Gravel groupsets explained
Which gravel groupset is best for you? Find out with our guide to SRAM, Shimano and Campagnolo options.
Gravel bikes are versatile bikes that are ready for anything you throw at them. From riding through the city to week-long adventures in the wild, a gravel bike could be perfect for you.
One of the vital components on a bike is its gravel-specific groupset. The drivetrain and all its related parts are an essential part of the riding experience. Each rider has their preference, but there are a few key differences, advantages and disadvantages between each option. We take a look at the three most common groupsets here.
What is a groupset?
A bike's groupset covers the following parts:
- Brake levers and gear shifters (often integrated together on a drop-bar gravel bike)
- Front and rear brake calipers
- Front and rear derailleurs (sometimes called front and rear mechs)
- Chainset consisting of chainring(s) and cranks
- Bottom bracket
- Cassette (made up of 10, 11, 12 or 13 sprockets referred to as speed)
You can buy groupsets separately if you're building up a frameset from scratch, however it's often more cost effective and easier to choose your groupset when you buy your bike.
Do groupsets make a difference?
The choice of groupset generally comes down to personal preference and prior experience. Each manufacturer has a different setup when it comes to their gravel groupsets. Even within each manufacturer's offering there are variations such as gear ratio and electronic versions.
Some groupsets use just one chainring (sometimes called “one by”, “1x” or “1by”) at the front, which means you’ll have 11, 12 or 13 gears. If you have two chainrings (written “two by” or “2x”), you’ll have 22 or 24 gears as 13-speed is currently only available for 1by. 1by groupsets have wide-ranging cassettes to make up for the lack of a second chainring. 2x groupsets have narrower cassettes where the jumps between sprockets are closer together.
If you ride your bike on predominantly flat terrain, you'll need fewer 'easy' gears compared to someone who tends to ride on technical, steep mountains.
A clutch derailleur is part of all gravel groupsets from Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo. A clutch derailleur keeps the chain engaged with the chainset at all times. Expect less time off the bike putting you chain back on your chainrings and more time in the dusty trails ahead of you.
Let's take a look at the different gravel groupsets. We'll then answer some common questions which will help you decide which gravel groupset is best for you and your bike.
An overview of gravel groupsets
Shimano gravel groupsets
Shimano is one of the best-known cycling component manufacturers. The Japanese company is a global household name and is synonymous with performance, quality and reliability.
Shimano's dedicated gravel groupset, GRX, is one of the most popular choices on the market. It differs from their range of road groupsets to cater for different gear ratios and features unique to gravel cycling. You'll find GRX options on our Grizl and Grail gravel bikes.
Within GRX, there are three ranges:
- RX400: This entry-level spec is offered only in a 10-speed configuration. It's equivalent to Tiagra and is a budget-friendly option. Available with two chainrings (36-40T) at the front and 10 sprockets (11-34) on the cassette, you will have a total of 20 gears.
- RX600: This mid-range gravel groupset is equivalent to Shimano's 105 road groupset. Single and double chainring configurations are available to give 1x11 or 2x11 gearing. The 2x setup comes with 36-40T chainrings and either an 11-32 or 11-34 rear cassette. The 1x setup has a 40T chainring and comes with an 11-42 cassette usually seen on mountain bikes. Such a wide ranging cassette allows you to pedal up steeper and looser terrain.
- RX800: Equivalent to Ultegra, the top of the range mechanical gravel groupset, RX810, comes in a 1x or 2x setup. It's made of lighter weight components than RX600 and includes premium features such as Servo Wave braking. Servo Wave enables non-linear braking meaning the pads immediately engage when the brake lever is pulled, but afterwards it’s a more gradual pressure. The electronic version of this groupset, RX815, is the top-spec for Shimano. You can program the shifters to suit your preference and the derailleur self-adjusts to prevent chain rub. A nice touch!
Our all-road bikes like the Endurace are specced with Shimano's well-known road groupsets.
Pros and cons of Shimano gravel groupsets
Shimano makes solid components, there's no doubt about it. However, there are limitations.
- Easy to find spare parts
- Good gearing for off-road riding
- Reliable and easy to maintain
- Incompatible with bigger cassettes without using third-party components
- Limited 1x chainring options
- Levers can scuff more easily
SRAM gravel groupsets
SRAM is another strong name in bike components. As part of a conglomerate of brands that includes Zipp (wheels) and RockShox (suspension), they know a thing or two about kitting out your bike with high performance components.
The XPLR suffix on SRAM's groupsets denotes the gravel-specific groupset. Optimised gear ratios and single chainring cranksets will improve your gravel riding. You'll find XPLR on our gravel bikes including those designed for bikepacking and gravel racing. Let's take a look at the details.
There are four groupset options from SRAM:
- Apex: Entry-level, budget-friendly and robust. Though it's available as a 10-speed setup, this option doesn't allow for disc brakes. However, the 1x11 groupset does give you the option for hydraulic disc brakes.
- Rival: As the next step up in the hierarchy, this groupset uses slightly more advanced materials than Apex. The gravel-specific offering has wide ratios for its single chainring configuration.
