If you are like me in assuming that SRAM has moved on to more technologically advanced projects and left those of us wanting native mechanical dropbar 12-speed functionality in Transmisson’s dust, then today’s news oughta be pretty exciting. SRAM has just announced that they will be releasing an Apex-level AXS XPLR and Eagle wireless electronic shifting groupset alongside Apex XPLR and Eagle mechanical 12-speed drivetrains. Below, Josh Weinberg offers a detailed look at the new components after testing them for a couple of days in the Driftless region of northwest Illinois…
Testing in The Driftless
Last month I tagged along with a group of cycling media to a camp hosted by SRAM in Galena, IL for a couple of days of testing the new Apex drivetrains. Just a few hours away from SRAM’s Chicago-based HQ, Galena is a wonderful place to spend early summer days riding the Driftless region’s pristine gravel roads. Named for the absence of glacial drift in the otherwise drift-defined Upper Midwest, The Driftless encompasses the area on both sides of the Mississippi River around the convergence Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin’s state lines. Because glaciers were not able to penetrate, and thus smooth out, this area—as they were throughout most other parts of the Midwest— the Driftless is “characterized by steep hills, forested ridges, deeply carved river valleys, and karst geology with spring-fed waterfalls and cold-water trout streams” (thanks, Wikipedia).
With abundant gravel roads servicing the farms and ranches that cover the fertile terrain, the region is a haven for road and gravel cycling. It’s no surprise that such a place has seen a spike in cycling-related tourism in tandem with the recent boom in popularity of dirt-road riding as the midwest version of places like Patagonia, AZ, or Stillwater, OK. However, Galena was a tourist town long before gravel riding became a profitable Google search term and thus has the infrastructure to support sporadic two-wheeled interlopers. Even with its quaint population size of 3,282, the local economy likely won’t be subject to the same kind of strain like is happening in Patagonia.
SRAM partnered with local gravel guru James Hillis of Driftless Cycling Tours to design routes for each day of the camp: both days were about 30 miles, with the first featuring a more rolling and meandering course to test the electronic Apex AXS XPLR group, while a steeper and slightly longer track followed to ride bikes equipped with the new 12-speed dropbar Apex Eagle mechanical kit.
Apex AXS XPLR and Eagle Wireless Electronic Drivetrains
Within the Apex lineup there are four new derailleurs (two electronic and two mechanical) with Apex lever/brake systems for each, a new Apex-level XPLR cassette and flattop chain, Apex 1 crankset, and flat bar flat-mount disc brake. Let’s take a look at the new electronic groups to start.
So, first of all, what is AXS XPLR? In my review of the State Bicycle Co. All-Road with Rival AXS XPLR, I explained that AXS is the umbrella term for SRAM’s electronic components while XPLR pertains specifically to the gravel-focused drivetrains. XPLR is 1x specific and designed for compatibility with 11-44T, 10-44T, and 10-36T cassettes. I also outlined the differences between the Rival AXS system and its higher-tier Force and Red counterparts, so I’ll save a few hundred words here and direct you over to that review to learn more because Apex and Rival share a lot – from ergonomics to functionality.
The major differences between Apex and Rival is that Apex will be available as 1x only, whereas Rival is 1x and 2x, and some Apex components are made with different and slightly heavier materials for an overall weight penalty of about 500g and lower price point of $1087 USD vs Rival at $1240. Additionally, Apex derailleurs and cranks have a brushed finish as opposed to the somewhat glossy appearance of Rival. Both tiers have aluminum crank arms, configurable controls, spring-clutched derailleurs, flat-mount brake calipers, and ergonomic lever hoods and shift paddles equipped with reach adjustments.
If XPLR is for gravel then does that mean Eagle is just for mountain bikes? Originally this was the case, as SRAM didn’t make a dropbar lever that would shift the wide range of a mechanical Eagle derailleur and 10-50/52T cassette. But when they added AXS MTB components to the existing wireless road/gravel offerings in 2021, a cross-compatible electronic ecosystem was born and riders were then able to get Eagle range on dropbar bikes. But whether or not a wide range is needed is dependent on the bike, riding style, and use case. So, it’s up to the rider to build up the kit to suit their needs like, for example, if you wanted to save some coin and build out a bike with an Apex drivetrain but use a GX AXS derailleur and cassette.
While not branded as “Apex” SRAM has included an X1 Eagle AXS with the Apex launch that sits below the GX Eagle derailleur in terms of pricing and weight. Catering to both gravel and mountain bikers looking for a more approachable entry point for wireless shifting, the X1 Eagle mech works with 50 and 52T cassettes and features an Overload Clutch and Cage Lock just like the GX AXS derailleur. For now, it appears the X1 level will only be available as an OE part on complete bikes, but it would be nice to see it available à la carte in the near future.
