Hydraulic brakes meet wireless shifting with SRAM's latest groupset. We've ridden it, here are our first impressions
The groupset battle really heated up when SRAM launched its first electronic groupset three years ago and it is fair to say it's been a huge success for the US company, while a browse through our Build Gallery also reveals it has been popular with Bespoke customers. Riders like the ergonomics, the layout of the shift buttons and the clean appearance the lack of wires give any bike.
And now it's available with disc brakes. Last year SRAM launched eTAP HRD, and I had the chance to put it through its paces on a short ride recently while testing the new Cannondale Synapse. This is by no means a full in-depth review, that'll come once we get our hands on the groupset to properly evaluate it, so these are just first impressions on the new groupset.
The first thing you notice when you jump on the bike is the size of the shifter hoods. If you've used regular eTap, you'll notice these are slightly bigger. The extra size is due to the master cylinder being housed inside the hood, but due to the wireless electronics, the hoods are much smaller than SRAM's first attempt at hydraulic road disc brakes a few years ago.
Bigger hoods are not necessarily a bad thing, people have preferences about hood size: some like them small, some prefer them bigger. Hood size has evolved over the years. Shimano hoods have gone smaller, while Campagnolo hoods have gone bigger, its latest hood design is noticeably larger than the old Record 10-speed groupset. The SRAM eTap HRD hoods are roughly comparable to the classic Shimano Dura-Ace 7800 10-speed hoods. Remember them, the ones with the cables sprouting out the sides? So hood size isn't a constant, it's forever changing.
The bigger hood size of eTap HRD compared to regular eTap is not a bad thing then, and the critical fact is you quickly adjust to them. The main part of the shifter body is still small enough to wrap your hand and fingers around, so you have a good purchase of the hoods whether in or out of the saddle. The extra height of the hood body also provides a bit more security to lock your hands against, especially useful when in a low profile attack position. So bigger hoods, not all that bad as it turns out.
The shifting layout is the same as regular RED eTap. That's to say, you have two shift buttons, one behind each lever, with a fixed position brake lever. Tap the right button to shift to a harder gear, the left button to go into an easier gear. Press both at once to shift the front mech. Simple. It takes a little time to get used to if coming from any other groupset, but the transition period is remarkably short and it soon becomes second nature.
The brake levers are similarly made from carbon and have a wide and ergonomic shape with a generous length that ensures you can easily reach them from the drops. Best of all, there is a wide range of available adjustment to tune the brake levers. You can adjust both the contact point of the brake pads and the lever reach, allowing you to really dial in the feel of the brake levers just how you want them. It also means you can also ensure both brake levers feel identical, presuming that's how you like your brakes setup. I would imagine most people prefer their brake levers to feel the same.
I like a short reach brake lever so that I can almost wrap my fingers around the levers for confident descending. Adjusting the lever reach really couldn't be easier. But the really neat adjustment is what SRAM calls Contact Point Adjustment. This allows you to choose whether the brake lever has a short or long throw before the brakes engage. I prefer a longer throw to the brake lever and setting the brakes this way was a cinch, and best of all it's easy to adjust so you can experiment to find a setup you like. It's adjusted via an Allen bolt on the top of the hood, accessed by pulling back the hood cover
At the business end of the brakes are new one-piece calipers using the flat mount standard, which we can safely say has actually become a standard. They're smaller and lighter than previous post mount calipers whilst still allowing the same range of adjustment. SRAM has packed loads of technology into the calipers to ensure they can cope with the high temperatures that disc brakes can operate at under high-stress conditions. A heat shield, insulated aluminium pistons, and a wider pad pocket are claimed by SRAM to ensure the brakes cope in the most demanding situations.
Combined with 160mm rotors - SRAM is backing the larger size while Shimano is confident 140mm rotors are adequate for road use - the disc brakes certainly provide plenty of stopping power. I was riding around Lake Como in Italy, and while the descents aren't super long like they are in the French Alps, they are steep and curvy enough to generate a decent level of heat buildup.
Even during sustained brake dragging, and extremely hard breaking into hairpin turns, generally doing my best to find a flaw with the brakes, they showed no sign of fading at all. They simply worked consistently and predictability throughout the entire descent. There was no noise accompanying the braking either, even during long periods of dragging the brakes on purpose.
Brake dub can be a problem that afflicts disc brakes - there's nothing more annoying (maybe a creaking bottom bracket) than the telltale sound of a brake pad rubbing on the disc rotor. I didn't detect any sign of this happening with SRAM Red eTap HRD, before, during or at the end of the ride. During full bore sprints, there was no hint of rubbing at all. Longer term testing on UK roads in UK conditions will be needed to fully assess this aspect of the groupset.
The level of control far exceeds that of rim brakes on carbon clinchers in my experience and is especially useful when riding a new road for the first time and following a group of cyclists you've never ridden with before. They engender a more confident ride on unfamiliar roads, allowing you to ride safely at your favoured speeds or, if you prefer, throw caution to the wind and brake late and hard. I have to admit, I felt safer descending with these discs than rim brakes, and that allowed me to enjoy the descent more because I had a lot more faith in the brakes. Less effort at the brake lever means reduced fatigue and that adds up on a long descent with lots of corners.
The brakes are a joy to use on long, high speed and challenging descents like those around Lake Como, with a variety of corners to test your nerve and bike handling skills. The levers have a linear feel that makes it easy to apply just as much braking force you need, with a lightness of action that doesn't require more force the harder you brake, as is the case with rim brakes. They're hugely predictable. And while they have bags of power, the delivery is so good that I never once felt I was at risk of inadvertently locking a wheel, and in that way, they have a similarity to a very well setup aluminium rim brake, only they work predictably all the time.
What of the downsides? Weight is the biggest detractor to switching to disc brakes at the moment, and even with the best will in the world, disc brake bikes are still coming in heavier than their rim brake counterparts. That's slowly changing, just look at how light the new Trek Emonda Disc frame is compared to the rim brake version. Even so, SRAM's RED eTap HRD groupset is about 265g heavier than the rim brake version, yet about 30g lighter than Dura-Ace Di2 Disc. How critical that weight penalty is to you comes down to how you feel about having the lightest bike, for some, it might be an acceptable amount given the improvements in braking performance that disc brakes undoubtedly offer.
With each new generation of disc brake comes gradual improvements, and while they've probably still got some way to gaining wider acceptance with those who value low weight and outright performance, SRAM's RED eTap HRD is one of the best options currently available.
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