A road bike groupset is the collection of components that make you stop and go – in other words, the drivetrain, shifters and brakes.
Plenty of companies make bike components, but the market in 2020 is dominated by three giants: Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo.
Despite the differences between the brands, the components all do the same job, even if there are some subtle variations in how they approach their specific tasks.
We’ll start this buyer’s guide by explaining the different groupsets available in their hierarchies, then go into greater detail on the individual components, and how they differ between brands. We’ll finish by explaining the benefits of the more expensive groupsets and discussing compatibility.
Shimano is the oldest and most widely used of the three main brands. It began life in Japan in 1921 when Shozaburo Shimano decided to start making freewheels in a rented corner of a demolished celluloid factory.
Fast-forward to today, and it’s become so successful that Shimano now accounts for half of the global bike components industry.
Entry-level Shimano groupsets: Claris, Sora and Tiagra
The latest Claris R2000 groupset borrows design cues from its more expensive siblings.Courtesy
The Shimano component range starts with the budget-priced Claris, which is usually found on the most affordable bikes available.
Claris is an 8-speed system (eight gears at the rear) combined with either a double or triple crankset (two or three gears at the front).
Shimano Sora is a 9-speed groupset commonly seen on many budget road bikes.Courtesy
Next is Sora, which can also be found on entry-level bikes and is a 9-speed system available in either standard double cranksets or a wide-range triple.
Shimano Tiagra offers a near-105 experience, but with 10-speed.Courtesy
Then comes Tiagra, a 10-speed groupset that offers a near-105 experience, but economises in specific areas, for example with one-piece brake pads rather than higher quality cartridges.
Since 2019, Tiagra has included its own hydraulic disc brakes with levers that resemble those of 105. These replaced the lumpy non-series RS405 option.
Performance Shimano groupsets: 105 and Ultegra
105 is Shimano’s common workforce, offering a great balance of performance and value.Shimano
Shimano 105 is the most affordable performance-focused groupset from the Japanese firm, and comes on many mid-market road bikes.
This 11-speed group is considered by many riders to be the best combination of performance, durability and value.
GRX isn’t a groupset per se, it’s a range of components that complements Shimano’s existing groupsets, with components at Tiagra, 105, Ultegra and Ultegra Di2 levels. The naming scheme looks like this:
Ultegra level: RX800 (Ultegra mechanical shifters are ST-RX810, Ultegra Di2 shifters are ST-RX815)
105 level: RX600
Tiagra level: RX400
GRX includes dedicated hydraulic levers, cyclocross-style inline levers, clutch-equipped Shadow RD+ rear derailleurs, front derailleurs and 1× and 2× cranks.
SRAM groupsets: different levels explained
US brand SRAM came to the fore during the mountain biking boom of the late eighties and established itself off the back of its lightweight GripShift shifters.
SRAM introduced its lightweight RED road groupset in 2007 and now produces an extensive range of components for road and cyclocross bikes alongside its MTB offering.
SRAM’s road groupset range comprises four main groups: Apex, Rival, Force and RED (in ascending order of price). All of its road groupsets now include a hydraulic disc brake option.
Entry-level SRAM groupsets: Apex
SRAM Apex, the American brand’s entry-level road groupset.Courtesy
Apex is a 10-speed group that features SRAM’s WiFli system. WiFli offers a wide gear range – between 11 and 32 teeth – for the rear cassette (certain SRAM road derailleurs will go as high as a 36t big cog).
That allows SRAM to offer the wide range of gears usually found by using a triple front chainring setup without the extra weight and complexity of a triple. Once a unique selling point for SRAM, other manufacturers are now offering similar setups.
SRAM also offers its Apex group in 1×11 gearing, calling it Apex 1. That is to say, just one chainring at the front and 11 gears at the rear. An Apex 1 rear derailleur can accommodate a cassette with a large 42-tooth cog.
Performance SRAM groupsets: Rival, Force, and Force eTap AXS
SRAM Rival 22 is a direct competitor to Shimano 105.Courtesy
Next up the line is Rival, which can also use a wide range WiFli rear derailleur and cassette, but is made from lighter materials than Apex.
Rival is by far the most popular SRAM drivetrain on road bikes and is 11-speed. It can be found with a more common two chainrings at the front (2×11) or just one (1×11).
Going up in price one level, SRAM’s Force group uses lightweight materials such as high-grade alloys and carbon fibre to be a very competitive gear setup.
Like Rival, it’s an 11-speed groupset that can be configured with two chainrings at the front for more gearing range or one chainring at the front for simplicity.
In 2019, SRAM added Force eTap AXS to its range, a 12-speed wireless groupset which competes directly with Shimano Ultegra Di2.
