Shimano GRX — dream gravel groupset or too little, too late?

Can GRX steal SRAM eTap AXS’s thunder?

Gravel bike rear derailleur

The news that Shimano has finally embraced 1x gearing wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it does raise valid questions about what took the brand so long. It also leads to inevitable comparisons with SRAM’s latest and greatest AXS components.

Advertisement

SRAM can justifiably claim credit for stoking the fires of 1x. Back in 2012 when many mountain bikers were still riding triples, the brand went all-in and launched XX1, the first dedicated 1x groupset.

The CX1 cyclocross groupset appeared a couple of years later and was soon followed by Force 1 and Rival road components.

SRAM has refreshed its road offering again this year with its Red and Force eTap AXS, and while Shimano has continued to produce some stunning groupsets, including the likes of Dura-Ace R9100, Ultegra R8000 and 105 R7000, the Japanese brand has largely focused on ever-improving shifting and braking performance rather than up-ending its approach to gearing.

Shimano GRX vs. SRAM AXS

Hands gripping SRAM Force road shifters on bike
SRAM justifiably stole headlines with the launch of its 12-speed Force eTap AXS groupset
SRAM

In some ways, GRX is a huge leap forward, but it remains to be seen if it’s enough to sway gravel and adventure riders who might be tempted away from their existing SRAM groupsets, or by the shiny newness of SRAM eTap AXS .

Where SRAM has steamed ahead with 1×12 gearing, GRX components don’t go beyond 11-speed. Riders hoping for a 12-speed drop-bar-friendly setup using the Micro Spline freehub, introduced with Shimano XTR M9100, will be disappointed and, officially, there’s no 1x option for the more affordable 10-speed components.

The comparison with SRAM isn’t totally straightforward. AXS offers an extra cog compared to GRX, and the lowest gear ratio currently on offer for 1x ‘road’ setups is a 36/33t, which isn’t as low as the 40/42t that’s achievable with Shimano.

However, AXS components are all interchangeable with one another, so once they’re available separately, you’ll be able to match an Eagle AXS rear derailleur to road shifters and run that monstrous 10-50t mountain bike cassette.

You also have the option of running mountain bike cranks to get a smaller ring up front, or there are various 11-speed possibilities (Force 1 etc.). So, while SRAM doesn’t have a dedicated gravel groupset, the options are there.

Driveside of SRAM Force eTap AXS on white bike
While the 12-speed cassette options haven’t quite caught up yet, there are lots of ways to achieve your gearing goals with SRAM’s current range
SRAM

Nevertheless, GRX will make a lot of Shimano fans very happy because it brings proper gravel-friendly gearing at a range of groupset levels and includes clutch-equipped rear-derailleurs, where previously Ultegra RX was the sole option.

Do riders really want 1x on their road and gravel bikes?

Driveside of gravel bike with 2x gearing
Despite the obvious appeal of a simple 1x setup, 2x still has its place
Shimano

Attitudes to 1x have certainly evolved. It’s an easy sell for mountain bikes and cyclocross bikes, where chain retention is of paramount importance and closely spaced gears are deemed less critical.

For mixed riding, where you might spend prolonged periods on tarmac, there’s still a case to be made for having two chainrings because it lets you run tighter cassette ratios with smaller jumps between gears without sacrificing range.

Is Shimano GRX too late?

If you’ve just bought a gravel bike, then yes, GRX is too late. This doesn’t change the fact that it’s hugely welcome news. As long as component makers don’t completely abandon their existing product lines — and Shimano never does — more choice has to be a good thing.

GRX offers some intriguing features for gravel riders, such as those in-line hydraulic brakes, and it makes useful gearing more attainable. If you’re shopping for a 2020 bike you’ll have a greater range of options than before and I can’t find any reason to complain about that.

The future — Shimano GRX 12-speed? Dura-Ace R9200?

Shimano has yet to launch a 12-speed groupset for drop-bar bikes, but with a new Dura-Ace groupset more than likely to appear next year — Shimano is pretty consistent with its product life-cycles — that could easily change.

Close-up of Shimano Dura-Ace R9100 cranks on Specialized Venge bike
Dura-Ace is likely to get an update in 2020 and it seems highly likely it’ll be 12-speed
Matthew Allen / Immediate Media

If Dura-Ace R9200 (or whatever Shimano calls it) has 12-cogs then it seems inevitable that GRX 12-speed components will ultimately appear too, although we might have to wait for the next generation of Ultegra, as Dura-Ace has historically been kept as the road-racing groupset, with few concessions to other riding niches.

Advertisement

Whatever happens, it’s a good time to be a bike components geek, long may that continue. Will your next bike be wearing Shimano GRX? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.