Accompanying the explosion of gravel bikes in the past few years, the component manufacturing giants have all released specific gravel bike groupsets.
Over the past decade, gravel bikes have become exceedingly popular. It fits a need for a versatile bike that performs well on the road and off-road. Initially, they used road bike groupsets, but now most quality gravel bikes are equipped with dedicated gravel groupsets.
But do you really need one for your gravel bike? And if so, how do you choose which one to buy?
Don’t worry! We’ve got you covered. We’ve put together this extensive guide on dedicated gravel groupsets. To fill you in, we’ll discuss:
- What Is A Gravel Bike Groupset?
- Shimano Gravel Groupsets (GRX)
- Campagnolo Ekar Groupset
- SRAM Gravel Groupsets (XPLR)
Ready for the lowdown on gravel bike groupsets?
Let’s get into it!
What Is A Gravel Bike groupset?
If gravel bikes originally had road bike groupsets, what exactly is a gravel bike groupset, and how does it differ from a road bike groupset?
It’s a good question, with a complicated answer. You first need to understand precisely what a gravel bike is, and its intended use.
A gravel bike is optimized for speed, both on and off-road. “Gravel bike” is actually a bit of a misnomer. By no means is its intended use limited to gravel (though they do perform extremely well on it).
A gravel bike can be used on roads, from smooth asphalt to eroded, rocky unpaved roads you would never tackle on a road bike. They can also be used on single-track paths, gravel, MTB trails, mud, grass, and even some hiking trails. They are considered by many as the ultimate “do-it-all” bike.
They have drop handlebars for improved aerodynamics on the bike, a similar but typically slightly more relaxed geometry than road bikes, but with vastly wider tires to tackle slippery and rocky paths. Gravel bikes often have mounts for racks and bags, which also makes them great for touring.
There is, however, a great deal of variation in the gravel bike market. They range from aggressive geometries and more slender wheels, more for “light gravel” and roads, to quite upright bikes with tires that wouldn’t look out of place on an MTB, more intended for off-road use.
- Want to know more? Check out our complete ‘What Is A Gravel Bike?‘ guide here!
A gravel bike groupset is optimized for use on a gravel bike. It takes parts and technologies directly from the groupsets of both road bikes and mountain bikes, in a happy compromise that performs excellently both on and off-road.
The clutch, for example, which is attached to the rear derailleur, is a technology that was first introduced for mountain bikes. Clutches are designed to keep the chain in place when going over rough and rocky terrain, and have now found their way onto many gravel bike groupsets.
Additionally, the gear ratios provided by gravel bike groupsets are often far more similar to what might be found on a mountain bike, generally extending to much easier gears. This allows you to get up those nasty steep off-road climbs, something that wouldn’t be possible with higher gear ratios.
Overall, though, a gravel groupset bears far more resemblance to its road bike counterpart. They generally have similar weights, similar construction techniques, and a similar look on the bike, so as to not slow down a gravel bike on the road.
Almost all gravel bike groupset components are cross-compatible with their road bike counterparts (within each brand, of course), with the exception of the chainset. This is because they are deliberately built with more clearance to the frame to allow you to fit those chunkier tires.
Gravel bike groupsets are sometimes available with two chainset set-ups: 1x and 2x. 1x drivetrains only have one chainring, and this configuration is generally not available for road bikes (SRAM road bike groupsets aside).
The reason this might be beneficial is that it can still provide the same range in gearing, but the differences from each gear to the next will be greater. This is because your speed is likely to vary more greatly on a gravel bike and so you might not need the ability to fine-tune your gear to such precision.
Eliminating one of your chainrings also removes the need for a front derailleur, which reduces the weight of the groupset, simplifies the drivetrain, and allows for more tire clearance.
Shimano GRX Groupsets
For a long time, new gravel bikes came with road bike groupsets. The most commonly seen Shimano groupsets on gravel bikes were Ultegra and 105. Although it’s perfectly fine to have road bike groupsets on your gravel bike, there are a number of things missing. Firstly, a clutch. Shimano initially solved this problem in 2018, releasing the Ultegra RX Clutch.
However, although this was an improvement, the cassette still only allowed for road bike gear ratios, and it was not possible to run a 1x chainset. Some new gravel bikes released may come with Ultegra RX Clutch or even 105, but it certainly comes with limitations. This isn’t a bad idea if you’re mostly going to use it on the road – but then you might as well buy a road bike.
