MicroSHIFT’s new Sword group came into Travis Engel’s life at the perfect moment. He had been noticing that his Ratio-12-speed-converted SRAM Force shift quality would degrade quickly, as the cable housing wore and friction increased. It’s a sad side-effect of the Ratio conversion’s decreased cable pull per-shift. Also, the hydraulic brakes had too much dead stroke for Travis’ discerning index fingers. He was looking for something new. That’s when, like the sexy stranger disrupting a rom-com protagonist’s unhappy European vacation, microSHIFT Sword bumped into Travis with a very timely meet-cute.
I covered most of the vital stats on Sword the day the components dropped, but I hadn’t yet gotten a chance to actually ride it. Now, we’re a month into the relationship, and I have thoughts. I tested the 1x configuration with its shifters wired to an 11-48 cassette, the brakes wired to a set of Paul Klampers and the dropper remote wired to a RockShox Reverb via a Bike Yoke DeHy kit. I ran my SRAM GX crank and 34-tooth ring instead of the Sword crank because the smallest stock ring is 40t, but we’ll talk about that later. I hung the parts on my Otso Fenrir, a sort of monster gravel machine with off-road touring capabilities. Installation was pretty straightforward, but there are interesting things to talk about … if you find extremely mundane shop talk interesting. If you don’t, feel free to skip the following paragraph.
To aid in setup, microSHIFT includes a little plastic guide to help in properly setting up the B-screw. This oft-forgotten adjustment has gotten a lot more crucial thanks to wide-range cassettes. Next to the B-screw is the clever barrel adjuster with a semispherical housing stop to better align for chainstay cable routing. I’m always hoping to see road and gravel derailleurs simply embrace chainstay cable routing by using a front-facing cable entry, but I admit that microSHIFT’s vertical-entry route accommodates old-school seatstay routing. And it does an admirable job of keeping the lines smooth, no matter where the cable is coming from. I also like that the housing stops on both dropper remote and shifter are sized for housing ferrules, not bare 4mm SIS housing. The brake housing stops are not designed to accommodate housing ferrules, but brake housing works just fine without a ferrule if it’s got a snug fit, which the Sword lever has. And I really liked the tension adjustment in the dropper remote. My personal bike happens to already have an in-line barrel adjuster in the dropper cable, but the Sword remote doesn’t actually require one. You just install and connect the cable as tightly as possible, and a clever system inside the lever itself allows you to then adjust out the slack. There’s not a lot of adjustment, so I had to really make sure everything was fully snug before I tightened the knarp under the seatpost. It’s a bit of a pain because, on internally-routed dropper posts, the lever has to be removed from the bar so there’s enough slack to pull out the post. I got it first try, but I do wish microSHIFT had figured out a way to place the cable pinch inside the lever instead of requiring it to happen at the dropper. To be fair, they’d be the only ones to have done it. I bet there’s very little space in there for a cable pinch bolt. The adjustment feature is impressive enough, so I won’t get greedy.
Point is, the Sword group includes several hidden efforts that help prevent it from feeling like a budget option. And that carries over to the ride itself thanks to several not-so-hidden efforts. I wouldn’t quite say the fit and finish are “premium.” There’s no perfectly interlocking machined aluminum, and nothing feels especially light-weight. Everything’s just very well put-together. There’s no slop in any moving part. No rattle before springs or cables engage. It’s tight as a drum. The derailleur’s stop- and B-screw adjustments are all 2.5mm hex, and its cable pinch hardware is clean and intuitive … but that’s dangerously close to more boring shop talk.
What impressed me most once all was installed was the ergonomics on the shifter levers. They’ve got that new-school girth that feels like you could hold onto them for hours without going numb. And the “pulling” shift lever has a generous rubber pad that definitely does feel premium. The position of the return shift lever did take some getting used to, though. It’s above the pulling lever, in a place I had to reach for. I’ve got plenty of complaints about SRAM and Shimano’s shifting methods, but at least they both happen where your index fingers naturally rest. I had to pull some mild finger puppetry to get up there, but it’s a quick tap and I’m back on the home keys. Just know it’ll take some getting-used-to if you’re used to something else.
I’ve got no such ergonomic nitpicks on the dropper remote. It’s a perfect mix of light action and short throw. I didn’t have to use my wrist for more follow-through or extra strength. It’s truly drop-on-demand. The brake-lever blades were ergonomic standouts as well, taking obvious cues from the excellent-feeling Shimano GRX. That said, they are also plastic. Fiber-reinforced plastic with an in-mold aluminum backbone, but still. You’d call it plastic. Thanks to that tight build, though, I’d never say they feel cheap. And most importantly, they aren’t lacking in power, either from the hoods or the drops. They’re shaped in a way that allows you to get a lot of braking power from up top, even with a pinky and ring finger wrapped around the hoods for stability. I chalk this up, in part, to the high lever pivot point that microSHIFT touted at launch.
From the drops, the tip is nice and wide, a welcomed improvement from the kinda skinny Apex levers. But these do suffer from some subtle but noticeable flex. That’s the one thing that doesn’t feel premium. When using the same cable and brake, my carbon-bladed Force levers feel significantly more solid in the drops. To be clear, Sword brake levers offer plenty of power. But it’s not that simple. There are a lot of intersecting variables when transferring finger force to braking force. There’s cable flex, housing compression, and the complex power curves determined by the brake design, rotor size, and pad compound. Introduce a slightly mushy brake lever, and it starts to get a little unpredictable. I was never totally sure when enough force would become too much force. Again, something you can get used to, but I can’t help but wonder how much more these levers really would have cost if the blades were aluminum.
