(Pocket-lint) - Bikes and technology go hand-in-hand. Not always in the digital sense that might be familiar to readers of Pocket-lint, but with a constant process or refining the design, materials and mechanics of every component of the humble bicycle, it's an industry that doesn't stand still.
While a tweak of the frame here, or the ongoing argument about which width or pressure of tyre is best, is ongoing, there's a fundamental shift in one aspect of bikes underway - the drivetrain.
We've been riding SRAM's Rival eTap AXS groupset to see what it's all about.
Where has wireless shifting come from?
While a lot has changed in bikes over recent years, the fundamentals haven't. For most of cycling's history in the modern era, cables have been used to shift gears. From friction-based levers to smarter indexed systems, the principles were the same - tighten the cable or loosen the cable and let springs in the shifters move your chain over the gears.
While the history of electronic shifting can be traced back to the 1990s, it is the 2001 launch of Shimano's Di2 (Digital Integrated Intelligence) that really brings us into the modern era, although it was 2009 before it really made its mark.
SRAM's offering, the eTap system, was launched in 2015 and has since evolved into three levels - Red, Force and Rival, reflecting the levels of SRAM's manual groupsets.
Understanding the three levels offered by SRAM
If you're familiar with SRAM's road groupsets, you'll know that they run in the order of Apex, Rival, Force, Red, from entry-level to professional grade.
The eTap system is available at Rival, Force and Red level, meaning it is available a stage lower than Shimano's Di2 system, which is only on Ultegra and Dura-Ace at the time of writing.
That's important, because Rival eTap is a more affordable wireless system and likely to be the most approachable for the most riders as a result, making its way into mid-range bikes, such as the Boardman SLR 9.4 Disc, at the more affordable end of the spectrum, but with wide options across Trek - including the Domane we were riding - Specialized, and others.
For many, moving to electronic shifting is something that happens when you buy a new bike, although naturally, you can buy individual parts of the system or the complete groupset. As it's a 12-speed system rather than 11-speed, you can't just upgrade in a mix and match fashion, you'd have to adapt your rear wheel to take a 12-speed cassette, but it's a an upgrade option for those with an existing disc brake bike.
The complete system has an RRP of around £1,268.
As a point comparison to those higher-spec systems, the Rival level doesn't offer remote shifting - there's no connection points for auxiliary shifting buttons. It has an alloy lever rather than carbon and doesn't have the Orbit fluid damper on the rear derailleur that Force and Red offers - but otherwise, it's much the same experience.
The core components
The Rival eTap AXS groupset is 12-speed, matching the Force and Red eTap systems and stepping up over the 11-speed manual groupsets.
This has brought about a change, with a smaller chainring up front and starting with a smaller 10T gear on the rear. There are two cassettes available in the Rival family, 10-30T and 10-36T - and it's the 10-36T we've been riding - but there is compatibility with some Force and Red eTap cassettes too.
Like those higher-spec systems, the Rival also uses a Flattop chain.
The other important things to note about the Rival eTap AXS system is that it's designed for hydraulic disc brakes only. There's no rim brake option. That might divide some riders who prefer to stick to their callipers, but that's not an option here.
The brakes have pronounced hoods, are powered by a CR2032 battery (which should last a couple of years), with the gear levers intuitively moving you through the gears sequentially like paddle shifting on an automatic gearbox on a car.
A tap of the left lever moves the derailleur left and the right lever moves the derailleur right. Pressing both at the same time shifts the front derailleur. If you're used to manual shifting this might sound a little alien, but after 10 minutes in the saddle, you'll be totally on board with it - it's really easy to get to grips with.
The front derailleur has its own battery, as does the rear, and all have small buttons to wake or pair the system and connect to the AXS smartphone app - as well as letting you trim the derailleur if it's not shifting as cleanly as you'd like.
There's also the option for a Quarq powermeter on the Rival eTap system.
In the saddle
Coming from manual shifters - and normally riding Shimano - the eTap system is a world away from what we'd consider "normal". There's no need for trepidation, however, because that shifting is so intuitive, it only takes a couple of shifts and you'll feel comfortable.
Just like driving a car, the change from manual to electronic shifting can change the experience significantly. It's precise, it's super responsive, and it only takes a nudge of the lever to get the reaction you want.
That's great in normal riding, slowing down to a red light you can hop down the gears without a huge swipe of a gear lever, but the real advantage to such easy shifting comes on the drops - you can change gear with a fingertip and that's heading in both directions.
Changing gears has a natural bias towards smaller gears; gravity helps as the chain drops and on manual gears, that means it's often more of an effort changing into your larger gears - it's slower, it's noisier, and that's often where you notice imprecision coming in through things like cable stretch.
These are minor points to a seasoned rider, but with shifting in both directions being so seamless, it's easy to jump on electronic shifting as easier - and for newer riders, that smoothness might be really appealing compared to the alternative.
We've so far not talked about the chainrings. With a 10-36T cassette on the rear, we have to admit that in our usual rides through the Surrey Hills there's not a huge calling to move to the smaller chainring. But that's simple too - pressing both levers at the same time will see it hop down, or up, again with seamless efficiency.
