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Rate your gear

13 December, 2011

For the uninitiated, the wide range of branded bike components and their huge price differences can be baffling. Jon Miller and Stephen Huntley make sense of it all.

When evaluating a bike, one of the easiest to identify points of difference is the groupset (gears, derailleurs, shifters, hubs, chains, brakes and levers) it is fitted out with. For many riders, high-end parts are an unnecessary indulgence, but when buying a bike, you should be aware of where your components sit in the pecking order.

Who’s who?

The main players in the groupset market are Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM.

Campagnolo (often referred to as Campy) has the greatest heritage, being established in Italy in 1933 by Tullio Campagnolo. It was fabulously innovative for many years, coming up with the quick-release for wheels, fundamental advancements in derailleur design, and disk brakes for two-wheeled vehicles.

It remained the leading bike innovator up until the eighties, when Shimano took over the mantle. Campy has recovered lost ground in recent years, with compact groupsets and 11-speed drivetrains. The Campagnolo groupset is forever associated with the legendary rider Eddy Merck.

Shimano, a Japanese-based company, entered the bike component fray in the 1970s. It achieved early success with technological innovations, and in the 1980s it powered ahead of the competition with aerodynamic styling, centre-pull brakes, brake levers with concealed cables, indexed shifting, dual-pivot brakes, and the integration of shifters and brake levers. Because individual components would only work when used with other Shimano components, it drove many of its competitors out of business.

This year, Shimano has further asserted itself as an established high-end component name; Cadel Evans and all the other 2011 Tour de France jersey winners were using Shimano’s electric groupset, Di2.

SRAM, a US-based company, appeared on the scene in 1987, and is named after its founders, Scott, Ray, and Sam.  SRAM started out making mountain bike parts, but have since branched out into the road bike market, and are now a major player. A measure of their success is that Alberto Contador used SRAM components when he won the Tour de France in 2009 and 2010.

Why pay more?

Although groupsets perform the same basic task, they vary hugely in price. For instance, to buy Shimano’s Tiagra groupset on its own you would have to fork out about $700. The next level up, the 105, adds about $270 onto that price, Ultegra is close to $1,300, and Dura Ace can be had for about $2,400. The electric version comes in at close to $4,000.

Why is there such a big step up between models? The more expensive components are often made of more robust, long-lasting material, while being very light, reliable and superbly functional.

Shifting gears is smoother and quicker, and is often done with a lighter touch, on high-end components. At the higher end you also get more ergonomic, stylish design, hidden cabling, and if you’re really keen, electronic shifting.

To illustrate the point,  SRAM has four derailleurs in its road range. The Apex weighs in at 190g, and its long arm suits a wide range of gears. The Rival has an aluminium cage and weighs 188g. The Force has a carbon-fibre outer cage and magnesium inner link, and weighs 178g. The SRAM Red is a mix of carbon fibre and titanium, and has ceramic bearings. It weighs just 153g.

Brand vs brand

SRAM parts have a reputation for good ergonomics, reasonable price, and quick, crisp changing. They have a single paddle ‘double-tap’ gear changing system that is highly rated.

Shimano groupsets are known to be very reliable, have a good, light feel, and electric shifters are an option. Spare parts are always readily available, and the double-paddle system of gear changing is simple to use.

Campagnolo components look beautiful, have prestige value, 11-speed gears, and crisp changes. They have a double lever gear system which includes a paddle near the brake lever and a thumb-operated shifter. They have also just introduced an electric model.

Mix it up

As a general rule, it’s not easy to mix components between manufacturers. Campagnolo has a reputation of being particularly difficult, while SRAM and Shimano parts can often be interchanged, but it’s best to check with your local bike shop before making any expensive purchases.

Groupsets are broadly classed as road and mountain bike (MTB), and there are some basic design differences which will prevent some component mixing.

Some flat-bar road bikes, however, will have MTB-style wide-range gear cassettes, and touring bikes can mix up the components further. They have wide-range MTB cassettes and derailleurs, coupled with road-style shifters and brake levers.


