Expert Guide to the Big 3 Component Brands and Their Groupsets

Published on 05/12/2023 · 11 min readCycling Expert Adam L. breaks down the largest three component brands: Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo, and explains how their groupsets differ.
Adam L., Cycling Expert
By Cycling Expert Adam L.

Photo by Greg Trowman

Tl;dr: Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo are the three biggest bicycle component manufacturers in the game today. Shimano and SRAM cover the entire market, from entry-level to professional-class groupsets, while Campagnolo has a smaller niche with mid and top-level components. The latest innovations in the space are disc brakes and electronic shifting, which are rapidly becoming standard on even mid-level components.

Components are simultaneously some of a modern road bike's most important and confusing parts. There are various manufacturers, each with a model line. Sub-models of each product family have different features. Sorting through all the options can be a frustrating and time-consuming part of bike shopping. As a lifelong cyclist and current Curated Expert, I’ve compiled this guide to help.

This article will walk you through the basics of Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo and their current product lineups. I’ll start with a brief overview of a groupset before diving into each brand, how to choose a groupset, and any features to look out for. Finally, I’ll wrap up by putting our knowledge into practice as I help real-life Curated customers choose groupsets for their new bikes. Ready? Let’s get started!

What Is a Groupset?

A groupset, or gruppo in quasi-Italian cycling speak, consists of all components that make your bike go and stop. These include:

  • Shifters and brake levers (usually combined into brifters on road bikes)
  • Derailleurs (front and rear derailleurs)
  • Cassette
  • Crankset, including cranks, chainrings, and sometimes a power meter
  • Chain
  • Bottom bracket
  • Brake calipers
  • Rotors (for disc brakes)

Groupsets are usually identified by the number of speeds or gears on the rear cassette. For example, most modern bikes have groupsets with 8-12 speeds. In addition, bikes usually have two, but sometimes one or three front chainrings, which aren’t usually counted when identifying groupsets.

The Big Three

Currently, the road groupset world is dominated by three brands; Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo. Some smaller brands are trying to break into the market (pun intended), but none have been particularly successful yet. Here’s a little more info on each major brand:

Shimano: The Industry Giant

Shimano is based in Japan and is by far the largest road groupset manufacturer in the world. In fact, Shimano has spawned dozens of bootleg and imitation groupsets. (You might see Shimeng on a budget bike.) However, Shimano is known for quality and reliable parts. The company has a massive service network, and finding a shop to repair or replace a worn-out component is easy. While Shimano has been dominant for decades, it recently lost market share to SRAM and its electronic innovations but has released electronic groups of its own.

SRAM: The American Upstart

SRAM is an American company that’s been innovating in components for a relatively short period of time since 1987. The name is, no joke, an anagram for its founders Scott, Ray, Sam, and Mike. SRAM is known for new products, such as GripShift and DoubleTap. In the last five years, SRAM has released the AXS system, which has set the standard for 12-speed road electronic shifting and has put Shimano on its back foot. SRAM is still a smaller player but is rapidly gaining market share on intermediate and pro-level bikes and is also big on the mountain bike side of things.

Campagnolo: The Italian Stallion

Campagnolo, or Campy as it’s often called, has the least market share but perhaps the most history in road cycling. Campagnolo has been designing and manufacturing bike components since the 1930s in Italy and has equipped many of the greatest cyclists throughout history. Today, Campy groupsets can be found on intermediate and pro-level bikes; however, it doesn’t make any entry-level components.

Check out the video below for some background on Campagnolo’s history of innovation in cycling.

What to Consider When Buying a Groupset

There are a few different ways you can purchase a groupset. Most of us will buy complete bikes with a groupset, but you can also purchase a groupset to upgrade an existing bike or frameset or buy individual components á la carte. No matter which route you’re taking, here’s some basic questions to ask when you’re shopping for components. For further information on different features, scroll down to “Features to Look Out For” when buying a groupset.

