SRAM surprised both friend and foe in April when it launched its more affordable “Force” groupset, only two months after the release of the new RED eTap AXS groupset. This set includes all the ground-breaking features of the eTap AXS—and that’s a lot of features. So now, for €1,000 less and only 300g more weight, SRAM brings its all-new and seamless gear shifting experience to a wider audience, both on-road and off (at least, that’s what the marketing blurb says). High time to give the SRAM Force eTap AXS system a serious test. And where better to do that than on the roads around Girona, in Spain?

Testing, testing

Girona turned out to be the perfect location for such a test, from the centuries-old alleys in the city centre to stunning climbs on roads where cars are few and far between. The hills surrounding this northern Spanish city have gradients from 3% to over 20%. And let’s not forget the gravel roads! In short: Girona has plenty of challenges for both cyclists and their machines. It’s an ideal testing ground for a groupset that was developed for a very wide range of circumstances. So, after an extensive briefing by SRAM’s Product Manager, it was finally time to take the product on the road.

SRAM Force eTap AXS

The base of our test, the AC Hotel Palau de Bellavista, on the outskirts of Girona.  Photograph: Road Bike Connection – Tristan Cardew

Shifting opinions

I’m going to be honest here: this was my first experience of SRAM. And for a die-hard Shimano shifter, it does take some getting used to. But not for long. The basic logic of the SRAM system translates quickly into physical reaction, as there is a paddle behind each brake lever. The right-hand paddle changes to a larger cog on the rear cassette, while the left-hand paddle changes to a smaller cog on the rear cassette. To shift the front derailleur you press both levers at the same time, and the derailleur will then move the chain to whichever front chainring it is not on already. Easy, right?

SRAM Force eTap AXS

The new eTap shifting system levers work logically. Photograph: Road Bike Connection – Tristan Cardew

The gear shifting paddles are behind the brake levers. Whichever bike it finds itself on, the stopping power of the SRAM Force disc brakes is super quiet and very secure. The new lever design has some added texture, which does make Shimano levers feel a little old-fashioned. But thanks to the simple structure and the redesigned shifting system (no more double-tap), it’s almost impossible to end up in the wrong gear. Your fingers automatically rest on the correct spot, ready to shift, even with long-fingered gloves on, which should please the die-hard winter riders.

Counting teeth

This new system is 2×12, which means two chainrings up front and 12 cogs on the rear cassette. This system can mean shifting gear more often, but while 12-speed might sound complicated, it doesn’t feel any stranger that a traditional 2×10. There are indeed more gear ratios to choose from than with a traditional compact set-up, so that means there’s a bigger chance you will find a gear perfectly suited to your own cadence with SRAM’s set-up—the rear cassettes have six cogs with a difference of only one tooth. The bike I was riding, a BMC Teammachine ALR Disc One, was fitted with a 48/35 front crankset and a 10-28 cassette on the back. And while 48 might sound small for a big ring, the biggest gear ratio of 48/10 is, in fact exactly the same as 53/11! Well, ok, not exactly: 48/10 is a ratio of 4.80 and 53/11 is 4.82, but it’s pretty darned close. So the key message here is to forget those preconceptions.

SRAM Force eTap AXS

The 2×12-groupset offers plenty of range for both flat and hilly terrain. Photograph: Road Bike Connection – Tristan Cardew

Thanks to the addition of a 10-tooth on the cassette, the front chainrings can therefore be kept smaller. The front chainring gear ratios are also at the core of the new system, and the difference between the two front rings is always 13 teeth. This is closer than a traditional compact, for example, which in practice means that even more emphasis comes on shifting gears on the rear cassette.

I caught myself out on several occasions by discovering that I was riding on the inner front chainring—something which would never happen on my own compact set-up. Firstly, that’s because the gap between the two front chainrings is much bigger (16 teeth on a 50-34). But also because the narrower 12-speed “flat-top” chain is really quiet, even if the chain is really crossed. A crossed chain on a more traditional system would likely make itself much more heard.

The Service Course Girona

A group ride lead by former professional racer Christian Meier. He knows all the best places to ride in the area. Photograph: Road Bike Connection – Tristan Cardew

Thrills and spills

And that brings us on to the all-new gear shifting system. With the SRAM Force eTap AXS, it’s not only crossed gears that are really quiet: when you ride over uneven terrain and pot-holes, there is also a distinct lack of chain whip. It turns out SRAM has completely redesigned the way the chain is kept at the correct tension.

SRAM Force eTap AXS

The chain also stays tight when the going gets rough. Photograph: Road Bike Connection – Tristan Cardew

We have to be honest: when a manufacturer claims that missed gear changes are almost impossible, even on rough roads, we see that as a challenge. So, as soon as we hit the trails, it was time to shift gears. Lots of gears. As hard as I tried, I still didn’t manage to put the system out of kilter. The chain didn’t make any unexpected jumps, and the rear derailleur did exactly what you expect. effortlessly guiding the chain over all 12 gears of the cassette. Switching the front chainrings was also slick and smooth, which is you sometimes have to pay for with a short delay in shifting. This is because, in order to find the optimal moment to change gear on the front, the system waits a couple of milliseconds in order to find the correct chainring position before actuating the derailleur. Those who are used to cable shifting have initially to get used to this ‘thinking’ system. However, this is not specifically a  SRAM Force eTap AXS problem. Several electronic systems also have this delay.

A convincing development

It’s not often that an upgraded groupset shifts the industry’s goal posts. But that is indeed what SRAM has done with its eTap AXS system. The company has been working for four years developing a product that will likely provide huge inspiration for the competition. The new gear ratios both in front and back make the system extremely flexible, and make the ideal gear a breeze to find. The narrower chain, which thanks to the new rear derailleur is kept nice and taught at all times, is quieter than ever. The new hydraulic disc brakes also provide very sure-footed control over the bike. And because there is increasing demand for power meters, the crankset is power-meter ready. This makes the choice for this groupset a real no-brainer.

SRAM Force eTap AXS

SRAM Force eTap AXS: an enhancement of the cycling experience. Photograph: Road Bike Connection – Tristan Cardew

SRAM has taken its time developing this groupset. The company has looked and listened very carefully to what today’s riders want. And that shows in every aspect of the new SRAM Force eTap AXS system.

Interested in the specifications, configurations and prices? Read more about this groupset here: SRAM unveils Force eTap AXS—a serious challenger for Shimano’s Ultegra Di2