All the Power: SRAM Red eTap Hydro

All the Power: SRAM Red eTap Hydro

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.

Switched-on cogs
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.

Going places
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.

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  1. scott g.

    E-Tap hydro is a bargain, if you have to pay a mechanic to route cables on the latest
    aero/tt/tri bike with gawd awful cable routing and 11 speed, that requires faffing
    with cable adjustment every ride.

    Hydro discs are necessary for those $3000 carbon clinchers which will barely stop
    after a year of use, less if ridden in the rain with rim brakes, which probably suffer
    from the same awful cable routing. (see above)

  2. Dave King

    I’ve been interested in E-Tap largely for the promise of NO shifter cables/housing/wiring ever again.

    I’m not outraged at the price. It’s more than I’m willing to currently pay … it’s just the world we live in. Also, I get tired of the “I could buy a bike/two bikes/etc for that!”

  3. Mick Lowe

    One problem with SRAM disc brake systems is that they use DOT brake fluid unlike Shimano, Campagnolo and many others that use mineral oil. Brake fluid is a highly toxic hazardous waste.

    1. Winky

      Phialm: Mineral oil is much less toxic and corrosive than DOT brake fluid. Both should be disposed of properly.

    1. Brian

      You can display gear changes on all the electronic systems via garmin and i imagine Wahoo as well. I did note that di2 is bit quicker to display gear changes than Campy EPS.

  4. MCH

    I’m really intrigued by this group. After many years wrenching in shops and on my own bikes, wireless shifting seems liberating. I get that it’s better than the other SRAM groups, but how is it compared to the other e-groups?

    1. Author

      Once you get used to the shifting, which is to say it’s distinctly different from Shimano, it becomes ultra-intuitive. It’s a more natural way to think of rear shifting and works better with full-finger gloves. That said, I wish I could do a dead shift for the front derailleur; I do miss that because I have made some bad front derailleur shifts at times because I was mistaken. All that said, I love Di2 and I’m perfectly happy with either group.

  5. Mike E.

    E-tap is going on the next bike I build (which will be sort of my bucket list road bike), though I am leaning towards the non-hydro version and using TRP Hy/Rd disk brakes. Since I have my own PM/crankset, I would just need the shifters, blips, and derailleurs from the e-tap group.

    1. Author

      The Hy/Rds are nice brakes, but if you live in a place with a lot of elevation change, I’d go for the full hydraulic system.

    2. Dave Rudnicki

      Mike, I put regular E-tap on my Colnago this summer, using the Campy Record crank, Record rim brakes, KMC chain and Campy 11 speed cassette. It shifts and brakes perfectly so your plan is the way to go. One minor issue is getting the wheelset with 25mm tires off due to the Campy brakes but I just use the barrel adjuster and all is good, minor inconvenience. Best part of the lever which is not mentioned often is the reach adjustment. I have average length fingers and set it in two turns and it makes braking so nice on long downhills. As Padraig mentions, the shifting is intuitive and so nice, 5 minutes and you get it. I found DI2 shifter paddles too small and too close together that I often did mis-shifts on the right shifter especially with gloves on in the spring or fall.

  6. Winky

    1) I would definitely select a groupset based on the lever/hood shapes. I would NEVER have contemplated the previous Sram groupsets for that reason. These new ones look just fine, though.

    2) The potential for wrong-way shifts of the front derailleur seems like it would be an issue for me. I could see myself routinely shifting to the big ring at the start of a ramp, when what I really meant to do was shift the other way. I often “forget” what ring I’m in.

    3) Would much prefer to not have to deal with DOT brake fluid.

  7. John

    How wide a tire can you run with your eTap FD on your gravel rig, Padraig? Gerard at Open had a post about the eTap FD battery interfering with >40c tires.

    1. Author

      My Seven Airheart was built to accommodate ~40mm tires. I’ve got the tubeless version of the MSO X’plor on there right now. I’ve got zero clearance issues, though that might change if I was riding in Belgian mud.

    2. Author

      Also, I should mention that I have greater clearance issues with the Di2 front derailleur on the Allied Alpha All Road. I can only run a 38mm tire on it due to clearance issues. It’s evident that frame design can influence clearance issues to some degree.

  8. Fuzz

    I am very leery of Sram hydraulics after 7 years with Elixirs on my MB. It was very difficult to change pads, and they did not stay in adjustment for very long. In a Lennard Zinn post earlier this year, a rider wrote in about the same issues with his Sram road discs. When they were adjusted, my Elixirs worked great. But then I got Shimano hydraulics on my new road bike. They just worked flawlessly all the time, and I didn’t have to fuss with DOT fluid. So I put XT hydraulics on my MB and have never looked back. I will say I liked the idea of the E-Tap shifting so much that II programmed my Di2 to mimic the left down, right up paddle shifting. And now that I have synchro shifting, the front ring is taken care of for me.

    1. Author

      My experience with SRAM disc brakes on the road is completely complaint-free. I’m aware of the issues some riders have noted, but I have to say, in their defense, that I have yet to have a single issue with their brakes.

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