by David Gould
June 24, 2016
Sanny has been left on his own for too long again and has been casting his critical eye over technological progress.
Let me take you back into the mists of time when, if you were lucky, your bike had fifteen (yes, fifteen!) gears, suspension forks had yet to be a glint in Paul Turner’s eye and steel ruled the roost. Things were definitely simpler back then. As technological advances grew apace, manufacturers cottoned onto the fact that by offering a wider range of gears in a more compact package (thank you Mr Suntour for your Microdrive© drivetrains), the potential of mountain bikes to take you into, over and through the backcountry was finally being realised. Modern day adventurers such as Nicholas and Richard Crane were ahead of the curve when they custom modified a 5 speed Suntour freewheel to include a 38 tooth sprocket for their ride up Kilimanjaro in the early eighties. Jump forward to the present and as we worship at the great altar of “Enduro” and “Trail”, I can’t help but feel that the ever charging juggernaut that is ‘1x’ drivetrains is not so much progress as a retrograde step. Let me try and explain why.
The theory of ‘1x’ set ups is undoubtedly appealing in its simplicity. By widening the range of gears at the back, this obviates the need for a granny ring, front shifter and front mech. With fewer bits on your bike to go wrong, you have less to worry about when changing gear. Call it peace of mind where you no longer have to make those oh so challenging mental calculations as to whether you should change both gears at once to get your desired ratio or just live on the edge and change only one. Your bars are less cluttered giving you more space to mount your GPS / Go-Pro / retina melting front light. With a single ring, no longer will you catch that log that unexpectedly jumps out at you every ride and tries to remove teeth from your big ring and skin from your knee.
For manufacturers, no longer do they need to spend time and money designing frames to accommodate two or three rings at the front and one of those pesky front mechs.
While you may not have the range of gears of a 2 by or 3 by set up, you will have legs that put Chris Hoy’s to shame – behold your new found greatness and inner gnar for you, my child, are an Enduro Legend!
While perhaps not a comment worthy of Dorothy Parker, it pretty much encapsulates my feelings about this latest advance being foisted upon the riding public. Am I just being a grumpy git who as the older I get, the better I was or is there some logic behind what I am saying? Let’s consider the evidence.
1 – Lose the clutter at the front, save some weight.
It is a persuasive argument and one which mountain bikers have been prone to subscribe to over the years. It’s why we used to do stupid things like drill out cranks to save weight. Who would have thought that would end badly, eh? And yet, for all the lost clutter, why do so many of us then fit a weighty plastic or metal chain device at the front? Is it not better to have something that does ostensibly the same job but also gives you access to a whole range of lower gears too? Why not be truly minimalist and get rid of the brakes too. You don’t REALLY need them, do you?
2 With only one ring, you can achieve better clearance for those hoppy, thrutchy rides…
…where boulders and fallen trees lurk around the next corner waiting to mash your chain and big ring.
While there is no denying the logic of this argument, how many of us actually run triple chainsets these days with big rings that look more in keeping with a cross bike than a mountain bike? If you are running a single 32 tooth ring or more up front, you’re running the same ring size as a typical 2 by set up. Remind me what that advantage was again?
3 Claim: Peace of mind
I’ve heard it said on several occasions recently when out riding that the lack of a front mech set up means that there is less need to think when riding, that one can concentrate on flow and the whole riding experience without the worry of having to use ones left thumb. The human brain is a seriously capable piece of machinery. If you genuinely feel that your riding experience was being ruined by having to use your left thumb, I think you may need to have a long talk with yourself in a darkened room. First world problems.
4 Cockpit Clear Out
Seriously? Before the advent of the single ring set up, how many of us spent our time bemoaning the clutter that we have to look at on our bars each and every time we head out on a ride? Sure, we now live in a world of dropper posts and stem mounted GPS devices but does the presence of a couple of extra bits of plastic and metal on your bars and stem really create a problem that has to be solved?
5 Stronger legs make you a better rider.
Ride 1x 11 and you will end up pushing harder gears than before. Now on this point I can agree. For short and sharp climbs, explosive power is great but it will only get you so far. As someone who loves climbing, it’s hard to beat the feeling of satisfaction as you push yourself to the point of spewing to get up a steep climb (did I say satisfaction, it could just be relief). However, ‘spin to win’ is my mantra when it comes to long, drawn out climbs. To my mind, there is something almost Zen like in tackling a long, steep climb. By concentrating on the challenge in front of you, you can almost forget about your day to day worries. It’s exactly the same feeling I get when riding at speed in dappled sunshine along a twisty section of native woodland singletrack. It’s just me and the trail. However, jump back to reality and even with a 30 -42 set up, I’m left wanting for something lower. As I frantically jab at my non-existent left hand shifter, a feeling of weary resignation consumes me. Instead of fighting the bike, I could be spinning. Instead I find myself pushing 30 odd pounds of carbon Enduro bike up a hill that I could still ride on my old Raleigh Maverick. Idiot!
