areas, or just don’t want to deal with a front derailleur, period. But sadly, neither Force nor Red yet includes cassette options in between a 10-33T or a 10-50T — a glaring hole for gravel and adventure riders.

As expected, Force eTap AXS has moved to a 12-speed cassette that offers a much wider range than traditional 11-speed setups without sacrificing tight jumps in the middle. Undersized sprockets and chainrings help keep the total weight down, although there’s still the question of drivetrain friction.

No matter which gearing configuration you choose, it all works with the same single-format rear derailleur, which comes standard with a medium-length cage and Orbit fluid clutch for enhanced chain control on rougher terrain. Tire clearance for the front derailleur gets the same boost as it did on Red eTap AXS, easily handling 700c tires up to 40mm-wide, or even-wider 650b ones depending on chainstay length. Batteries are carried over intact and, as before, they can be swapped back and forth between derailleurs to get you home in a pinch.

Also carried over from Red eTap AXS is the new AXS wireless protocol, which is similar to (but not compatible with) the existing Airea system in concept, but with a richer stream of data that provides more functionality. Force eTap AXS users are free to mix and match with other SRAM AXS components — including from the Eagle AXS and RockShox AXS families where appropriate — and there’s also a generous level of customization available through the AXS smartphone app.

The crankset gets a big boost in practicality relative to Red in that the chainrings are individually bolted to a conventional spider, so they’re not only far cheaper to replace when needed, but they’re also not directly integrated with the optional power meter.

But just as with Red eTap AXS, though, Force eTap AXS bundles that versatile X-Range gearing with a fair bit of proprietary technology. Wheels require a SRAM-specific XDR driver body for the cassette (which, thankfully, most companies should have available as a retrofit for current wheels), and there’s an AXS-specific 12-speed chain that uses larger-diameter rollers than the norm. So while AXS components can be mixed and matched to a large degree, you still have to be careful how you do it.

Other features shared with Red eTap AXS include the grippier lever hoods, the larger and more aggressively textured eTap shift paddles, easy power meter upgrades, DUB 28.99mm-diameter aluminum bottom bracket spindles for near-universal frame compatibility, and faster shift speeds relative to the first-generation Red eTap, especially in 1x configurations. And just as with Red eTap AXS, Force eTap AXS is offered in both rim-brake and disc-brake formats.

Mechanics who have installed SRAM’s wireless groupsets can attest to how easy the stuff is to install and set up. SRAM has certainly nailed it here.

And perhaps most importantly for some, the new Force eTap AXS will be just as easy to install and set up as Red eTap AXS, thanks mostly to its fully wireless format and intuitive pairing.

WHAT’S DIFFERENT FROM RED ETAP AXS

As is usually the case with SRAM’s non-flagship road groupsets, there are a variety of material changes that help bring the price down — and the weight up.

For example, while Red eTap AXS uses true carbon fiber brake lever blades, the ones on Force eTap AXS use a heavier fiber-reinforced composite. Likewise, Force eTap AXS swaps the flagship model’s carbon fiber rear derailleur cage and titanium hardware for a composite cage and steel bolts, and the aluminum front derailleur cage of Red is steel on Force. One difference that’s much more hidden is at the Force eTap AXS levers, each of which can only be fitted with one remote button instead of two.

The Force eTap AXS wireless electronic rear derailleur shares its basic design with Red, but different materials and less aggressive machining tack on a few grams. The batteries are interchangeable, however.

There’s also two-piece body construction and a fixed hose connection for the hydraulic disc brake caliper instead of a lighter one-piece body and more convenient rotating banjo, and the cable actuated rim brakes use a more basic dual-pivot layout instead of Red’s fancier cam-actuated mechanism. Only flat-mount disc brakes are available, but the 140mm and 160mm rotors are offered in both six-bolt and Center Lock fitments.

Bigger changes are found at the crankset and cassette, however, and it’s in these two parts where the bulk of the weight difference is found.

