Shimano GRX Components: Getting Rolling – by MG
In May, Shimano caused quite a stir when it announced GRX, the world’s first dedicated gravel road components. It’s a bold move from the Japanese component giant, and it’s a sign of the direction they see cycling moving in the future. We recently got an exclusive first ride on Shimano’s GRX mechanical group and will give our initial impressions here.
Guitar Ted covered the technical details of GRX, including available parts, trim levels, weights and prices, in an earlier post, so be sure to check that out to get the full scoop.
To quickly recap however, GRX is available in three trim levels, and both 1x and 2x configurations, so GRX isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution. Rather, it offers options to optimize drivetrain type to meet specific needs, while still using components designed to work together, with a consistent look and feel. In many respects, GRX combines many of Shimano’s best road and mountain drivetrain technologies for the benefit of drop bar loving gravel and adventure cyclists.
First Ride On GRX
I traveled to the Colorado front range for my introduction to the GRX mechanical group. There, I met up with the multi-talented gravel legend, Nick Legan. Not only is Nick a product manager at Shimano, he’s a noted author and cyclist, and has completed legendary rides including the Tour Divide and Dirty Kanza XL, among others.
After taking a few minutes to dial in the fit on my GRX-equipped Niner RLT9 RDO gravel bike, we set off climbing into the foothills to the north and west of Boulder. Despite the different feel of the textured brake hoods and reprofiled brake levers, it was easy to tell I was on a Shimano-equipped bike. Rear shifting was swift, silent and solid, and the brakes powerful and consistent.
As we climbed, I quickly came to appreciate the 31x34t low, which is lower than the 1:1 (34x34t) gear I typically run on my own gravel bikes. Even though we were riding at a higher elevation than I was used to, I was able to spin with relative comfort up the steepest climbs we encountered.
One question I had coming into the ride was how the front derailleur would cope with the large 17 tooth jump between the chainrings (traditional road derailleurs max out at a 16t jump). I found the answer to my question as the climbing gave way to more rolling terrain. Front shifting is exactly as I’ve come to expect from Shimano, which is to say, it’s solid. Shifts in both directions are quick, precise and worry-free.
After a quick stop to refuel in Jamestown, we hit a fast road descent where we clocked speeds of nearly 50 mph. It was here that I appreciated the wide range GRX gearing, as I was able to pedal at more than 40 mph in the top gear. When I can comfortably pedal at both 4 mph and 40+ mph on the same drivetrain, that’s pretty sweet.
Recent rains in the area made for sloppy conditions, particularly early in the ride. Despite the layer of gritty crud, the GRX drivetrain performed without complaint.
The Importance of Ice Tech
The GRX hydraulic disc brakes are impressive as well. This was my first experience with Shimano’s finned, multi-layer alloy and steel Ice Tech rotors. In short, they work. Power is very strong, especially for 160mm rotors, and modulation is very easy to control. Fade was completely a non-issue.
I’ve been riding other bikes equipped with both Ultegra and 105 hydraulic brakes recently, but without the Ice Tech rotors. Simply stated, the Ice Tech-equipped GRX brakes just feel better. Power is noticeably stronger, which I did need to get used to, but once adapted, modulation is at least as good as Shimano’s other high-end brakes.
When I mentioned this to Nick, he said the difference is largely due to the rotors, as the brake calipers are similar. He said the rotors work to dissipate heat from braking quicker, so they don’t start to fade or change bite point in the middle of a long descent.
I suspect the shape of the brake lever could be playing into things a bit as well, but that’s just conjecture.
While we’re on the topic of levers, I’ll just say I’m a big fan of the more angular, edgier shape of the GRX brake/shift levers. They feel great whether braking in the hoods or drops. The shift buttons (behind the levers) are easy to reach and operate, and shift action is light and precise.
Lever reach is easy to adjust as well. Even though I have big hands, I prefer to run my levers close to the bar, and the GRX levers accommodate my setup easily.
I forgot to pack gloves on my ride with Nick, so I did the entire 50 miles glove-free. Despite the often rough conditions, I didn’t struggle with grip, or find myself slipping off the hoods, at any point in the ride. That’s impressive.
Successive rides have proven the new hoods to work equally well with gloved hands.
GRX First Impression
As Nick and I rolled back into Boulder on an easy singletrack trail, I was struck by how good we have it as gravel cyclists today. We have bikes that can take us seamlessly from pavement, to dirt road, to singletrack trail, with equal aplomb. Now, with the introduction of Shimano GRX, we have a drivetrain that’s designed to do the same thing.
My initial take on GRX is very positive, as you may have surmised. It’s pretty much right in line with what I hoped Shimano would introduce and it gives bike manufacturers some exciting new options that will result in even better, more versatile gravel bikes in the future.
Finally, I really like that Shimano made GRX components 11-speed, because it’s consistent with Shimano’s other drop bar groups. This opens up the option of picking and choosing your favorite GRX components, or mixing and matching parts from multiple groups to achieve your specific cost, weight and performance goals.
Shimano left the GRX-equipped RLT9 RDO with me for long-term testing, so I’ll be riding it and posting updates in the weeks to come. Be sure to check back often for those.
Special thanks to Nick and Kristen Legan. Shimano provided lodging and the GRX-equipped Niner RLT 9 RDO at no charge to Riding Gravel for test and review. We are not being bribed or paid for this review and will give our honest opinions and perspectives throughout.