Road Groupsets, with cheapest at the bottom to most expensive at the top

Shimano SRAM Campagnolo
Dura-Ace  Di2 (electric 10 speed) Record EPS & Super Record EPS (electric 11-speed)
Super Record (11 speed)
Dura-Ace (10-speed)  Red (10 speed) Record (11 speed)
Ultegra Di2 (electric 10 speed) Chorus (11 speed)
Ultegra (10 speed) Force (10 speed) Athena (11  speed)
105 (10 speed) Rival (10 speed) Centaur (10 speed)
Tiagra (10 speed))  Apex (10 speed  Veloce (10 speed)
Sora (9 speed)
2300 (8 speed)

MTB Groupsets, with cheapest at the bottom to most expensive at the top

Shimano SRAM
XTR (10 speed, cross   country) XX (10 speed)
Saint (9 speed,   downhill)
Deore XT (10 speed   cross country) X.0 (10/9 speed)
SLX (9/10 speed   cross country)
Deore (9 speed cross   country) X.9 (10/9 speed)
Alivio (8/9 speed   recreational) X.7 (10/9 speed)
Acera (8 speed   recreational) X.5 (10 speed)
Altus (8 speed   recreational)
Tourney (6/7/8 speed   recreational)
13 Comments leave one →
  1. John Prent permalink
    14 December, 2011 5:40 pm

    very helpful. thanks

  2. Dan permalink
    14 December, 2011 5:46 pm

    Cadel won this years TdF with a Shimano Di2 group – not Campagnolo. BMC used Campy last year when Cadel was world champ but not in 2011.

    Campy are making electric groups now as well, called ‘EPS’ in both Super Record and Record for the 2012 season.

  3. jason permalink
    14 December, 2011 6:10 pm

    Cadel actually rode with Shimano Di2 to win the Tour.

  4. Jethro permalink
    14 December, 2011 7:23 pm


  5. 14 December, 2011 9:10 pm


  6. pedr09 permalink
    14 December, 2011 9:20 pm

    For the record, Cadel Evans didn’t ride Campy to his tour win in 2011, he used Shimano DuraAce Di2.

  7. Phil Craig permalink
    14 December, 2011 10:04 pm

    I used Shimano (mainly 600) for about 15 yrs til the early 90’s. What killed it was the increasing lack of compatibility between their ranges particulary on chainsets, BBs and index.
    I’ve had campag centaur or veloce for nearly 20 yrs now and for durability they beat every else especially brakesets and hubs.
    The extra you pay you save with the long life of components.
    The only difference between record and the lower groups is weight, and if you commute with your gear that weight saving is irrelevant anyway.

  8. David Rafferton permalink
    14 December, 2011 10:46 pm

    “Cadel Evans also rode with a Campagnolo groupset on his BMC bike to win this year’s Tour de France”

    Errr… try Shimano in 2011. The team used Campy in 2010 but has since changed to Shimano.

  9. Ben Thomas permalink
    15 December, 2011 6:08 am

    LOL, I have a 10 speed – 5 at the back and 2 at the front to be precise – which is 21 years old and was collecting dust for the last 20 years. Doesn’t prevent me from getting fit.

  10. 15 December, 2011 8:48 am

    Cadel won this years Tour on Shimano not Campy, BMC changed to Shimano after the 2010 season.

    • 15 December, 2011 9:48 am

      Thanks, Jason. We had corrected this error in our magazine edition of the article, but hadn’t updated the file we loaded here. It is now corrected, and as you say, Cadel Evans ran Shimano, as did all the other jersey winners in this year’s Tour de France.

  11. Greg permalink
    15 December, 2011 11:35 am

    … and Cadel will be riding a BMC equipped with a Sram groupset in 2012. I understand that this will be a ‘first’ for Cadel and would be driven by the commercial arrangements made by his team.

  12. Ken Barnes permalink
    15 December, 2011 3:03 pm

    I think all of the groupsets are good quality at their variouse spec levels but SRAM red on my Felt F3 is my personal choice. In the crits I sit on 4th wheel and bang in a few shifts and they all get spooked.

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