Guide to gravel groupset hierarchies: Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo groupsets explained

The right gravel groupset will help you to maximise your gravel riding experience. Here's an overview of the gravel groupsets available from the top three brands

ClockUpdated 14:00, Saturday 8th June 2024. Published 14:55, Thursday 21st March 2024
Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo all offer gravel-specific groupset

© Shimano / Campagnolo / GCN

Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo all offer gravel-specific groupset

Gravel is now one of the most popular cycling disciplines in the world, rivalling road and mountain biking. That popularity has come after a meteoric rise and it’s easy to forget that, not so long ago, most people had never even heard of gravel. A lot of brands have only jumped on the gravel bandwagon in the last few years, and the first gravel-specific groupset, Shimano’s GRX, is still only five years old.

Five years isn’t a long time in cycling, but it’s been more than enough for the explosion of gravel tech. What started out as a limited field is now a vast market for consumers to navigate, with each of the top three groupset manufacturers offering an extensive range of gravel groupset options.

Navigating all of these options can be tricky but we’ve pulled together this complete guide to gravel groupsets to help.

Gravel groupset guide contents

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What is a groupset?

A groupset is the collection of components that make up the drivetrain and braking system. It’s essentially responsible for propelling a bike forward and bringing it to a safe stop. Most groupsets consist of the following:

  • Chainset - this is the chainrings. Gravel bikes will usually have one or two
  • Cassette - the different gear sprockets at the rear of the bike
  • Chain
  • Derailleurs - these are what shift the chain into different gears on the chainrings and cassette
  • Gear and brake levers - these are used to operate the brakes and derailleurs
  • Brakes - virtually all gravel bikes have disc brakes

So far so simple, but there are many different factors to consider when choosing a gravel groupset.

What is a gravel groupset?

It’s hard to imagine a time before gravel existed, such is its current popularity, but it is still a new and burgeoning discipline. You only have to go back to 2018 to find a time when dedicated gravel groupsets didn’t exist, something that was corrected when Shimano launched its GRX range of gravel-specific components in 2019.

As the name suggests, gravel components, and specifically groupsets, are designed for gravel bikes. Gravel bikes bear a striking resemblance to road bikes which, generally, means drop bars. They can be differentiated by their larger tyres and more relaxed geometries, both of which give an indication of a gravel bike’s purpose. Unlike road bikes, which are confined to smooth tarmac, gravel bikes are designed for off-road riding. Off-road is a broad term and the gravel discipline has mirrored this broadness, spanning everywhere from untechnical compact gravel to rough stuff bordering on mountain biking.

The world of gravel groupsets has grown exponentially since the emergence of Shimano’s GRX, with all of the major groupsets brands joining the party, and the burgeoning market is still growing at a rapid rate. Brands are constantly finding new ways to develop their gravel groupset tech to meet the varied demands of gravel riding.

What is the difference between a gravel and road groupset?

From scurrying up steep inclines on loose gravel to grinding away on a bikepacking adventure, gravel riding poses a completely different challenge to road riding, and gravel groupsets have adapted to meet these demands.

Compared to road groupsets, gravel groupsets are designed to provide a much wider range of gearing, plus easier gearing too. Gravel cassettes are generally much wider plus, depending on the groupset, often have more cogs than road bike cassettes. For Campagnolo, this goes all the way up to 13 cogs (commonly referred to as 13-speed) for its Ekar groupset. Shimano’s top-tier GRX is 12-speed, which is on a par with some of its road groupsets.

Most brands have also incorporated mountain bike tech into their gravel groupsets, such as clutch derailleurs which help to maintain the tension in a chain while riding over choppy terrain.

Similar to mountain biking, 1x chainsets are popular, although 2x set-ups are still commonly used.

Gravel vs road: Do you need a gravel-specific groupset?

While it is possible to use a standard road groupset on a gravel bike, it’s usually best to opt for a gravel-specific set-up.

Riding off-road on gravel poses a different challenge to riding on the road. There’s less traction which means that you have to work harder, especially on any inclines. Even the strongest riders would struggle to grind up a gravel climb using a standard road set-up, hence why the pros generally stick to a gravel groupset, although there are sometimes exceptions to this rule.

