We can’t talk about wireless bike components without first acknowledging Mavic’s way-before-its-time Mektronic road group. It was, after all, the world’s first wireless shifting system. If it doesn’t ring a bell, that might be because its fleeting existence came nearly two decades before SRAM circled back around on the idea. Released in 1999, Mektronic barely made it into the new millennium before dying off. It was actually the only product on earth known to have been affected by the Y2K Scare. Just kidding, however part of the product’s failure is in fact related to a then-emerging technology—cell phones. But, that’s another story altogether.
The existence of Mektronic poses an interesting question: Why did it take so long for wireless shifting to come back? Was it that hard of a nut to crack, to where things like wireless, servo and battery technologies needed 20 years to catch up to the idea? Or was wireless shifting trying to solve a problem that simply didn’t exist? Perhaps it was just too small of a problem to warrant investing in a solution.
One of the most common things we hear when talking about wireless is simply that people can’t see how it’s necessary. And, well, spoiler alert—it’s not. Let’s see a show of hands: How many of y’all have been riding along, thinking, “If only I had wireless electronic shifting, I’d be having a way better ride.” Yeah, didn’t think so. That’s because modern mechanical shifting works really well, and it does so in almost every situation. It is not difficult or confusing, and neither is operating a dropper post, especially since we don’t have front derailleurs to worry about anymore. Nobody actually needs this stuff, but that doesn’t mean robot parts aren’t super friggin’ rad.
This stuff is at the leading edge of drivetrain technology and bike geeks love us some gear. That’s part of it for a lot of us. Why do we want XX1 over X01 when there’s no common sense reason to spend the extra money? Because it’s the top-of-the-line. It costs more so it must be better, right? Yeah … it’s not, but get it anyway because top-of-the-line disease is real for some of us. And when something like SRAM AXS comes out, it flares up big time. But is AXS worth the up charge? Well, here’s what’s cool about it:
AXS cuts the cockpit clutter in half. If you go for the whole shebang (shifting and dropper post) you’re left with just two brake lines. It’s amazingly clean and tidy. That matters in varying degrees depending on who you are. Travis Engel, Bike’s gear editor, could not care less about tidiness. He does not concern himself with aesthetic details. I on the other hand, arguably care too much about that stuff. Just the fact that AXS cleans up my cockpit automatically makes it very appealing to me.
Setup is actually a breeze. I mean, it seems like it should be. There are no cable to run after all. But you never know. Maybe pairing is a pain or adjustment isn’t intuitive. But it’s all quite simple. Reading the installation instructions took me longer than actually setting it up and adjusting it. And if barrel cable-tension adjusters confuse you, you’ll love adjusting AXS. You just put in it adjustment mode and click the shifter button in the direction you want it to shift faster.
It shifts better than mechanical. Not massively better, but it is noticeable. First, there’s the ergonomics of the shifter, or what SRAM calls the controller. It’s basically a rocker switch. Place your thumb on the button and rock it slightly up or down to make shifts. Direction is customizable via the AXS app, which by the way, is not needed for the parts to be used or, for that matter, initialized or set up. Overall shift speed is still the job of chain and cassette interface and varies depending on cadence, but the speed at which the derailleur itself moves is faster than your thumb (or a mechanical derailleur’s return spring) can pull cable. Plus, cable friction is not an issue with AXS. While mechanical systems experience the slow creep of friction, the AXS wireless network doesn’t. Accuracy is improved as well. It’ll hit the exact same spots every time. If you give the button three rapid clicks, the derailleur will shift three cogs. It won’t get caught between gears and it won’t hesitate.
Then there are the batteries. Being batteries, they eventually will run out of the magic pixie stuff they’re filled with. But, we’ve gotten months of use from a single charge. Plus, the AXS battery is the same for mountain or road, dropper or derailleur, and it’s only $55. They’re cheap, light, and compact enough that there’s no excuse to not have a spare. The controllers run a standard size 2032 battery, which can be found almost anywhere, and lasts even longer.