- Force: If you're after a premium mechanical groupset, Force is the one. The gravel-focussed version's key selling points are its single chainring, lightweight materials and clutch derailleur.
- Red: If budget is no concern, SRAM Red is a top drawer electronic groupset. As the only 12-speed gravel-specific groupset on the market, the shifting experience is smooth even when your terrain is anything but.
Say goodbye to mechanical shifting and cables with eTap, SRAM's electronic groupsets. Rival, Force and Red are available as eTap variations.
Pros and cons of SRAM gravel groupsets
- No wires on the eTap versions
- Cheapest groupset (Apex) out of Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo
- Support for wide ranging cassettes
- Option for 12-speed gearing
- Fewer mechanical options
- No double chainring options
Campagnolo gravel groupsets
Campagnolo is the newest player of the Big Three to enter the world of gravel. The Italian company has a reputation for high quality. If you're a cycling aficionado with a taste for lightweight, beautifully crafted components, Campagnolo might be on your wishlist.
Unlike the other manufacturers, Campagnolo currently only offers one gravel groupset: Ekar. It's the world's first 13-speed mechanical groupset and it's also the lightest of all the groupsets.
Campagnolo has retained the unique design of their ergonomic levers and thumb shifters. The curved shape of the levers make it easy to brake safely and quickly when required. When you ride in the drops, you'll feel in control.
Canyon gravel bikes specced with Campagnolo come with a 40T single chainring, though you can swap this for 38, 42 or 44 tooth chainrings if you decide you need easier or harder gears further down the line. Three cassette options are available: 9-36, 9-42 and 10-44. We've put the 10-44 cassette on our Grizl.
Pros and cons of the Campagnolo gravel groupset
- Simple 1x13 setup with a wide range of gears
- Lightest groupset on the market
- Ergonomic hood design
- High price
- No electronic shifting option
- Shifting may take some getting used to if you're new to Campy
How to choose the right gravel groupset
Now that you understand the different options available to you, how do you figure out which one is for you?
Where will you ride?
What kind of terrain do you ride your bike the most? Is it flat, fast washboard roads? Is it mountainous and technical? This will help you decide what kind of gearing you need.
1x or 2x for your gravel groupset?
1x and 2x refer to the number of chainrings on the bike. On gravel groupsets, there is either one or two chainrings at the front. If you have two chainrings, there will also be a front derailleur on the bike in order to switch between them.
Gravel gearing bridges between road bike and mountain bike gearing. Mountain bikes almost always have 1x gearing whereas road bikes are rarely seen without two chainrings. There are scenarios for both in the gravel world.
Choosing 1x or 2x is only half the story. Gearing is of course made up of both the chainrings and the cassette. An all-road bike will likely have a more road-focussed gear ratio made up of two chainrings. Other gravel bikes may be veering into mountain bike territory and their gearing will reflect this.
The simplicity of a 1x groupset is very attractive to a lot of riders. Whether you're racing at the likes of Unbound and don't want the risk of a mechanical or you're on a technical climb and haven't got the mental fortitude to fiddle with front and rear mech combinations, a single chainring is a good solution.
A 2x setup on the other hand will have more options when trying to find the perfect gear for the scenario you find yourself in. Smaller increments in the sprockets on the cassette mean you can really tune your gears to the pace you need to ride.
Is gravel gearing easier?
Gravel gearing is easier than road bike gearing. Gravel riding often overlaps with bikepacking which means you'll be carrying a lot more weight on your bike. You'll appreciate easier gears when you've packed your bikepacking bags with everything on your kit list. Even if you're not doing a bikepacking overnighter, you might find that you carry more water, food and gear due to the remote nature of gravel rides.
Climbing on loose terrain often means traction is a challenge. You'll find yourself climbing in the saddle a lot more frequently in order to give the rear tyre more weight and grip. This means you won't have that explosive power when you're out the saddle.
Mechanical or electronic shifting for gravel bikes?
Mechanical shifting is a very organic experience. Move the lever, it pulls the cable and changes the gear. It works and it's (usually) easily fixed when it doesn't. However, the invention of electronic shifting has changed the game.
Electronic shifting sends an electrical signal to the derailleur either wirelessly (SRAM eTap) or through a cable (Shimano Di2). You don't need to worry about wear and tear on the cables since they're never under stress. On long-distance rides or in particularly cold conditions, electronic shifting really comes into its own. A simple push of a button instead of wrangling a lever can make a big difference to your comfort and enjoyment.
Batteries on electronic groupsets last for months and in the case of SRAM eTap, you can even pack some spares.
The downside is the price, of course. Electronic gravel groupsets are more expensive both at the point of purchase and for replacement parts. It's still possible to break your derailleur and replacing it will be more expensive than its mechanical counterpart. For this reason, you may wish to pursue mechanical shifting to avoid worrying about the bill at the end of a particularly unlucky ride.
What's the verdict?
There are no right and wrong answers when it comes to choosing the right gravel groupset. If you have experience with a particular brand, you may wish to stick to them for ease and familiarity.
Figure out your budget and non-negotiable features and the rest will follow. If you race regularly or you want to race then look for a cassette with a wide range of gears for maintaining speed and readily available parts for servicing.
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