Most of us don’t have pro-level power in our locker, which is why gravel groupsets were introduced in the first place. They provide a wider range of gears and, depending on the groupset, a greater number of gears too, so the jump between the individual gears is smaller. All of this will come in useful when struggling along the rugged terrain.

Brands are also increasingly taking inspiration from their mountain bike groupsets when designing their gravel models. This has led to the common use of clutch derailleurs which help to keep the chain taut when riding over rugged terrain.

How to choose a gravel groupset

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail; it’s an oft-stated cliché but one that applies when choosing a gravel groupset. Gravel riding is incredibly varied so equipment choices are important. Here are the key considerations when choosing a gravel groupset.

Gearing ratios

The most important, and obvious, factor when buying a gravel groupset is the gearing. With less traction, riding on gravel is tougher than on the road. This difference becomes more pronounced on climbs, at which point you’ll appreciate easier gearing.

Generally, gravel groupsets will have an easiest gear that falls below a 1:1 ratio, but they can sometimes be much easier than this too. This can mean sacrificing the ratio of the hardest gear, although that shouldn’t be a problem on gravel where you’re unlikely to reach the same high speeds as you would on tarmac.

Think carefully about the type of gravel terrain you’re likely to encounter when choosing your gearing set-up.

1x or 2x chainsets

Choosing a gravel set-up will mean deciding between a 1x (one chainring) or 2x (two chainrings) system.

1x has become increasingly popular and involves pairing a compact chainring, usually around 40t to 44t, with a wide-range cassette - these cassettes are often borrowed from mountain biking and can have larger cogs that go above 50t.

2x set-ups are more similar to what is found on road bikes, except they use more compact chainsets. Shimano, for example, offers a 48/31t for its 12-speed GRX groupset. These are generally paired with smaller cassettes, around the 11-34t or 11-36t mark.

As previously mentioned, some riders stick to a 2x road groupset too.

At first glance, a 2x set-up may seem like a no-brainer, after all you get more gears. However, there are lots of overlaps in gear ratios between the large and small chainrings on a 2x set-up, so the number of different gear ratios doesn’t usually vary much from the options on a 1x set-up. This is especially the case for 12 and 13-speed 1x set-ups, which often have even more gear ratios than a 2x set-up.

1x systems also offer more simplicity as they do away with the front derailleur, which can actually limit the wheel size a bike can accommodate.

Mechanical or electronic groupset?

Virtually all of the major groupset brands now rely on electronic shifting for their performance road groupsets, but that has shifted across to gravel groupsets too.

Shimano’s 12-speed GRX groupset most recently received an electronic Di2 makeover, joining the 11-speed Di2 version of the groupset.

SRAM doesn’t technically have dedicated gravel groupsets as the American brand instead offers gravel set-ups for its road groupsets, with all of its 12-speed offerings using electronic gearing, barring Apex. Mechanical shifting is available for its 11-speed groupsets.

Campagnolo is the current exception to the electronic rule as its top-tier Ekar groupset is only available with mechanical shifting.

Mechanical or hydraulic braking for a gravel bike?

For years now, the rim versus disc brake debate has been rumbling on. At this point it’s a very one-sided argument and one that doesn’t even register in the world of gravel riding, where rim brake bikes are non-existent.

In its place, a new brake-based quandary has emerged, although it’s much easier to navigate: mechanical versus hydraulic disc brakes.

The disc brakes in a mechanical system are actuated using cables, whereas hydraulic systems use hydraulic brake fluid which is compressed when a brake lever is pulled, pushing the brake pads against the rotor.

Hydraulic brakes are dominant as they offer better performance, both in terms of braking power and modulation. That’s why the system is used on the majority of bikes, barring entry-level models which mostly use mechanical systems.

Mechanical systems are also more vulnerable to the environment as grit and grime can quickly wear cables or cause friction in the system, hampering braking efficiency. That’s not something that will affect hydraulic systems, although they can develop bubbles in the system which leads to spongy braking. Correcting this means bleeding the system which can be messy work, especially compared to the more simple process of maintaining mechanical systems.

Shimano gravel groupsets guide

Shimano is one of the best-known components manufacturers, producing everything from wheels to groupsets. Its groupset popularity spans the various disciplines, from road to mountain biking, so it isn’t too surprising that the Japanese brand is at the forefront of the gravel discipline too.

