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From the mag: One chainring to rule?

Published April 26, 2013
From the April 15 BRAIN

By Jill Janov

SANTA FE, NM—Retailer Tony Farrar is riding in the hills of northern New Mexico with his friends, who are also his customers, when their bikes start making noise and their gears mis-shift.

“They always blame me,” said Farrar, owner of Bike ‘N Sport in Santa Fe. “But then I look down and I see they’re crossed over. They’re in the big-big or small-small. These are guys who have been riding for 25 years. It’s amazing how often I see it.”

Criss-crossed gears and poorly adjusted front derailleurs are issues that retailers face every day.

“Our biggest mechanical problem is front derailleurs,” Farrar said. “Front shifting has more problems than any other component on the bike. It has to be adjusted just right, and even then you still have to know how to shift.”

SRAM’s new XX1 drivetrain—a 1x11 system with no front derailleur—was designed to essentially eliminate the problem, add simplicity and reduce weight. But whether the design, created specifically for enduro and cross-country riders, will spread to other types of cycling has yet to be determined.

Some say the minimalist design of the 1x system has particular appeal for cyclocross riders, urban cyclists, new cyclists and those who ride fat bikes.

But when it comes to road bikes, there is room for debate due to the advantages of tight gearing that allows small changes in cadence and more gear choices.

SRAM product development teams are imagining all the potential applications to eliminating the front derailleur while still offering a wide gear range, said Michael Zellmann, SRAM’s road PR and media manager.

“It is a very interesting consideration,” Zellmann said. “A simpler system applied across the extreme range of riding types, conditions and terrains could benefit the vast majority of riders. There are any number of considerations. Urban is certainly one.”

SRAM is not the only manufacturer considering how a 1x drivetrain system could benefit other cyclists.

“I think there will be a lot of bikes sold in the next few years with a 1x11 style in road and probably ’cross and gravel bikes,” said bike and component maker Eric Sampson, who is developing 1x11 components for his Sampson Sports brand. “While those in Colorado and other states with big climbs and high elevations will typically stay with a 2x or 3x drivetrain, most of the country and much of the world would be fine with a 1x11 on road. Eighty-five percent of road cyclists would be happy with an 11-32 cassette and a 46 or 48 front chainring. I see it as a means to simplify the bike so that riders simply focus on having fun.”

’Crossers & commuters

Johnny Bargeron, co-owner of High Desert Bicycles in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said he’s fond of the idea of a 1x system, particularly for cyclocross riders, new cyclists or children, as long as the system is affordable.

For cyclocross riders in particular, the concept would reduce the chance of derailment issues on the crankset, a common problem in ’cross, said Steven Fairchild, global category manager for road for Fuji and Kestrel. “In fact, there are several athletes already using a 1x10 in ’cross by using a 42 or 44T chainring. I’ve used a single front crank on my ’cross bike for this very reason,” Fairchild said.

Many, including Fairchild, agree that the system, if priced right, would suit city or commuter bikes where simplicity is appreciated, but it’s not likely to appeal to road riders who prefer smaller steps between gears. Pioneering framebuilder Joe Breeze said the single chainring in front obviously simplifies shifting and allows cyclists to cover ground when there are no extremes in elevation.

“The SRAM XX1 group is remarkable,” Breeze said. “It will have its followers for sure. The gear range might not work for the Tour de France, but on less severe terrain it will. Events such as enduro, with gravity on their side, is a natural for this group. For years 1x was all you saw on ’cross bikes, so that’s a natural fit. I see it for road, too, to a lesser extent. Pesky hills and mere mortals are the limitation.”

Eddie McDonald, MTB marketing for Felt Bicycles, is impressed with the engineering behind the new SRAM chainring. McDonald said the system keeps the chain in place when coupled with the matching rear derailleur, eliminating the need for a chain guide, which saves significant weight and does not sacrifice a “bailout gear” for steep climbs.

“As far as a move to ’cross, that is a bit interesting,” McDonald said. “With Shimano and Campy already offering road cassettes with 11 speeds, I see no reason why ’cross riders would not run their bikes as a 1x11.”

Roadie reservations

While McDonald said anything that stops a chain from bouncing off the ring is definitely a plus in ’cross, for road riders the need for two chainrings outweighs any benefit from eliminating chain drop. 

Wayne Stetina, Shimano’s USA’s vice president and road product specialist, also questions any advantage for roadies.

“Personally I can see zero benefit on any road bike as road riders typically need the closest ratios in the tallest gears. 11-12 is the absolute largest gap for top gear on the road, so chainrings can’t downsize from current 53 or 50T compact,” Stetina said. “While 1x11 arguably has some interesting applications for rear suspension, it’s a solution to a front shifting problem Shimano road bikes absolutely don’t have—Di2 or mechanical.”

As for cyclocross, Stetina said many racers already use a single chainring, but ’cross bikes that are used for serious road riding need a much wider gear range than competition ’cross bikes.

While the 1x system might not work for every type of rider, David Bell, owner of Mellow Velo in Santa Fe, said anything that gives customers more options could be positive for business. Simplifying the experience of bike riding by removing the complexity of a front derailleur could appeal to new riders who are just learning how to use their gears, he said.

There is no doubt that some form of the single-chainring drivetrain will be used on the road eventually, said bike builder Walt Wehner of Waltworks Bikes in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“I don’t know if it will be used for all types of road riding or just for cyclocross and recreational stuff,” Wehner said. “But front derailleurs are terrible. There’s no question about that.”

Topics associated with this article: From the Magazine

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