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August 26th, 2015 – There are moments – in life, in sport, in cycling – that create a crisp line separating before and after. The most striking in recent cycling history was the 1989 Tour de France. The moment LeMond won that miraculous tour, by a scant 8 seconds, he created the before and after of aerodynamics in road cycling.
Only time will tell, but we may have just witnessed another such moment. SRAM’s long awaited electronic groupset was just released, SRAM Red eTap, and it will be difficult to look at any groupset in the same way again. Whether wires or cables, they suddenly seem dated, overnight they have become relics of a bygone era. The effort Specialized and Trek have gone through to cable the Venge and Madone’s shifting internally seem unnecessary exercises in obsolescence.
The future is here, and it is wireless.
Despite secrecy, the fact that SRAM had been working on an electronic group was no mystery. Spy shots were seen almost two years ago and it has been raced in earnest at the highest levels all season, even winning a tour stage with AG2R. As it turns out, much of the recent speculation on the inter-webs has been correct.
The group is indeed called Red eTap and most importantly it is wireless. An eTap group consists of just two levers, a front and rear derailleur and a charger. The rest of the group – cranks, brakes, chain, cassette – come straight from Red 22 with some graphic and finish changes, which means the four eTap components are compatible with any SRAM 22 group making for an easy upgrade. Optional remote shifters, called Blips are also available. These are not wireless, instead running from ports on the lever bodies and each body can run two remote shifters. No junction box is required, despite the spy shots that showed wires and a junction box. Those were all fakes, with the junction box frequently a box of raisins wrapped in electrical tape.
Each component has its own integrated batteries. The derailleurs use custom, interchangeable SRAM batteries good for 1000km and the levers use standard CR2032 coin batteries which will last an astounding 2 years at 150 miles a week. An integrated LED on all components displays green when shifting on a charged battery, it switches to flashing red when you have 15 hours of ride time left and solid red when you have only five hours. Even if you ignore all these warnings, the rear will typically run down first, which means you simply need to swap batteries to get the rear working again while leaving the front ring wherever you want it for the ride home. A full charge is accomplished in just 45 minutes. If a you ignore a lever’s warnings and run out of juice mid-ride a stop at any drugstore will deliver a new CR2032.
There is no power switch to turn the system off, if internal accelerometers don’t detect movement they go to sleep. This does mean that your system will stay on while it is in the car or in the hold of an airplane during travel. SRAM suggest simply removing the batteries, which easily go on and off with a simple but secure latch, and placing the included red terminal caps in their place.
The new eTap levers are unmistakably SRAM, based on the same ergonomics we have long believed are the industry best. Like Double Tap the levers each feature a single large carbon shift paddle and carbon brake lever. The hood diameter has been reduced very slightly since it requires no mechanical internals and reach adjust has been preserved which should continue to make SRAM the go-to group for riders smaller in stature.
In addition to its wireless nature, the shifting logic itself is the group’s big innovation. It was truly a ‘Eureka’ moment for the company. While being astoundingly simple to use, it helped SRAM navigate a field full of Shimano patent land mines. In fact, when SRAM printed out all the patents protecting electronic shifting they weighed over 44lbs. Don’t worry, they recycled all that printer paper.
SRAM was inspired by the paddle shifters of Formula1 race cars during eTap’s design and it was this that SRAM felt took the group well beyond simply electrifying a mechanical system. This shifting logic used electronics to create a new, simpler mode of shifting that would be impossible with traditional mechanical right-rear, left-front shifting logic.
Push the right lever and the derailleur shifts into a harder gear (smaller cog), push the left lever and it shifts into a easier gear (larger cog). Hold either lever and it multi-shifts across the entire cassette. We timed our test bike at 2.9 seconds to shift from the 28 to the 11 cog during multi-shift. Shift both levers at once and they shift the front ring, down or up sequentially, with no trim. Blips, which can be run over or under bar tape, follow the lead of whatever lever they are plugged into.
Adjusting the derailleurs, whether during install or on the fly, is incredibly simple. There is no adjustment mode that needs to be entered, simply shift the lever at the same time you hold down a function button on the other side of the lever and you can move the derailleur .2mm in that lever’s direction to fine tune it. Perfect if you get a wheel out of the neutral pit during a crit and it’s not quite right.
The rear derailleur is the brains of the outfit, keeping track of what all the other components are doing and paring starts here. It shifts 11 cogs, features a carbon cage and ceramic pulleys and other than the battery hanging off the back, looks very much like a Red22 derailleur. A green LED keeps you apprised of charge status and a small function button initiates paring.
The front derailleur is set up exactly like a Red22 YAW derailleur, complete with guide lines on the cage, and like a YAW derailleur requires no trim. It is obviously wireless and uses the same battery as the rear. It has the same LED light as the rear for charge indication, but the small function button also shifts the front derailleur to simplify set up, since it takes two hands to shift with the levers. Perhaps what is most interesting about the derailleur is, while it it will slightly over-shift to encourage the chain to engage the ring then slide back into an optimal position, it will not trim like a Dura Ace Di2 derailleur does to match the rear. Instead it relies on YAW to keep the cage out of the chain’s way. The front derailleur will follow a different path in space as it shifts depending on where the chain is on the cassette to ensure a quiet and confident shift but it will always land in the same place for the big and little rings respectively.
SRAM engineers felt creating a safe, secure and reliable wireless system would be the group’s greatest hurdle. But they also knew the connectors of any wired electronic system were the number one failure point. After looking at Bluetooth, ANT+, WiFi and every other protocol in the wireless world they found they would have to create their own. The system needed to be hack proof, it needed to exist in a peloton with many other SRAM Red eTap groups, it needed to send two signals at once to create a front shift and it needed to consume very little power.
