Shimano, SRAM or Campy? The Great Groupset Question
This entry was posted on April 4, 2014.
Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM are the primary drivetrain manufacturers in the cycling industry. They also produce other parts, but the drivetrain components are what cause the most questions and what we're here to discuss.
First things first: All three are fantastic groups and make top-notch products. You aren't getting a lesser product by going with a different brand among the three, generally speaking. They all have pluses and minuses -- most of which are subjective. Many people would be happy using any of the three component groups, but shifter ergonomics are usually the deciding factor for people. The next deciding factor is the feel of the shifting action.
Shimano is the biggest of the three groups. They are based out of Japan and are experts in aluminum forging, which you will see much of in their top-tier groups. They haven't embraced carbon fiber as much as the other two companies and stick with the reliability and durability of high quality aluminum.
Shimano shifters use two levers to do the three tasks of the STI (Shimano total integration) shifters. There is a dedicated innermost lever used to release cable for a downshift and a brake lever for the brakes. To upshift, you sweep the brake lever towards the bike. The further you sweep, the more gears you can upshift. The pivot in the brake lever is one spot where some do or don't like Shimano shifters, as the brake lever may not feel as solid since it allows for inward movement while brakes are applied by pulling the lever backwards.
Shimano prides itself on the smoothest shifting around. It doesn't create a lot of noise; it just moves the chain where it needs to go. For those who like buttery smooth shifting, they usually like Shimano. People who like a more positive engagement feel usually prefer other brands since Shimano's shifting is sometimes smooth enough that the only way you know you've changed gears is by the change in resistance when pedaling.
Shimano is also known for having fantastic cranksets and front shifting. It's very fine tuned and smooth. Again, it tends to be the quietest of the bunch.
Shimano chains and cassettes are also designed around this smooth theme. They are engineered to be quiet and allow for a nice, effortless shift.
Campagnolo (Campy) has actually been a fairly small company for as long as they've been in the cycling industry. Much smaller than Shimano, Campy is kind of the Ferrari of cycling. They make great products and sell pretty much everything they make, but they pride themselves on quality and aesthetics beyond marketing and profits. Campy is as much a work of art as it is a finely tuned groupset. Campy carries a very strong Italian heritage with a goal of being the best option for racing bikes.
Campy shifters stick with the theme of one mechanism for one action. This means there are three mechanisms for shifting and braking. Opposite of Shimano, the inner lever on Campy is used to pull cable and make upshifts. Sweeping the lever further allows for more upshifts. A thumb button is used to release cable. The higher tier groups allow for multiple downshifts; just keep pushing the button further. The thumb button makes shifting from the hoods very easy but not as easy when in the drops. Campy's sprint shifting is the worst of the three groups because of this. Campy has a brake lever very similar to Shimano's, but it isn't allowed to pivot inwards, creating a more solid brake lever feel.
Campy's shifting is noisier than Shimano (some would describe it as really noisy). It's a very positive shifting feel and you can hear as well as feel when the shifts occur. Many people love the feel of this as opposed to Shimano's smooth feel where it does what it's told without much feedback.
Campy is also regarded as the most durable group, especially when it comes to their shifters. They are rebuildable, which is a big selling point for many as shifters are one of the more expensive parts of a groupset. A common saying is, “Campy wears in while other groups wear out.” If you buy Campy, you can expect to be keeping it for a while.
Campy's higher level groups also use copious amounts of carbon fiber. This is said to add stiffness in the right places while reducing weight, but -- more importantly -- it just looks gorgeous and high-tech.
Campy chains and cassettes are engineered around doing their job, meaning they are designed to be hard wearing and allow for good shifting. Noise and smoothness aren't priorities; making the shift when you want it is.
Campy has also done a lot of work on their shifter ergonomics to make their shifters feel better in your hands. This makes good sense because you are likely to spend a lot of time on the hoods with the thumb shifter design.
SRAM is the new kid on the block of the big drivetrain makers, especially for road cycling. Based in Chicago, SRAM prides itself on creating highly functional hardware and the lightest groupsets available. They are also usually the least expensive group to purchase for a given performance level.
SRAM shifters use a shifting system called Double Tap. This uses one lever to pull and release cable to make shifts. To let cable out and downshift, you tap the lever, almost like a button, and you shift down. To upshift, you sweep the lever inwards and go until you feel 2 clicks -- one for the downshift click (it won't downshift) and the next being the detent for the first upshift. If you sweep further inwards you can shift several gears at a time.
SRAM, like Campy, has a very positive shifting feel, especially when downshifting. SRAM is not a quiet group like Shimano; simply working well is what SRAM is all about. SRAM's Powerdrome cassettes especially are known to be quite noisy due to their construction, but they are very light and perform well. SRAM chains are also lightweight but may lose some durability with that. Still, their chains are pretty good, and many people have no problems with them.
SRAM likes a good mix of carbon fiber and aluminum in their groupsets. Their top-tier groups use a fair amount of carbon fiber to achieve low weights while retaining good shifting performance. Their lower-end groups function almost as good (some might say as good) as their top level groups but use more aluminum instead of carbon fiber, increasing weight. SRAM has done a great job at creating affordable and very functional groupsets for racers on a budget.
One thing that many report as a negative with SRAM is that their front shifting is not as nice as Shimano or Campagnolo. It's a bit slower and a bit less refined. It shifts well, just not as well.
So can you mix and match? In general, it's best to stick with the same brand for the whole group. Just know that Shimano and SRAM share the same rear cassettes and freehub designs, meaning they both fit the same wheels. Campy uses a different freehub design and cassette cog spacing, so they can't be used with Shimano/SRAM cassettes or wheels.
Front derailleurs from all of the groups are pretty much the same, so any of them can be used. The same goes for cranksets and chains; just make sure the chains and cranks are made for that speed of drivetrain, as there are different widths of chains and chainrings. Front derailleurs also need to match the number of chainrings. A double crank should have a derailleur designed for a double. There is a difference in the shaping of the front derailleur for the different number of chainrings; specifically, a triple front derailleur has a longer inner piece for the addition gearing difference between big and little rings.
Using a Shiftmate, other compatibility options are available. Their selection of compatibility options change, but they mostly deal with Shimano and Campagnolo compatibility of similar speeds.
Unofficially, a campagnolo 10-speed shifter set will work with SRAM's 10-speed drivetrain without any conversion "extras" being necessary.
Otherwise, for the most part, shifters and cassettes need to match in both speed and brand for optimal performance.
Which one is for you?
It really comes down to which feel you like. They are all great component groups. If you want light weight and affordability (maybe fore crash replacement reasons), SRAM is probably your group. If you like peace and quiet and a very smooth system, Shimano is probably your group. If you like something with some flare, some heritage, and a bit of "different," Campy is probably for you.
Test as many of the groups as possible before buying a bike to get some experience with the feel of each. The ergos of each brand is different. Some people will fall in love with one over another, some will like them all, and still others couldn't care less what's on the bike. They just want to ride.