Whether you’re buying a new bike, or looking to upgrade your current steed, the groupset is one of the most important upgrades you can make.

Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo are the dominant players in the groupset market and each have plenty of choice, with Shimano and Campagnolo both offering no less than eight options, while SRAM last year entered the electronic market with eTap to expand their range to nine groupsets.

- Essential guide to Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo groupsets -

This guide focuses on the second-tier rivals from each of the three big manufacturers: Shimano’s Ultegra, Campagnolo’s Potenza, and SRAM’s Force 22. At this level, these groupsets sit below the flagship Dura-Ace, Record and Super Record, and Red gruppos respectively, and look to offer a similar feel and level of performance to their top-level siblings without the knife-edge weight savings and associated cost.

Groupsets - Shimano Ultegra, SRAM Force 22, Campagnolo Potenza

For this reason, this level of groupset is incredibly popular for riders looking to upgrade their bike, or when choosing a new bike, as you get 95 per cent of the top-level experience for much less of the cost. It’s why Campagnolo this year launched Potenza as a direct rival to Shimano Ultegra (and to tap into the OEM market, with Campag hoping to see Potenza specced on more off-the-shelf bikes).

- Campagnolo launch new Potenza groupset to take on Shimano Ultegra -

If you're looking to upgrade your groupset and want to know exactly what you're getting for your money, or you're buying a new bike and want to know what it's coming with, then read on. With the three big players all now targeting this corner of market, here's what you need to know about Shimano Ultegra, Campagnolo Potenza and SRAM Force 22.

Price and weight

On the face of it, the groupsets may seem remarkably similar, and at the very core, you’d be right: each feature 11-speed transmissions with very similar gear ratios. However, it’s here the similarities start to end. First, let's look at the headline figures.

Shimano’s Ultegra, by far the most prevalent groupset you’re likely to spot on full-build bikes, retails on its own at £751.91, with SRAM Force the most expensive at £1,124.99, and Campagnolo’s new Potenza (surprisingly, some might say) the cheapest, coming in at £719.99. That said, those are RRPs and the groupset sales market is fiercely competitive, so if you shop around you'll likely find all three at significant discounts.

Weight for Ultegra and Force is remarkably similar: Ultegra weighing at 2,313g for the whole groupset, and Force only 10g heavier than that. Campagnolo, with Potenza the newest-to-the-market of the three, have managed to sneak in just under its rivals, at 10g lighter than Ultegra.

It's worth pointing out at this point that although Potenza is marketed as a direct rival to Ultegra, there are three other distinct groupsets that sit above it in the Campagnolo range: Super Record, Record and Chorus. There’s only one in the Shimano (Dura-Ace), and SRAM (RED) stables, and is worth bearing in mind that, although Ultegra and Force are definitively second-tier groupsets, Campagnolo’s Potenza is in fact a fourth-tier offering when taken in isolation.

Enough of the mitigation, though. Let's drill down into the vital statistics and key points you need to know to navigate this competitive arena.

Campagnolo Potenza

Shifters

Price: Ultegra (£249.99); Force (£303); Potenza (€174.99)

Weight: Ultegra (425g); Force (307g); Potenza (370g)

Shimano, throughout all their groupsets, use the STI (Shimano Total Integration) shifter mechanism. This makes use of lateral movement of the brake lever to effect a shift either up the cassette or into the big chainring. A lever sits behind this to press down the cassette or drop the chain into the small ring. It’s a well-tested and reliable mechanic while provides quick, crisp and light shifts.

SRAM Force and Campagnolo, however, use their own systems which are equally intuitive, though riders will undoubtedly have their own preference.

SRAM shifter, DoubleTap

DoubleTap is SRAM’s method and condenses the shift action to the one paddle behind each brake lever. That sounds odd, but in practise works by differentiating how far you push the lever. A short push on either (depending on your setup) moves you down the cassette or into the small chainring, and a longer push shifts up the cassette or onto the big ring.

Potenza makes uses the same layout as the super-premium Campagnolo groupsets (and, incidentally, older Shimano layouts), with a thumb shifter housed on the inside of either hood working you down the cassette or chainrings (one press equals one shift), and the paddle behind the brake levers shifting you the other way.

