SRAM RED eTAP wireless shifting group first ride review

To celebrate the SRAM RED eTAP wireless shifting launch, they brought us to their drivetrain development office in Schweinfurt, Germany, for technical presentations and the very first public test rides anywhere.

We’ve covered the product tech, weights & setup here, now we’ll cover the lengthy testing procedure they underwent to ensure that the most anticipated launch in the company’s history is bombproof. And we’ll share thoughts after riding 145 miles (233km) over three days through the rolling hills surrounding their office.

The testing process started in the lab, progressed to employee and “super testers”, then smaller and regional teams, then finally to AG2R in the Tour Down Under and Tour de France. Here’s how it went…

LAB TESTING

SRAM RED eTAP wireless shifting testing room

The eTAP project meant hiring a lot of new people, from electrical engineers to consultants, and borrowed concepts from others. For example, they used Nokia’s tumbler test, used to test cell phone durability. They borrowed vibration tests from the automotive industry to simulate 10 years of use. That made certain that the battery won’t pop off even under extreme conditions – once the battery snaps into place, it’s there to stay.

They also made sure it passed dust and water ingress, with the latter passing a 1m submersion test. It also stands up to a 30 minute power washing test with water hitting it at high speed from every direction.

SRAM RED eTAP wireless shifting testing room

Inside this climate chamber, shifters and derailleurs are subjected to extremely high and low temperatures and humidities. They cycled the system through hundreds of thousands of shifts over days in the machine as it swung from each extreme. The standard testing range is -10°C to 40°C (14ºF to 104ºF) testing, then they push it to -30° to 50° (-22ºF to 122ºF) to test it at the extremes.

On top of that, they tested it against thermal shock, which proved it would work if, for example, it sat inside your car and hit temps well over 130ºF and then you sprayed it with cold water to wash it.

SRAM's Schweinfurt, Germany, testing room.
SRAM’s Schweinfurt, Germany, testing room.

To make sure all of those tests and standards make it from development prototypes into full production models, the manufacturing process is completely controlled by SRAM. With many electronics being outsourced (in any industry, not just cycling), it’s important to make the distinction that they control both the electronic production and the finished assembly production. They created a clean room in Taiwan to create the prototypes over the five years this project has been in development. What they learned there led to a complete trashing of old production and assembly lines and diagnostic tools. All of that is completely new in order to make the parts to SRAM’s specifications.

So far, they’ve done 26 pilot production runs for each component, with another six planned before anything ships. Each run sees further refinements to the process to ensure that when it does ship, it’ll be right.

MORE TESTING

SRAM RED eTAP wireless shifting testing room

Both derailleurs are put on separate testing machines where they’re cycled through the range of the cassette or back and forth between chainrings. They test it to failure, keeping it running well past any 3rd party and internal standards. The last rear derailleur they tested went through more than 1.7 million cycles. They measure not just the overall accuracy of the parts, but also wear, to see how they tolerances start to vary over time.

SRAM RED eTAP wireless shifting testing room

Another device is used to test the shifters coming off the production line – each and every one of them is checked. For long term test samples, they’re checking not just the mechanical accuracy but also the firmware and other electrical parts over time. There’s a physical test machine that applies a high load to the setup buttons, which will typically see very few actual pushes. Another pulls the brake lever harder than you’re likely to ever pull it for 100k cycles to see how it holds up. They also perform drop and impact (crash) testing and submersion and salt spray testing. They even have a machine that does nothing by stretch and cycle the springs used inside mechanical rear derailleurs.

If you think you’ll encounter it, there’s a darn good chance they’ve tested for it.

FIELD TESTING

Prototype electronic SRAM red shfiters and derailleurs
Prototype electronic SRAM Red drivetrain spotted! Photo: Von R Buzard, used with permission.

The first generation is what we spotted at some 2013/2014 cyclocross races and had fake external control boxes. These were the first stage of testing with their employees and in-house athletes.

