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Buyer's guide to road bike groupsets

Everything you need to know about Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo groupsets, and how to choose between them

Charlotte Head
21 Nov 2022

A groupset is a collection of the most fundamental components on a bike and has a great effect on the overall performance and aesthetic. It has thus always been a focal point for innovation and change, as well as a place for brands to put their personal stamp.

What makes one groupset different from another may not only be the sheer number of gears, but also how the user operates those gears, what brakes are included and, last but not least, the price.

Three main players have dominated the stage when it comes to groupset manufacturing and, despite other concerted efforts, it does not look likely that Shimano, SRAM or Campagnolo will be knocked off the podium any time soon.

In their latest iterations, all have committed to disc variations at the top-end of their ranges, as well as electronic shifting.

With SRAM ostensibly leading the way with their fully wireless 12 speed eTap AXS groupsets, Shimano made steps in the same direction with the release of semi-wireless models in 2021. Campagnolo also looks set to up the ante and introduce 13-sprocket road cassettes, after the success of the Ekar gravel groupset.

Though many will have individual preferences, each brand’s groupset range offers a variety of advantages (and disadvantages). With so many elements to consider, it can be slightly overwhelming when selecting a new groupset to know which one is best for you.

Read on to learn about different types of groupset, brand variations and an overview of each manufacturer’s road groupset hierarchy.



What is a groupset?

A groupset is the collection of mechanical parts that includes a bike’s drivetrain and brakes. This typically includes gear and brake levers, a crankset, derailleurs, a chain, a cassette and a bottom bracket.

Some manufacturers may choose to include other components, such as a headset or pedals, though this is not standard practice. Brands may also sell groupset-matching components such as wheels, which carry groupset branding but aren't considered part of the groupset itself. 

Included in a groupset:

  • Gear levers
  • Brake levers
  • Brakes
  • Derailleur(s)
  • Crankset
  • Cassette
  • Chain
  • Bottom bracket

Sometimes included in a groupset:

  • Headset
  • Cables / hoses
  • Pedals
  • Seatpost
  • Hubs

Not included in a groupset:

  • Frame
  • Fork
  • Handlebars
  • Stem
  • Bar tape
  • Saddle
  • Wheels
  • Tyres

What's the difference between road and gravel groupsets?

Most road bike groupsets feature a crankset that has two chainrings, allowing for more gear combinations. The real-world implication of this is that the rider will have more gears to choose from to help them pedal at their desired cadence on the given terrain.

Gravel groupsets are designed to perform better off road. Gravel riding needs lower gears and is harsher on the bike, and the uneven ground can cause the chain to jump about more.

As such, most gravel groupsets offer a 1× crankset, meaning it only has one chainring (and no need for a front derailleur). This chainring will feature wider teeth and special tooth profiles to help the chain stay in place.

A gravel rear derailleur will typically feature a clutch mechanism, akin to those seen on mountain bikes, that helps provide more tension on the bottom span of the chain to reduce excess movement and chance of chain drop.

Are electronic groupsets better than mechanical groupsets?

Photo: Matthew Loveridge

In an electronic groupset, the gears are operated by signals sent from the gear shifters. In some cases, this is done wirelessly, in others the shifters will be connected to the derailleurs via electronic wires.

Removing standard metal cables eradicates issues such as drag caused by poor cable routing, cable stiffness, stretch and fraying. Gear adjustments are set-and-forget and the shifting itself is typically faster with electronic gears.

However electronic groupsets are not without their down sides. The components themselves tend to be much more expensive, not only to purchase but also to repair, and issues with connectivity and wiring can still throw a spanner in the works.

All in all, electronic shifting is great if you have the time and the money to invest in them, but for most users’ needs, standard cable-shifting is entirely capable.

How much does a good groupset cost?

Photo: Matthew Loveridge

How long is a piece of string? The definition of a good groupset is largely determined by the rider’s intended use and expectations. Mid-level road groupsets can start from around £300 / $350 whereas the top-level models can be as much as £4,000 / $4,700+.

If you’re putting together a racing bike, it’s likely the speed of an electronic groupset will appeal but you’ll pay a hefty premium for it. For general day-to-day riding, even entry-level cable-actuated groupsets are just fine.

Each manufacturer will have different variations on the same theme, but it is worth choosing the one whose features and ergonomics suit you, and whose price you can live with.

Shimano vs. SRAM vs. Campagnolo: Who does what and how?

Shimano

Photo: Matthew Loveridge

Founded in 1921 by its namesake, Shozaburo Shimano, Shimano is undoubtedly the oldest manufacturer of the trio and is well-established as one of the names in bicycle componentry.

