A Simple Guide to Component Groups
This article will give you more confidence walking into your local bike shop to look at and compare road bikes and you’ll be more confident that you are getting the right components for your style of riding.
Many of us may be confused about all the different component groups on road bikes as we shop for new bikes. Considering the full range of prices on new road bikes these days, why would you prefer one over another? Are the more expensive component groups worth it? How do you know the one the salesman is talking you into is right for you? And what is a component group?
I’ll answer the last question first: Component groups (sometimes called “gruppos,” which is Italian for groupset) include not only the shifters, but also the crank set and bottom bracket, chain, front and rear derailleurs, rear cassette, cables and brakes. Stay with me as I am going to break down a lot of this mystery.
An Introduction to the Big Three
There are three main manufacturers of road cycling components: Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo. Each one seems to have their fan base among cyclists. Having 3 strong manufacturers is one of the best things to happen to cyclists in the last decade: three strong competitors racing each other to introduce the latest technologies and advancements to the market. Within a few years, most features trickle down from the higher end components to improve the mid-grade components groups as well.
Shimano is a Japanese company which first entered the American bike market in the 1970’s. At present, Shimano has about 50% of the component market and they seem to be the brand that the others are compared to. This market leadership is well deserved as they do make great lines of products.
SRAM (often pronounced “Sh-RAM”) is an American bike component company which had its start in the late 1980’s. They are generally compatible with Shimano, in that some of the components can be interchanged which is very nice. In many ways they have almost created a standard. In its quest to beat its bigger competition, SRAM has to push the technology and beat Shimano in price and compete in performance. So SRAM was the first to put carbon fiber in the cranks and in the brake levers. It is also focuses on ergonomics and was the first to introduce reach-adjust(able) levers.
Campagnolo is a classic Italian company which has concentrated on high-end road cycling components. Campagnolo (affectionately nicknamed “Campy”) has some very distinguishing features in that its rear cassette has 11 speeds while the others (SRAM & Shimano) have ten. Campy has a very devoted fan base, especially among purist European riders who love its silky-smooth shifting, good ergonomics, and beautiful looks. I’m sure Campagnolo would like to think they are the Ferrari of the bike component world. Like Ferraris, they are expensive to repair and the customer service can be a little slow (but the latter is something the bike shop will deal with more than the customer.)
Road Bicycle Groupsets
There are different tiers in the competitive road bike line of components. The higher end has more exotic materials including carbon fiber, titanium and aluminum alloys while at the lower end of the component groups, those alloys are replaced with heavier metals such as steel and stamping instead of machining. It isn’t merely that the higher end is lighter; they are also engineered and machined with more precision so the parts fit and interact together better. The quality of parts such as brakes, shifters and chains are better in the higher end component groups as well. Durability is also a factor: a higher end component group such as Shimano’s Dura-Ace will last longer, up to 30,000 miles and will require less servicing and adjusting.
Value-based component groups such as Shimano’s Tiagra or Sora lines are found on the most entry level road bikes. If a customer is not sure about getting into road biking, they may choose such a bike as they “try it out.” The problem with the lesser quality components is that the shifting isn’t as smooth, the chain falls off now and then, and the braking may be a bit jerky and those experiences can frustrate a new rider. These components are also showing up on hybrids and college cruiser bikes.
The question is do you need to have the higher quality tier of component groups? There are a few things to consider. The lighter weight makes a difference if you are a competitive racer or climber. The smoother shifting and braking makes you a more predictable rider in a paceline. If you are going to ride with a group, Shimano’s 105 will be good, but going up the next level to Ultegra may be just that much better as it will give you more confidence with your brakes on a steep descent and smoother shifting as you keep up on the group ride over rolling hills. Finally, the resale value of the bike is higher with a higher quality component group however, if you are the one buying a used bike, just make sure you do your research on how the bike has been ridden and how many miles have been logged. The final factor is one that we may not admit to, but we will buy the better component groups because they just look cooler and to be honest, they do!
As I talk to many riders and bike shop employees they all seem to be very comfortable recommending the top 3 lines of any of the 3 manufacturers that I have reviewed. I have also read a number of articles that recommend the grade below the top of the line for the best feature to price ratio and I have found that to generally be true.
The main road bike component groups are, with their tiers in descending order of quality:
- Super Record (11 speed)
- Record (11 speed)
- Chorus (11 speed)
- Athena (11 speed)
- Centaur (10 speed)
- Veloce (10 speed)
Thanks to our friends at Millcreek Bicycles in Salt Lake City for the great variety of bicycles they have on hand AND for their helpful expertise! All these close-up photos were taken of their bicycles.
For more information on brake levers, reach adjustment and small hands, you may wish to check out a previous article: Women’s Hands and Brake Levers. Cycle and Style has other articles for help in buying road bicycles and finding a good local bike shop and we will continue to do more. Let us know what you’d like to know!