While the Red eTap AXS crank arms are hollow molded carbon fiber, the Force version is built with an aluminum spine inside. And instead of machining the cassette from a single block of steel, as is the case with Red eTap AXS, the Force version uses SRAM’s so-called PinDome construction, where more conventionally stamped steel sprockets are connected with a series of press-fit pins fitted around the circumference of each sprocket.

Lever reach is adjustable on the Force eTap AXS controls, as is lever travel.

That aluminum spine isn’t the only difference between Red and Force, either, and a lot of riders are likely to be pretty happy about this next one.

SRAM expectedly generated an awful lot of controversy for its decision to use one-piece machined aluminum double chainrings — even on the power meter model, which directly incorporates the power meter hardware into the chainrings and has to be replaced when the drivetrain wears out (at significant expense, I might add).

SRAM expects that Force eTap AXS buyers are likely to be less solely focused on absolute performance, however, and so that crankset — hallelujah — sticks to a more conventional separate spider and bolt-on chainrings, each of which can be replaced individually.

The separate spider on the new Force eTap AXS crankset makes it easier (and less expensive) to upgrade to a power meter later if so desired.

Speaking of chainrings, SRAM apparently believes that riders on Force budgets aren’t as fit or focused on speed, as the choices here are a bit more limited than Red in terms of available sizes. Whereas Red offers a 50/37T option, that selection is notably omitted here.

One not-so-welcome difference? Sorry, SRAM, the matte grey-on-black finish of Force eTap AXS might look stealthy to some eyes, but it mostly just looks budget-rate to mine, both in pictures and in person. And that plastic cover on the outer chainring only adds to the visual bulkiness while providing exactly zero functional benefit. But hey, beauty in the eye of the beholder and all that.

Taken in total, a Force eTap AXS groupset weighs almost exactly 300g more than an equivalently configured Red eTap AXS groupset. Official weights and prices are as follows (AU prices are TBC):

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR SRAM’S MECHANICAL ROAD GROUPSETS

One question left unanswered from the launch of the Red eTap AXS groupset was the fate of SRAM’s mechanical groupsets; SRAM declined to comment on the issue at the time. Since then, however, we’ve confirmed that SRAM is moving wholeheartedly in the electronic direction, at least on the road side, and at least at the upper end of the market.

It’s been some time since a lot of attention has been paid to SRAM’s upper-end mechanical road groupsets on the consumer or racing side. Given that, it’s perhaps unsurprising that SRAM seems to be making the decision to concentrate much more on its electronic offerings moving forward.

Despite the fact that the current Red 22 hydraulic disc-brake groupset is a fair bit lighter than this new Force eTap AXS package, SRAM anticipates that the lower price and enhanced shift performance of the latter will render the former obsolete to most buyers. My guess is that sooner rather than later, and for better or worse, SRAM’s high-end mechanical groupsets will go the way of the dodo.

As someone who rode and raced (quite happily, I might add) on SRAM’s mechanical groupsets, and as someone who still appreciates the simplicity and serviceability of cable-actuated groupsets in general, I’m definitely a little disappointed that this is where SRAM is heading. But alas, the market has apparently spoken, and majority rules.

FIRST-RIDE REVIEW

I’ve attended nearly every SRAM road groupset launch since the original Force debuted in 2006, and have certainly spent considerable time on every iteration of SRAM’s road offerings in the past 13 years, including the latest Red eTap AXS (and a more thorough review that will build on my initial impressions is still pending).

That said, I haven’t ridden this new Force eTap AXS stuff yet. But you know who has? CyclingTips roving reporter Dave Everett. His first impressions are as follows:

 

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Let me start by saying I’ve yet to use the new Red eTap AXS 12-speed groupset, but I hear great things. James raved about it, and apparently its improvement over the first generation is noticeable and welcome. So comparing the two latest wireless groupsets from SRAM isn’t going to happen in this article.

