It seems there’s no let-up of the explosion of varied, mixed terrain gravel riding – or whatever you want to label it as. Basically, not just riding on one type of surface. This isn’t anything new, as riders and bicycles have been venturing across all types of terrain for centuries. Heck, that’s what has inspired us – seeing those old school images of riders covered in dirt and dust, dancing across unpaved roads. But, there’s one thing that has changed dramatically, and that is the new product we have at our fingertips. As riders continue to find ‘new’ ways to explore, they’re increasingly demanding a lot of their riding equipment. SRAM’s been on the forefront of the foray into ‘adventure riding’, but they haven’t rested on their laurels; constantly adding, refining, and reimagining how their products are used by everyday riders. The new SRAM XPLR Groupset is, without question, another step in the right direction for riders searching further afield, who still ride - and get rowdy on – their local loops. Personally, it’s what I’ve been longing for – but more on that later...
Before I get too carried away, let me give you a broad overview of the new groupset and other new components in the SRAM XPLR family. Firstly, it should be noted that XPLR stands for ‘Explore’. SRAM, up in the States, were firm on pointing that out when I caught up with them ahead of this launch, via video call. The XPLR is offered in three groups, keeping in line with SRAM’s other road line ups: Rival, Force, and their top-tier, Red. There’s a short travel RockShox Rudy Ultimate XPLR fork that has been designed from the ground-up, for gravel riding, and it comes in 30mm and 40mm travel options, with 700c x 50mm tyre clearance. Yes, I hear some of you saying, we’ve seen these in the early 90’s but, after a long hiatus, suspension is back for the drop bar, gravel riding sector.
Then, there’s wireless SRAM AXS XPLR gearing – which means a new, lighter 1x direct-mount, one-piece single ring that comes in a 38, up to a 44T. And whilst we’re still on the gearing, the new cassette is 10-44T. Yes, it’s 44T! This expanded range has been what the market has been asking for. With that said, there’s no double chainring option. They’re only compatible with single-chainring drivetrains, and they require dedicated rear derailleurs, too. Let’s stay with the cassette for now: SRAM will offer its new 10-44T cassette in two versions — the XPLR XG-1271 and XPLR XG-1251. This basically translates to Rival and Force levels. Both cassettes share 10, 11, 13, 15, 17, 19, 21, 24, 28, 32, 38, 44T sprocket sizes. This gives more range with smaller jumps between gears. Both cassettes have SRAM’s PinDome construction, with stamped steel sprockets joined around the periphery and a series of press-fit steel pins. To save some weight, the XG-1271 is fitted with an aluminum 44T sprocket where the XG-1251 cassette gets a steel one. Just like SRAM’s 12-speed road cassettes, the new 10-44T sizes will only fit on XDR freehub bodies and will only work with SRAM’s Flattop chains.
Onto the derailleurs: the XPLR one has been built from the ground up, to accommodate the wider spread. It features long upper knuckles; these are even longer than the SRAM Wide rear derailleurs. They’re 1x specific derailleur cages that have offset upper pulley wheels. These have been designed to better maintain proper chain gap across the cassette range. When on rough terrain, pulley cage clutches have been used to increase chain security. Red and Force versions are getting SRAM’s fancier Orbit hydraulic design, and the Rival XPLR is getting a simpler friction-type unit.
Last, but definitely not least, there’s a wireless AXS dropper post in 50mm or 75mm of travel. With it being wireless, you can mix and match with SRAM’s MTB components (Eagle XX/GX) but there’s a limit. Plus, there’s also Zipp’s XPLR 101 wheelset that borrows technology from ZIPP’s MTB single-wall carbon rim technology that originally debuted on Zipp 3Zero Moto wheels, which have been available for a few years now. The single-wall design features what Zipp calls ‘ankle compliance’, which allows the rim to rock on the spoke nipple. The result, Zipp claims, is a vibration-damping rim and compliance that reduces rider fatigue. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the fork, dropper post or wheels at the time of writing this article but hope to spend some time on them soon. As I’m sure you’re all aware, there’s a high demand with limited supply across the board now. So we will just be focusing on the groupset in this review.
I think there’s a ton of shared knowledge and resource between road, gravel, and MTB within SRAM. That’s why we’re seeing a blend of gravel/mountain product, technology and innovations. To me, it makes more sense to take lessons from mountain biking, rather than road riding, when it comes to ‘gravel riding’. I am closer to the rougher and rowdier end of the spectrum – rather than the swift and slick end – as are most of the riders I hang with. But with that said, I think we can all benefit from products being better developed for broader types of riding, as the greater the benefits with equipment, the greater the experience.
The setup I’ve been running for a few months now, is the SRAM Force 1 Crankset, Force XPLR eTap AXS rear derailleur, and XPLR XG-1271 cassette. I’ve also run a 38T front chainring with a 10-44T cassette. I reside in the land of hills, so taking the option of a smaller front chainring suited my needs best. I also have the 40T chainring as back up for when I’m a bit fitter (summer months) or exploring flatter terrain. I’ve fitted the Quarq Power Meter spider that’s compatible with the crank, and I’ll have more on how this performs, in depth in our next issue. I should note, I opted for the Force – which is mid-tier – because the replaceability of parts keeps it slightly cheaper, and because I’m not that fussed about weight on a gravel bike. My main concern is robustness. The Force offers that, with near on all the same benefits as the top-end Red – but each to their own. The XPLR groupset is fitted onto a Canyon Grizl frameset, which is not what I’m here to talk about, but let’s just say it’s a good pairing. I’ll have more on the bike in coming issues. Rounding out the build, are Zipp Service Course 70 XPLR bars. I opted for them slightly wider than I’ve run previously. I typically run 44cm but, this time around, I went for 46cm. That’s because of real estate when packing bags onto the handle-bars, and better control when tackling rowdy terrain. I’ve come to be a fan of the wider flared bars lately, as I think they do offer more control.
