First Ride: SRAM Red eTap Electronic Wireless Drivetrain

By Michael White

After four years of development, and two years of whispers, rumors and spy shots, SRAM officially unveiled its latest road group, Red eTap, at a media event held at the company’s European headquarters in Schweinfurt, Germany, just a few days before the Eurobike trade show. What makes SRAM’s maiden voyage into the world of electronic drivetrains unique is that it’s a wireless system composed of two shifters and two derailleurs that were optimized for use with SRAM’s existing Red crankset and rim brakes. And although there’s no compatibility for disc brakes just yet, Red eTap is the most revolutionary road groupset ever produced. And, interestingly, despite its utilization of an all-new, complex proprietary wireless system, Red eTap’s most noteworthy feature is its simplicity.

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SRAM brought out a large fleet of demo bikes for the launch of its Red eTap electronic wireless drivetrain.

CUTTING THE CORD
“We believe in advancement, but not simply for advancement’s sake,” said Road Brand Director Chris Zigmont. “The objective for our electronic group project was to have it become the antidote to complexity. A bicycle should be simple, and our guiding principle for what became Red eTap was that it would be purpose-built. And, to that end, it’s the simplest electronic groupset available, both in terms of setup and functionality.”

“Prior to the development of eTap, we believed mechanical shifting was superior to electronic shifting,” said Advanced Development Manager Brian Jordan. “We took our competitors’ existing products and we treated them as if they were our first prototypes. There were some things we liked and others that we didn’t, but we knew that we didn’t want to just copy any of the existing systems—we wanted to make them better. And we started off by looking at shift logic. Our competitors’ groups are electronic versions of their own mechanical shifting actions. But we thought, ‘Because it’s an electronic system, you can design and place the shifting mechanism in almost any way you can imagine. It doesn’t have to mimic old technology.’ So we started with a clean slate and worked with, among others, a firm that designs control systems for fighter jets.

The Red eTap crankset is the same as found on mechanical Red 22, but comes with new graphics.
The Red eTap crankset is the same as found on mechanical Red 22, but comes with new graphics.

“And we knew early on that we wanted our group to be wireless, just like most of our modern everyday technology like smartphones. Connectors are the number one failure point of a wired, electronic system. When a wired system doesn’t respond, it could be because a wire broke, or maybe a connector became unplugged. And if you have your wires internally routed, you’ll need to pull your bike apart in order to fix the problem, and that’s an issue we intended to eliminate.”

A NEW WIRELESS SYSTEM
To create a wireless system, SRAM engineers knew they would need to select a wireless protocol, but they had difficulty in determining which would be best. “We needed the shifters be able to simultaneously communicate with both the front derailleur and the rear derailleur, and that took Bluetooth off the table,” said Jordan. “ANT delivers power at a periodic rate—well, that rate isn’t fast enough for us, so we wanted shifting to be faster than what the ANT protocol provides. When it came down to reliability, security, simplicity, all the other protocols would fall short in some area, so felt it would be best to create our own system and have complete control over it. SRAM’s system is called Airea, and it’s designed for high-speed shifting performance, low power usage, security and reliability. We developed it with other organizations and consultants, even former hackers, in order to ensure that it’s a secure system—you won’t have to worry about someone hacking your bike’s derailleurs.”

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The Red eTap rear derailleur has its battery positioned towards the rear of the bike, and SRAM says that they determined this to be the optimal location to prevent damage. The function button is hidden, while the LED battery life indicator light is located along the top near the battery.

DERAILLEURS & BATTERIES
Red eTap is distinguished by four key components: two shifters and two derailleurs. Unlike Shimano Di2 and Campagnolo EPS electronic groups, SRAM Red eTap does not have a junction box or separate “brain” unit to make the system function. Instead, the rear derailleur is the master device of eTap. It features a simple parallelogram design with a carbon cage and two pulleys, just like its Red mechanical counterpart. As of now, the eTap rear derailleur can accommodate up to a size 11-28 cassette, but SRAM says that a WiFLi version is in development to allow the use or larger rear cogs for an expanded gear range. It installs just like a mechanical derailleur—simply bolt it to your bike’s hanger—although there are no cables or wires to attach to it. The front derailleur also installs just like a mechanical derailleur sans cables or wires, and it features SRAM’s Yaw technology to eliminate the need for trim.

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Like the rear derailleur, the Red eTap front derailleur has its battery positioned facing the rear of the bike. Its overall size is similar to that of Shimano Di2’s front derailleur.

Each device in the eTap system features an LED light and a small “function” button (used to help set up the system and make adjustments), and each device is powered by a separate battery. The batteries on the two derailleurs share the same proprietary design, making them interchangeable, and they can be fully charged in 45 minutes with the included charger that can either be plugged into a standard wall outlet or a USB device. SRAM says that one of their goals for eTap was to have the system fully operational for “at least one month of heavy use.” The LED lights on the various bits function as battery life indicators and shift from steady and blinking green and red colors to alert the user when the battery is running low. And, again, the batteries are interchangeable, which means you can easily swap them mid-ride if one runs out of juice and you need some easier gears to get home.