SRAM justifiably stole headlines with the launch of its 12-speed Force eTap AXS groupset.SRAM
Pro-level SRAM groupsets: RED, RED eTap and RED eTap AXS
SRAM RED 22 is believed to be the lightest groupset on the market at 1,747g.Courtesy
SRAM’s RED group is a proven pro-level 11-speed groupset and has been ridden to victory in the Tour de France on numerous occasions. It was launched as a direct competitor to Shimano Dura-Ace and Campagnolo Super Record.
SRAM RED components use super-light materials throughout, including high-grade alloys, plenty of carbon-fibre, titanium and even ceramic bearings. SRAM RED is also available in a WiFli option, allowing for an ultra-wide range of gears.
Of all the top-of-the-range groups, SRAM RED is almost certainly the lightest on the market at 1,747g. Note that it’s difficult to make precise weight comparisons between groupsets because there’s no standard for how to weigh one.
SRAM RED eTap launched in 2015, a wireless electronic version of the 11-speed RED groupset. In 2019, it was replaced by the all-new and significantly refined RED eTap AXS – SRAM’s first 12-speed road groupset, which is available in disc (HRD) and rim brake options.
Italy’s Campagnolo arrived in 1933, after founder Tullio Campagnolo’s frustrated attempts to remove a rear wheel during a race inspired him to design the quick-release lever.
It is perhaps the most storied of cycling brands thanks to its association with so many of the sport’s greats – Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain… As such, Campagnolo is often the choice of dyed-in-the-wool aficionados and bike collectors.
Entry-level Campagnolo groupsets: Centaur
Campagnolo’s entry-level Centaur groupset.Russell Burton / Immediate Media
Campagnolo groupsets start higher up the overall hierarchy than the competition, so you’re unlikely to find the Italian brand on bikes that cost less than £1,000 / $1,200 / AU$1,900.
The entry-level Centaur groupset sits around the same area as Shimano 105 or SRAM Rival. It’s 11-speed and made from lightweight alloys.
Performance Campagnolo groupsets: Potenza and Chorus
Campagnolo Potenza was launched as a rival to Shimano Ultegra and SRAM Force.Russell Burton / Immediate Media
Potenza launched in 2016 as another rival for Ultegra. It combines higher-end features such as a four-arm crankset with the dropped inner shift lever found on the now-discontinued Veloce and Athena groupsets, which is easier to reach from the drops but limits you to one downshift. It comes in 2×11 gearing.
Potenza has effectively replaced the Athena groupset.
Sitting just below the range-topping Campagnolo Record family is the 11-speed Chorus. It uses light alloys, carbon fibre and titanium in its construction, and sits between Shimano Ultegra and Dura-Ace, or SRAM Force and SRAM RED.
Both Potenza and Chorus now offer H11 hydraulic disc brake options to compete with SRAM and Shimano.
Campagnolo also offers an even higher-level groupset in the form of Super Record. While essentially the same as Record, it uses even fancier materials to lighten and enhance each and every part. It is usually only found on the most expensive pro-level road machines.
Just like Shimano, the EPS groupsets share the same crankset, cassette, chain and brakes of the respective mechanical groupset (so Record EPS is the same as Record).
Road bike groupset components
Now that we know how the different groupsets stack up, let’s look at the individual components to be found in a groupset.
We’ll explain the key differences between the different brands and what high-end features to look out for.
Road bike Crankset / chainset explained
Campagnolo Super Record cranksets feature an extravagant use of carbon and a price tag to match.James Huang / Immediate Media
The crankset (or chainset) is the largest part of any groupset and comprises the chain rings, the cranks and, in most cases these days, the spindle that links the two crank arms together.
Cranksets are grouped into three categories based on the number of chain rings used: double (the most common on the road); single (popular in mountain biking and cyclocross/gravel, and gaining popularity on the road); and triple (an older standard that’s rarely seen on new bikes).
Double crankset variations
The standard double crankset is most commonly used by pro riders and consists of a 53t big ring and 39t small ring
The semi-compact crankset – or pro-compact – is 52/36t. This gives you a slightly easier climbing gear while still retaining a big top gear. It is a popular option among competitive amateur riders
The compact crankset is 50/34t. It has become very popular thanks to its combination of easy gearing and low weight
Super-compact or sub-compact cranksets offer an even lower gear range on double chainrings such as 48t/32t or 46/30t. These are becoming popular with gravel riders and bikepackers who want low, closely spaced gearing
SRAM upset the applecart when it went 12-speed with Red eTap AXS and introduced cassettes with a 10t small cog. Calling its gearing X-Range, SRAM offers 50/37 (double), 48/35 (semi-compact), and 46/33 (compact) options. SRAM’s second-tier Force eTap AXS groupset now includes a low-range 43/30t option as well.
