For the purpose of this review, I need to set forth a thesis. SRAM’s Red eTap Hydro group is methamphetamine for cyclists.
This statement may seem true on its face, but I have solid reasons for my assertion and I will carefully build an argument to back it up. Here’s the thing: Ask anyone who has ever experienced the incandescence that is methamphetamine and they’ll tell you that nothing compares. Every experience—food, alcohol, music, cycling, sex—comes up short after that. Basically, it ruins fun. A common refrain from those who have had the rush is how they wish they had never experienced it.
Red eTap Hydro, that is, SRAM’s top-of-the-line road group with wireless electronic shifting and hydraulic disc brakes ruined all of SRAM’s other road groups for me. Had I never experienced Red eTap Hydro, Force would still seem like a pretty terrific group. Not the lightest, but reasonably light; accurate if somewhat heavier shifting than Red; durable construction so that the group would last. But now? I’m so accustomed to the lighter than a light switch shifting that I can’t actually shift with Force or Rival now. I’m not being a snob. I’m simply detailing the ways in which I have been left deficient as a result of my awestruck experience with Red eTap Hydro. I’m a victim.
There can be no denying (okay, if you’re a politician, you can, apparently deny anything) that electronic shifting encourages more frequent shifting. The difference isn’t just that there’s less effort to shift. No. The biggest part of the difference is that you can rest assured every shift will be flawless. There’s no risk of upshifting by trying to downshift beyond your largest cog. The shifting has yet to fail me.
(Okay, that last statement isn’t entirely true. It’s true in as much as it shifts perfectly as long as the batteries are charged. I have twice killed the front derailleur battery before killing the rear. The kick here is that the good folks at SRAM have informed me that I am the only person on the planet to run down a front derailleur battery before a rear, when working from a full charge on each battery. My response? Sonoma County for the win!)
The only teensy-weensy issue I have with eTap is the fact that you can’t verify which chainring you are in. If you’re in a group and things are too crazy to look down at your front derailleur, and you’ve forgotten whether you’re in the big ring or the small, there is no way to do a dead shift, meaning verifying the cog or chainring you think you’re in by trying to shift to it. Hit both paddles and the chain simply moves to the other chainring. That may or may not be helpful. Your results may vary. Mine certainly have.
When SRAM introduced the Red Hydro group, the universal criticism among those of us who didn’t ride it at or below freezing was that the levers seemed unfinished. They had the all the promise of Angelina Jolie’s body with Abraham Lincoln’s head on top. Feel free to invert that imagery as is necessary to carry the metaphor to your particular gender preference.
The Red eTap Hydro levers are, by comparison, shaped as if by someone from Pininfarina’s shop. They swoop; they curl; I dare say they shimmy. They are to ergonomic what John Henry Bonham was to kickass. (Moby Di-Di-Di-Di-Dick!) I should also note that for those with small hands, no other SRAM road lever is as comfortable for someone looking for a lever body with a smaller circumference for ease of grip.
That said, it’s window dressing. Almost no one selects a group of parts based on lever shape. What will sway people is just how a group shifts and brakes. My concern for how my bike slows is directly related to the crazy steep terrain where I live. If I lived in Chicago or Memphis, I seriously doubt I’d be that concerned with disc brakes on a gravel bike. I like to let the bike roll and then brake as late as possible and as hard as is necessary to negotiate my circumstance. My behavior changes, of course, if the brakes aren’t that powerful and I feel a need to drag them like my four year old from the toy aisle.
Broadly speaking, riding disc brakes on the dirt roads of Sonoma County reminds me of the first time my mother served real Vermont maple syrup on pancakes, instead of Mrs. Butterworth’s or whatever. I experienced the same sort of shocked enlightenment the first time I drank a small-batch IPA. What’s that? Beer has flavor? There’s just no going back.
There’s a genius to eTap that can’t really be appreciated until you ride it. Hit the left paddle and the chain moves left. Hit the right paddle and the chain moves right. If you can’t keep that straight in your head, your problems can’t be located in your bike. There’s going to come a day when SRAM debuts this with 1x systems and once it trickles down to bikes under the $3000 price point shifting on bikes is going to seem much less complicated to people who have avoided buying a road bike because they don’t understand how it operates. I’ve been in shops and watched prospective buyers give up and walk out because a road bike seemed harder to understand than a Prius.
The shifting is nearly instantaneous and, so long as the batteries are charged, always flawless. I’ve never had a single missed shift, front or rear. With the exception of my Di2 bikes, shifting on bikes simply isn’t as reliable as the transmission in my Subaru. Even after swapping out the Red crank for the FSA K-Force subcompact, front shifting has remained terrific.
This is my first experience with the “blips” the tiny satellite shifters that can be mounted elsewhere on the handlebar. They require a reasonably firm press, unlike the actual shift levers, but being able to shift while your hands are on the bar tops and you’re climbing is as welcome as a warm, sunny day.
Battery life could be longer. There’s really no objective reason to establish such a desire except for the fact that Shimano’s Di2 enjoys longer battery life. Were the battery life on Di2 shorter than the life of eTap batteries, then I would most likely be praising SRAM for such terrific battery life. Why can’t the batteries in GPS units last several weeks? That is, perhaps the question we really should be asking.
For riders considering the purchase of a travel bike, Red eTap Hydro has to be one of the best groups you could consider. I had my Seven Airheart retrofitted to zip-tie braze-ons for hydraulic hose and had the cable braze-ons all removed. With no derailleur cables to fuss with, it’s easy to pop off the rear derailleur and fit the rear triangle in the case. And in what turned out to be a surprise to me, I’m able to slide the hydraulic hose through the zip ties so that I don’t have to cut any of the zip ties in order to pack the frame.
I can’t, in good conscience, recommend the most expensive group in a company’s lineup just to build a travel bike, but there’s no doubt it has made travel easier while also allowing me to land in a foreign land and have just the bike I need for whatever terrain I encounter. That said, I travel with two sets of tires.
The Red eTap Hydro group goes for $3209. Based on what I’ve seen so far, it’s showing up most often on bikes from custom builders, and while that doesn’t justify or condone cost-is-no-object purchases, but it’s easier to weigh the purchase if $500 either way isn’t going to make the difference in whether someone buys a bike or not.
Clearly, this isn’t a group everyone needs. And while there are people who get outraged at $3000 wheelsets, cycling, comparatively, is an inexpensive sport. Try buying a plane, or blowing a $12,000 dragster engine on the start line of a race—as a former boss of mine did. Honestly, I think that the fact that we participate in an activity where we can have the very finest equipment made without resorting to a five- or six-digit loan is pretty cool.
Final thought: All I need is a tiny solar panel.