In June 2019, Shimano finally released the long-awaited gravel-specific Shimano GRX groupset. It was released in 3 tiers:
- RX800 (mechanical or Di2) – Equivalent to Ultegra
- RX600 (mechanical) – Equivalent to 105
- RX400 (mechanical) – Equivalent to Tiagra
All of these options come with a clutch, hydraulic disc brakes, and the option to run 1by chainsets. RX800 is available with mechanical or Di2 electronic shifting – but you can expect to pay around $1000 extra for this feature.
RX800 and RX600 are both available with a 2×11 or 1×11 drivetrain. RX400, the cheapest option here, is available with 2×10 or 1×10. To choose between 2x or 1x, ask yourself how much on and off-road you’re going to be riding. If you’re thinking of more road and light gravel riding, go for 2x. If you’re looking to shred some MTB trails, go for 1x.
Campagnolo Ekar Groupset
Campagnolo is a name that screams road cycling.
They’ve won over 40 editions of the Tour de France, are the oldest and longest-running manufacturer of groupsets, and their founder, Tullio Campagnolo, even invented the quick-release wheel and the rear derailleur!
Having never veered into other cycling domains, Campag had a brief stint in the mountain bike groupset market, and although they retained the iconic classy Italian looks, they received a large amount of backlash over the functionality and quality of the components in practice. In response to this Campagnolo left the MTB market and focussed on road groups.
However, in September 2020, following the boom of gravel bikes, they finally decided to break their purism and enter into the world of gravel bike groupsets. Over a year after the release of Shimano GRX, Campag’s first gravel-specific groupset – the Campagnolo Ekar – was released.
It came with two revolutionary new features. Firstly, they fit 13 sprockets into a single cassette, creating the first-ever 13-speed groupset.
Secondly, the smallest of those sprockets is the microscopic 9-tooth, which allows riders to hit remarkable speeds when riding their gravel bike. Tests on paved roads reported speeds of 80km/h without spinning out!
Unfortunately, Campagnolo did not provide the same amount of choice as Shimano when it comes to gravel bike groupsets. It is available in one configuration, 1x only. Still, perhaps the fact that this is 1×13 can make up for this for some riders, providing more range on the back and giving more gears and so lower gaps between them.
Another feature that Campagnolo unfortunately failed to make available on their Ekar groupset is electronic shifting. As of yet, Campagnolo’s electronic shifting technology (EPS) is not available on Ekar. However, you can only imagine that if Ekar sells well, this will become an option in the future.
It also comes in a fair amount pricier than Shimano GRX or SRAM XPLR, around 25% more than GRX. It does however beat both competitors on one metric: weight. Campagnolo widely publicized that Ekar is the lightest available gravel bike groupset on the market. However, coming in at 2160g, this is only 52g lighter than GRX, and is unlikely to make a noticeable difference for most riders.
SRAM XPLR Groupsets
The SRAM gravel groupset, named XPLR, was released in September 2021, the latest major entry to the scene of gravel-specific groupsets.
SRAM’s gravel groupset was released at the same time as sister company RockShox released their new gravel suspension fork under the same name, XPLR.
The SRAM XPLR range has 3 available options for purchase:
- SRAM XPLR RED eTap AXS
- SRAM XPLR Force eTap AXS
- SRAM XPLR Rival eTap AXS
These correspond to the same tiers as their road bike groupsets, with RED being the flagship model, and Rival the entry-level (although for road bikes, the entry-level tier is called Apex).
- Check out our Ultimate SRAM Groupset Guide: Road Bike Edition here!
In contrast to Campagnolo Ekar, SRAM released their gravel bike groupsets with wireless electronic shifting exclusively.
However, like the Campagnolo Ekar groupset, the SRAM XPLR collection is only available with 1x gearing. They sit in a happy medium between Ekar’s 1×13 and GRX’s 1×11 drivetrains at 1×12, similar to their current road bike groupsets.
Now You’ve got all the information about gravel groupsets…
All that’s left to do is choose which you want for your gravel bike!
Whether you’re building your own from scratch or choosing between complete bikes on the market, the groupset included is an important choice.
But, once you’ve decided between 1x and 2x, electronic or mechanical shifting, and how many sprockets are on your cassette, the choice is near enough made for you. That’s one step closer to shredding some off-road trails on drop handlebars!