I had no such nitpicks on the shifting action. Granted, I think the real test will be once we see how these components hold up over months and years of use, but that tight-as-a-drum sensation carried over unaltered to the real world. The clutch in the derailleur was not as tight as the SRAM XO I previously had, and I noticed slightly more chain slap, but for Sword’s primary user group, it makes sense to offer the smoother shifting that comes with a more moderate clutch. And what matters is that I had zero chain derailments, despite spending a fair bit of time on singletrack. The only premium characteristic I missed from a select few more expensive drivetrains was a high tolerance for shifting under load. But we’ve lived without that capability for decades, so I don’t think it will be missed. And I liked how Sword handled multi-gear downshifting. Most of us expect to be able to grab three gears at once, but something about Sword’s solid clicks and the distance between them made it easy to grab just one or two.
But most of my takeaways on Sword are centered around the cassette. It’s impressive how adeptly its 11-48 range is managed across just 10 cogs. I’ve never been picky about cadence, but it bugs me if a gap is too large. A few years ago, SRAM shoehorned an extra two teeth into Eagle, making their 10-50 cassette into a 10-52. It still shifted fine, but the ratio was often too easy or too hard, and often in the most crucial situations. SRAM evened this out on Transmission cassettes, but most current traditional Eagle users are still dealing with a jarring 10-tooth jump. None of the jumps in the microSHIFT cassette feel jarring. It’s proof of how carefully they worked around the limitations of a drivetrain that prioritized compatibility, longevity, and value. And yes, there are limitations.
As much as I dislike that big final gap on SRAM’s 10-52 cassette on my mountain bike, it’s actually fine on my drop-bar bike. I’m rarely climbing technical singletrack, so I can treat it like a bailout gear or a sit-and-spin gear, especially when fully loaded. And then down at the other end, I appreciate the extra umph of the 10-tooth cog. All that range allows me to use one bike with one setup for gravel rides, local spins and big bikepacks without needing a front derailleur. If I was going on more group rides and doing more drafting, sure, I’d probably need a bigger ring, or even a front derailleur. But my 34-tooth ring rarely leaves me wanting any more or less. But with an 11-48 single-ring drivetrain, chainring choice becomes a lot more crucial. Loaded down with a LaCroix-filled cooler on my BOB trailer, I missed those extra four teeth on the climbs. And when getting a gravity assist, I’d top out just a few MPH before it was time to tuck. Riders spending a lot of time on the steeps or under burdens will want one chainring size, while riders charging the flats and stacking miles will want another. But you know what? That’s ok.
SRAM and Shimano have trapped a lot of riders, myself included, in a prison of decadence. Those 10-tooth cogs are only possible thanks to proprietary cassette design, as well as freehub bodies available only on (relatively) expensive modern wheelsets. And the 51- and 52-tooth cogs demand extreme precision to keep the derailleur shifting accurately because they have to stretch so far from the hanger. And don’t get me started on what they’ve done to our chainlines. Plus, even for those willing to accept these terms (again, myself included), there are vanishingly few options that work with cable-actuated brakes, front derailleurs, or dropper posts. There’s an enormous audience that’s been left behind by the mainstream. Sword isn’t trying to join in on this rat race. That’s what’s so impressive about it. Every step of the way, Sword seems to ask what is the most practical choice, and somehow always has the best possible answer.
The microSHIFT components I tested added up to about $305. That’s the 10-speed right lever for $94.99, the dropper-compatible left lever for $64.99, the Sword derailleur for $79.99, and the aluminum-spidered G-series Advent X cassette for $64.99. It’ll work with just about any 10-speed chain, which you can get for as little as $20. MicroSHIFT’s own crank goes for $114.99, though 40t is the smallest 1x option, and its asymmetric 4-arm 110 BCD means even an aftermarket chainring will bottom out at 34T. But thankfully, Sword can work with most traditional narrow-wide single-ring setups. If you’ll be providing your own crank, just know it’s built around a 50mm chainline and 142mm hub spacing. Another cool feature is that microSHIFT is not direct-to-consumer. Any shop with a QBP account (which is pretty much any shop) can get a cut if you want to buy it.
There’s no great way to compare those prices to the bigger players on the drivetrain market because the bigger players have nothing to compare. And hopefully, bike manufacturers will realize that. A wave of OEM Sword spec on moderately priced bikes could follow, and instead of dangling its modern features at the far end of their price range, they could offer them to the masses. But in the meantime, Sword is an incredible way to breathe new life into a late-model gravel bike, mid-school road bike, or old-school mountain bike.
- Offers modern features normally only seen at higher price points
- Plug-and-play compatibility with most components and on nearly any bike
- Sleek, comfortable hoods
- Powerful braking, both on the hoods and in the drops
- Cable-actuated brakes!
- Cable-actuated shifting!
- Easily convertible between 1x and 2x
- 11-48 cassette may not offer a wide enough range for many 1x users
- Fiber-reinforced composite lever blades flex under hard braking