A smarter ride
That all sounds great - and it is - but there's more to the Rival eTap system - there's the AXS part. AXS (said "access"), refers to the smartphone connectivity. Yes, you can connect your phone through the Android or iOS app, allowing you to interface with your groupset.
Well, it's really a connection to the front and rear derailleurs and the levers, allowing you to push firmware updates, but also opening up a couple of clever options.
Firstly, you can tell it what cassette you're using. If you want different gearing, you can tell the app, so the rear derailleur knows what's going on - and that's important for the gear management.
You can change the behaviour of the levers too, swapping the left and right functions over if that's your preference.
Then there's also the option for multishift. This will let you change across gears in a bigger bound with a press and hold of the lever.
You can turn this off completely (a press and hold would just be one gear) or you can set it to two, three or "all". That's right, you can hold down the lever and the bike will attempt to shift through all of the rear gears as you pedal.
That "all" option might only be useful coming off a summit when you want to get all the way back into your top gears, but the two and three options can be useful.
Again, they allow for an easy change at the bottom of a hill or coming over the top of a hill, but the multishift down is also useful when coasting towards a junction, to get you into a lower gear ready to pull away again.
In compensating mode, when you change the front chainring, the rear will adjust to make it a smooth transition in gearing for the rider and avoid a big jump.
This avoids that classic thing of dropping into the smaller chainring, finding it too easy and requiring a shift up of two gears at the rear - the eTap system will do it for you, making for a smoother rider. That's also where it's important to tell the system what cassette is on the bike, so it knows how to compensate in this way.
In sequential mode, you don't have to change the chainring at all, it will automatically shift as you move through the cassette on the rear. That means that as you approach the lowest gear on the big chainring, it will drop to the smaller chainring and compensate on the rear, without you having to think about it - you just keep changing down.
The same happens as you start shifting into higher gears - you'll hit a point when you'll automatically move onto the big ring, with a rear compensation. To some extent this is to avoid cross chaining, but it really gives you less to think about and you don't need that double press to to move the front deraileur.
This is where it can be find a little clunky, as it's a bit of a rough transition onto the big front ring, especially as at that point you're probably picking up speed again and pedalling quite hard. Granted, that's probably the noisiest shift on any gearing system.
It's all in the app
These options are all in the app and for those who are a little more techy it's something to play around with to see what suits your riding style and to a certain extent, the type of ride you do most often.
Some might see it as lazy and seasoned riders will know that in a manual system you'll know all this stuff and it becomes second nature, but there's still a seamless ease to the whole system here that will quickly make your change your mind.
The app itself is ok. Once you've logged in you can setup a bike and assign components to that bike, but there's no other real data that comes through the app - not even from the Quarq power meter you can have fitted as part of the system.
Instead you'll have to connect compatible bike computers or apps to get access to this data. It supports Bluetooth and ANT+, so it will broadly work with the main players on the market, allowing you to access that power meter data, as well as gearing data.
If your bike computer supports it (we used the Hammerhead Karoo 2), you'll be able to get a readout of the gear you're in and the number of shifts per ride, if that data is useful to you. Otherwise the power data will be logged as it would from any other power meter, but note that in the Rival eTap system, it's a single-side recording, taking the data from the left crank.
There are batteries in the levers, which will last about 2 years based on riding for 15 hours a week, while the batteries in the front and rear derailer will last for a couple of months - depending on how much you shift and how much you ride.
Sure, it's something else to think about and the easy argument against this type of system is that when the batteries run out, you'll be left riding a fixed gear bike. With so many people carrying electronic devices so often - you might have a bike computer, phone, heart rate monitor, lights on every ride - it's not a huge leap to have to remember to charge your bike's batteries too.
Riding with wireless shifting has a number of advantages. There's a reduction in cables which can bring some advantages in frame design, which might see wireless shifting as a popular option in the future.
The smart side of things is likely to have broad appeal, although there will always be those who think that the system lacks the "feel" of manual shifting. The same applies to cars, with many purists hanging onto manual shifting as superior - but automatic shifting is clearly easier on the driver.
The appeal of wireless shifting and things like sequential shifting might attrach new riders mode than seasoned veterans, but equally, for those touring who want to think slightly less, there's appeal again.
Yes, it's more expensive than conventional systems, but the fact that we're looking at 12-speed advancements in wireless shifting but not in manual shifting suggests that this is where SRAM is putting its efforts. Of course, with a system like Rival eTap, designed to be more affordable, you might be able to get a bike equipped with this system, rather than a higher-spec groupset from a rival manufacturer.
Ultimately, SRAM Rival eTap AXS makes a valuable contribution: it's the perfect example of trickle down technology, bringing something new to appeal to those looking to buy a new bike and change the riding experience for them.
We can't help feeling that slowly, wireless shifting will become more and more prevalent over the coming years - bringing more data, more riding options and more decisions to make before you buy your next bike.