Campagnolo Potenza

Ultimately - and this is an important point - the Force, Potenza or Ultegra shifting mechanisms are very distinct, so which one suits you will play a fairly key part in your decision as to what to choose. As a result, if you can try at your friendly local bike shop before you make that final decision then you'll be better informed.

Front derailleur

Price: Ultegra (from £31.99); Force (£41); Potenza (€65.62)

Weight: Ultegra (89g); Force (89.2g); Potenza (94g)

Perhaps the most intriguing setup with these rival front derailleurs is Force’s 'Yaw' design. Instead of just moving inboard and outboard to move the chain, it also rotates around the frontal area, with the rear of the derailleur essentially ‘swinging’ in and out. The effect of this unique feature is to reduce the potential for chain rub as the chain moves out the back of the derailleur area, and removes the need to adjust the position of the derailleur for smooth shifting after setup.

Campagnolo Potenza groupset (Pic: George Scott/Factory Media)

The Ultegra and Potenza front derailleurs use a more standard in-and-out movement, but both with different approaches to reducing shift effort. Ultegra features a longer arm for better leverage, while Potenza makes use of a ‘rod’ design filtered down from the top-end groupsets which Campag say helps minimise the force needed at the derailleur/chain interface.

Rear derailleur

Price: Ultegra (from £59.99); Force (£76); Potenza (€145.82)

Weight: Ultegra (195-207g); Force (178g-187g); Potenza (211g)

With the rear derailleurs, flexibility has historically very much been on Shimano and SRAM’s side. Each have been available in a short or medium/long cage option for a while now, with the medium/long cage derailleurs compatible with a climb-friendly 32-tooth cassette sprocket.

Neil Pryde Bura SL road bike - review (Pic: George Scott/Factory Media)

Before Potenza, you’d have been out of luck if you wanted to go the whole hog and fit a 32t cassette with a Campag gruppo – but with this new entry into groupset market, Campagnolo now give riders the choice. However, how Potenza still looks to differentiate itself is by incorporating technology known as Embrace, which means the teeth of the sprocket and jockey wheels engage with more of the chain at any given moment than its rivals.

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The result, Campagnolo claim, is improved power transfer while spreading the load of your power through more of the chain, reducing wear.

Campagnolo Potenza, short and long cage rear derailleurs

SRAM’s Force also has its moment in the sun by featuring carbon in its outer cage – neither Ultegra or Potenza can match that – while it’s also the only groupset here to respond to cable movement in a 1:1 ratio, which SRAM call ‘Exact Actuation’. The others magnify cable movement, which potentially means smaller changes in how the groupset ‘settles in’ (e.g. cable stretch), and can have a larger detrimental effect on performance than with SRAM’s system.

Cassette

Price: Ultegra (from £59.99); Force (£80); Potenza (from €116.20)

Weight: Ultegra (212g 11-23t); Force (231g 11-25t); Potenza (from 249g)

As we’ve already discussed, each of the groupsets here are capable of supporting a 32t cassette with the correct rear derailleur. As well as this, the cassette ranges are largely similar, with Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo each supplying the following cassettes for your needs:

Shimano Ultegra: 11-23t, 11-25t, 11-28t, 11-32t, 12-25t

SRAM Force: 11-25t, 11-26t, 11-28t, 11-32t

Campagnolo Potenza: 11-25t, 11-27t, 11-29t, 11-32t, 12-27t

SRAM, Shimano and Campagnolo all offer cassette with a 32-tooth sprocket

With these options laid bare, you’ll find that Shimano just about offers the best overall selection in terms of gearing, with super-tight 12-25t and 11-23t options available for circuit racers in need of a compact, limited range.

Chances are, if you buy a complete bike, you'll find an 11-28t cassette from Shimano or SRAM, or 11-27t from Campagnolo.

Chainset

Price: Ultegra (£189.99); Force (from £220); Potenza (€227.01)

Weight: Ultegra (approx.. 765g, inc. bottom bracket at approx. 70g); Force (approx. 697g); Potenza (approx. 754g)

At the other end of the drivetrain, the chainset offerings are very much the same. With compact (50-34t) semi-compact (52-36t), and standard (53-39t) options all available. These are the three main choices for road cyclists and, depending on your fitness, strength and requirement, each will do the job.

