Words: Liam Friary
Images: Cameron Mackenzie

As the market yearns for more adventure, the equipment, and more importantly the gearing needs to be on-point. Over my past few exploration rides I’ve constantly found myself a little under geared and seem to be always searching for just one gear easier. This is especially evident when you throw in rugged terrain or when I’m haulin’ luggage.

The new SRAM Force AXS Wide groupset dropped a few weeks back. It offers a super-compact 43/30 chainring combo for either hilly terrain, gravel riding or laden bikepacking adventure bikes. Out the back is a wide range 10-36 cassette that’ll ensure you can get up any steep ascent. As the new groupset offers more range there’s new derailleurs too, what’s more, it also allows for a wider tyre. Basically, it’s two separate systems, one up- front, and one out-back, and what’s even better, you can blend either one into existing AXS drivetrains to create your perfect setup.

Just after the launch we received a package from SRAM. Thankfully, our Zoom conferences have been paying off over the lockdown! And, we were pretty excited about testing this new groupset on home soil. We fitted the new SRAM Force AXS Wide groupset onto our Santa Cruz Stigmata. This bike’s been used for a few of our adventures and originally came with Shimano Ultegra – mid compact 52/36 crank and a 11-32 cassette. Which, for me, was a little over geared for a gravel/adventure bike. On this new build we also fitted Maxxis IKON 650 x 2.2’s to the Santa Cruz Stigmata – taking the wider tyre clearance to the max. There’s a bit (well, a ton really) more to this build project but will save that for later.

I’ve been out on a few mixed terrain rides over the past few weeks. These are mainly in and around my local area, which is made up of roads, access ways and gravel tracks that I’ve ridden a ton of times before. It’s often steep so an ideal testing ground for the first impressions of this new groupset. Initially, the gearing felt good and there’s an ease of changing between gears. SRAM’s electronic shifting has always been on-point. It’s strong, powerful, and quick (as you’d expect) and this wide version is no different.

SRAM’s rear shifting delivered too, especially when shifting under pressure, swift and responsive. And the Orbit hydraulic “clutch” chain management system works like a treat. Not long out my door is a steep ascent, it pinches around 10% at some points and doesn’t show much mercy when your legs are cold. Thankfully, I can brew a strong coffee (or three) at home before I tackle it. The large volume of the tyres is sometimes coupled with a steep ascent and makes me shift down to the lowest gear on the rear cassette available. What was noticeable with the new groupset was the cadence had increased and I wasn’t even in the 36?!

I tackled some rougher terrain next – this is a gravel track that runs through some lush native bush. As I sped past the ferns the gearing felt fluid and my cadence turnover was quick. The shifts on the block were tighter, there weren’t any great leaps when I shifted from one cog to another. This is down to the gear ratio – check out SRAM’s guide. I tackled steep, loose gravel, descents and ascents on this initial ride. The climbs are short, sharp and quite hard and over loose rocky terrain. One of the climbs sits around 16%, so having the 30/36 (which gives you 516% range with a 2x set up) combination was welcomed. I often struggle on this climb and generally grind to a halt. However, on this occasion I could get on top of the gear and turn the pedals over much easier. It was still hard, but I could spin my way up the climb instead of slogging my way up it.

On another occasion, I headed out for a longer jaunt around the hood. Again, a mixed terrain roll filled with around 1000m in elevation. The main climb on this ride is a long gravel section of 4km at around 4-6% gradient. However, the end of the climb, there’s a dash through a walking track which leads you onto a 800m concrete driveway that’s awfully steep, at some points it’s over 26%?! So the perfect test for the new gearing. I could find a better rhythm on the gravel climb and felt as though my leg turnover was much quicker than usual – it didn’t feel as though I was mashing the gears. Even when the dirt, which was wet and sandy, was sucking every amount of energy it could. Onto the concrete driveway, which we aptly name; the Concrete Monster. I could get up the steepest part of the climb with a better cadence – put simply I was able to turn the pedals over more efficiently. This would have tested the 2.5mm wider chainline but it didn’t affect shifting performance in any way at the tall end of the cassette. It also doesn’t seem to increase noise or perceptible friction. I’ve done this climb many times before and have always suffered. Of course, I could be fitter but mainly the gearing was far too hard. Aboard this bike, without doubt I still suffered, but could transfer the suffering to actual acceleration up the horrid climb.

We’ll continue to put the new SRAM Force AXS Wide groupset through its paces over the coming weeks. And we have a multi-day South Island backcountry bikepacking mission lined up for early next month so will be sure to report back on the groupset after that. Stay tuned for more on the groupset, our build project and our adventure.