The more I use wireless drivetrains, the more I like them. I’ve now logged thousands of miles between my Starling Murmur with GX Eagle and the State All-Road with Rival AXS. I realize electronic drivetrains get a lot of heat in some circles claiming they are unnecessary and lack durability/reliability, but that hasn’t been my experience. While I’ll probably continue to stick with mechanical systems on the bikes I use for extended tours and backcountry forays—where a random and sudden electronic failure (which I’ve never had happen; I’m just paranoid) would be catastrophic—SRAM’s AXS drivetrains provide consistently reliable shifting, simple setup, and clean appearance. In my single day of testing the new Apex XPLR AXS group, I found it to feel and perform nearly identical to the Rival system I’m used to riding. The real test will be its longevity and durability, so look for a long-term review later this year.
Apex AXS XPLR and Eagle Mechanical Drivetrains
Now that I’ve gotten all of the wireless chatter out of the way, let’s look at my personal favorite new members of the Apex family: 12-speed mechanical drivetrains.
Back when I was building my Amigo Bug Out, I wanted to use Ingrid’s 12-speed derailleur, but because Ingrid didn’t (and still doesn’t) make levers, I had to look to another brand. Since neither SRAM or Shimano had a dropbar 12-speed mechanical lever, my only choices were to install the Ratio kit on a SRAM 11-speed lever (as John detailed here) or splurge on 12-speed Campagnolo. I opted for Campy Chorus levers because 1) they are 2x and I wanted to convert the left shift lever to a dropper trigger on my 1x bike and 2) because some friends had experienced mixed results with Ratio’s reliability so finding a native 12-speed system made sense. Nearly one year later, I realize the Campy levers were a compromise in ergonomics for off-pavement use on flared bars, but they have still been consistently reliable.
Riders have been asking for 12-speed mechanical kits from SRAM (and Shimano, too) since wide-range 1x drivetrains gained market share in the late 2010s. And, today, SRAM has finally announced that both XPLR and Eagle 12-speed mechanical groups will be available later this year. I think a major factor for the delay in offering such products has to do with the concurrent popularity and functionality of the AXS ecosystem mentioned above (not to mention the R&D time needed to redesign shifters and derailleurs) yet there are still so many riders that probably won’t ever want an electronic drivetrain. Now, SRAM has come up with its own solution to serve this population.
There will be two new Apex 12-speed derailleurs that mimic the range of their Apex AXS counterparts in both the XPLR and Eagle configurations and are controlled by the new Apex shift-brake system. The Apex XPLR derailleur looks similar to other mechanical SRAM rear mechs and shares common features like an integrated clutch, X-Horizon parallelogram design, and cage lock. It’s compatible with flattop chains and accommodates cassettes with up to 44T large cogs. The major difference is the barrel adjuster on the B-knuckle to control cable tension coming from dropbar levers. Similarly, the new Apex Eagle derailleur shares characteristics with NX and GX Eagle, including a roller-bearing clutch, X-Horizon parallelogram to limit horizontal movement, and works with Eagle chains and cassettes with 50 or 52T large cogs, but with an added barrel adjuster for dropbar lever compatibility.
The 12-speed Apex shift-brake system has a redesigned shift mechanism for use with both XPLR and Eagle mechanical derailleurs. Otherwise, it looks and feels similar to other modern SRAM dropbar levers with its substantial hood shape and textured feel, Stealth-a-majig hose connector, and reach adjustment. Shifting occurs on just the right lever with a thicker left lever blade to rest your fingers on mimicking the feel of the shift paddle on the right side.
Unfortunately, this iteration of levers doesn’t have a way to make the left shifter into a dropper trigger, to which I clearly relayed my disappointment to SRAM reps at the camp. The levers are also married to SRAM’s flat-mount hydro brake system, which purely in terms of performance functions flawlessly, though eliminates pairing with other calipers like our beloved Paul Klampers.
My initial impression of the 12-speed Apex Eagle drivetrain was positive. Even though I’ve become a fan of electronic shifting, I’ll always appreciate the feel of a cable-actuated drivetrain. Shifts were smooth and accurate with the comfortable ergonomics I’ve come to expect from SRAM. In fact, the ride experience was surprisingly similar to my Ingrid/Campy setup, which is a substantially costlier system. Hailey will be replacing her SRAM/Ratio 12-speed group with the Apex Eagle mechanical drivetrain when it’s available later this year, so keep an eye out for her extended review.
Complete Apex Eagle mechanical will be priced at $929 and XPLR will be $947 (includes levers, derailleur, chain, crankset, chain, cassette, and rotors).
The decision to introduce a 12-speed dropbar mechanical drivetrain at the Apex level is certainly a reflection of a lot of riders’ preference for electronic shifting systems but it also provides an accessible, on-the-road serviceable, and reliable groupset option. There will always be compromises, but I appreciate SRAM offering these 1×12 Apex components at a no-nonsense and value-focused level rather than starting at the top and trickling the tech down over multiple years.
Apex 12-speed AXS will be available this month while we’ll have to wait for the mechanical groups until September. Have questions or requests for our upcoming longterm reviews? Drop ’em in the comments…