Following our article on cassettes, we continue our series on building a race bike on a budget, with a focus on the rest of the drivetrain.
With most of the best value race bikes coming spec'd with SRAM these days, we are going to dig a little deeper into the differences between Apex, Rival and Force and make some component recommendations.
What are the differences?
Bikes spec'd with or components from Apex 1, Rival 1 or Force 1 get considerably more expensive as you go up the range.
However, there is a common misconception that all of the components of the groupset incrementally improve as you pay more.
With SRAM, in some cases the differences are huge, and in some cases surprisingly minor.
Rear Mech -
SRAM’s road rear mech's are all cross compatible between the (mechanical 11s) groupsets and share the same clutch mechanism.
The main differences are the materials the mechs are made from. The Apex mech has a steel cage and weighs around 50g more than Rival. Rival and Force both have aluminium cages and are less than 10g different in weight but the Force mech's metal bushes are higher quality so theoretically shifting should be a little bit smoother for longer.
The rear mech is so exposed to potential damage, it is one of the most important components where getting the balance between cost and performance matters most.
The finish of the Apex shifter looks lower budget than Rival, they both have an aluminium brake lever blade and shift lever.
SRAM do not show the Apex as having a reach adjustment in their spec but is has exactly the same adjustment as the Rival shifter. We were not able to weigh the Apex shifters individually, but SRAM's (normally very accurate) claimed weights suggest there is very little difference between Apex and Rival other than finish.
Force shifters have a carbon brake lever blade and shift lever, but the weight difference only amounts to 10g for the left and 20g for the right shifter...
Brake callipers show no weight difference. An Apex flat mount calliper is the same weight as a Force flat mount calliper. In use they feel exactly the same, the only obvious difference being the paint finish.
In use and when new, especially when muddy with gloves, there is barely any noticeable difference between Apex and Force, any differences are likely to come from another source - more on that later.
SRAM make chainsets with either a 30mm axle called BB30 or a 24mm axle called GXP. The 30mm axle is for frames which have a press fit BB and the 24mm axle is for frames which have a BSA screw in BB.
Apex and Rival use alloy arms which are made of girders... The Rival GXP chainset with 40t ring weighs 799g. We haven't been able to weigh an Apex chainset but they look very similar and SRAM’s (normally very accurate) claimed weights suggest 7g difference.
Force uses carbon arms which weigh around 160g less and in BB30 form is a real lightweight, it is 224g lighter than Rival.
Take care when comparing chainset weights though - Force's steel GXP axle adds weighs nearly 150g more than it's lightweight aluminium BB30 axle version!
There is only 5g weight difference Rival's GXP/BB30 axles – it’s likely they both use a steel axle.
BB weights are worth considering too.
Not with BB30 because they are pretty consistent, but SRAM's GXP screw in BB's weigh 105g, 30g heavier than SHIMANO Ultegra and 43g heavier than Dura-Ace.
Shimano BB's are not cross compatible with SRAM's GXP because SRAM uses a smaller non-drive side bearing (probably to get around Patents). But the heavy BB just adds to the extra weight of GXP. If you have a frame with a screw in bottom bracket, we strongly recommend using a Shimano chainset.
Not only because Shimano BB's are lighter with better bearings, but an Ultegra 6800 chainset & BB with a 1x ring weighs 135g less than the equivalent GXP SRAM Force set up.
You can save another 77g by opting for a Dura-Ace 9000 chainset and BB.
Shimano chainsets can be more readily picked up second hand too, although I saw a pair of Force BB30 chainsets advertised on Facebook Marketplace recently for £45 each!
If you can find a Dura-Ace chainset on Ebay with good condition rings, the rings can be resold for £60+. You then have very light chainset arms for around £60 and they end up a touch lighter than the Force BB30.
Shimano is also much more future compatible because it can be used in any BB standard, and with TREK moving back to screw in bottom brackets for 2020, I wonder how many more will follow…
Which groupset should I buy?
First decide if you are buying a compete bike or building up from a frame.
If you are buying a complete bike – buy a bike with the best frame you can and if that means your budget limits you to Apex - then go for it.
More important than the difference between groupset components is a frame with flat mount brakes, 12mm thru axles, good mud clearance and cable routing for gear cable outer from shifter to mech, ie the TREK Crockett!
A frame with bad mud clearance, built with a bling groupset, is still a bad race bike…
The 2019 Vitus Energie aluminium framed VR was a brilliant base bike which met the above spec, for building a race bike on a budget, but the current 2020 carbon frame is not so good. If you can find a good condition used 2019 model they definitely worth consideration.
Otherwise, our favourite current off the peg race bike is the Trek Crockett 5.
If you are building from a frame then you can pick and choose components, we recommend;
Apex hydraulic shifters and brakes, Rival rear mech, used Shimano Ultegra or Dura-Ace chainset (or SRAM Force for BB30 frames).
The money saved compared to buying the same Force components (or bike with Force) could be much better spent on a lighter cassette, saddle, seatpost, thru-axles or wheels.
Occasionally Easton EC90SL or Raceface Next SL G4 crank arms come up on Ebay or Wiggle's Ebay shop for (semi) sensible prices - these are seriously light at 463g including the ring - just don't by the MTB version, it has a longer axle.
£ = shifting quality?
Many people believe that Force gear shifts are better than Apex or Rival, and they could be right, the rear mech does have better bushes. But we think the difference is actually in their cables. We’ve noticed a pattern that a lot of the people who say so, have frames with cable routing where the gear outer stops at the down tube and only the inner wire goes through the frame - these frames tend to have sticky / tricky shifting...
If you have a frame with routing like that, we recommend sealed gear cables such as Jagwire Elite sealed cables, they made a huge difference to my son’s FORME Calver’s shifting.
We have been testing a similar sealed cable system, but in a pack for 1x so everything you need without the extra expense of having to buy two – stock is arriving soon - watch this space.
We have had very reliable, long-term shifting with Rival shifters and mechs on our bikes with shifter to mech gear outer cable – another reason to go for a Trek Crockett?
We have purposely not looked at Shimano groupsets in this article. Although Shimano groupsets are very well made, their mechanical groupsets are much less well suited to 1x set ups and we strongly recommend 1x for cross racing.
We have also ignored electronic groupsets, we don’t believe that the huge additional cost delivers worthwhile performance enhancements.
Next up - Saddles...