Buyers guide to road bike groupsets

What’s compatible? What’s worth paying for? What’s the difference? How much should I spend? All the groupset questions are answered here.



What is a groupset?

A groupset is the collective name for all the individual mechanical bits, gearing and braking, that attach to the bike frame.

Parts included are gear/brake levers, brake calipers or discs, front & rear derailleurs (mechs), cables, chainset, bottom bracket, cassette and chain (some groupsets also have a similar level wheelset available as an extra).

Groupsets are categorised by manufacturer (obviously) and also by name into different levels of price and performance with each part clearly marked with the groupset name for easier identification. This makes buying replacement parts easier and also is a way of identifying the level of performance a bike is aimed at.


Can I mix and match?

There are three main companies which produce road groupsets: Shimano, Campagnolo and SRAM.

Although the parts look and operate very similarly, they are unfortunately incompatible with each other’s systems. Indeed it’s often the case that different groupsets from the same manufacturer don’t work very well with each other.

This is because each gear system has a pre-determined amount of cable pull and corresponding mech movement that differs slightly with each manufacturer. The same is true with brake levers and calipers. So as tempting as it is to mix them it may not produce the best results.

Each manufacturer also recommends only using similar named groupset components as some components such as mechs may not work with differing numbers of gears ie. Shimano Dura Ace 11 speed must use an 11 speed rear or front mech as it is different in size to some of its lower tier groupsets.


Who makes what?

Shimano are the world’s biggest cycle groupset manufacturer. They make components for Tour de France-winning machines through to shopping bikes and everything in between.

The hierarchy of Shimano road groupsets from professional to entry level is as follows:

  1. Dura Ace Di2 (electronic shifting)
  2. Dura Ace
  3. Ultegra Di2 (electronic shifting)
  4. Ultegra
  5. 105
  6. Tiagra
  7. Sora
  8. Claris

Shimano road groupsets at Merlin Cycles

Campagnolo are the world’s oldest manufacturer of cycle gears and they are the company which actually invented the rear derailleur! They produce professional level components for some of the world’s top cycling teams but they also make stuff for regular ‘weekend warriors’ too.

The hierarchy of Campagnolo groupsets from professional to entry level is as follows:

  1. Super Record EPS (electronic shifting)
  2. Super Record
  3. Record EPS (electronic shifting)
  4. Record
  5. Chorus EPS (electronic shifting)
  6. Chorus
  7. Athena
  8. Centaur
  9. Veloce

Campagnolo road groupsets at Merlin Cycles

SRAM are the newest groupset manufacturer. SRAM have come up with a series of ingenious inventions which have quickly gained a wide fan base from professional to recreational with their alternative view on operating systems.

The hierarchy of SRAM road groupsets from professional to entry level is as follows:

  1. Red
  2. Force
  3. Rival
  4. Apex

SRAM road groupsets at Merlin Cycles


You get what you pay for

Groupsets are aimed at certain levels of rider and usage and their price reflects this. Materials and finish is also a factor, with exotic materials saved for the lightweight top end versions, where performance and weight reduction is paramount over price.

Almost all of the innovation and R&D goes into the top flight groupsets which then trickle down over the years through to the lower groupsets. This means today’s mid-price groupsets have features which were only available to professional riders only a few years ago. Even low end groupsets are now packed with features that were unthinkable a few years ago.


Performance and durability

Sometimes with groupsets there tends to be a trade of between performance and durability.

Top-end groupsets are very light and work very well but this is usually at the expense of longevity as parts have been designed to be as light as possible and not necessarily for the rigours of everyday riding. If only used for racing and kept well-maintained then they should last a long time but they aren’t necessarily the best for everyday or commuting purposes.

Low-end groupsets are built with heavier materials, offer more basic performance and aren’t as well finished but still offer excellent value for money. Just don’t be surprised if they don’t not stand up to the abuse of everyday riding though and wear out a bit quicker than expected.

Mid-price groupsets tend to offer the best combination of weight, performance and durability. Prices are considerably cheaper than top-end with not much loss in performance but an increase in part life. Weight is usually not far off the same as top end groupsets. You’ll often find that components have the same shape and feel just with alloy and plastic rather than titanium and carbon.

With high wear parts, such as cassettes and chains, it is often much better to go mid price as they last longer without being too expensive or heavy.


Which road groupset should you buy?

Leisure riders – It’s more about ease of use than finish and weight. As these bikes don’t usually see a great deal of sustained use or abuse then low-end groupsets are perfect for leisure riders. They offer impressive performance at an inexpensive price. Gearing also tends to be lower so although there will be fewer gears there will be a good enough spread to cover most terrain.

Regular riders – Durability with good performance will be the key. A mid-price groupset will offer great rewards. Anything a couple of tiers from the top-end will offer lots of trickle down technology with only a slight weight penalty and a more wallet-friendly price. Performance is usually on a par with top end with the difference only noticeable in back-to-back tests. Cassettes and chains are often more hard wearing then top-end with minimal weight penalties making them much more attractive to racers also.

Racers – The lightest best performing groupset is the goal. Top end groupsets are packed with all the latest features in the lightest package. Performance is better with gears and brakes much more precise and smoother. Chainsets often tend to be stiffer for better power transfer. Consumable parts such as chains and cassettes can wear at an alarming rate on high-end groupsets so many riders use lower tier chains and cassettes for better wear and money saving.

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