Whether trickle-down economics ever worked is debatable. But trickle-down has always been the (often infuriating) motif of the bike industry. The unaffordable halo version of new cool tech is launched first, to great fanfare in the ballroom, and those of us who live down in steerage, well below the waterline, get that tech some years later.
That is changing. Shimano’s GRX came out as an affordable gravel group, and SRAM’s eTap AXS debuted at the Force level. Now some of that Force tech has trickled up to SRAM’s flagship RED group, in particular desirable gearing options. How did SRAM do this? By adding a new “Max” rear derailleur to the RED eTap AXS road collection. This derailleur is officially available as of today.
The SRAM RED eTAP AXS 36T Max rear derailleur now handles the 10-36 cassette, which means we can ride a gear smaller than 1:1. Let me explain. A 1:1 gear ratio is achieved when the rear cog and the front chain ring are the same size. Any size. A 33x33 is the same gear as a 42x42. When a cog (the gear in the rear) is larger than the chain ring, that’s an even yet lower gear. You can ride – I have ridden – a 30 tooth ring in the front and a 36 tooth cog in the rear. That’s a tiny gear. That was factory installed on a Cervelo Caledonia 5, and I used every bit of that bike’s low gearing when testing that bike.
There are two things happening that makes this launch newsworthy, beyond the simple fact of this new part. First, as explained, this new tech showed up in a downstreamed group first. Second, an old and facepalming bike industry canard is finally getting laid to rest. For decades a lot of bike design was driven by the notion that the higher the tech level, the more “pro” the design. So, expensive bikes needed to be more “racy” in their geometries, and the highest-level groupsets did not need lower gearing, because the users were so strong as to not need that gearing. Newsflash: if you can afford Shimano Dura Ace Di2, or SRAM RED eTap AXS, you work too hard at your day job to be fast enough to “enjoy” a tight gearbox on your bike.
To put it another way, I just turned 64, and I can finally afford the groupsets I want. But those groupsets have gearing ranges for my 34 year old legs. There never was a time when my 34 year old legs and my 64 year old wallet lived inside of the same pair of pants. SRAM seems to have gotten that message, which makes this derailleur both a newsworthy part in its own right, and emblematic of the different way the bike industry looks at its customers nowadays.
Beyond this, there are the imperatives associated with triathlon use, which are very different than road use. In a triathlon, there is no calculus that favors wild power swings during the bike leg. You may choose to deploy 25 percent more power (above your target power) on an uphill. Okay. But you don’t double your target power on an uphill, though this might be the case in a road race. If you have a target cadence, and a target power, and you do the math, you may well find that on a particular course you’ll need a much smaller gear than that which your bike now has. Which is to say, the same rider, racing on the very same course, will need a much lower gear if he’s racing a triathlon on that course than if he’s engaged in a road race on that course.
This is all the psychic freight invested in the launch of this new SRAM RED eTAP AXS 36T Max rear derailleur. It remains above the average bear's pay grade at $710, but for those who chafe at the price, remember, Force (much cheaper) is already out, and it already performs the functionality. This new RED derailleur works as a 1x or 2x derailleur, with 12-speed cassettes from 10-28T to 10-36T, and that includes the 10-33. You can use any of the AXS chain ring combos: 43/30T, 46/33T, 48/35T, and 50/37T. It’s got oversized X-SYNC pulleys and ceramic bearings and works nicely with the XG-1270 cassette (the Force cassettes are shifting to a silver finish, pictured above).
This means there are, now, as I understand it, two versions of the RED AXS eTap rear derailleur, one that maxes at 33 teeth and this one, that can accommodate a cassette that has up to a 36-tooth cog. You’ll know which is which because, going forward, each will have either a 33 or a 36 imprinted on the derailleur, near its B screw. The adjustment scheme is the same for these derailleurs; the battery life is the same (and they take the same, existing, battery); but the Flat Top chain this derailleur uses will need to be longer, which is (I assume, I have not been told) because the major difference in these derailleurs is the cage length.
You can read more about this derailleur at SRAM's own site.