This season, we have seen the new SRAM Red eTap AXS and Force AXS groupsets become a mainstay in the cyclocross peloton. We have seen the bikes of Jolanda Neff, Curtis White, Maghalie Rochette, Thibau Nys and Inge van der Heijden running Red eTap AXS and Tobin Ortenblad’s running Force AXS.
With U.S. Nationals just a few weeks away, some amateur racers will be packing and shipping their SRAM AXS bikes for the first time. It also might be the first time racing their eTap bikes away from familiar courses.
With that in mind, we asked some of the teams running the new electronic SRAM AXS groupsets to share their experiences with the new components. We asked about initial setups, gearing choices and lessons learned from taking their electronics on the road.
While they likely have access to more resources than the average amateur, we think there are some lessons they have learned from a season on the road that could be applicable to the rest of us running the new electronic groupset and perhaps getting ready to pack our bikes up for the big week of racing in Washington.
An Electric, Eclectic History
It is safe to say that the electronic shifter revolution is fully upon us. What began in the 1990s with Mavic Zap laid the groundwork for Shimano to launch Di2 in 2009 and brought us into the electronic era.
SRAM became a favorite for many cyclocrossers with its mechanical Force CX1 / Force 1 1x drivetrains with clutch rear derailleurs and narrow-wide chain rings, but it did not release an electronic groupset until 2015 when it launched eTap. Available only at the Red level, eTap was not only electronic but also wireless.
Sponsored riders Jeremy Powers and Wout van Aert drew attention for running 2x Red eTap drivetrains for cyclocross, but teams and other athletes still stuck with the tried-and-true mechanical Force 1 gruppo.
Last year, rumors began circulating that an update to eTap was on the horizon and would bring with it the first Force-level electronics. In what was possibly the worst kept secret in cycling, we began to see taped over shifters and new derailleurs in the hands of pros.
Finally, in early 2019, SRAM announced the formal release of SRAM Red eTap AXS and then an electronic version of its Force 1 groupset.
Unlike the original eTap or Shimano’s Di2, AXS also pushes SRAM into the 12-speed era. With an extra cog comes an all-new chain and cog spacing that eliminates compatibility with aftermarket 11-speed chain rings. It also relies on the XDR freehub body, a longer version of the XD driver used on SRAM’s mountain bike groupsets to allow for the use of cogs smaller than 11t, which has the potential to force some wheel systems into early retirement.
With all the changes, AXS users are locked into the SRAM ecosystem and give up aftermarket gearing options that exist for 11-speed systems.
Several pro teams are entering this new world alongside consumers and we checked in with two of the larger programs, Trek Factory Racing and Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld.com, to see how they’re adapting.
Quicker to the Line
One of the earliest and most obvious advantages of eTap and now AXS is the ease with which the group can be installed. While brake cables (and later hoses) still (thankfully) require a mechanical interface with both the caliper and the shifter, there are no cables or wires connecting derailleurs, batteries or other junctions as there would be with a mechanical or Di2 drivetrain.
The reduction in time spent plumbing a new bike means that initial builds are much faster.
How much faster?
“The assembly for us was anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to put the whole bike together,” Stu Thorne of Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld.com told Cyclocross Magazine.
Gearing: One Cassette for Everything
Since AXS is SRAM’s entry into 12-speed road drivetrains, a new chain standard spells doom for the catalog of aftermarket chain rings and cassettes compatible with 11-speed drivetrains. Fortunately, SRAM has many possible combinations for both 1x and 2x riders.
Two-by users have 3 options, all with 13t jumps between chain rings. Of those the 46/33t and 48/35t options are most interesting to ’cross and gravel users.
On the 1x side, SRAM offers 36t, 38t, 40t, 42t, 44t and 46t options. Both systems pair with any of SRAM’s 12-speed XDR cassettes.
It is important to note that the widest range cassette supported by the AXS road rear derailleurs is 10-33t. Although the system is compatible with Eagle mountain derailleurs and cassettes, it will likely require a change from what comes on most bikes and locks users into 10-50t mountain gearing, the Eagle derailleur will not work with AXS road cassettes.
Our survey showed that both Cannondale and Trek riders use the 10-33t cassette, changing chain rings only for course conditions. “Its really just chain rings,” Jon Rourke, Operations Manager at Trek Factory Racing told Cyclocross Magazine. “[The riders] never have to worry about a super low grunting gear because, generally, that’s a point when they’re much faster and more efficient to be running.”
