A groupset on a bike is all of the parts that create the drivetrain and braking system, often including gear levers/shifters, derailleurs, bottom bracket, cassette, crankset, brake levers/shifters and cabling.
The demands placed on road and mountain bike groupsets differ, with more emphasis on reduced weight for road bikes and strength on MTBs, while their gear ratios are also dissimilar.
We’re focusing on road bikes here and, if you pay more for a groupset, you should expect a lighter weight, additional features (i.e. electronic shifting), enhanced durability and smoother shifting.
The three major groupset manufacturers found on the majority of bikes are Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo.
The Japan-hailing brand Shimano are the most common and offer a wide range of groupsets, beginning with Claris and Sora, which are found on many entry-level road bikes. The next groupset up is Tiagra, before Shimano 105 takes things up a notch.
Ultegra is found on serious road bikes of around £2,000 and up and is very similar to Dura-Ace in terms of performance, bar a few weight penalties (and will often use trickle down tech from previous Dura-Ace releases).
Both Ultegra and Dura-Ace groupsets now come in electronic shifting versions named Di2, while the latest Dura-Ace, Ultegra and 105 models now offering disc brake options.
SRAM’s groupset line up begins with Apex before moving on to Rival, Force, Force eTap, Red and Red eTap.
Campagnolo (or Campag) are often the cycling purist’s choice of groupset and the Italian’s range begins with Veloce (which nestles above Shimano’s Sora and Tiagra) before Potenza rivals Ultegra and SRAM Force, with Chorus placed just below the Record components, before Super Record tops the Campagnolo pecking order.
Campag offer a trio of electronic groupsets, which came with an EPS (Electronic Power Shift) label. Super Record EPS is the most expensive commercially-available groupset.
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How to choose the right groupset
Understanding the differences between the various groupsets on offer can be a bewildering process if you don’t keep up-to-date with the latest models. The main players, Campagnolo and Shimano, offer a range of levels of groupset, which allow you to select the option that best suits your pocket and performance needs.
So which should you choose? Well, clearly the starting point should be your budget. It’s no use deciding you need a top-of-the-range groupset if you can’t afford it. In actual fact, you probably don’t need to buy a top-end version at all. All Campagnolooo, Shimano and SRM groupsets perform well. Gear changes and braking action may feel a little smoother on the higher-end groupsets, but all will perform as required, providing reliable and durable performance.
But if they’re all pretty similar in function, why is one more expensive than the other? Firstly, weight. As you travel up the respective ranges, the different materials are used to produce a lighter final product. The extra cost goes towards maximised design features and higher-quality materials such as carbon-fibre composites, top-quality aluminium and/or titanium alloys. However, you can end up paying quite a lot for a relatively modest reduction in weight.
The weight difference from the budget options to peak-price versions is less than 2kg. When you think about it, that’s really not much – especially when many of us are probably carrying more than that in excess fat around our bellies!
It’s far better to save money by losing weight yourself, rather than spending more to compensate with a high-level groupset. You’ll run faster, too! The modest extra weight in lower-specification options is also not that much of a penalty unless you’re riding on really hilly courses. Improved fitness and aerodynamics will be much more significant in reducing bike split times on flatter courses.
It’s important to balance the pros and cons of groupset quality versus frame, wheels, tyres and aerobars, as well as your ability and ambitions, when deciding what you should buy. More aerodynamic and lighter wheels with a good set of tyres will give you a more considerable advantage than the next level of groupset.
Alternatively, a slightly more expensive frame may save weight and be stiffer, resulting in more efficient power transfer and greater comfort than a lower-cost model. In short, it could be better to invest more in the frame than a higher-specification groupset.
Can you mix ’n’ match groupsets?
It’s generally not a good idea to mix and match your groupset. There are exceptions, but try to use the same level of component throughout. You can use, say, Shimano 105 for most of the components, but upgrade the derailleurs to Ultegra for a little weight reduction. This may make you feel a bit better psychologically, but will make almost no practical difference to your performance.
It’s particularly advisable not to mix different manufacturers’ groupsets for the drivetrain and control elements – for example, chainset, chain, derailleurs, rear cassette and gear/brake levers. While they might be roughly compatible, they’re unlikely to mesh smoothly.
If you’re aiming for real top-end performance, you may wish to substitute high-level bits of kit made by specialist manufacturers for the components offered in your groupset. Carbon-fibre brake calipers and carbon-fibre cranks are good examples.
A word of warning: make sure you upgrade your chain at the same time as your cassette or chainrings to ensure smooth running of your new drivetrain. A worn chain on a new cassette or a new chain on an old cassette may cause your chain to jump.
Pick the groupset that suits your budget and needs. Don’t overspend to the detriment of your frame and wheels, which will give you greater benefit. Remember: the differences between low and top-end groupsets are small and become more expensive the higher you go. But, whatever groupset you buy, make sure the crank length, chainrings and cassette range suit you.
Enjoy choosing your components and be pleased with the outcome. You needn’t be driven by functionality alone – all groupsets are functional. Let your desires influence your choice a little, so that you get a lift from being proud to own and ride your bike.
Pete Bonfield has coached triathletes of all abilities for the last 18 years, specifically on the bike