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The derailleur batteries are held in place with a locking clasp and are easy to install and remove. SRAM will supply battery covers to protect the contact points when the batteries are removed for charging or for when you’re travelling with your bike.

THE SHIFTERS
“Because we took the shifting components out of the levers, we could pretty much do anything we wanted with hood shape, size and feel,” said Global Engineering Director Scott McLaughlin. “We really liked the ergonomics of Red 22 shifters, so we started off by making slight modifications to them. Ultimately, after several different alternative designs, we realized that our single paddle design would be ideal for hand controls in a wireless group.”

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The Red eTap carbon brake levers are very similar to those found on the mechanical Red groupset, while the shift button is a touch bigger than the mechanical Red paddle.

But the look of the eTap shifter paddles is the only thing they have in common with mechanical Red equivalents. While all contemporary groupsets—both electronic and mechanical—involve utilizing the right-hand shifter to move the rear derailleur and the left-hand shifter to manipulate the front derailleur, Red eTap offers a completely new alternative. With Red eTap, the right shift paddle moves the rear derailleur outboard for a higher gear, and a hit from the left paddle moves the rear derailleur inboard for a lower gear. Want to shift the front derailleur? Then hit both left and right shift paddles at the same time and the front derailleur will shift to the opposite position of whichever one it is currently in. SRAM says that this setup was inspired by the steering wheel paddle shifting found on high-performance automobiles, and is both intuitive and reliable. For example, they claimed, when wearing thick gloves in cold weather with little to no tactile sensations with the shift levers, there’s no chance of accidently pressing the wrong button to actuate the rear derailleur as there might be on a Shimano Di2 drivetrain.

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Each of Red eTap’s four electronic components has a Function button, with the shifters’ being located on the inside of the shift button, which is well out of the way, so it won’t be pressed accidently during a ride.

Like the shift paddles that mirror SRAM’s mechanical version in appearance, the Red eTap hoods are similar, but have a slightly more square shape and are a tiny bit smaller overall than their Red 22 counterparts—but SRAM made sure that there’s plenty of room to comfortably fit three fingers around them. Each shifter is powered by a standard CR2032 coin cell battery, and SRAM says that they’re good for two years of run time before needing to be replaced.

MORE SHIFTING WITH “BLIPS”
Realizing that consumers have come to expect additional shifting options with an electronic groupset in the vein of Shimano Di2’s satellite shifters, SRAM created their own version called “Blips.” Each Blip is comprised of a single button connected to a wire that plugs into one of two ports on each shifter, meaning that up to four blips can be used at anytime, and they simply mimic the action of the shifter into which they’re plugged. The blip buttons and their corresponding wires can be installed underneath your bar tape and positioned anywhere along the length of your handlebar. Popular mounting locations that SRAM recommended at launch were behind or underneath the top sections of the handlebar for thumb- or index-finger actuation while climbing, as well as along the drop sections for shifting capabilities when sprinting.

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My test bike was outfitted with Blip satellite shifters located underneath the top sections of the handlebar, allowing me to press them with my index fingers while climbing. The Blips can be mounted virtually anywhere on the handlebar, and can be covered in bar tape or left exposed.

SRAM also created a BlipBox, which is an add-on accessory designed primarily for time trial and triathlon bikes. The BlipBox is about the size of a box of raisins and includes four port locations for Blips—two for the ends of aero bar extensions and two for mounting near the brake levers.

INSTALLATION & DURABILITY
SRAM mechanics were on hand to walk press launch attendees through Red eTap’s installation process, which they claim can be accomplished within 15 minutes—this doesn’t, however, include the installation of mechanical parts like the bottom bracket, crankset, chain, rim brakes and brake cables. The front and rear derailleurs are bolted onto the bike just like any others. Likewise, the shifters are easily attached to the handlebars just like any others. But one step that eTap does away with is the installation of electronic wires routed from a master device to the shifters and then to the derailleurs, which saves plenty of time, especially since there’s no internal routing to worry about (save for the rear brake cable if your bike is equipped for that).

SRAM RED eTap Charger
The Red eTap derailleur battery charger can be plugged into a standard wall outlet, or it can be plugged into any USB device. A full charge at the wall takes 45 minutes.

Of course, if you’re utilizing eTap’s optional Blip satellite shifters, they’re simply attached to your handlebar and plugged into the shifter ports before being wrapped in bar tape. Once all the pieces are in place, you pair the four wireless components together, which is a connection process just like syncing your smartphone with a wireless headset, for example. Red eTap’s pairing process simply involves pressing a few buttons. After that, the rear derailleur can be adjusted by the attached high- and low-limit screws, as well as a micro-adjustment feature that is carried out by pressing both the right or left shift button and its corresponding function button.

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The Red eTap system comes with a transmitter that’s shaped like a USB stick—this is only used for future firmware updates, as eTap is a dedicated system and its settings cannot be re-programmed.