It’s likely that if Stephen Hyde, Curtis White and Jolanda Neff are using the 10-33t, most amateur 1x users will be too. We would, however, certainly be interested in hearing about experiences running the Eagle derailleur and cassette.
With pro teams changing chain rings and wheels and tires for course conditions, it is absolutely critical that chain length is correct. According to Thorne, chain rings and chains are kept together and installed as a single unit. If they adjust the gearing, then they change the chain along with the chain ring for both chain wear and overall derailleur capacity. “We were experimenting with chain lengths. We have chains that are cut to certain lengths,” he said.
Trek has a similar system. In many circumstances the margin built into the system allows the team to only change a chain ring, but in the event the change exceeds the two-tooth margin built into the drivetrain there are precut chains on hand. “We just keep a shortened chain and put it on [when the chain ring requires],” Rourke said.
Such an investment in parts is both expensive and impractical for the average rider who is unlikely to cart an assortment of chains and chain rings to every race. More likely is that riders will select a ring and run it all season which, given the limited cassette options, could leave them wanting in some conditions.
AXS brings with it the same camcorder battery format introduced on eTap. Each derailleur has its own battery pack, which can be replaced easily mid-ride. The shift levers each have CR2032 coin cell batteries, which are projected to last at least a year under normal use.
While the batteries used on AXS are much easier to change than the internal unit used on Shimano Di2, they also have a much shorter interval between charge cycles. With a pair of bikes having up to four battery packs, it can quickly turn into a logistical nightmare if a user needs to refresh the batteries quickly.
Cannondale addressed the problem with a charging apparatus that allows the team to charge many batteries at once. “We have a charger setup that can charge 10 batteries at one time,” Thorne said.
It is likely, however, that the average AXS owner will have a single charging unit, which could complicate charging multiple batteries if there is a premium on time. Therefore, additional energy should be put into ensuring batteries are charged before race day.
Mark Legg once said he always unplugs shifters before traveling with Di2 bikes to prevent battery drain. AXS is no different.
With accelerometers toggling the wireless antennas of the shifter and derailleur, even if a shifter is not depressed, such as on a car rack, it will continue to send a signal and pair the components as long as the bike is moving which will slowly drain the battery.
“We take batteries out during transportation, which avoids the system activating. That’s actually one of the best ways to prolong your battery life,” said Rourke.
Users new to the eTap experience will have to become accustomed to removing batteries before travel. It’s not a hard process but is one more thing to do to prep a bike on race day. Additionally, there is a cover that must be installed on the battery contacts to prevent damage and corrosion.
New System, New Limitations
SRAM AXS is an evolution of the original eTap design, and it has a lot going for it. The first cyclocross-worthy electronic option from SRAM also brings with it the first 12-speed, 1x group. The wireless nature of AXS means that a bike’s initial setup and any potential troubleshooting of the drivetrain, is much more straightforward than with either mechanical or Di2 drivetrains.
For all that it brings to the table, however, much of the newness presents new challenges for pro teams and privateers alike looking to jump on the AXS bandwagon.
The 12-speed drivetrain comes with new cassette options which should cover the needs of most riders. However, with the Force AXS derailleur reaching maximum capacity with the 10-33t cassette and Eagle derailleurs only supporting a 10-50t, it does eliminate the ability to run a do-it-all 1x cassette like a 10-42t.
With most 1x users likely to select the 10-33t cassette, the only real adjustment that can be made to the gearing comes in the form of alternate chain rings. Depending on the change, it is entirely possible that the chain will be rendered either too long or too short. Such capacity limitations have led pro teams to change chains and chain rings together, something not all amateurs or even Elite privateers may have the capacity to do for reasons of time and the investment required.
Additionally, with each component carrying its own battery, there is potential for the need to replace or recharge several batteries at once. While Cannondale addressed the problem with a one-off device, typical users are less likely to fabricate a charging apparatus than they are to purchase and travel with a spare battery or two.
With the long-awaited Force level version, AXS is likely to take a much larger section of the market than its eTap predecessor, so more consumers will be affected by the design limitations of both gearing and charging.
Of course, in time, solutions are likely to come into existence. Aftermarket gear options will likely hit the market in the future and AXS owners will adapt to the battery system. No matter the solution, AXS presents new challenges for users which should be considered by potential owners.
Test out your gearing and charge up before your big race day. With a little preparation and attention to detail, you should have an electric ride.