Rather than develop a specific groupset for gravel/adventure use, SRAM has created an offshoot of its second-tier drivetrain, known as Force eTap AXS Wide. It carries over the excellent shifting quality and easy use of the standard Force setup but with a wider gear range and a physically wider Q-factor which gives frame designers more scope to increase tyre clearances.
Gravel and adventure riding has continued to gain popularity over the last few years and we've already seen Shimano launch a specific groupset range, GRX, to bring more suitable gear ranges to suit the conditions.
SRAM already has its 1x drivetrains, but this Force eTap AXS fills in a lot of gaps, and not just for riding off road – there are many of us who would like lower gear ranges from a 2x system with small jumps between sprockets for loaded touring or just spending time climbing in the mountains.
It's not just the gear ratios that have been thought about, though, but also the width between the cranks, the Q-factor, as I mentioned above.
We have seen frames like the Open UP come with a dropped chainstay on the drive side to provide tyre and chainset clearance while keeping the chainstays as short as possible.
By increasing the chainline to 47.5mm, the SRAM Wide chainset allows more clearance than a standard road setup, enabling an increase in tyre size while still using a 2x system. Many gravel bikes with big tyre clearance are restricted to 1x systems because of the tyres fouling the front mech. The Force Wide mech used here sits outboard by an extra 2.5mm to match the chainset, which SRAM says increases clearance to 45mm for a 700C tyre, and 2.1in for a 27.5in tyre.
Over the course of the month that I've been testing the Wide drivetrain I also had two bikes wearing the standard Force eTap AXS, brand new models from Vitus (its Vitesse Evo Team) and the Canyon Endurace CF SLX Disc 8.0 eTap.
One thing I have noticed while riding these two bikes around is that these 12-speed systems from SRAM already use really sensible ratios compared to what we are used to. For instance, the Vitus has a 48/35-tooth chainset paired to a 10-33t cassette, which offers a wider range of gearing than most drivetrains at both ends of the spectrum while still maintaining small jumps on the cassette.
The Force eTap Wide has a 43/30t chainset and a 10-36t cassette, which gives you some very low gears while still enabling you to maintain a high top speed on faster sections without going too mad on the cadence front.
To put that into context, on a 700C wheel with a 38mm-wide tyre you'd have a top gear of 118in and a lowest gear of just under 23in.
The Specialized Diverge I recently reviewed came with a 48/32t chainset and an 11-34t cassette, giving a maximum gear of 119in and a low of 25.8in.
The Canyon became the donor bike as it already had the Force eTap AXS electronic shifters, bottom bracket and braking system in place. While not a gravel bike exactly, it does come with 30mm tyres as standard and has room for 32mm tyres with a bit of tread on them, which makes it capable enough on the local byways and hardpacked gravel tracks.
I've never had to set up an electronic groupset before but the whole process was unbelievably easy thanks to a few YouTube tutorials from SRAM and competent bike fettlers.
Firstly, if you aren't aware, eTap systems are completely wireless – the gear levers send signals to the derailleurs and they do what you ask.
Each shifter only has one button for changing gear, which sits where you'd find the paddle on its mechanical shifters. The button on the right shifter drops the chain down the cassette while the button on the left makes it climb back up. To change between chainrings you press both buttons together.
Power is taken care of by a coin battery in each shifter, while both the front and rear mechs get their own rechargeable battery pack. So with no wires it is literally plug and play.
Before installing them onto the bike you just need to press the AXS buttons on the components to get them to talk to each other – and then have a bit of fun scaring the kids by hiding and making the mechs change gear and jump around on the worktop...
The chainset was the first thing to be swapped out. The Force crankset is designed to work with SRAM's DUB bottom brackets, and unlike a lot of chainsets which have the spindle attached to the drive side crank, the Force has it attached to the non-drive.
You feed it through the frame and locate the splines on the end of the spindle with those on the drive side, and tighten it up with an 8mm hex key.