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Ultegra and Potenza each use a four-arm design with an aluminium construction, which is said to increase stiffness and improve power transfer, but again, as with the rear derailleur, SRAM use a carbon crank arm (and alloy spider) in a bid to achieve the same goals. They’ve stuck with a five-arm structure (although one is hidden behind the crank arm).

Shimano Ultegra 52-36t semi-compact chainset (Pic: George Scott/Factory Media)

As well as this, SRAM’s Force chainset is machined with a thicker construction (known as X-GlideR) than its opponents, which they say helps with wear rates while tailoring the rings to work optimally with that yaw action front derailleur.

Shimano and Campagnolo both use a universal BCD (Bolt Circle Diameter) across all of their Ultegra and Potenza chainsets, which means you can change the chainrings and not have to buy a whole new chainset. SRAM Force 22, however, uses a 130mm BCD for the 53-39t chainset and a 110mm BCD spider for the 52-36t, 50-34t and 46-36t options. That means if you want to change from a standard double to a compact, for example, then you'll need to buy a new chainset, not just the rings.

RCUK100 - SRAM Force 1, 1x road groupset

As an aside, SRAM Force is also available as a one-by groupset with a single front chainring and hydraulic disc brakes. SRAM have embraced one-by technology from the mountain bike world and Force 1, as it's known, is available with any one of six chainring sizes (from 38 to 54-teeth), while there's also a more affordable Rival 1 gruppo. Read our first ride review of SRAM Force 1 here.

- Six of the best… crankset upgrades -

Back on point and the other major feature of all the chainsets is crank length. SRAM are incredibly flexible on this, offering up Force with 165, 170, 172.5, 175 and 177.5mm options – superb for those with very specific bike fit requirements. Shimano Ultegra does away with the very long 177.5mm option, while Campagnolo are even less flexible, only supplying 170, 172.5 and 175mm lengths.

Brakes

Price: Ultegra (from £110); Force (£110); Potenza (€58.33)

Weight: Ultegra (317g); Force (280g); Potenza (321g)

Braking performance is, rightly, one of the top considerations when it comes to groupsets - shifting performance likely the other. Luckily, braking performance is, by and large, excellent on groupsets of this level.

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Potenza's brakes are inspired by the dual pivot design (whereby the left and right sides of the brake move on separate pivots to offer more power) from the Athena groupset, one level down from the Potenza level and on a par with Shimano’s 105. They don't necessarily make the most of the top end features found further up Campag's groupset ladder. That said, it does feature cut-out of material (known as ‘Skeleton’) that helps save weight; a distinctive look with Campagnolo brakes, and brings it closely in line with Ultegra and Force in that regard.

Campagnolo Potenza

Ultegra makes use of dual-pivot design, too, but also offers an option for a direct-mount version which mounts directly to the frame by two bolts - one on either side of the caliper - rather than a  central single bolt, in order to give greater power and efficiency. However, you will need a compatible bike with the required mounting points.

- Campagnolo announce Disc Brake Project - here’s what we know so far -

SRAM make it a clean sweep for dual-pivot designs, but there's also the option for hydraulic rim brakes, with claims of increased performance and modulation over standard rim brakes. You’ll need specific shifters for those, though.

RCUK100 - Sram Force 1, 1x groupset

The same goes for disc brake options too. Force 22 is available with hydraulic disc brake calipers (flat mount), while Shimano offer disc brakes, but not as part of the Ultegra set (they’re non-series, meaning you’ll have to buy them separately), so can’t compare directly here. Moreover, Potenza is without a disc brake option.

Chain

Price: Ultegra (£27.99); Force (£37); Potenza (€41.01)

Weight: Ultegra (257g); Force (256g); Potenza (235g)

A chain is a chain, right? To a degree, but if you buy each groupset outright, Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo will each supply their own chain designed to work in sync with each groupset. Or at least with its own claims of greatness.

Shimano Ultegra chain

Shimano’s chain features a ‘Sil-Tec’ coating which reportedly helps to reduce friction all round the drivetrain, and uses hollow pins. You can break and link the chain by using a connector pin or a connecting link. SRAM’s PC-1170 chain also features the weight-saving hollow pins, but is only serviceable using the Powerlink connector.

Potenza’s chain also has its own anti-friction treatments, and what they call an Ultra-Link system for superior retention.