6 The “Man Up” argument aka the “I could ride this but I chose to walk as it’s quicker” paradigm
“I use 1 x 11 and I can ride everything. 2 x drivetrains are for wimps!” For some obscure reason, there appears to be an apparent correlation between many 1 x 11 riders and their need to denigrate those who questions their love of the single ring. This often degenerates into a position that if you can’t ride up hills using 1 x 11, you are either not fit enough or gnarly enough as a rider. And would really be better walking anyway. Curiously, it is almost worn as a badge of honour. Of course, if the proponents of this approach were as gnarr-core as they might believe themselves to be, might one suggest that they should be riding a rigid fixie off road. Invariably, manning up seems to be closely aligned with pushing or carrying one’s bike.
7 The eye watering cost of cassettes.
I probably missed the memo but when in the name of Grabthar’s Hammer did cassettes start costing more than a decent entry level mountain bike? Charging over £300 for what is a consumable item that may only last a few months or less in the grime and slop of a British winter is, to be blunt, taking the proverbial. I genuinely wonder how the mountain bike market has reached a stage in its evolutionary progress that as consumers, we are willing to suck it up and pay what is by any reasonable measure, a stupid amount of money. In terms of manufacturing costs, I wonder how much more it costs to make a top end cassette as some of the lesser priced offerings. Seriously? £300? Do they come supplied in a diamond encrusted box sealed with unicorn tears? There won’t be much demand for that in Yorkshire!
8 You can have your favourite high or low gears but not on the same ride.
Now this for me is a deal breaker. Most of my rides have a mix of road and off road. Having the option to go fast when I want and to tackle super steep climbs when I want isn’t so much an option but a given for me. Of late, I have been riding a 10 – 42 with a 30 tooth ring up front set up. For much of the time, it is a good compromise but as soon as I start to stray into the further reaches of high and low gearing territory, I find that I am either spinning out like an extra from The Muppet Show on amphetamines or gurning and straining to turn over the cranks without the back end breaking out. It is at these times that the drivetrain becomes a hindrance and outweighs the perceived benefits.
9 The 1x 11 evangelist.
Is it a pre-requisite of switching to 1x 11 that you need to become an evangelical advocate that 1x 11 cures all ills of mountain biking’s sinful past and that the doubters and naysayers shall be cast to the mountain bike dustbin of Kirk magnesium frames, Tioga Disc Drive wheels and Bula clothing? If you are happy with your choices then I am happy for you. Just don’t take it quite so personally when you discover that it isn’t for everyone. You don’t need to try and convert them to the new faith.
10 Loss of choice.
Ok so before you commit crayon to paper, hear me out on this one. Clearly, we now have more choice in drivetrain options than we ever did before. Of that there can be no denial. However, when it comes to frame design, a number of big name manufacturers are now making frames that are wholly incompatible with a double or triple set up at the front. Even if you want to fit a front mech, you can’t. Is restricting your riding options by design a good thing? I’m not so sure.
11 Increased drivetrain wear – spend more time fixing and less time riding
There is definitely something of the Yorkshire in my Scottish DNA as I look at thick thin chainrings with their £70 or £80 price tags and baulk at the cost of something that is going to wear quicker than a double or triple set up. Add in cassette expander rings that aren’t known for their longevity and you’re looking at replacing your drivetrain more frequently than before. While I acknowledge that we are a consumerist society, I perhaps naively hope that increased simplicity and cost would come with a drivetrain that lasts longer, not wears out faster. Pay more, wear out faster – the accountants will be rubbing their hands with glee.
12 Man bobs, hipster beards and coffee beans that a cat has shat.
I’m not necessarily saying that 1x 11 is the mountain biking equivalent of the self-deluded hipster who works as a freelance scientist for a trending bandwidth consumer engagement consultancy but there are an awful lot of things that are en vogue that in the future we will probably look back on in the not too distant future with disdain. Is 1x 11 the biking equivalent of the mullet? Quite possibly!
So there you have it. 12 reasons why 1x 11 isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. Call me a cynic but as long as there is the choice, I’ll be sticking with tried and trusted technology.