Beginner’s Guide to Groupsets by John Stevenson
A groupset is a collection of matching components used by a bike manufacturer to turn a frame into a bike. But confusingly, the term doesn’t cover all the parts on a bike, so let’s take a look at what it does cover, and why groupsets exist.
The first groupsets were produced by Italian component maker Campagnolo and just as today, a groupset was a collection of components that matched visually and in quality and function. The shapes of the various cast, forged and machined parts of a groupset all follow similar lines. Often there will be a common colour too, with various shades of grey currently in vogue.
Who makes groupsets?
The big names in bike component manufacturing are Shimano, Campagnolo, and SRAM, and these are the brands you’ll see almost exclusively on the groupsets fitted to bikes. In fact, you’ll have to look fairly hard to find anything but Shimano, such is the Japanese company’s domination of the market. You’ll find SRAM groupsets on a few mid-priced bikes, but this American-based company is currently focussing on cyclocross and gravel/adventure bikes with its 1X transmissions that combine a single chainring with a very wide-range sprocket set. Next year, we can also expect to start seeing groupsets from Taiwanese/Italian manufacturer FSA.
There used to be more. Mavic made some strikingly-styled groupsets in the 1980s, and we previously wrote about the demise of SunTour of Japan and Zeus of Spain. Sachs, part of the German Mannesman industrial conglomerate, made groupsets in the 1990s before selling its designs and production facilities to SRAM. A few other brands have appeared on groupsets, but usually some of the parts have been rebranded components rom other manufacturers. Italian company Miche, for example, used to offer groupsets with rebranded SunTour deraillers, while Galli, also from Italy, made its own brakes and derailleurs but rebranded other companies’ parts for the rest of its groupsets.
Today, each of the big three makes a range of groupsets covering bikes from the entry level up to professional racing. The table at the foot of the page lists them, and gives an idea of the cost of the bikes you'll find them on.
What’s in a groupset?
A modern groupset usually comprises brakes, brake/gear levers, chainset, derailleurs, chain and sprockets. That’s changed over time, though. For example, there was a time when a groupset included pedals and hubs. Groupset makers still offer hubs and pedals that are designated as part of a group, but it’s rare to see them on off-the-peg bikes. Bike makers usually buy complete wheels, sometimes from the groupset manufacturer — Shimano, Campagnolo and SRAM all make wheels — sometimes from another company. Bikes often come with very basic pedals, or none at all. The customer is expected to fit their chosen pedal system. Campagnolo and Shimano used to offer headsets and seatposts, Shimano made handlebar stems for a while (and very lovely they were too, as Kim Chee points out in the comments), Campagnolo has dabbled in saddles and for a while made highly-regarded rims.
What about the other bits?
A bike’s bar, stem, saddle and seatpost will come from a different company than the one supplying the groupset. There’s no particular reason for this, except that groupset makers tend to have long-standing specialisation in moving parts and leave the less complicated components alone.
But we’re talking about the bike industry so it’s Not That Simple. Some manufacturers of non-groupset components have expanded beyond that original remit, notably FSA and Ritchey with headsets, wheels and chainsets. From the other direction, Shimano owns Pro Bike Gear, which makes bars, stems, saddles, seatposts and wheels, plus bags and accessories. You’ll need tyres and tubes, but it’s otherwise possible to build a completely Shimano/Pro-equipped bike, and when FSA’s gear system becomes available (see below), you’ll be able to the same with its parts.
Why have a groupset at all?
We’ve already touched on two reasons why groupsets exist: matching aesthetics and matching quality. A bike with a complete groupset looks good, because the chainset, brakes, levers and derailleurs will all be the same colour and share other visual features. Perhaps more importantly, the quality of all the parts will be similar, so you can expect them all to be similarly durable. The metal treatments and high-strength alloys that make pivots and bearings more durable and that also make parts lighter are expensive, so better groupsets are pricier. If you ride 10,000 miles per year, the reliability of an expensive groupset is a decent investment; if you’re a 2,000 mile-a-year weekend warrior, perhaps not so much.
