I asked SRAM about its future, which impacts our future, as riders. SRAM just launched its AXS ecosystem of products, which includes the new RED eTap group, and it’s at a high price – from $2,800 to $4,100 in the aftermarket – and the least expensive bike I’ve seen it on so far is a new $7,500 Canyon endurance geometry road bike.
Here’s the problem our sport and its industry has: Both the customers – Slowtwitch readers among them – and the manufacturers have blind spots. The customers’ is in looking at a launch as a discrete occurrence, divorced from what new tech means for the future. What a customer reads is that Cervelo’s P5X is $15,000. Likewise the similarly priced Specialized Shiv Disc introduced at the most recent Ironman in Kona. Customers think bike brands are fixated on the highest-end buyer segment to the exclusion of everyone else. They forget that the original Felt IA, when introduced, cost $12,000 and in relative short order an IA was produced selling for $3,000.
Brands make the mistake of assuming that their customers know that this just-intro’d halo product will certainly flow down to prices they can afford. There’s rarely any acknowledgement of this during these launches. Further, we don’t often see the big celebration, white papers, tech editors flown in, pros on hand, for the launch of the trickle-down tech.
And that is odd, because trickle-down tech is where the sales are! This is what causes so many folk on our Reader Forum to complain that this sport’s cost is just out of reach. Yes, any fair analysis would prove that a $1,200 bike purchased today is lighter, stronger, more functional, better fitting than any bike costing twice that much 15 years ago. But brands don’t champion their downstream products with the same enthusiasm as their halo product. If the launch of the cheaper versions of their tech is considered only moderately newsworthy by the brands launching it, why should their customers take notice?
Consequently – rightly or wrongly – it’s pretty rare for component companies to talk about the future because they don’t want to talk about upcoming products that might undercut the sales of the product they just launched. But SRAM’s Ron Ritzler, Vice President and Category Manager, agreed to talk to me and though he was typically circumspect – as component producers are – there are some statements that either verify or diverge from my best guess as to where this company’s tech is heading.
I asked whether eTap prior to AXS going to be orphaned, and make way for AXS. Will it depart the line, replaced by the new RED? If I understood right, yes, RED eTap is henceforth replaced by new RED AXS eTap, old RED tech to be sunsetted. Furthermore, the takeaway from comments at SRAM’s eTap AXS launch by my fellow bike industry editors is that Force eTap will be launched in April. (You’ll read this in Peloton, CX Magazine and elsewhere. I was at that launch; it wasn’t quite that demonstrative to my ears.)
On the subject of downstreaming, SRAM acknowledged that it downstreams some products well. It points to its 12sp 1x product, its GX and NX lines, and how fast that product got from halo status and into bikes that cost $1,200 complete.
Other product lines, not so much. SRAM is, “Not as experienced with electronic,” said Ritzler, as it is with mechanical. With “metal parts, there is an efficiency you can achieve. Electronic? We’re not a serious contender for volume pricing,” Ritzler admitted… refreshingly.
“Will 10-teeth and 12 cogs, and direct mount chain rings in AXS sizes, flow to midrange mechanical groupsets?” I asked. Obviously so, if Force eTap follows the AXS motif, though it’s hard to imagine this groupset will sell at a “midrange" price.
“We’ve already done that [sort of downstreaming] on the MTB side, we’ll listen to the market, we’ll include the product most valuable to those riders,” Ritzler said. Nothing to hang your hat on there. Is SRAM really that reactive? Because, I have plans for that company! And I want to know that they can see the same future for their brand that seems obvious to me.
So, I asked a more leading question. “Have you spoken to frame makers about making a new front derailleur tab that accommodates a much larger range of CR sizes? Have they spoken to you?”
RON RITZLER: Yes, we’ve got an open dialogue with our customers on crank fit. They have a challenge today; they have multiple brands multiple suppliers, they work within the standard tolerances.
SLOWTWITCH: Pursuant to the FD tab question, I think you need a 43/30 for gravel. Are you going to make it, or if not what are your plans for gravel riders who don’t have thunder thighs?