The second generation had internal electronics and was wireless, but they mocked up fake cable housing to keep it somewhat incognito. These were pushed out to their “super testers”, who would take the system to a broader range of environments and expose it to new challenges and generate new questions. This included pro women like Kristin Armstrong and Alison Tetrick, and Axel Merckx’s Bontrager cycling team in spring 2014 at the Amgen Tour of California.

SRAM RED eTAP wireless shifting athlete testing

They also brought it to Redlands, which was pilot run six or seven, but had some pre-race water ingress issues that made them switch back to standard systems for the event. They fixed that and brought it back for the Gila, where Bissel’s Nicolai Broechner rode it to a stage win despite being in a massive pileup that gave it a few scratches. During these races, their neutral support cars and motorcycles were stealthily equipped with wireless monitoring systems to check for interference, but found none.

They put the TT parts on 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist triathlete Jan Fordeno’s bikes, who used it to win Oceanside this year, and Lisa Brennauer, current world ITT champion. What’s interesting about the TT parts is that, unlike mechanical or Di2/EPS buttons, they don’t lengthen the aero extensions or become part of the load bearing setup, which frees up the types of handlebars and extensions the athlete can use.

Ag2r pro cycling team Focus Izalco Max road bikes with prototype SRAM wireless electronic shifting

The final step was Version 3 (and 3.1, 3.2, etc…), which have been tested in the pro peloton by AG2R. As that testing progressed, and they refined the pilot run production process, they put up to 100 systems in the wild. Up until this year’s Tour Down Under, they continued to put fake control boxes and wires on the bike (including even wrapping a raisin box in electrical tape) to hide the fact that it was wireless.

That put the system through top level competitive tests, which meant crash testing and dealing with battery anxiety. After all, the bikes might be left in a freezing cold truck overnight, which is notorious for shortening Li-Ion battery life. And they’d be in a peloton with other bikes shifting amid wireless communications and broadcast signals bathing them in similar wavelengths.

Now, as we hopped on board our first ride of the system, there are close to 200 systems out there with an estimated one million kilometers of real world testing. And through all that, they say they could count on one hand the number of times anyone’s missed a shift. In other words, they say it’s flawless.

FIRST RIDES

SRAM RED eTAP wireless shifting group first ride review

…and it is. We put in 145 miles through the rolling hills around SRAM’s Schweinfurt, Germany, drivetrain development center and walked away extremely impressed.

The shifting is not blazingly fast, but it’s fast enough to work as well as you’d want it to. Which is good, because you can’t change it…much. Adjusting the B-screw to change the gap between the top pulley and the cassette within the 6-8mm recommended range can tweak it slightly. The closer it is, the faster your outboard (harder) shift will be. More space will make the inboard (easier) shifts quieter, but won’t really speed them up.

SRAM’s tech folks even admitted it’s not lightning fast, but that the overall time and energy the rider expends to make the shift, though, is much, much shorter. So the effect is quicker shifts than what you’re likely to get from a mechanical system, and it’s definitely waaaaaay easier.

All that said, it’ll still move up and down the entire cassette in under four seconds just by holding the button down. And faster if you repeatedly tap the shift button yourself. And that’s just the rear shifting. The front shifting is simply brilliant…and very fast. Check it out in this video:

Why not synchronized shifting that automatically shifts the front to maintain a certain gear ratio? Mainly because it can’t read your mind and you may want a different cadence at different points in a ride. The benefit of synchro shifts is that you no longer have to think about which button makes the correct front shift, and with eTAP, you really don’t – you just push both.

That simplicity is one of the our favorite aspects of the system. Push the left one and it shifts easier. Push the right one and it shifts harder. Push both and the front shifts. It couldn’t be easier, and it takes all of two minutes to get used to.

SRAM RED eTAP wireless shifting group first ride review

Just like with the mechanical system, the YAW front derailleur works great at eliminating chain rub. And the calculated front shifting movement with auto trim never missed a beat. Honestly, front shifting is flawless, quick and can be done back and forth in rapid succession.