Unlike some of the other brands on this list, Shimano has dedicated gravel groupsets, rather than adapting its existing road options, although some riders still use a standard Shimano road set-up - we’ve spotted pro gravel riders Laurens ten Dam and Peter Stetina using standard Shimano road set-ups in the past.

Shimano’s dedicated gravel groupset is called GRX and it was first released in 2019, becoming the first ever gravel-specific groupset. The range has since expanded and there are currently 10, 11 and 12-speed versions of the groupset available.

Each of the levels features mechanical shifting, while 11-speed also has an electronic Di2 version too. A 12-speed Di2 GRX groupset also joined it on that list in 2024, although it is a little surprisingly only available in a 2x set-up and not 1x. We'd expect that to change in the future through the addition of a 1x 12-speed electronic groupset.

There could also be a 13-speed Shimano groupset on the horizon too judging by a patent submitted by the Japanese brand in 2024. A patent isn't a guarantee of a future product but a 13-speed groupset would be the natural next level of progression.

Here’s the full hierarchy for Shimano’s gravel groupsets.

Shimano GRX RX825 12-speed Di2 gravel groupset

It was a little surprising that the first 12-speed version of Shimano's GRX groupset, released in late 2023, was only available in a mechanical version and not electronic.

That led to plenty of rumours that a Di2 version would soon follow and we didn't have to wait long for that to become true, with 12-speed Di2 GRX breaking cover in May 2024.

Its release wasn't devoid of a surprise either as it is only available in a 2x set-up and not 1x, with a choice of a 11-34t or 11-36t cassette combined with a 48/31t cassette. Neither the chainset or the cassette are new, both being borrowed from the mechanical version, but the shifters and derailleurs are.

Shimano GRX820 Unbeatable 12-speed gravel groupset

The aforementioned mechanical version of Shimano’s 12-speed GRX groupset, the GRX820, was released in 2023 and is available in three different combinations.

The first is the Unbeatable, which pairs either a 40t or 42t chainring with a 10-45t cassette in a 1x12 set-up. It’s designed for riders who like to pin on race numbers or simply ride fast, offering a wide mix of gears with close ratios so riders can easily find a good spinning gear.

Shimano GRX820 Unstoppable 12-speed gravel groupset

Gravel spirit is all about adventure so many riders don’t need an aggressive groupset - step in the Unstoppable. It’s very similar to the Unbeatable, barring a much larger 10-51t cassette. The 40t and 42t chainrings remain the same.

The large cassette provides a much wider range of gears and an easier spinning gear for any climbs.

To accommodate such a large cassette, the Unstoppable set-up features a long-cage Shadow+ rear derailleur.

Shimano GRX820 Undroppable 12-speed gravel groupset

The last of the new GRX820 additions is the Undroppable. This is the only one that veers from a 1x set-up for a more traditional 2x set-up.

It combines a sub-compact 48/31t chainset with either a 11-34t or 11-36t cassette.

The Undroppable also differs from the other GRX820 offerings through its compatibility with HG rather than MicroSpline freehubs. MicroSpline tech is used by Shimano on its mountain bike freehubs and components, and both the Unstoppable and the Unbeatable had to adopt it to accommodate the 10t smallest cog. That’s not a problem for the Undroppable.

Shimano GRX610 12-speed gravel groupset

Alongside the release of the GRX820, Shimano’s 600 series GRX groupset also received a 12-speed upgrade, albeit this tier only includes cranksets and brake levers.

It includes both 1x and 2x options, both of which feature trickled-down tech from the 800 series. For the 1x set-up, there is a choice of either a 38t or 42t crankset, which can be combined with either a 10-45t or 10-51t cassette.

The 2x consists of a slightly more compact 46/30t chainset. This can be paired with the 11-34t or 11-36t cassettes used for the Undroppable groupset. The 46/30t chainset is compatible with the 12-speed Di2 groupset.

Shimano GRX815 Di2 and GRX810 mechanical - 11-speed gravel groupsets

Released in 2019, the GRX810 series is available in both a mechanical and electronic set-up.

Both offer the same components, except for the derailleurs. The GRX815 is the electronic Di2 version that uses a wired system and it’s still the brand’s only electronic gravel groupset, with many surprised that a Di2 version of the latest 12-speed GRX820 wasn’t released alongside the mechanical option.

