SRAM's Wireless Shifting Will Revolutionize Your Road Bike

SRAM eTap Red shifts your bike wirelessly. Credit: BrakeThrough Media

Two teams racing the 2016 Tour de France have lined up with SRAM's new eTap drivetrain. The wireless, electronic system — with only cables for the brakes — is one of the most anticipated releases since the first electronic components appeared back in the early 1990s.

Mavic launched the world’s first electronic drivetrain in 1993 (it failed), and Shimano and Campagnolo began producing electronic groupsets in 2009 and 2011, respectively. So for SRAM, the question of releasing an electronic drivetrain was not a matter of “if” but of “when,” and the pressure was on to make sure theirs was not only different, but better.

After spending three months riding it, it’s safe to say that eTap is a truly revolutionary component group that raises the bar for what an electronic drivetrain can be. And it may even redefine the way we shift our bikes.

eTap’s most impressive and innovative feature is the wireless design. SRAM has eliminated the derailleur cables, housing, and wiring kits and harnesses necessary to install the electronic drivetrains made by SRAM’s competitors. The only drivetrain that's easier to install than eTap is a singlespeed. For eTap, bolt on each part, pair the derailleurs with the shifters, and adjust the limits on both derailleurs. Done. And if you’re already running a SRAM 11-speed cassette, chain, and crankset, eTap is compatible so you don’t need to purchase a full groupset to upgrade.

But SRAM didn’t stop with redesigning the components we use to shift; they redefined the way we shift as well. Traditionally, each of a bike’s two shifters control one of its two derailleurs: The left shifts the front derailleur, while the right shifts the rear. With eTap, SRAM simplified shifting to a more intuitive way to change gears. With eTap, a tap of the right-hand lever downshifts the rear derailleur to a harder gear while a tap of the left-hand lever upshifts the rear derailleur to an easier gear. Tapping both levers simultaneously shifts the front derailleur both up and down. It only took us a few rides to get used to eTap’s new shift logic — especially two-handed shifts of the front derailleur — but once we did, we had no issues.

Shift precision also sets eTap apart from the competition, rivaling the best drivetrains — mechanical and electronic — we’ve ridden. Shifts were crisp and clean. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t jam, jump, or drop the chain. We also liked the tactile feel of each shift from the levers. With some electronic drivetrains, the levers are so sensitive that it’s easy to shift accidentally — especially when wearing long-fingered gloves or on rough roads. But with eTap, each push of the shift lever is met with a firm, unmistakable click. And like other electronic drivetrains, holding each lever in shifts the rear derailleur through the multiple gears, meaning you can move from the smallest to the largest cog (or vice versa) with one motion.

eTap is a tiny bit slower than other drivetrains, but that’s by design. With eTap, SRAM went for precision over speed, as faster shifting puts more stress on the chain and saps battery power. You get used to it quickly. And considering how precise eTap shifts, it’s a fair trade-off, especially if it means never missing a shift while also getting more mileage out of your chain and cassette.

And then there are Blips, small remote buttons that can be installed on the handlebar to give you extra shifting positions. Blips are wired — they plug into each eTap shifter with the cable wrapped under the bar tape — but once installed, you hardly know they’re there. Our test bike came with a set pre-installed under the tops of the bars, which meant we could shift while climbing without having to remove our hands from the tops of the bars. Sprinters or crit racers can use Blips to give themselves the ability to shift with their hands deep in the drops.

SRAM claims each derailleur battery holds a charge for about 600 miles. We found that to be a conservative estimate, but it’s still a good idea with any electronic drivetrain to get into the habit of charging them on a regular basis. LED indicator lights notify you when it’s time for a charge. And should a battery ever die in the middle of a ride, they’re interchangeable, so you can pop the battery off the front derailleur and install it on the rear to get you home. At only $40 a piece, it’s worth buying an extra battery. 

There’s also a small battery in each shifter. These aren’t rechargeable, but SRAM says they last at least a year, depending on your mileage. As with the derailleur batteries, LEDs provide helpful status updates, and you can find replacements at any store that sells watch batteries. eTap also talks to ANT+ cycling computers like Garmin’s Edge 520 and 1000 and Wahoo’s ELEMNT, so data-nerds can add information about gearing and battery life to their dashboards.

So now the $2,700 question (or $1,600 question if you’re upgrading): Is eTap right for you? SRAM eTap offers clear benefits and endless possibilities, unmatched by competitors. Wireless drivetrains are the direction the cycling industry is headed. Kudos to SRAM for being the first to do it — and for taking the time to make sure it did it well. [$2,700 (full groupset), $1,600 (shifters and derailleurs); sram.com]