Materials themselves may delineate groupsets. You won’t find any carbon fibre in Campagnolo’s entry-level Veloce groupset, but its top-end Super Record groupset is positively dripping with composites, as well as a fair amount of titanium. That use of high-tech materials makes Super Record the lightest groupset on the market, as well as the most expensive.
Another reason is that a bike with a complete groupset almost always works better than one with a mix of parts from different manufacturers. Component makers design their shifters to pull just the right amount of cable for each gear shift or braking action, and their sprockets and chainrings to grab their chains and move them smoothly from one tooth to another. Change almost any component and things won’t work quite as well.
That said, some manufacturers are pretty good at making compatible parts. SRAM sprockets work well enough in Shimano transmissions and it’s not unusual to find KMC chains on bikes equipped with any of the big three’s groupsets. In fact, KMC is widely reported to supply chains to Shimano, so you’d expect its chains to work with Shimano gears. Nevertheless, with rare exceptions, if you want your bike to work as well as it possibly can, then fitting a complete groupset is the way to go.
What’s the future of groupsets?
The barrier to entering the groupset market is high. Most of the customers are bike manufacturers with well-established relationships with their existing suppliers. You need substantial amounts of heavy machinery for the forging, casting, stamping and moulding processes that convert raw metal to bike parts, and either robots or inexpensive labour to assemble them.
As a result, nobody enters the field with a complete groupset. The trick is to get started with a part that’s better than what’s already available, or at least very different from it. SRAM did this with its throttle-style gear shifter GripShift, and expanded by buying other companies like Sachs (derailleurs), Avid (brakes) and Truvativ (chainsets).
A new entrant we’ll almost certainly see in the near future is FSA. Its logo is already a common sight on bikes with its chainsets, seatposts, bars, stem and headsets. FSA has been threatening for years to make complete groupsets for road bikes, but so far has only produced a triathlon bike set. At the 2016 Tour de France, prototypes of an FSA electronic gear system, dubbed K-Force WE, appeared on the bike of top Italian rider Ivan Basso. A few weeks later FSA showed off the new shifters at the Eurobike show and our Dave Arthur was able to take it for a spin.
The reason it’s taken so long for FSA to get a groupset out is probably that decent-quality road bikes now all have combined gear and brake levers. There are only so many ways to do this and they’re all covered by patents held by Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo. However, since Shimano introduced its STI brake/shift levers in 1990, its patents on that design should now have expired. That we’ve not seen copies yet is testament to Shimano’s technical expertise in getting a quite delicate mechanism to work reliably.
The trend over the last few years has been to ever-greater integration between parts, and that will continue. In the days before indexed shifting you could use a Campagnolo derailleur with Shimano gear levers (though Campagnolo derailleurs of that era shifted so badly it’s a mystery why you’d want to). You can’t do that now and be certain the indexing will work properly, nor should you use Shimano levers with Campagnolo brakes — they have different cable pull requirements. And you definitely can’t use SRAM hydraulic brakes with Shimano levers because they use different, totally incompatible hydraulic fluids.
Imagine a system that senses that you’re braking and changes gear for you. That would require a level of integration beyond the current state of the art. Or how about a seatpost that automatically adjusts your saddle height within a range: lower for descending, higher for climbing?
The table below lists the groupsets currently offered by Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo, along with the recommended retail price of a complete set of each one. These prices are for groupsets with rim brakes so that the comparison is fair as Campagnolo's recently announced discs aren't yet shipping.
We’ve also listed the approximate price range of bikes with each group. For the most part, these are bikes with rim brakes too. We have to stress these ranges are very approximate. Some groupsets are very uncommon on off-the-peg bikes, so we’ve used online bike builders from Comtat Cycles and Ribble to come up with prices of bikes you could spec up.
|Bike price range
|Shimano (link is external)
|Dura-Ace 9150 Di2
|Ultegra R8000 Di2
|Campagnolo (link is external)
|Super Record EPS
|SRAM (link is external)
|Rival 1/CX 1