The result is a system that once paired, will not talk to another eTap component, has AES 128bit encryption (fittingly created by two Belgians), uses rolling codes and will work at a range of 100 meters incase you ride a really big frame. SRAM even employed hackers during development. During the Tour of California, in addition to the Axeon team riding eTap, SRAM set up neutral support cars and motos with dummy eTap systems and sent 750k shift signals over the week. Despite the team cars, the TV motos, the helicopters, the race offcials, they did not miss a single one of those 750k shifts.
The SRAM signal, called Airea, shouts so loud amongst all the interference that even a broad frequency jammer would not be very effective and would shut down radio, cell and TV signals long before it infected SRAM Red eTap. While Airea initiates shifts, the system does create an ANT+ signal to allow it to integrate with Garmin’s new gear display graphic.
The Set Up
SRAM did more than tell us set up was easy. They walked us through the entire process. With brakes already set up, crank installed and levers in place, SRAM installed and paired the derailleurs, attached the chain and dialed in the shifting in about 10 minutes while explaining the entire process and answering questions. It’s safe to say an experienced mechanic could do it in about 7 minutes and a rank amateur in 15. With no cables to fish and no special pairing or adjusting modes the shifting system sets up faster than cabling brakes. In fact, it’s the first time we could imagine a rider swapping race wheels and a race eTap group, the night before a race. You could realistically run eTap on two bikes, swapping parts and pairing is that fast.
It’s no secret eTap is an important project for SRAM, and it’s no secret the recall of hydraulic was almost catastrophic for the Chicago based brand. SRAM had to get eTap right and to do this it embraced testing more rigorous than any it had undertaken before. In fact, even as the marketing team was creating the ‘Mechanical Advantage’ campaign, SRAM engineers were deep in testing of electronic.
To cover all the lab and field testing here would result in an engineering thesis; suffice it to say after exhaustive lab testing that included vibration, climate extremes, waterproofing, power washing, thermal cycling, mash testing buttons, durability, longevity, crash survival, etc… the result is a system that can perform at least 1.7 million shifts before wearing down. In the field, with SRAM employees and pro teams, the group has logged over 500k kilometers. SRAM has leveraged every resource they have, a formidable list, to ensure the group will exceed the harshest environments and critics needs.
With over 150miles on the group, mounted to a Pinarello Dogma F8, this is much more than simple ‘first-ride’ feedback. The biggest concern was the shifting logic, after a lifetime of shifting the rear with my right hand and front with my left, how easy would it be to learn a new method? I’d like to tell you how quickly I did or did not adapt, but that assumes there was an adaptation process, which there was not. From meter one, eTap was so simple to shift you would need to try to get it wrong. Of course, that means I had to try. After I realized my fingers would continually find the right buttons, no matter the effort, I did my best to confuse the system. I would slightly delay a double shift for the front derailleur, yet eTap would find the right ring. I tried to double shift then quickly single shift to confuse the front and rear, eTap shrugged off these efforts with ease, always shifting correctly.
The feel at the lever was a painstaking development process for SRAM, involving the length of the throw, the spring tension and ‘click’ at the end. Rather than try to emulate Red22, SRAM looked for a positive click that was quick and easy yet could not be accidentally shifted and gave the rider positive feedback about initiation. In this regard they nailed it. The feel is perfect – quick, easy, unmistakable. It has more in common with Campy’s feel than Shimano’s mouse like clicks.
The shift paddle has a slight texture to it which makes it pleasant to grab and thanks to a single, large lever, it will be impossible to miss-shift even in long finger gloves or on extremely rough surfaces, which has long been an issue with Shimano’s Di2.
The Blip remote shifters require fingertip actuation since they are buttons held within a rimmed fixture unlike Shimano’s satellite shifters which can be shifted with the edge of a finger or even the palm when mounted on the tops. Under bartape they require a definitive push, leading us to speculate they are better off without bar tape over them, and will likely never be as easy to operate as a Shimano satellite ‘Sprint’ shifter.
I currently run Di2 on the ‘fast’ setting using Shimano’s set up software, one step quicker than Di2’s normal setting. Red eTap is definitely slower than that, similar to Di2’s normal setting. While during the first few kilometers eTap felt a bit slow compared to Di2. I quickly found it shifted as fast as the ride demanded. While SRAM has created an Airea USB stick to allow firmware updates in the future, the ability to hotrod the system is not in the plans. While the system can shift faster, SRAM feels the speed of shifts, like the shift inputs, is just right and in the name of simplicity should not be changed by the rider. We appreciate the simplicity of the system and thanks to the shifting logic and wireless set up it is undoubtedly the simplest system on the road, but we would like the ability to customize shift speed. It was a welcome update date to Di2 and would be welcome here.
What SRAM has done is create a system that moves the chain as well as Campagnolo’s EPS or Shimano’s Di2, yet does it with no wires and the inherent hassle, and does it with fewer inputs in a simpler way. That delivers an undisputed win. SRAM eTap is the new king of the drivetrain jungle and Campagnolo and Shimano are in a position SRAM is familiar with. They need to play catch up and do it quickly, because SRAM Red eTap has essentially made their entire wired electronic product line historical relics.
RED eTap Levers: $580 a set – 260grams
RED eTap Rear Derailleur: $590 – 239grams w/ battery
RED eTap Front Derailleur: $370 – 187grams w/ battery
RED eTap Blips: $200 set of four – 6grams each
Complete SRAM Red eTap Group: $2758grams 1992grams (BB30)
Look for SRAM Red eTap to hit new 2o16 bikes this spring. More: sram.com