SRAM, the Chicago, Illinois-based bicycle component manufacturer, announced its first-ever electronic drivetrain, eTap Red, on Wednesday.
Coming six years after Shimano launched its first Di2 system, eTap is long overdue and will have to compete against the already entrenched Japanese groupos, as well as Campagnolo’s premium EPS. But what SRAM’s system lacks in timeliness, it more than makes up for in innovation.
Unlike both Shimano Di2 and Campy EPS, which use wiring harnesses to connect all the parts of the system much like a standard mechanical group, eTap Red is completely wireless. All major parts in the system, including shift levers and front and rear derailleur, are self-contained units with their own batteries and wireless transmitters.
Not only is this a simpler, more elegant solution, it should make installation effortless relative to the existing offerings. With no wires to worry about, you just need to attach the parts to the bike and pair them together—a process SRAM says will take only a few minutes. The lack of wires also means that manufacturers will no longer need to worry about holes and ports cut into the frame. And since each unit has its own battery, there’s no need for convoluted battery mounting solutions in the frame and seat post.
The innovation goes beyond just the architecture, as SRAM has rethought how shifting works with what seems to be a much more logical system. The right shift lever makes gearing harder. The left shift lever makes gearing easier. Hit both levers at the same time to move the front chain ring either up or down, depending on where the chain sits. It will take a bit of getting used to, but the system sounds more intuitive and straightforward than current iterations.
To avoid any potential compatibility or appropriation issues, SRAM has developed its own wireless protocol, a 128-bit encryption system it calls Airea. Only one group set can be paired at a time, and a new encryption code is generated when a new pairing is made, which ensures that the shifting is completely secure (read: one eTap user will never be able to override or cause interference for another).
Batteries on the front and rear derailleurs recharge in just 45 minutes and are said to have a range of over 600 miles. Shifters use CR2032, watch-style batteries that should last several years given that the paddles are transmitters only. Finally, SRAM has also developed satellite shifters, called Blips, that plug into the shift levers via wires, which will allow control of the system from the drops or tops of the bars if so desired.
Because of scheduling, we had to decline our invitation to the eTap Red launch in Germany last week, so we don’t yet have any firsthead experience with how the system rides. Judging by the details alone, it looks to be a very well thought-out and elegant system that is a step forward from existing electronic drivetrains. And feedback from colleagues has so far been positive. We expect to log some time on the new system ourselves in coming weeks.
A complete eTap Red group set (including shifters, derailleurs, crank and bottom bracket, cassette, chain, brakes, battery charger, and USB stick) will sell for $2,758, making it just slightly more expensive than Dura Ace Di2, but cheaper than Campagnolo EPS. Given that Shimano already has a more budget-friendly Ultegra Di2 option, which goes for half the cost of Dura Ace Di2, SRAM will almost certainly have to follow up eTap Red very soon with Force (and perhaps Rival) level electric option if it hopes to grab some market share. The company, however, is mum on future releases, including a mountain-ready eTap system to compete with XTR Di2.