RR: I think the intended market for the RED group is the serious enthusiast or professional cyclist as someone who might need a lower range. [I didn’t take too much offense to the implication: RED just isn’t made for you, Dan! ] That’s the great thing about product. You move forward, ask if you need to add an option. What are our best resources? It’s always an option to add easier gears. Easy gears are good for people. This will be a platform for us for a long time.
[Which makes me feel better, that easier gears are on SRAM’s radar. But I pressed forward, because I wanted to see whether they felt as I did about what appears the most obvious future path for this brand.]
ST: Did Eagle set you on the course for 10 teeth and 12 cogs? In other words, did the serendipitous success of 1x in general, and Eagle in particular, inform what you just did with AXS?
RR: We launched Eagle four years ago. We started 1x with the XX1 group years before that. It taught us 10 teeth is an answer, but range is the answer. But as you know we killed the front derailleur in MTB. It’s gone. It didn’t make us happy. But it did make a lot of bike makers happy, because they don’t need to face the tradeoff in frame design. The same thing is going to happen with eTap AXS; we’ll see what our key customers want to do, and look at things that are innovative in range, performance, multiple price points.
ST: Now that you’ve moved some of Eagle tech to 2x and to road,” I asked, “what about in the other direction? Are you going to move the Flat Top chain over to Eagle and remake Eagle cassettes to work with that chain? Which is one way of asking whether you see a convergent future for your technologies?”
RR: I’ll be respectful of our plans here… [In other words, I’m getting pretty nosy.] But, any time you have resources if you can converge to one platform it’s faster, and we like to move fast. We like the Flat Top chain, that came after the Eagle chain. Follow the bread crumbs.”
ST: You’re making one rear derailleur only for both 1x and 2x [for the new AXS ecosystem], but you’re not making long cage RDs anymore, at least using AXS tech. Does your fluid damping system work for long cage RDs? Will Eagle basically become a long cage fluid damped RD? For road, offroad and gravel?
RR: In the future you could make an Eagle AXS mix with road controls. Is there room in the line for a stop between those? Would that require a longer cage RD? Absolutely. We want to satisfy that market, but efficiently.
ST: Is 12-cog and 10-tooth the future for SRAM, across all platforms on all bikes above, say, $1,200?
RR: There’s no conscious effort to have two product lines when one will do. But there are different use cases. MTB has gotten faster and rougher, so we need to make sure we’re making product for that. But road is evolving. We want to meet all those users in their product environments, but there’s nothing intention to keep them separate, and when we can use and cross-pollinate we will.
ST: Will you make RED cranks with Quarq PMs in lengths shorter than 170mm?
RR: Yeah, I saw that question [Yes, Slowtwitchers, your discussions on our Reader Forum are not just all of us talking to each other.] In talking to our aftermarket team, who makes those decisions, we’ve heard those requests, and will add more lengths, in RED, aftermarket, down to 165mm.
That was my conversation with Mr. Ritzler. Here’s my takeaway, and yes I was leading the witness. My sense is that SRAM has been pursuing product lines along use cases, but that cycling is cycling, gears are gears, shifting is shifting, and range is range; that 10 teeth, smaller chain rings, 12 cogs, and perhaps 1x in many cases, is use-ubiquitous. That cogsets from 10-26 to 10-50 all make sense, both in road and offroad, along with that weird and wonderful cross-pollinated world that is Gravel, acknowledging that Gravel is the least-descriptive word ever for a cycling platform. Here's the key statement above: "There’s no conscious effort to have two product lines when one will do."
Circling back, what I learned is yes, AXS is going to be downstreamed to prices you and I can afford, but the mechanical elements more seamlessly than the electronic. I think it’s clear that the central product around which the future will pivot is the Flat Top chain, and SRAM will react as the customers demand and by “customers” I think SRAM mostly refers to the bike brands to which is sells its parts as original equipment.
It’s clear that lower gearing is coming; what we don’t know is whether that’s in smaller rings (43/30) or in a wider gearbox in the back but if the latter, then a longer cage for the AXS RDs need to show up too.
SRAM has a launch coming up in April. Force AXS electronic appears to be a candidate for this launch, though I suspect there’ll be mechanical products we haven’t yet seen, along with more AXS app functionality. We’ll report back.