Because of the 5mm extra spindle length you won't be able to use a standard width bottom bracket, you will need one that has the 'WIDE' suffix in the name as it will come with the extra spacers needed. SRAM had included spacers in our kit.
The mechs bolt to the frame just like any others and SRAM has put some really helpful marks and guides on the front mech for height and chain alignment.
On both the front and rear, the high and low limits are set by using a screwdriver on the designated screw. I know! How old school!
After that it was just a little bit of fettling using the buttons on the shifter to micro-shift the mechs left or right to fine-tune the shifting and get rid of any chain rub.
You might notice in the pictures the Flattop chain. This design gives better clearance for the chain to skip across the 12 sprockets which sit closer together, fitting in the space where there would normally be 11.
One thing to note is that the cassette is XDR compatible only, so you might need to upgrade your wheelset or at least the freehub.
I wasn't really expecting any less to be honest, but the gear shifts across the Wide drivetrain are just as crisp and precise as they are on the standard version.
The 13-tooth gap between the two chainrings caused no issues when changing under load on a steep hill, and the front mech delivers the gear change quickly and smoothly.
The only time I dropped the chain was when I was really pushing it to see how it would react trying to change from the big to the small ring when under a stupid amount of load with a really low cadence. There was no mechanical sympathy at all, no easing off; I'd never shift rings like that when riding normally.
Increasing the chainline at the crankset hasn't caused any issues with the rear shifting, with the chain jumping up and down the cassette quickly and smoothly.
The lower sprockets of the cassette only have small jumps between them so I wasn't expecting any issues here, but even as those gaps increase the rear mech just deals with it, even the four-tooth gaps as the sprockets jump from 24t to 28t to 32t and then the 36t.
The ratios on offer make the Force Wide drivetrain feel very efficient. Over the course of a year I probably split my riding about 60/40 in favour of road over gravel but even when I'm out on the gravel I do prefer a 2x groupset over a 1x purely because I'm not a fan of the gaps between sprockets and the gear limitations at either end.
This setup works well whatever the terrain. I never felt as though I was in the wrong gear or trying to tweak my cadence to suit.
The shifting is so good that it is no problem to keep changing gears; even when coated in dust or mud the Force Wide just gets on with the job.
SRAM's Orbit damper – a silicone fluid damper that it says "limits chain bounce by controlling the chain's downward movement when riding over bumps" – also kept the chain taut and stopped any slap on really rough roads or tracks. I fitted some 32mm slightly knobbled tyres to the Canyon to test it out on the latter.
The new chain also ran quietly and smoothly whatever ratio I was using, and was surprisingly unnoticeable even when using the extremes of the gearing thanks to the constant tweaks that the front mech makes to itself.
If you wanted to run these gear ratios on a bike already equipped with Force eTap AXS you are going to have to replace the chainset, front mech, rear mech and cassette, and sort the spacers for the bottom bracket, so it is quite an outlay price-wise.
If you were on a 1x system but wanted the lower gears of this 10-36t cassette you would just need to replace the cassette and rear mech. The mech is compatible with some of the others in the range, including the 10-33t and 10-28t (but not the 10-26t), so you can chop and change.
This is also true if you want to stick with your standard chainset and front mech but want the lower gears from the 10-36t cassette.
The AXS part of the name means it has compatibility with SRAM's app, which lets you customise the shifting of the drivetrain and allows two automated modes: sequential (similar to Shimano's Synchro Shift) and compensating (similar to Shimano's semi-Synchro Shift).
Sequential takes care of front shifts, which makes riding easy as you don't need to worry about what chainring you're in, and the compensating mode moves the rear mech to maintain your cadence after a front shift.
I've been using the latter most often on the standard sized Force groupsets and it is pretty intuitive, although I'm perfectly happy just pushing the buttons myself.
The app also lets you see battery life in the three motorised components, and you can set up more than one bike at a time in your account.
You can also tweak which buttons change which gears too.
As I said earlier, there are few specific gravel/adventure groupsets on the market other than Shimano's GRX.
Money-wise, looking at just the specific components that make up the Force Wide group, the prices are much higher than the GRX Di2 equivalents.
