SRAM Force AXS 2023 review
SRAM’s latest release is said to offer the best ever front shifting at Force level, more comfortable shifter shapes, prettier aesthetics and a host of other upgrades. We put it to the test…
SRAM is a company that’s never been afraid to innovate, ever since it was a young upstart that muscled into the market with its first road groupset in the early 2000s. The American company has always been ambitious and aggressive when it comes to new product launches, going fully wireless with eTap before its competitors, quickly embracing 1x setups on road bikes and the switch to disc brakes. It stole the march on the likes of Shimano with its launch of gravel-specific components too. SRAM’s latest release, a new SRAM Force AXS groupset, represents the brand’s ambition to offer a premium, race-ready groupset at an accessible price point, with improved performance and comfort compared to the previous iteration.
We’ve been able to put the new SRAM Force AXS (SRAM has dropped the eTap section of the name) to the test over the last couple of weeks to see if there are some real tangible improvements compared to the previous iteration. The hood ergonomics and overall aesthetics are definitely some of the highlights of the new groupset, but there are still a couple of features that we think could be improved to really lift Force to a complete, race-ready offering.
It’s fair to say that one of the highlights of the new SRAM Force AXS groupset is the improved, smaller hood shape. The previous iteration saw a much bulkier shape with a taller upper section and more distance between the shifter and handlebars, whereas the recent model has a shorter hood reservoir and an overall more compact shape (made possible by SRAM removing the pad contact adjustment feature that previously sat in the shifter.) As a rider with smaller hands, I find the new shape much more comfortable. Even on rides that went over the five hour mark, I never felt any numbness or pressure spots in my hands or hand fatigue, something I struggled with when using the previous iteration Force. I found that the added clearance under the hood eliminated zones where there was previously a risk of braking into the handlebars.
The reach of the shifters can be adjusted and customised using a 2.5mm allen key which is another feature I really liked, it meant that I could have my handlebars and hoods in my preferred aerodynamic position but I could still easily reach the brake levers. The hood covers have a good amount of grip on them which meant I could ride without gloves and feel no risk of my hands slipping around the hoods. The textured material on the shift paddles is easy to feel even when wearing thick winter gloves and the size of the shift paddle also means there’s never really a risk of missing the button when you go to change gear.
SRAM hasn’t changed the disc rotors or brakes in the new Force AXS groupset, saying the “power and modulation of our acclaimed disc brakes” remains the same. Directly comparing the braking performance of the SRAM Force AXS system with the latest Shimano Ultegra Di2 brakes, there are some notable differences between the two. I found that SRAM allows me to feather and control the brakes a lot better, they are responsive at a much lighter touch, something that’s useful especially when riding on gravel. However, when it comes to the biting point of the brakes, Shimano Ultegra brakes are sharper and I found they definitely brought me to a stop more quickly. I didn’t have any problems with disc brake rub when using the SRAM Force groupset and I was impressed by the fact they were quieter than Shimano Ultegra brakes, even in wet conditions.
One of the most heavily criticised elements of the previous iteration SRAM Force groupset was the front shifting performance. There were issues with the front derailleur pushing the chain off the front ring when under load, this is something that SRAM has tried to rectify with the new Force groupset. It features integrated style, fully-machined chainrings similar to the SRAM Red chainrings said to improve stiffness, speed and accuracy of the front shifting.
I aimed to put the gears under real pressure while out riding to test these claims from SRAM under load, and I didn’t experience any issues with the chain dropping. The shifting at the front feels much smoother than the previous iteration, although I would note that changes at the rear do feel slightly slower when compared to Shimano Ultegra. The bike I rode came with a 48/35T chainring combination and a 10/33T cassette which I found to give a huge range of gearing options – it was a big help on the steep climbs but also gave me more than enough resistance on the flat. I felt like the jumps between the gears were small and not too severe; I never had the feeling of not being able to find the ‘right’ gear or cadence.
The wide choice of gearing options that SRAM has is definitely a positive aspect to its offerings when compared to Shimano, with big gears available for pro riders but smaller chainsets and bigger range cassettes on offer for the mere mortals among us who want to comfortably get up steep climbs. SRAM did explain at the press event for the new Force groupset that it wanted to “take a direct challenge to Shimano Ultegra” with Force AXS and have added a 50/37T chainring combination which does offer something to those who are looking for a high-performance race option. I think if SRAM really wants to stand out from its competitors, it could go even bigger and offer a 53T option which would give an added advantage on downhills for those planning to race or ride at a super high level.