But having used both the latest two generations of Red and Force mechanical, and the original Red eTap groupset, I will say that I liked this new Force eTap AXS a lot. It did what any good cycling product should do, which is put a smile on your face while out on the road and keep it there once you’re back home recovering. To be honest, I’ve not really come across a whole heap of products recently that seem to manage this.

The enlarged shift paddle is a welcomed update, as is the more aggressive texturing.

Its performance is unpretentious and fuss-free. I only tested the hydraulic disc version of the groupset, both out on the open road aboard BMC’s recently redesigned ALR, and on the gravel using a 3T Exploro, but in both cases, it seemed to just work.

The shifters are solid in feel, and there are no major ergonomic changes over the original Red eTap levers. The more aggressive texture and bigger size of the shifter button (relative to original eTap) is a pleasing change, and it certainly won’t allow for anyone to ever say they missed a shift by not hitting it right; even with winter gloves, you’ll find that button without a problem.

I would have liked to see a more supple rubber used on the hood, maybe similar to what Campagnolo uses, but it’s certainly not uncomfortable. The lever blades don’t feel overly ergonomic in design but they provide a meaty place to grip when braking. And only being able to add a single remote shifter to the Force levers isn’t a huge problem at all. Two is luxury, but one should be perfectly adequate for most.

Shifts definitely feel slightly snappier than the original Red eTap, and more positive in their engagement, both up front and out back. I never mis-shifted or managed to catch the derailleurs out by multi-shifting. As James said in his Red eTap AXS review, it’s still not as quick as Shimano Di2, but it’s far from slow or even close to being a deal-breaker. It also runs quietly, too, with no big clunks when moving up and down the cassette.

As with Red eTap AXS, the battery on the Force eTap AXS front derailleur moves outboard slightly for better tire clearance.

The brakes aren’t a highlight of this groupset for me, but they aren’t bad by any means. They went about doing their job without fuss, never rubbing or squealing when in use. Out on the open road, I had zero worries with the predictability of their performance, but on the gravel, I hovered over them a bit more than I would normally. In fairness, this may have had more to do with the WTB Byway tyres on my test bike. They didn’t inspire confidence and this, in turn, had me nervously braking far too often.

The chainset, however, was yet again another item that went about its job without a problem, at least in terms of function. But aesthetically, I don’t think SRAM has made it look premium enough given its second-rung position in the product ladder. In fact, it looks a bit cheap. I appreciate the whole modular setup, though; how you’re able to swap between power meter and non-power meter setups, or using it in a 1x or 2x configuration. And unlike the more expensive Red eTap AXS version, you don’t have to spend a fortune on new chainrings when the old ones wear out.

Unfortunately, that budget look carries through elsewhere, too; it just isn’t the prettiest of groupsets, to say the least. It’s just a bit too utilitarian and industrial-looking to me; the sort of groupset I imagine Bruce Wayne might use if he was having a night off from driving the Batmobile around.

The cover on the outer surface of the chainring suggests some sort of hollow construction similar to what Shimano does, which generally offers a big increase in stiffness for improved shifting. But alas, this one is made of plastic, and is purely cosmetic.

Overall, though, Force eTap AXS is a groupset that should tick many boxes for many riders. It has all the key features of Red eTap AXS — the 12-speed cassette, intuitive eTap shifter style, wireless components, and lots of gearing options — and it’s not too shabby when it comes to the weight department, either. And it’s also a good chunk of change less expensive than any other 12-speed groupset that’s currently on the market, be it SRAM’s own Red eTap AXS or Campagnolo’s mechanical or EPS offerings.

I’m guessing people will see this as a competitor to Shimano’s Ultegra Di2 groupset with the inclusion of the RX clutch rear derailleur, and I suppose it is in many ways. But Force eTap AXS still has a lot more gearing options for off-tarmac riding and just feels more versatile in general. To me, it feels like it’s more for today’s ride, and for drop-bar ridersthat want to do a bit of everything.

 

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I’ve got a long-term SRAM Force eTap AXS groupset inbound already, so stay tuned for a more in-depth review in the near future — and perhaps, even a direct head-to-head between Red and Force.

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