A cable-actuated X01 Eagle derailleur and shifter together, retail for $355. An AXS X01 upgrade kit, which includes the derailleur, shifter, battery and charger, is $1,000. Based on shift quality alone, AXS is not better enough to justify the extra money. Not even close. It’s novel and neat and it makes cool robot sounds and your friends will be super jealous, but it does not shift three times better. Also, the derailleur alone is $700. That’s a lot of money hanging out there waiting to be smoked by a rock. If you’re not comfortable with the possibility of that happening, don’t buy it.
Shimano’s new 12-speed mechanical drivetrains actually make smoother, faster shifts, under higher loads than AXS. But that really has less to do about derailleurs and shifters, and more to do about the interface between the chain and cassette. There’s nothing that says you can’t use AXS to shift a Shimano drivetrain.
Accidental shifting is a thing now. AXS shifts so effortlessly that I and most people we’ve talked to about it have accidentally hit the button. We’ve even seen the dropper button get knocked by a knee mid-jump. It’s something you can mostly learn to avoid, but it’s definitely worth mentioning, because, having your dropper hit you in the ass while you’re in the air can be rather unsettling.
Also, the components just aren’t quite as serviceable. AXS has mystery stuff coursing through it, and when it stops, it’s not always clear why. This may not be much of a concern if you aren’t the mechanical type. But, it can be frustrating when your AXS stops working and even your shop has no idea why. In June of 2019, during our first long-term experience with AXS, we ourselves had a derailleur and a dropper post quit on us. They were both victim of the same warranty issue that SRAM says happened to a small number of early production units that has since been solved. Will that be the only issue we see with the electronics? Doubtful.
That Dropper Though
Whether you’ve been convinced or not about AXS shifting, one thing you should walk away from this article sure of, is that the dropper post is amazing. Accidental shifts aside, the Reverb AXS dropper post rules. As of press time, there was unfortunately not a 200-millimeter-travel option available, but I’ll take the 170 AXS over another, longer dropper any day. It’s that good.
The thing is instantaneous. If there’s one takeaway from our years riding pretty much every dropper out there, it’s faster is better.
Most dropper posts require more lever throw than a shifter, and there’s usually more effort involved, so that little electronic button makes even more of a difference over on the left-hand side. Of course, it doesn’t have to be over there if you don’t want it to be. You can run an AXS Reverb on a drop-bar bike, or on a single speed, and run a different controller to actuate it.
Shifting an AXS bike is cool but feeling just how quickly the valve on the Reverb opens and closes is easily one of the most impressive bike technologies I’ve seen in action. A traditional dropper works as follows: push the lever to get it to move, release it to stop it from moving. We’ve come to demand these two actions to happen very fast, and anything with a slight delay just isn’t acceptable.
Take the Magura wireless dropper. You hit the button to get the post to open, and the system opens the valve for a set period of time. You hit the button, and then use your ass to position the seat where you want. Then, you have to just hover there until you think enough time has gone by and the valve has closed again. Uh, no.
The Reverb AXS, works like so: Hit the button and the valve opens instantly. Like, before you can even get you butt on the seat. You hold the button for as long as you need to reposition the seat, and when you let go, it instantly stops.
Having a wireless dropper post is nice for multiple bike owners, too. I ordered the 30.9 diameter, and I have shims so it’ll fit in test bikes with 31.6 and 34.9 seat tubes. The AXS Reverb is a jaw-dropping $800, but if you have a couple bikes, it’s basically like upgrading the dropper on both. It’s as quick and painless as swapping an ordinary post. The most annoying thing about dropper posts, especially for mechanics, is the fact that they’re tethered to the bike. This fixes that problem and makes the dropper truly a zero-sacrifice game.
Overall, the whole AXS system is really cool. There’s a lot to love, and not a lot to hate. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking some up. It shifts a little better than SRAM mechanical, declutters your bike, is durable, has good battery life, makes fun noises and will have people drooling over your bike. The shifting system won’t make you faster, and it won’t completely transform your bike’s performance. It’s tough to really justify, but it’s hard to not want anyway. The dropper, on the other hand, is worth every penny.
Lucky you, East Coasters.
Team camp before going back racing, maybe hopefully.