The 2x version of both groupsets is available with a 48/31t crankset, and the system can support a maximum 34t cog on the cassette. For 1x there’s a choice of either a 40t or 42t cassette, while the cassette can go up to a maximum 42t cog. These cassette limits are the same for both the mechanical and Di2 derailleurs.

Shimano GRX600 11-speed gravel groupset

The 600 series may have received a 12-speed upgrade, but the older 11-speed version has still remained.

Similarly to its 12-speed cousin, it doesn’t consist of a full groupset, but only cranksets and brake levers.

Sticking to the theme throughout Shimano’s hierarchy, both 1x and 2x versions are available, offering 40t and 46/30t set-ups, respectively.

Shimano GRX400 10-speed

Shimano’s GRX400 is an outlier in the range, not because it’s the only 10-speed gravel groupset, but because there are only 2x set-ups available.

There’s only one crankset available, a 46/30t. The rear derailleur can accommodate a cassette with a largest cog between 32t and 36t.

SRAM gravel groupsets guide

Shimano lays claim to the first dedicated gravel groupset but there’s a slight asterisk next to this as SRAM has been offering gravel set-ups for even longer. The only difference is, the American brand doesn’t actually technically offer a gravel-specific groupset, but rather gravel configurations for each of its road bike groupsets.

These set-ups can be entirely made up of road-specific components, a route taken by Wout van Aert for the Gravel World Championships in 2023, but SRAM has also introduced some gravel-specific components to its Rival, Force and Red groupsets, labelled XPLR. Each has 1x12 speed, electronic shifting. SRAM Apex AXS also comes as standard with an 11-44t XPLR cassette and is one-by only, so every tier of SRAM’s hierarchy is essentially available with XPLR components.

SRAM is currently leading the way with its electronic road bike shifting which has filtered its way down its complete range of road bike groupsets, meaning there is also an electronic gravel option available at each tier. SRAM labels its electronic groupsets with the AXS name.

SRAM has also designed its groupsets to be cross compatible, so it’s possible to combine components from both its mountain and road ranges together.

SRAM Red eTap AXS

SRAM’s top-tier road bike groupset is the choice of the pros and is available in both a 1x and 2x configuration.

In a 2x, the set-up can accommodate a maximum 10-36t cassette, while the smallest crankset in the Red range is a 46/33t. It’s possible to buy Red cranksets with inbuilt, dual-sided power meters too.

The Red groupset is also available as a 1x set-up and SRAM offers a wide range of chainrings, from 36t through to 50t, with two-teeth increments between each offering. A maximum 10-36t cassette still applies here if using the standard Red derailleur, but this can be increased through the Red XPLR eTap AXS rear derailleur which is compatible with a larger 10-44t cassette.

Each of the Red, Force and Rival groupsets can also be used with 12-speed cassettes and rear derailleurs from SRAM’s Eagle mountain bike groupset, but only in a 1x set-up.

SRAM Force AXS

SRAM often filters its top-tier tech down the groupset hierarchy and that’s reflected in the SRAM Force AXS groupset which features the exact same line-up as the Red. This includes the same 2x, regular 1x and XPLR 1x configurations.

Force also had additional wide components available, which essentially free up extra tyre clearance by shifting the chain outwards slightly. Doing this requires different chainrings and there are both 1x and 2x versions of the wide set-up available. For 2x, this is restricted to a 43/30t crankset only, which can’t be swapped out for something different as it has different bolt diameters to SRAM’s non-wide chainrings. So, if you choose this option, you need to be confident it’s what you need.

Alternatively, the 1x wide groupset is available with a 40t chainring, although this can be swapped for a non-wide alternative.

SRAM Rival AXS

Rival may be SRAM’s third-tier groupset, but it still packs in plenty of performance. As you may expect, it makes some sacrifices compared to the higher-end groupsets, namely through added weight. However, it’s still a great high-performing option that comes with a slightly more budget-friendly price.

Highlighting the consistency of SRAM’s components throughout the different tiers, Rival’s offering is also identical to that of the Force groupset. It includes the same standard, XPLR and wide-component set-ups, giving you a variety of choices.

SRAM Apex

SRAM Apex is unique as it is the only bottom-tier groupset from any of the three main groupset brands that benefits from electronic shifting.

