It's been seven long months since our introduction to the latest entrant in electronic shifting, and the first wireless one - SRAM's Red eTap group. It's also been seven long months since we ate our shoes and declared it to be one of the finest drivetrain groups available, not only because of its functionality and reliability, but because of its ergonomics and aesthetics. In those 213 days, our relationship with the test kit from Chicago has deepened. We've become abusive, subjecting it to untold horrors over 3000-odd miles. Rain. Pond crossings. "Gravel" rides. Neglect. Run-ins with Priuses. Racing. We've attempted to kill it, and we've failed. Miserably. But, like any new marriage, it hasn't gone without its minor hitches, and we can confidently report that the honeymoon is over. We're pleased to report that our puppy love is real, and our devotion has blossomed as we've tuned our approach to shifting through the air.
Durability, and by second nature, reliability, has reigned king with eTap. No failures to report. No exploding shifters. No shattering derailleurs. SRAM of 2016 is a vastly different beast from SRAM of 2010. Even on the gravel builds we've assembled, we have nothing but success to report, where other electronic groups often fall victim to wires jostling free from ports over rough terrain. Actual shift action has - predictably - remained as solid as the day we assembled it. Short of quick adjustments for wheel changes, we haven't had to mess with it - one of the beautiful advantages of an electronic system. It even performs brilliantly with CeramicSpeed's alloy pulley ceramic bearing upgrade, something we're always slightly hesitant about with a new group. We also found the group to function well (perhaps even a shred quieter than SRAM's notoriously vocal Red cassette) with Campagnolo's 11-speed cassettes. Shimano's Dura-Ace cogset was functional, though we experienced quite a bit of noise and some shifting hesitation with an 11-28 setup. Perhaps a dig at Di2 for not playing too nicely with the SRAM Red cassette? Unlikely, but amusing all the same.
Ergonomically, eTap is, along with Campagnolo, supreme. The left/right paddle shifting action is immediately natural, a sublime, beautiful takeaway from the automotive world. Our initial hunch behind SRAM's motivations here is one of patent avoidance, and their efforts are ingenious. Shift effort isn't as delicate as a Shimano Di2 mouseclick, but not as difficult as a DoubleTap upshift. It's a delicious balance, one that affords shifting from numerous positions on the hoods. SRAM's remote trigger solution, the Blips, are minimalist and versatile. We've become smitten with tucking them under the bartape on the underside of the bar tops, affording stealthy shifting going uphill or from a relaxed upright position.
The new group's aesthetic is what really warms our cold, black hearts; hearts so closely aligned with Scandinavian minimalism. SRAM's notoriously gaudy graphics treatment has been toned down into a modern, clean package that's just keyed up enough. That's not the principle point of our artistic lust, though. It's the complete lack of wires, of junction boxes, of bolt-on mess. It takes cutting-edge cycling and gives it the same, complimenting look. It is minimalist road cycling on steroids.
Like any, our new love isn't all roses, though. We have some complaints. They're few, but worthy of mentioning, because like any good relationship, open communication is key. One: Front shifting is the slowest of the big three electronic groups, and not as forceful/clean as Di2 or EPS, especially with third-party chainrings. Two: Single-handed shifting is difficult, given the left/right paddle shift action we're such big fans of. We've been used to eating with our left hand, and being able to go up/down the rear cassette with our right with other groups. Three: We're still not fans of SRAM's Aerolink brakes. While they're not bad, the difficult-to-align single-pivot design can afford issues when we're traveling, and the feel isn't quite up to the same par as Shimano and Campagnolo. But, it gives us the excuse to build eTap bikes with the peerless eeCycleworks brakeset, easily our favorite arrangement. And finally, the included battery charger affords a single cradle for the eTap system's two power units, requiring the user to swap batteries for a full charge. A more convenient setup would be a dual-cradle charger.
Minor niggles aside, SRAM has hit a home-run with Red eTap. It's rapidly become the house choice when it comes to electronic shifting, giving us the latitude to build bikes that allow their most basic, beautiful intricacies to shine through. It's also apparent that it's been a a coming-of-age product for the American manufacturer, one that's been field-tested well beyond what we've subjected it to. With that in mind, expect to see plenty more of it rolling out the door on our builds over the coming months, and we're even excited to see what SRAM's Italian and Japanese competitors respond with in response to the new benchmark for electronic shifting.