Rolling into the Road Bike Connection event in Spain, small talk about the event quickly turned to product.
“What do you think SRAM will be showing?”
“It can’t be Force eTap AXS, right? They just launched RED eTap AXS!”
But no. That was exactly what SRAM had on tap for us, in spite of the recent arrival of the newest RED group. And lucky for us, we were about to experience it first hand on some of the best roads Girona, Spain has to offer.
As a first timer to Girona, I was in for a treat. While the bustling city center has all the trappings of an ancient European city that has since been thoroughly modernized, as soon as you pedal past the city’s core, you’re rewarded with stellar riding conditions. It’s no wonder that many pros and ex-pros alike have taken to calling Girona home.
Serving as our base camp for the week, the AC Hotel Palu de Bellavista is positioned at the top of a steep hill offering panoramic views of the city. The payment for those views however was a punishing climb back to the top at the end of every ride. Like the now defunct Press Camp in the U.S., Road Bike Connection is a unique event that brings together a number of brands to pitch new products to a large group of editors simultaneously. That meant a brand like SRAM could host meetings in the morning to discuss the finer points of the new Force eTap AXS group, and then hop on bikes to ride those parts all afternoon. This provided a few different chances for us to ride the group – both on gravel and on the road.
Up the road to Els Àngels
While most of the rides were smaller groups doing their own thing following tracks laid out by Komoot, the big ride of the week was a massive group ride up to the 15th century hilltop outpost of Els Àngels. My ride? That would be the Canyon Ultimate CF SLX Disc 9.0 Team CSR, obviously with a different build to include SRAM Force eTap AXS. Yes, technically this is the women’s model, but riders of both genders agreed it’s a good looking bike and there are only very slight tweaks to the geometry between it and the men’s version.
At just over 10km in length with an average gradient of 3%, the Els Àngels climb out of Girona is a fantastic way to start a ride, and provided a chance to familiarize ourselves with our bikes and the eTap AXS group.
On my very first ride of the new group, two things were immediately apparent. First, I love the shape of the new hoods. I’ve always found the older SRAM Hydro hoods to be a bit boxy with hard edges where you wrap your fingers around the hood. These are much more sculpted with a great shape and a great texture to the hood cover itself. Second, I was surprised how quickly I took to the Blips mounted to the top of the bar. On long climbs, I noticed how much more I would shift to stay in the perfect gear. Without the ability to shift from the bar top, I normally wouldn’t shift as much since it would require a position change just to hit the button.
Admittedly, it took some time to get comfortable on the bike with a very bumpy, very fast descent down the backside of Els Àngels, but this was more a reflection of the fact that I’ve been riding a lot more gravel and MTB lately than pure road. But by the second descent, it was all coming back. And fast. Once you learn to trust the tires and the brakes, the Force group offers impressive control in terms of slowing you down.
Compared to the SRAM HRD 1x goups I’ve been riding for a few years now, the new brakes are in another league in terms of smoothness, sound, and even modulation. The power comes on very consistently as you squeeze the lever which allows you to easily make small adjustments in speed, but if you need large amounts of power it’s there for you. Maybe just as importantly, the brakes were quiet – both when you were coasting and when you were braking hard. Hopefully this will continue as the brakes wear, but initial impressions were good.
As the ride wrapped up, we wound our way through the idyllic country roads and back towards the city of Girona. All of the Force bikes tested were set up so that pushing the right shifter button moved the rear derailleur one way, and pushing the left shifter button made the derailleur move the opposite way. To shift the front derailleur, you push both shifter buttons at the same time to execute the shift. It’s the same default setting that SRAM eTap has always used, but it always requires a few shifts to reacclimate yourself to it, especially if you’re new to the group. Once you get it down though, it’s second nature. It also means that only one button is needed per shifter, which allows the individual buttons to be larger – which should men they’ll work better with bulky gloves in the winter or just riders with larger digits.
Same group, different gravel
Even though the majority of my time on the group was spent on the road, a good portion of it was also spent on Girona’s amazing gravel roads and paths. Seriously, this stuff is everywhere and with a bike like the Open U.P., you can explore to your heart’s content.
Set up again with a 2×12 drivetrain, the Open was equipped with 650b wheels and WTB Byway 47mm tubeless tires (and obviously a smaller size for me than pictured above).
That decision to equip the gravel bikes with 2×12 drivetrains is an interesting one – that might have been done on purpose. On many gravel bikes recently, I’ve been happy to run a 1x drivetrain for no other reason than the fact that they’re usually quieter and offer better chain retention.
But something struck me while riding the eTap Open. The silence. This is definitely one of the quietest 2x drivetrains I’ve ridden off road, which seems to confirm SRAM’s claims of improvements. Between the Orbit fluid damper and the new chain, there was zero detectable chainslap or rattling, which made me very happy.
I do think that for it to be a true contender for a gravel group lower gearing may be desired, but SRAM is coyly hinting at more mix and match “Beyond Road” options later this summer.
Like the road, I found myself really liking the addition of the Blips to the bar tops which keeps you from having to move your hands from the bar to shift in bumpy situations. These were all mounted underneath the bar tape which looked clean and keeps the Blips protected, but it did make them a little harder to push. Really, you can mount them however or wherever you like though, so you can customize your set up. As mentioned in the first post, Force only has one Blip port per lever where as Red has two.
As expected, the brakes performed just as well off road as they do on, offering quiet, powerful stopping with plenty of modulation to keep it from locking up.
Even with a solid few days of riding on the new group, this can still just be described as ‘first impressions’, but those first impressions were very positive. It’s hard to imagine that a road group could be that much better than what was already out there, or that it could be as versatile as the new Force eTap AXS group, but that seems to be exactly the case. Other than a 300g weight penalty that you can’t really feel on the bike, the group seems to truly offer RED level performance, just with a smaller price tag.