From the first ride into the lush but rather lumpy terrain I’m surrounded by, the groupset felt capable of tackling steep terrain. I clicked down through the gears as the sealed road took me into the thick cloud layer. This short and sharp climb doesn’t give you a bloody inch. I still wasn’t in the smallest cog but turned a good cadence, which made the short climb more bearable. The transition into thick mist was met with flatter, smooth roads before I’d headed into the gravel tracks that zigzag their way through this steep land. On this small transition I wasn’t searching for gears, as with every click up or down the cassette, my leg turn-over was high. I reached a locked gate and behind it laid the rougher terrain that I mostly want to ride nowadays. The terrain didn’t dampen my cadence and, again, I didn’t find myself wanting a gear either way. It was also good to notice the power increase, as I hadn’t ridden much on gravel with a power meter. I’m not an uber geek, analysing every part of my ride, but it’s good to see how much actual effort riding on rough terrain takes. As the gravel path led me further into dense native bush, I found my rhythm. The elevation changes swiftly here and the gears responded well. The rapid speed of the AXS, which I’ve used before, is flawless. The quietness, retention, chain control and lack of chain slap – even when on relentless terrain – makes this groupset shine. You can clearly tell its purpose is built around rougher riding.
The months ticked by and lockdown restrictions eased a little, but I still needed to keep within my city’s limits. I wanted to ‘explore’ more, but just needed to change my mindset. I tackled routes I’d not previously discovered, took detours and dead ends, and basically changed my perspective around exploring. The SRAM XPLR groupset didn’t hold me back and allowed me to unearth some hidden gems. Most of these were far off the beaten path in terms of tracks, broken roads or gravel, so solid testing ground for the groupset. Shifting is super simple with the new XPLR eTap AXS – the right-hand shifter paddle moves the derailleur down the cassette into harder gears, while the left-hand shifter paddle allows you to access the easier gears up the cassette. This is the same as all other eTap AXS gearing. Hitting the shifters at the same time will usually move the front derailleur across but, because the XPLR doesn’t have one, this function will activate the dropper post. Well, if you have one that is. I really like the fact you can hold down the shifter paddles and it will shift across one or three or multiple gears depending on what you want to configure on the system’s accompanying smartphone app. It’s slick, functional and so easy to use, even when you’re getting pounded by the rough terrain under your rubber.
I’ve been running the SRAM Force eTap AXS Wide double chainring 43/30T with a 10/36T cassette on another bike for a while now and have found the groupset good. However, after some backcountry bikepacking experiences with this, I found the front derailleur was a pain – not because it didn’t work but more because it was another thing to possibly go wrong, and it got clogged with mud. Also, with the smaller wheel (650b), I’ve found that I’ve topped out when hitting high speeds on sealed descents. However, that said, I’ve found the groupset very good. But I do think a single chainring is best for these circumstances and I’ll report back once I’ve done a few bikepacking trips. What I can tell you, is that I’ve used both over the years and think the single chainring makes things simpler. It’s just less hassle. I think what has been holding it back is the large gear steps. This is more evident when you’re on smoother roads, as you tend to hold higher speeds. So, any ride that transitions across multiple sur- faces; that’s what SRAM wanted to address with the new XPLR groupset.
As I stated earlier, the XPLR groupset is based around a 1x 12 speed 10-44T cassette. It’s a narrow range but, for me, it’s performed well, especially when transitioning between gravel and road. What really stood out was the speed on descents and flat terrain – I could hold the pace with a larger gear without spinning out. I welcomed this, as I want to maximize the power I’m putting down. It’s got the right balance between low-end the high-end range so for most types of riding this groupset will suit. And, for the rides I had within the test period, I found the gearing about right, however, you may want to tailor the gearing when doing an adventure ride. Loaded riding, with bags or hilly terrain, I think you’d want to opt for the 38T front chainring – bearing in mind, your top gear will be affected. I’ll take that small sacrifice; I’d rather make it up climbs or haul luggage with more ease than slog away in a hard gear.
As for bringing the bike to a halt, the hydraulic brakes deliver ample amounts of power with precise control. There wasn’t any issue with my confidence going down tracks, gravel, or any other terrain I was on. I should note, brakes and levers remain the same as the current range on the market. Having used these on the other bike fitted with SRAM Force, I have found them great in all conditions – but they do need a change of pads and a bleed every so often if you’re riding them a lot and hard.
The wireless AXS makes shifting super-efficient. SRAM XPLR transmission not only works but it works incredibly well. Its intuitive actuation, smooth and consistent shifts – and the clever thinking behind the gear range – means it’s designed for gravel. Without a doubt, the clean aesthetic of the group – and no wire friction or noise – is not only a bonus but a huge appeal. It’s easy to fine tune the drivetrain, and the integration via SRAM’s smartphone app is not only needed, but a must-have requirement these days. The eTap shifting performs well, holds up to a ton of abuse, and is well proven across the years now. I have taken AXS across rivers, into remote stations, bashed it over corrugated roads and quite frankly ridden everywhere – and it hasn’t faulted. Which, in my view, says a lot. Sure, the cost is certainly not going slide past your spouse’s eyes on the bank account, but it’s robust and you can mix and match between components across the range too. So, you won’t need to drop this amount of coin again in the near future.
REVIEW: LIAM FRIARY / PHOTOGRAPHY: JEREMY HOOPER