Rear shifting is very smooth under power shifting to an easier gear. That made for incredibly easy downshifts while climbing, no matter whether I was seated or standing, pedaling fast or slow. Shifting to a harder gear under power (hard climbing or sprinting) can feel a bit chunky, so it’s best to ease off just slightly. In other words, shift before you need to sprint rather than during the sprint. That’s really the only criticism I can levy on it. At risk of sounding overly positive, the eTAP has changed the landscape of bicycle shifting for the better and everyone else must now catch up.

Basically, this is F1 shifting for your bike. Do we need it? No. Do I want it? Only on every bike I own.

PREDICTIONS

WiFli wider range double gearing will likely come soon. Could you hack it by putting a longer cage on it? Maybe, but there’s more of a difference between their derailleurs than just cage length – the upper jockey wheel is sometimes offset and the parallelogram arms are a bit longer.

Mountain bike versions are likely, but perhaps with initial development around an X-Horizon rear derailleur for cyclocross first. To go with those WiFli cassettes. With regards to MTB, one SRAM manager told us “We’re looking at it, and there’s been some work put behind it. A lot of the heavy lifting has been done already because we needed this system to be so robust.”

But Hydro versions are a bigger priority, opening up the group to widespread use with their disc brakes. There’s no set timeframe, but we’d be surprised if it’s not ready for the 2016/17 cyclocross season. That said, they continually reinforced their commitment to mechanical 1x groups with hydraulic brakes for ‘cross. So, expect those groups to continue even at the highest level, and RED mechanical will remain, too, with graphic updates to match the rest of the eTAP group.

Lastly, this is a halo product that, in our opinion, puts SRAM at the top of the electronic game. But to make the system more widely adopted, it’ll have to trickle down to Force level groups at a minimum. As they put it, “If you look at who we’ve hired over the past few years, we’re all in. There’s a lot of sunk cost there, and this first product alone won’t cover that. The technology is now developed, and it can be applied to anything that shifts and anything with a cable…now it’s just a matter of where we apply it next.”

40 COMMENTS

  1. i love the idea of wireles electronic shifting, but wonder about the
    battery life for:
    rear derailleur ?
    front derailleur ?
    right shifter ?
    left shifter ?

    is there a indicator at each component for low battery or will the component just stop to work ?

  2. People really need to get over the “OMG haxors taking over my bike!!” stuff. Apparently cars can be hacked too, but NOBODY is doing it. You think anyone cares about hacking the shifters of some random bum riding a bike down the street?

    I really want this, but think I should wait for the hydro version before I go all in.

  3. @xc-fr – Had you read the previous post, they went over all the battery life expentancies, and how the indicator lights work.

    @dex – Based on what they’ve said about the transmission and “communication” software and protocols, I’d say they’ve ensured it to be damn near impossible to keep someone from hacking into your shifting while you’re riding.

  4. @xc-fr
    The derailleurs’ LEDs blink green on each shift until there’s about 15 hours of power remaining, then red down to about five hours, and a five-flash red burst when you have less than five hours of ride time.

  5. I have used SRAM for years but I think they missed the mark on this one…. I am just glad Rotor has developed a hydro shifting. Between my GPS and camera I have enough batteries to deal with.

  6. I’m definitely looking forward to getting this group. That said, the shifting is definitely slower than Di2 out back. Slow enough to be bothersome? I don’t know but maybe it is at certain times. It looks great, is hopefully going to be roughly the price of Di2, and it sounds like they’ve done battery testing that Shimano probably hasn’t(since there are tons of reported failures…I’ve seen some from customers myself)

  7. @DRC: Hundreds of cars get stolen just by hacking in germany every year. They open your car with a laptop, a dongle and the right software, start the car and drive away.

    Not that I think somebody would think that its worth the time spend just to play around on someones bicycle gears, but I think its possible.