On the modern road market, Shimano is best known for its Dura-Ace, Ultegra and 105 series, all of which use Di2, Shimano’s electronic technology, on the latest models.

Shimano gear shifters are operated by two paddles on each lever. Though the electronic gears can be configured to function solely from either shifter, as standard the left shifter operates the front derailleur, and the right shifter operates the rear.

On the cable-actuated levers, the whole right-hand brake lever is clicked inwards to downshift to an easier gear (moving the chain up the cassette to a larger sprocket) and the smaller inner paddle is clicked to upshift to a harder one (moving the chain down the cassette to a smaller sprocket).

The left brake lever moves inwards to upshift (moving the chain to the larger chainring) while the small paddle is for downshifts (moving the chain to the smaller chainring). 

This is replicated on the electronic shifters but with buttons rather than mechanical paddles, and the levers function solely as a brake levers and don't move sideways.

Shimano road groupset hierarchy (high to low)

12 speed

11 speed

10 speed

  • GRX RX400 (gravel)
  • Tiagra 4700 / 4720

9 speed

  • Sora R3000

8 speed

  • Claris 2400 / 2403

For an in-depth look at Shimano’s road and gravel series, see our buyer’s guide to Shimano groupsets

SRAM

In comparison to the others, SRAM is a relatively new player in the game, but made waves when it entered the market in 1987, with the introduction of the grip shifter.

Nowadays, popular mountain bike components also sit alongside their strong road bike series.

SRAM electronic road shifters operate in conjunction with one another, and feature one shift button on each. The left shifter moves the chain up the cassette to an easier gear and the right shifter moves the chain down the cassette. To shift between chainrings, both shifters must be clicked at the same time.

The brand’s cable-actuated shifters feature DoubleTap technology, where the action is determined by how far the shift paddle is pushed. Push the paddle all the way in, and it will move the chain up the cassette or crankset, a half-push will bring it back down.

Like the Shimano configuration, DoubleTap levers use the left shifter for the front derailleur and right shifter for the rear.

SRAM road groupset hierarchy (high to low)

12 speed

11 speed

  • Force 1
  • Force
  • Rival 1
  • Rival
  • Apex 1

10 speed

  • Apex

It is worth noting all of SRAM's road SRAM groupsets include 1× options and the brand doesn't treat its gravel options as separate groupsets. However, it did join forces with its sibling brands RockShox and Zipp to provide some XPLR gravel-specific options.

For an in-depth look at SRAM’s road series, see our buyer’s guide to SRAM groupsets.

Campagnolo

Created by bicycle racer Tullio Campagnolo in 1933, Campagnolo is known for its race-focussed approach to component design. With unique shifter ergonomics and starting at a higher price bracket, Campagnolo targets a traditional roadie audience with its groupsets but has expanded into gravel as well.

Campagnolo’s shifting operation is the same on both cable-actuated and electronic groupsets but, unlike rivals, it incorporates both finger and thumb actions.

To move the chain up the cassette or crankset, the shift paddle that sits behind the brake lever is used. A smaller, more button-like paddle that sits on the inside face of the shifter is then thumb-operated to shift back down.

As with both Shimano and cable-actuated SRAM, the left shifter operates the front derailleur, the right shifter operating the rear.

Campagnolo road groupset hierarchy (high to low)

13 speed (gravel only, sits outside main hierarchy)

12 speed

  • Super Record EPS (electronic) 
  • Super Record
  • Record
  • Chorus

11 speed

  • Centaur

For an in-depth look at Campagnolo’s road series, see our buyer’s guide to Campagnolo groupsets. 

How do I choose which groupset to buy?

While the choice when buying a complete bike is often taken away from you, choosing a groupset from scratch is not an easy ask.

If you've never ridden a road bike before, it is worth testing different bikes equipped with each of the manufacturers groupsets to get a feel for what works most naturally for you.

If you’re a road bike aficionado and know which manufacturer you prefer, but are unsure which model to go for, working out the bike’s intended use is key.

If you aren’t competing in high level racing, it’s not necessary to get the most expensive groupset available to still have a fantastic experience.

More money will get you more gear options, lighter components and a more refined set up but if you’re relatively new to the sport, or budget is a high priority, the lower end of the spectrum will still serve you well.

With cheaper starting and running costs, more modest groupsets are still equipped to do everything you need them to.

Component makers have put huge efforts into refining their groupsets and it's now the norm for trickle-down technology to benefit the cheaper options in the range, so even the entry-level stuff should work well. It’s much more likely that your legs will give out before your gears.

Want to know more about road bikes? Don't miss our buyer's guide to the best road bikes and our guide to every road bike part explained in simple terms.

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