What in the heck is a gruppo? Well, it’s an Italian term that describes the group of components you have on your bike – primarily your shifters, brakes, gears, cranks and derailleurs. Just about everything on your bike except your frame, forks, seat, pedals and handlebars. There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of frame manufacturers, but only three gruppo manufacturers: Shimano, Campagnolo and SRAM. Each of these manufacturers has four or five levels of quality to their component groups – from standard to super deluxe, you might say. The more you pay for a bike, the more deluxe a gruppo you get. The better gruppos are lighter and offer improved shifting and breaking.
Shimano has four top groups, in order of increasing quality: Tiagra, 105, Ultegra and Dura-Ace. SRAM, the newcomer to the club and an American company (although nothing is made in the US), has four as well: Apex, Rival, Force and Red. Campagnolo, the oldest of the three, still made primarily in Italy, also has four: Athena, Chorus, Record and Super Record. (Note that there are other gruppos below these levels, but these are the minimum levels I’d recommend.)
In addition to those mentioned above, Shimano and Campagnolo also have electronic-shifting gruppos. Shimano’s are Ultegra Di2 (Digital Integrated Intelligence) and Dura-Ace Di2. Campagnolo just entered the electronic-shifting competition in December 2011 with their Super Record EPS (Electronic Power Shift) and Record EPS. Although the electronic versions are much more expensive than their manual-shifting counterparts, they apparently shift much more smoothly, accurately and reliably. And they “trim” to avoid chain rubbing automatically. (Or so I read in all the magazines and online articles who rave about them – I haven’t had the privilege of trying them yet.) If money is not an object, you should definitely consider an electronic shifting system for your bike! (BTW, SRAM says they’re sticking to manual for the foreseeable future, but I’ll wager we’ll see a SRAM electronic shifting system very soon!)
In summary, when buying a bike, look for the highest level component group you can get, but you can’t really go wrong with any of the ones listed above!
It’s relatively easy to compare one brand to the other. Shimano 105, SRAM Rival and Campagnolo Athena are all roughly equivalent. Same for Shimano Ultegra, SRAM Force and Campagnolo Chorus. The top-of-the line models are Shimano Dura-Ace, SRAM Red and Campagnolo Record. Campagnolo Super Record is, in my opinion, a notch above regular Dura-Ace or SRAM Red. (Note that Shimano and SRAM use 10 gears on the rear cassette, while Campagnolo has gone to 11. Those of you old enough to remember the movie Spinal Tap will appreciate the significance of going up to “11”. For the rest of you, I doubt you’ll notice the difference!)
Just like anything else, there are hard-core fans of one brand or another. Campagnolo is the traditional, old-world-craftsman brand. The old-time cyclists prefer it. SRAM is the up-and-coming, new brand. The new, fast, young guys like it. Shimano is like Toyota – high tech and a good value. The value-conscious guys like it. Whatever brand you choose, you can compare the general quality and performance levels as mentioned above. Fans of one brand or another might argue that their particular brand is a notch higher than the others, but they are all relatively similar.
As always, try before you buy if you can. The ergonomics of shifting may be the deciding factor. I learned to ride on Campagnolo Record and currently ride SRAM Force. The biggest difference between these two is how you shift gears. With Campagnolo (“Campy” as the diehards call it), you have index finger and thumb buttons that shift up and down. On SRAM you have what they call the “double tap” system – one lever under your brake lever that does both up and down shifting. A short click to go in a harder gear, a longer click to go to an easier one. (With Shimano you move the whole brake lever to shift) All of the brands work very well, but I will say this – the SRAM system has been designed too closely in my engineering opinion. Unlike the Campy system, which can be adjusted while you ride so that nothing rubs, no matter what gear you’re in, SRAM will rub on your two highest or two lowest gears, depending on how your mechanic adjusts the system. There’s no “trim” adjustment that will help this. You just have to live with the slight rubbing sound in those gears. Although I’ve never used Shimano, I’m told that they have the same problem built into in their system. I guess the stiff competition to make everything as light as possible has led them to making a system that has such close tolerances that it’s actually too tight.
My next gruppo will therefore be the new Campy Super Record EPS, if I can afford it!