Comparing to a Shimano system, I am a big fan of the more intuitive shifting that SRAM offers; you press the left lever to change down the cassette, the right to shift up and press both together to change chainrings. This means that you’re far less likely to hit the wrong button when riding along. I found the Orbit hydraulic damper mechanism that sits within the rear derailleur helped keep the chain under tension and avoid chain slap, even when using the groupset on gravel roads as I did on the SRAM press launch.
One of the other key selling points for the new Force groupset is the fact that you can now connect up to six wireless satellite shifters (blips) while there was previously only one auxiliary shifter per control. The bike I received had these blips placed on the underside of the handlebars to make it easy to shift gears when climbing and resting hands on the tops of the handlebars. These were a nice feature, but I’d be more likely to have them set up as sprint shifters and place them on the drops due to the nature of the riding I’m going to be doing. However, the size of the blips makes me think it would be difficult to do this; the blips themselves are about 4cm wide and I think SRAM should look at trying to slim these down in order to make them more aerodynamic and versatile.
While performance is understandably at the forefront of everyone’s minds when it comes to purchasing a new groupset, there is nothing worse than ruining your favourite frame with components that have a poor aesthetic quality. SRAM explained at its press launch that it placed a huge focus on improving the overall ‘look’ of SRAM Force, and I’d say it has done an impressive job. The logos are now smaller and more stylish, while the muted grey, plasticky finish of the previous Force groupset has been replaced with shining dark glossy glitter that comes to life in the sunlight. The logos themselves look silver when not in the light, but have an iridescent quality which means they give off a rainbow spectrum of colours in the glare of the sun. The machined chainrings look futuristic and cool – I’d say that the new Force groupset has catapulted itself to the most attractive groupset on the market, but aesthetics are always a matter of opinion.
Connectivity and AXS App
The AXS part of SRAM’s groupsets’ names refers to their Bluetooth connectivity to SRAM’s phone app. Using this, you can configure and align gears, update firmware, check battery status and alter the firmware’s functionality, so you can opt to have the front chainring changed automatically to ensure your drivetrain is always as efficient as possible. I tried this out a few times when testing the groupset but it’s not a feature I find particularly useful – I prefer to be in control of my own shifting. However, I was impressed with how smooth the changes were and how it didn’t feel as surprising and jarring as I thought it would. Via the app, you can also configure how many sprockets Force eTap AXS will upshift and downshift if you keep the shift lever held down.
Wireless blips and controls can be assigned via the app and I did find it useful that post-ride I was able to look at ride diagnostics including which gear I had spent the most time in, a useful tool for deciding on the best gear ratios to suit me. It was also good to check on the groupset’s battery life, which I found to be impressively long-lasting. Overall, the app is user-friendly and simple to use, I had no issues with updating firmware or working out how to do things and the in-app guidance helps with this too.
The SRAM Force AXS groupset that I rode (with no power meter) retails for an MSRP of £1751 and this includes the shift-brake system, rotors, crankset, chain, cassette, front and rear derailleur, batteries and charger. The bottom bracket is sold separately (Force eTap AXS cranks use the DUB bottom bracket design introduced a couple of years ago, which is compatible with most frames). This is less expensive than the 12-speed Shimano Ultegra R8170 groupset which retails for an RRP of £2,399 (though can currently be found online for £1,919.20). I’d argue that SRAM’s groupset places more of a focus on what riders actually need, rather than focusing mostly on the premium-road customer as Shimano does, with SRAM offering many more gearing choices and interchangeability for different disciplines.
When it comes to deciding if it's worth upgrading your current SRAM Force groupset to the newer iteration, I’d argue that the shifting performance at the front has improved, but only marginally. The main upgrades you get from the new Force are the shifter ergonomics and improved aesthetics. It’s worth remembering that you can simply buy the new Force shifters and upgrade your current SRAM groupset with them if it’s just the smaller hood shape that you are looking for.
There’s been a clear shift from SRAM in this release to trying to tailor Force to a race-ready groupset, this is evident in the added chainring combination option, but at the same time the company has done well to maintain the versatility that sets it apart from its competitors.