What’s My Intended Use?

This is the most basic question and will help narrow down your options. Putting together a commuter bike for trips to work and occasional weekend jaunts? You probably don’t need the latest and greatest top-level racing groupset. Vice versa, if you’re building your dream bike, you should look for top-end components.

What Brakes Do I Want?

Most modern groupsets are available with disc or rim brakes. Rim brakes are the traditional standard equipment, but disc brakes are rapidly becoming more popular due to increased stopping power. In addition, riders often out in wet weather or hilly terrain might benefit from disc brakes.

Is Electronic Shifting Worth It?

Electronic shifting, long the top-end option, is now available in mid-tier components as well. While it is more expensive, the promise of perfect gear changes every time with minimal maintenance has drawn many converts. You can currently find electronic shifting on bikes starting in the $4,000 range.

What’s My Budget?

Since most of us are buying groupsets already installed, it’s tough to assign a dollar value to an installed groupset. If you’re purchasing a gruppo separately, though, you can pay anywhere from $300-500 for an entry-level groupset to $3,000+ for a top-flight electronic groupset. There are nice mechanical versions in the $1,000-1,500 range. Another good way to compare groupset costs is by comparing two similar bikes with different groupsets. Then you can figure out the additional cost for the higher level groupset.

Features to Look Out for in a Groupset

  • Number of speeds: This can range from 8 to 12, with most bikes being equipped with 10, 11, or 12-speed drivetrains. More speeds usually mean more gear ratios to choose from and greater gearing range, resulting in more comfortable pedaling as you can match your effort to any terrain.
  • Number of chainrings: In the past, many bikes came with “triple” chainrings—three chainrings on the crankset. These have mostly been replaced with double chainrings, and some bikes have just one front chainring. Wider-range rear cassettes have made up for the loss in front gears, and compact chainrings are easier to pedal.
  • Charging: SRAM AXS requires two batteries removed to charge, while Shimano Di2 has one battery that stays inside the bike and is plugged in externally, requiring less frequent charging—just something to consider.
  • Service: Most shops will service all three groupsets, but some smaller or specialty shops will not. If you only have one shop nearby, ensure they are authorized to service your chosen components.
  • Compatibility: If you’re building an existing frameset, ensure the gruppo is compatible. In addition, if you’re reusing components, ensure they’re compatible with the new parts.

Brake Types

  • Disc: These brakes use a caliper that slows down a rotor attached to the wheel, similar to most automobile brakes. Most are hydraulic, but some are cable-operated.
    • Benefits: More powerful than rim brakes, especially in wet conditions
    • Be Aware: Heavier than rim brakes; Hydraulic systems usually require service in a shop.
  • Rim: These brakes use pads that slow the bike by clamping the rim of the wheels.
    • Benefits: Lighter than disc brakes; Easier to adjust and service at home
    • Be Aware: Not as powerful as disc brakes, especially in wet conditions; Pads wear down quicker with heavy use

Shifting Mechanism

  • Mechanical: This is the traditional cable-actuated shifting motion on most bikes, especially entry to mid-level choices.
    • Benefits: Simple and reliable operation; Doesn’t need to be charged
    • Be Aware: Not as precise as electronic options
  • Electronic: Electronic drivetrains have rapidly taken over the pro ranks and continue their dominance with recreational riders.
    • Benefits: Perfect shifting every time, and no need to adjust cables.
    • Be Aware: More expensive than mechanical systems; Don’t forget to charge your batteries

Cheat Sheets

Of course, figuring out which groupset has which features isn’t as easy as it could be. First, you need to be fluent in various model names, numbers, and acronyms. To simplify the process, I’ve put the major groupsets still being produced by each manufacturer in these handy charts that list each company’s model hierarchy. Groupsets in italics denote electronic shifting. A major note, these charts only cover what’s currently being produced. If you have questions about an older groupset or compatibility between different generations of parts, check with the manufacturer!