The triple is an older type commonly seen on vintage road bikes and touring bikes. It offers a wide range of gears, but at a weight penalty. It typically combines a 50t outer ring, a 39t middle ring and an inner ring that has just 30 teeth. It is popular with touring cyclists who value a super-small ‘granny ring’ when loaded down with panniers.
The single-ring crankset – also known as 1× (pronounced ‘one-by’) – has only one chainring. To compensate for the loss of the smaller, inner ring, a 1× crankset is often matched to a wider-range cassette.
Road bike shifters explained
While the overall shape is similar, the three major brands have their own different methods of shifting.Matthew Loveridge / Immediate Media
For the most part, modern road bikes use dual-action shifters that incorporate the gear levers into the brake levers.
Each brand has its own spin on the concept, so how you shift gears on a Shimano-equipped bike is slightly different to how you shift on a Campagnolo- or SRAM-equipped bike.
You’ve probably heard about electronic shifting too, which is found on the upper-tier, more expensive groupsets from all three brands and still relies on paddles built into the brake levers, but uses small servomotors in the derailleurs to make them move.
Electronic drivetrains offer consistently precise shifting and lower maintenance than a mechanically actuated drivetrain.
Road brakes come in various forms, but basically boil down to rim brakes (left) and disc brakes (right).Matthew Loveridge / Immediate Media
The complications don’t end with the various shift actions and whether they’re mechanically or electronically actuated. The variety of brakes used on road bikes has also grown more complex in the last few years.
In the past, cable-operated, caliper rim brakes were the only type used on road bikes. But recent years have seen road bike braking options expand to take in direct-mount rim calipers, hydraulic rim calipers (these remain rare), cable-operated disc brakes and hydraulic disc brakes.
Disc brakes are gradually taking over on road bikes.Felix Smith
Hydraulic disc brakes are generally considered to be the best all-round option, but which type of brake is best for you is dependent on a number of factors. To learn more about road disc brakes, check out our explainer.
It speaks volumes that Shimano – the biggest component maker in the world – includes disc brakes in its latest race-focused Dura-Ace groupset.
Discs are also available at Ultegra R8000, 105 R7000 and Tiagra 4700 levels. It’s pretty clear where the brand sees its braking future.
SRAM has likewise placed heavy emphasis on hydraulic discs, although it continues to offer rim brakes at various levels, and lovers of mechanical disc brakes can still buy calipers under the Avid name.
Campagnolo was the last of the big three to come onboard, but the brand now offers disc versions of its Potenza, Chorus, Record and Super Record groupsets.
With the launch of its AXS groupsets, SRAM added a 12th cog and started its cassettes with a 10t.Matthew Loveridge / Immediate Media
The cassette is the cluster of sprockets that’s mounted on the rear wheel, and the more sprockets on a cassette, the more ‘speeds’ the groupset is said to have. So, if there are 10 sprockets, you have a 10-speed groupset; 11 sprockets is an 11-speed groupset, and so on.
(Note: ‘speeds’ only refers to the number of sprockets, not the total number of gears available; for that you’d need to factor in the number of chainrings on the crankset.)
Having more sprockets not only provides you with a wider range of gears, but also means the jumps between them tend to be smaller.
Smaller gaps mean it’s easier to maintain your pedalling cadence as you shift from one gear to the next, and are therefore preferred by the professionals.
For road bikes, 11-28t is probably the most common cassette range, but Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo all offer a huge range of choices to suit your riding.
It’s becoming more common to see wider range cassettes fitted as standard, with ratios such as 11-32t or even 11-34t appearing on some bikes.
Road bike chains explained
A road bike chain is an often-overlooked component that deserves love and regular cleaning.Matthew Loveridge / Immediate Media
The groupset brand and number of gears dictate the type of chain you require (groupsets with a ‘higher’ number of gears require narrower chains).
More expensive chains also often have smoother, more durable and corrosion-resistant coatings than their cheaper counterparts.
Additionally, some more expensive chains have the pins and plates drilled to remove weight.
Note that a chain is a wear item and should be replaced at regular intervals. Failure to do this will accelerate wear on your cassette and chainrings.
Threaded bottom brackets screw into your frame on threads. Press fit bottom brackets, as the name suggests, are pressed into the frame and held in place by friction.
Generally speaking, press-fit bottom brackets are less convenient than threaded ones when it comes to maintenance and compatibility, but many manufacturers favour them for purported weight and stiffness benefits, as well as ease of manufacturing.
What do I get with a more expensive road groupset?
Does paying more always bring you improved performance? Maybe, but the higher up the range you go, the smaller those performance benefits become, and the increments become less noticeable, while the kit gets a lot more expensive.