The chainset is £390 and weighs 705g; the cassette is £170 and 301g; the rear derailleur is £415 and weighs 306g (plus 25g for the battery); and the front derailleur is £290 and weighs 160g (plus 25g for the battery).
The top-end GRX chainset, for instance, is just £199.99, nearly half the price of the SRAM. True, the latter does have carbon fibre cranks, which certainly deliver on the stiffness front, but you are literally only saving 5g in weight.
The other components compete well on weight, too, so it just comes down to price. Adding the totals of the components together, the SRAM comes in at £1,165 whereas the GRX Di2 is £775. That is at rrp, mind, and things can be very different out in the marketplace.
It isn't a true comparison, though, as SRAM and Shimano have taken very different routes. Shimano has stuck with 11-speed while SRAM has gone 12, plus it has completely wireless shifting whereas Shimano's is cabled.
It'll be interesting to see how the market pans out when and if other gravel/adventure drivetrains become available from other brands.
The SRAM Force eTap AXS Wide groupset works brilliantly – the shifting is great, and it provides such usable gear ratios for the type of riding it is designed for, whether that's on or off-road. Yes, it's a big financial investment, but with it being so simple to use, I'd say it's up there with the best drivetrains on the market.
Intuitive and easy-to-use electronic gear system with an excellent choice of gears for on and off-road riding
If you're thinking of buying this product using a cashback deal why not use the road.cc Top Cashback page and get some top cashback while helping to support your favourite independent cycling website
road.cc test report
Make and model: SRAM Force eTap AXS Wide groupset
Size tested: 43/30 chainset, 10-36 cassette, 172.5mm cranks
Tell us what the product is for and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
SRAM says, "Road riders are going beyond where we've ever gone before. We're going further and faster. And when the road stops, we keep going. One thing hasn't changed: We want to push those boundaries without any distractions. Exploring new limits has never been easier."
This is a very good drivetrain option for those who want lower gears for road and gravel use while maintaining gears at the top end.
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
Cassette: 12spd, 10-36t, XDR compatible
Rear Derailleur: 12spd, compatible with 10-36t, 10-33t, 10-28t & 10-26t cassettes, uses existing eTap batteries.
Front Derailleur: Works with Wide 43/30t chainset only, SRAM Yaw trimless cage technology with optimised cage profile for new chainring combinations
Chainset: 43/30t rings, 47.5mm chainline, 165mm to 177.5mm cranks lengths in 2.5mm increments
It's quite a bit more expensive than the Shimano GRX equivalent but does bring an extra sprocket to the mix, looks more bling and the technology works really well.
Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose
Precise shifting across the entire range and it runs smoothly too.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
A really wide and usable range of gear ratios.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
It is a large investment.
How does the price compare to that of similar products in the market, including ones recently tested on road.cc?
There aren't a huge amount of drivetrain options like the Force eTap AXS Wide groupset on the market, with the closest rival being Shimano's GRX Di2 when it comes to electronic shifting with lower gear options. The SRAM option is quite a bit more expensive but does bring an extra sprocket to the mix, it looks more bling and the technology works really well indeed.
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes
Would you consider buying the product? Yes
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your overall score
I was properly impressed with the Force eTap setup. It is so easy to use and SRAM has totally nailed the ratios and the quality of shifting across this wide-ranging groupset. Yes, overall it is quite an investment, but one I'd happily make.
About the tester
I usually ride: This month's test bike My best bike is: B'Twin Ultra CF draped in the latest bling test components
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: time trialling, commuting, club rides, sportives, fixed/singlespeed,
With 20 years of road cycling and over 150,000 miles in his legs it's safe to say Stu is happiest when on the bike whatever the weather. Since writing his first review for road.cc back in 2009 he has also had a career in engineering including 3D-CAD design and product development, so has a real passion for all of the latest technology coming through in the industry but is also a sucker for a classic steel frame, skinny tyres, rim brakes and a damn good paintjob.
His fascination with gravel bikes is getting out of control too!