SRAM underwent a rigorous few years of testing several iterations of eTap before its official release, and we were privy to some demonstrations that included submersion of the wireless components under a meter of water and strength tests on the structure of the shift buttons, brake levers and derailleur parallelogram. The batteries on the derailleurs were looked upon as a natural weak spot, so SRAM says that they’re respective positions were optimized to prevent damage in the event your bike hits the pavement. The batteries are also easily clipped into place and secured with a snapping lock. Also, SRAM claims that the final version of Red eTap has been subjected to over one million kilometers of road testing, which includes professional races under the Axeon and AG2R-La Mondiale teams.

FIRST RIDE: SRAM RED ETAP ELECTRONIC WIRELESS DRIVETRAIN
SRAM’s press launch included 140 miles of riding spread out over three days on the roads around the company’s European headquarters in Schweinfurt, Germany, with approximately 50 cyclists taking part. In short, the area offers incredible road bike riding and features endlessly rolling terrain punctuated by short, steep climbs, equally short and fast descents and very, very few traffic lights and stop signs. My demo bike was a Focus Izalco Max outfitted with a full Red eTap groupset, Zipp 303 Firecrest carbon clincher wheels wrapped in Zipp Tangente 25mm tires, a handlebar, stem and seatpost combination from Zipp, and a Fizik Arione saddle.

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Our demo bike during the SRAM press launch for Red eTap: a Focus Izalco Max with Zipp 303 Firecrest carbon clinchers.

From the get go, the eTap hoods felt very comfortable with well-designed ergonomics that are just a tiny bit smaller overall than Red mechanical and felt to me like a cross between Red mechanical hoods and Shimano’s relatively narrow Di2 hoods. When pressed, the shift paddles have a firm feel, and the resulting click is a hearty one and is reminiscent of a downshift from a SRAM mechanical group. The derailleur movements felt quite smooth feel about on par with Shimano Di2. Like Shimano and Campagnolo electronic groups, Red eTap has the ability to shift multiple gears by holding down either paddle; and while smooth, this multiple shift action was noticeably a touch slower than both Di2 and EPS.

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We rode SRAM’s Red eTap group for three days around the countryside near the company’s European headquarters in Schweinfurt, Germany. Photo: SRAM/Cyclephotos

There were zero technical problems related to the eTap groupset during our group’s 140 miles of riding. There were several reported mis-shifts on the first day, but all were caused by user error. And this is easy to understand because prior to Red eTap’s release, all cyclists who ride SRAM, Shimano and Campagnolo drivetrains, electronic or otherwise, have utilized their right hand exclusively for shifting their bike’s rear derailleur, while the left hand has been in charge of shifting the front derailleur. Red eTap challenges that subtle yet vital piece of muscle memory, and our three days of riding proved that not everyone will immediately adapt to using both hands in equal measure when it comes to shifting.

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While you’ll still need to install front and rear brake cables, there are no wires leading out from the shifters, and no junction box to place on your bike, as well. Photo: SRAM/Cyclephotos

For the first hour of riding on the first day, I found myself instinctively searching for an extra button, switch or lever on the right-hand shifter when the time came for a lower gear before remembering that my left hand was now responsible for moving the rear derailleur up the cassette. Overall, eTap felt very intuitive after some time getting used to it, and I can’t wait to get a complete group for RBA to put through a long-term test. And I’d recommend anyone looking for a new bike or drivetrain upgrade to demo it at their local bike shop. It will certainly appeal to plenty of cyclists, and should keep Shimano and Campagnolo on their toes in the innovation department.

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Having no wires at the derailleurs makes Red eTap the most aesthetically clean groupset we’ve ever seen. Photo: SRAM/Cyclephotos

PUNCH LINES
– Electronic shifting with SRAM’s own wireless protocol
– Easy installation, intuitive usability
– Rechargeable derailleur batteries, coin cells for shifters
– No disc brake compatibility or WiFLi option… yet
– Available Spring 2016

PRICING INFORMATION
Here are the prices for the individual electronic components of Red eTap…
– Shifters: $290 each
– Front derailleur (includes battery): $370
– Rear derailleur (includes battery): $590
– Charger: $70
– USB stick (only used for later firmware updates): $50
Sub total: $1660

As for the mechanical parts…
– Cassette: $279
– Crankset: $451
– Brakes: $142 each
– Chain: $48
– Bottom bracket: $36
Sub total: $1098
SRAM Red eTap TOTAL: $2758

For comparison, here are the prices for the other electronic road groupsets on the market:
– Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 9070: $3659
– Shimano Ultegra Di2 6870: $2074
– Campagnolo Super Record EPS: $4885
– Campagnolo Record EPS: $4060

WEIGHTS
– Rear derailleur: 239 grams (includes battery)
– Front derailleur: 187 grams (includes battery
– Shifters: 260 grams
COMPLETE Red eTap GROUPSET: 1992 grams

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WIN SOME SCHWAG!
Here’s your chance to win some RBA schwag! This prize package from SRAM includes a pair of SRAM socks and an AG2R-La Mondiale kit complete with cap, jersey and bib shorts (size Small — it’s the only kit we have, so there’s no need to ask for a different size). Send your answers to the questions below to [email protected] and you’ll be entered into our random drawing (to be eligible to win, you must be a resident of the U.S.) Good luck!

1) What groupset is currently on your road bike?
2) If you were going to switch to a different drivetrain, what would it be?

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