    I would be more concerned about power transformation stations.

  8. Great news! Excited to see this finally come to the market. Para-cyclist are going to benefit greatly from this technology. I can’t wait to see as the wireless products trickle down to the other lines and MTB drive trains. Nice work SRAM we all know this required a lot of risk and resources to develop.

  9. Looks cool and the simplicity of set-up / lack of frame requirments is really awesome.
    @John,
    I too would miss being able to shift both front and rear to better match cadence on front der. shifts. That’s one thing I love about di2.

  10. slow rear shifting coupled the necessity of using both hands to shift the front without being able to shift the rear at the same time makes it seem that this new groupset is more like Indycar shifting to Di2’s F1…that and the average joe really doesn’t have anything to worry about in people hacking his shifting, but i bet someone on some team at the pro level is trying to figure out how to do it.

  11. I am not sure hacking is as big a concern as signal interference and pairing issues. I not sure anyone has had flawless experiences paring/staying connected to bluetooth and ANT devices.

  12. @CaseyRyback-“damn near impossible” is the most ridiculous thing I think I have heard. NO PROTOCOL is impervious to being hacked. If sram did invent a un-hackible protocol they should contact the u.s. government because they may need it.

    the concern of hacking is small. Though a virus could be uploaded and pairing with certain devices can cause potential to entry. The bigger issue blocking the signal, that is super easy. All you need to know is the frequency range and match a transmitter to it and bam shifting stopped working. That could cause grief at events. You can buy everything from a bluetooth to cell phone jammer so blocking a signal from a bike transmission is nothing. Yes, it may be illegal but so is theft, fraud, murder and a whole host of other things but they still happen.

  13. Seems like a nice option – choose which one you like: etap, di2, eps. And soon fsa/metron. I’m still reluctant to put anything additional I need to charge on my bike. Maybe a garmin/e-group battery combo?

  14. sram please be sure this thing works before you put it on the market.
    that said, you have the best marketing department.

  15. I’m not sure I would consider 1000km “great battery life”, Ben Lawson. My current R785 group is on about 3000km since it’s last charge and the A-junction is still showing green.

  16. @mark Watch the video. There’s a button on the FD to make it shift. There’s also a button on the RD to make it shift without needing the shifters during install.

  17. @lukee You are spot on about jamming the signal. While the protocol may be very secure and have all sorts of redundancy built in, unless SRAM has changed the laws of physics ,the signal still rides over the same type of radio waves every other wireless transmission does (albeit in an approved band). The act of jamming that signal is actually quite easy and in fact if you talk to any licensed amateur radio operator, you will realize it’s easy to do accidentally and amateurs have to take great care that their radios do not cause interference with other licensed signals (and no, it doesn’t have to be some massive transmission).

    I would echo that it’s illegal but would also say that it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen something illegal in the peloton. Pretty hard to win the sprint if you’re unable to shift. Just sayin’.

  18. @pantaloon it’s 2015, junkie is a derogatory word. We’re using “chemically enabled” now.

    On a positive note it’s nice to see the torture testing in use. Hopefully they’ll continue to test production samples after they launch. My only fault with Sram lies in what seems to be a lack of follow up in making sure their excellent engineering ideas translate to consistent quality after the realities of production settle in. Might make me a fan again.

    Never mind I’m poor. 1X9 XTR rapid rise forever (deleted).

  19. I saw etap being used in the 2013 San Dimas Cat 3 field… And was personally behind the dude who dropped his chain while using it. Super rad though, this stuff..

  20. Why can this review not make comparison to Di2 or the other options? Lazy or just a Sram marketing? Nothing here says it’s better to my Di2 shifting. But the left right levers to shift sounds way better than the four buttons on Di2.

COMMENT HERE: (For best results, log in through Wordpress or your social media account. Anonymous/fake email comments may be unapproved or deleted. ALL first-time commenter's posts are held for moderation. Check our Comment Policy for full details.)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.