Shimano Cheat Sheet

GruppoNumber of Speeds
Claris8
Sora9
Tiagra10
10511
105 Di212
Ultegra11
Ultegra Di212
Dura-Ace Di212

SRAM Cheat Sheet

GruppoNumber of Speeds
Apex10
Apex 111
Rival11
Rival AXS12
Force11
Force AXS12
Red AXS12

Campagnolo Cheat Sheet

GruppoNumber of Speeds
Centaur11
Chorus12
Record12
Record EPS12
Super Record12
Super Record EPS12

How to Choose the Right Groupset for You

Now that we’ve completed a whirlwind tour through the basics of the “big three” groupset manufacturers, let's put our knowledge into practice with some real-life customers. We’ll take a minute to meet them and learn about their needs before recommending the perfect groupset. Then, to cover different possibilities, I’ll work with a few people looking for groupsets on complete bikes and someone who wants to purchase a groupset for a frame they already have.

Stefan: Super Commuter

Stefan has been a casual cyclist for his entire adult life but got a new job and wants to start bike commuting to work. He lives in San Francisco, and his commute is quite hilly, with steep downhills leading into stop signs. Also, the weather isn’t the best; he often rides in the rain. Stefan wants to invest in a good bike but doesn’t want the latest and greatest features since he’ll mostly be using the bike for commuting. Friends have recommended a Shimano groupset due to their durability and ease of service. Features Stefan should look for:

  • Hydraulic disc brakes are essential for safe stopping in rainy conditions.
  • At least 10 speeds with a wide-range cassette will give him enough gears to comfortably spin the pedals no matter how long his work day goes.
  • Mechanical shifting is reliable and won’t require him to remember to keep batteries charged.

Groupset examples: Shimano Tiagra Disc, Shimano 105 Disc

Michelle: Upgrading an Italian Classic

Michelle is a passionate road cyclist in Florida. She has a full fleet of bikes in the garage and just found a beautiful older Italian Colnago frameset she wants to build up. She wants modern features and gearing to make the bike fun to ride on weekly group rides. Cost isn’t an issue, within reason. Michelle’s more concerned with quality and something that’s worthy of the cool frameset. Features Michelle should look for:

  • Her older frameset is most likely only compatible with rim brakes.
  • Modern features would be an 11-speed or 12-speed drivetrain with a wide-range cassette.
  • A mid or upper-level groupset from the “big three” could meet her needs.

Groupset examples: Campagnolo Super Record, Shimano Ultegra Di2

Benji: Hunting for a New Race Bike

Benji races road bikes in Colorado. He’s been riding an older model and wants to upgrade for the upcoming season. He doesn't know exactly what he needs, but his races are quite hilly. He’s seen bikes with electronic and mechanical shifting and disc and rim brakes. He’s already decided on a carbon fiber frameset and aero wheelset for maximum speed and now needs to choose the groupset to go along with it. Features Benji should look for:

  • An electronic 12-speed drivetrain will be the most precise and reliable in high-stress racing situations
  • Disc brakes are more powerful for sudden braking and are used by pro racers
  • A mid-priced groupset will be more affordable to replace after the inevitable crash or two.

Groupset examples: Shimano Ultegra Di2, SRAM Force AXS, Shimano 105 Di2

Conclusion

Suppose you’re buying a new or used bike in Europe or North America. In that case, it’s almost certainly built up with components from one of the “big three” manufacturers: Shimano, SRAM, or Campagnolo. All three have unique aspects to their products and brands, but they consistently put out very reliable, high-quality components. Shimano and SRAM especially make a variety of groupsets for different use cases and budgets, and the “trickle-down” of electronic shifting continues to more accessible components as well.

I hope this overview has helped you understand the differences between manufacturers and models. To explore more Cycling articles as you pursue your journey in the sport, check out the Expert Journal here on Curated!

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