Second-tier groupsets (Shimano Ultegra, Campagnolo Chorus, SRAM Force) are almost as good in functional terms as the pro-level components and considerably cheaper, but they weigh fractionally more and offer a touch less bling.
More money gets you less weight, for the same or better performance (usually).Tom Marvin / Immediate Media
It was once famously said of bicycle parts: “Strong. Light. Cheap. Pick two.” A lighter bike will always accelerate and climb better than a heavier one, but without giving up strength, something has to be compromised.
Whether you’re looking at groupsets, wheels or even complete bikes, reduced weight is often the major contributor to increased cost.
With all the road groupsets, the more you spend, the lighter they get. The amount of weight that you save for your money diminishes dramatically at the upper end, though.
These weight differences are the result of more expensive materials and refined, or more time-consuming, manufacturing processes.
In addition to further machining, hole-drilling and high precision, more expensive components often use materials such as carbon fibre, titanium, lightweight aluminium and ceramic bearings to achieve the pinnacle in low weight.
Today’s road groupsets can take all sorts of punishment, even off tarmac.Russell Burton / Immediate Media
If you’re spending more money on a groupset, you’d expect it to outlast a cheaper option. Durability does improve with price, but our experience is that durability also plateaus at the second-tier options, and in some ways, actually starts to decline at the most expensive option.
The more expensive technical components are built with greater precision, refinement and materials that lend themselves to greater longevity. This is apparent in derailleurs and shifters where the cheaper options will develop play and slop overtime, while the better parts often remain like new.
Wear items, such as cassettes and chainrings, however, are often the reverse of this. Cheaper options are made of heavier but more durable steels, while the more expensive versions are sometimes made from lighter but softer aluminium or titanium alloys.
Improved performance is the promise of higher priced groupsets: smoother, more precise and quicker shifts between gears, stiffer cranks and better braking.Matthew Loveridge / Immediate Media
In addition to the benefits of reduced weight, more expensive groupsets find other ways of increasing performance. Most noticeably, higher priced options provide a smoother, more precise and in some cases quicker shift between gears.
This includes reduced effort at the lever, something that becomes apparent once you’ve been on the bike for a few hours. It’s an area where electronic gears set the benchmark; ultimate precision at the simple push of a button.
Another performance example is increased crankset stiffness to provide crisper shifting and more efficient power transfer from the pedals to the rear wheel. This is achieved with more complex designs and materials that increase strength and stiffness, but don’t add weight.
Braking raises an entire new list of benefits as prices go up. Simply put, more expensive brakes are stronger, offer better feel and control, and stop you with less hand force required.
This difference is much more apparent with rim brakes, though. There’s much less of a jump in performance between low- and high-end hydraulic disc brakes.
Besides offering extra gears, the more expensive groupsets usually get new features first.
Shimano first launched Di2 electronic shifting at the Dura-Ace level, before trickling it down to Ultegra. The same is true of more mundane details – Dura-Ace was the first to get reach adjustment using a built-in screw rather than ugly shims, a feature now found all the way down to Claris level.
Similarly, Shimano and Campagnolo now offer their higher-end cranksets in a universal size that’s cross-compatible with compact, semi-compact or standard sized chainrings. This means that if you ever wish to change your chainring sizes, you can do so without needing a new crankset.
Groupset compatibility issues
Watch out for compatibility issues when upgrading individual components.John Watson / SRAM
It’s worth being aware that not all groupset components from a given manufacturer are compatible with one another, even in cases where it seems like they should be.
Manufacturers tend to update their ranges incrementally over time so you can’t always assume, for example, that one 11-speed component will work with another if they’re not from the same year or groupset.
There are differences in the precise amount of cable pulled by different rim brake levers too, so you may not get optimal performance if you move up the hierarchy when you replace individual parts.
That said, groupsets of a given brand are generally designed to work with each other, providing they share the same number of gears. (i.e. Shimano 11-speed with Shimano 11-speed, Campagnolo 11-speed with Campagnolo 11-speed.)
For specific compatibility queries, we’d suggest you ask your local retailer before buying, consult manufacturer technical documents online, or seek advice on our forum.
Now I know which groupset I want, but not which bike
Hopefully you’ve now got a good understanding of the major groupsets and some idea of what to look for.
Jack has been riding and fettling bikes for his whole life. Always in search of the hippest new niche in cycling, Jack is a self-confessed gravel dork, fixie-botherer, tandem-evangelist, hill-climbing try hard, and thinks nothing of taking on a daft challenge for the BikeRadar YouTube channel. With a near encyclopaedic knowledge of cycling tech — from the most esoteric niche nonsense to the most cutting edge modern kit — Jack takes pride in his ability to seek out tech and stories that would otherwise go unreported. Jack has been at BikeRadar for three years now and is regularly testing an esoteric mix of weird and wonderful bikes.