It’s a 12-speed groupset that is only available as 1x. There are five cranksets to choose from, including 38t, 40t, 42t, 44t and 46t. When it comes to the rear of the bike, there are more decisions to be made.

The first utilises Apex XPLR AXS’ rear derailleur and cassettes, with a choice between 10-36t, 10-44t and 11-44t. For a more budget-friendly option, you can also choose mechanical Apex XPLR, but this doesn’t include the 10-36t cassette.

If you want a wider range of gearing, there’s also the Apex Eagle rear derailleur which works with 10-50t, 11-50t and 10-52t cassettes.

The varying smallest sprocket size confuses freehub compatibility slightly and not all of these combinations are compatible with the same freehub type, so check this when purchasing a groupset.

SRAM Force 11-speed

As the top-tier Red groupset is electronic only, we’ve jumped straight to Force for SRAM’s mechanical line-up.

Jumping to mechanical also means less gears as they’re currently only 11-speed compared to the 12-speed electronic groupsets.

Mechanical Force is available in both 2x, named Force 22, or 1x, named Force 1. The latter is the only one relevant here as the 2x set-up only includes 50/34t or 53/39t cranksets, which are too large for the majority of gravel riders.

SRAM Force 1 provides an option of a 40t or 42t crankset, which can be paired with an 11-28t, 11-34t or 11-42t cassette.

SRAM Rival 11-speed

It’s a similar story for SRAM Rival which has both 1x and 2x configurations, but only the 1x is gravel suitable.

There’s slightly more choice for this than the Force 1, with additional 44t and 50t cranksets available on top of the 40t and 42t options. The derailleur can accommodate a cassette with a maximum 42 largest tooth.

SRAM Apex 11-speed

At this point SRAM Apex is barely used barring on a smattering of lower-end road bikes. It’s available with a 40t, 42t or 44t chainset and the system can accommodate a cassette with a maximum 42 largest tooth.

Campagnolo gravel groupsets guide

Of the three major groupset brands, Campagnolo has the smallest gravel offering. What it lacks in numbers it makes up for in tech, and its groupsets are home to some interesting features that you won’t find on groupsets from Campagnolo’s rivals.

The range consists of the Ekar and the Ekar GT, which is one of the newest additions to the gravel world having only broken cover at the beginning of 2024.

Both groupsets are mechanical, so there isn't an electronic option in the Italian brand’s line-up. This has been an area where the brand has generally lacked behind its rivals in recent years, and it only released its first fully wireless road groupset, the Super Record, midway through 2023.

Campagnolo Ekar

In many ways, Campagnolo’s Ekar groupset conforms to most of the other groupsets we’ve seen in this list. It’s only available in 1x with a choice of 38t, 40t, 42t or 44t chainring.

That’s where the similarities with other brands end as the Ekar currently holds the title of being the only 13-speed gravel groupset available from the three major groupset brands. A larger cassette obviously results in more gears, although Campagnolo hasn’t actually used this to create a wider range than its rivals, although it has strayed slightly by introducing smallest 9t cogs.

There are three cassettes available in total, with a choice between a 9-36t, 9-42t or 10-44t. While the range on the cassette isn’t necessarily as wide as what other brands offer, having 13 gears means that the incremental jumps between the different cogs is smaller, making it easy to find the right gear when you need it.

Traditionalists will be happy to know that the Ekar’s brake levers feature Campagnolo’s famous thumb shifters too.

Former WorldTour pro Nathan Haas used Campagnolo’s Ekar gravel groupset at the 2023 Gravel World Championships, pairing it with his Colnago G3-X bike. Check out his 40t chainset set-up here.

Campagnolo Ekar GT

A new twist on the Ekar formula that was released in 2024, Ekar GT sticks to the 13-speed formula but evolves it slightly to create a groupset that is more budget-friendly and adventure-focussed.

The majority of the changes have occurred at the rear of groupset in the form of new cassette options and revised derailleurs, which are designed to accommodate the former. There are four cassette options in total, including the 9-36t, 9-40t and 10-44t, all of which are close to or minor variations of the existing options in the Ekar range. However, an additional 10-48t cassette opens up a much wider gear range.

Each of these can be matched with one of five chainring sizes, between a 36t and 44t, with the range going up in two-teeth increments.

For more tech guides, news and the latest pro bikes, check out the ‘Tech’ section on the GCN website.

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