Competition, patents, and system integration
When SRAM released the 2013 XX1 group, it was a revelation. Though some riders have been running single-chainring drivetrains for years, the addition of a massive cassette range (10-42t) made single chainrings feasible for those of us looking to spend full days on varied terrain. Add in the clutch-type Type II rear mech and narrow/wide chainring tooth profiles and XX1 became one of the simplest, quietest, prettiest, and most secure drivetrains going.
Over the ensuing months, many companies have come to market with their own variations on the narrow/wide chainring theme. Wolf Tooth, Works, e*Thirteen, RaceFace, and others have adapted what they claim is existing technology to meet the demand for secure single-chainring drivetrains. Like SRAM’s X-Sync models, these ‘rings work with clutch-type derailleurs to allow for chainguide-free single ring setups; be it 1×10 with Shimano or SRAM cassettes and clutch-type mechs or 1×11 with wide range SRAM XX1 or X01 cassettes and mechs.
“Over the last two years SRAM has filed many patent applications on narrow-wide / thick-thin tooth geometry. Our engineers invented narrow-wide / thick-thin chain retention and we continue to improve on it. As soon as our patent applications are granted we plan to enforce them.”
SRAM official statement
As the company that introduced narrow/wide teeth to the modern mountain bike and (cost aside) truly made the 1×11 drivetrain feasible for many riders, we asked SRAM to weigh in on these alternative chainrings. Given the time and effort that SRAM’s Schweinfurt Development Center team has invested in making their drivetrains work as well as they do, it is understandable that the company plans on defending their investment if and when patents are granted.
While there is an obvious cynical interpretation of this statement, bear in mind that it is in SRAM’s, and the rider’s, best interest to ensure that their drivetrains perform as well as possible. SRAM argues that “in SRAM 1X drivetrains, all the components, from the rings to the chain and rear derailleur, work together to provide an optimal experience. Take one of these elements out, and the performance and purpose of a 1X drivetrain are severely jeopardized.” Not just narrow/wide when viewed from above, SRAM’s X-Sync chainrings have been developed to run quietly and securely at all chain angles and to clear mud effectively- something that alternatives may or may not do.
As for Singletrack, we are fans of SRAM’s XX1 drivetrain (subscribers can read our issue 81 review here), appreciating not only the work that has gone into the system but the result as well. For their part, the alternative narrow/wide chainring manufacturers we’ve spoken with insist that their work, though certainly inspired by SRAM’s efforts, builds on existing knowledge and expired patents. Intellectual property issues are complex (and ethical issues often more so), so as long as they are available to consumers, we will continue to report on, ride, and review narrow/wide components from all corners of the industry; enjoying the wide gearing range, light weight, simplicity, and quiet operation that SRAM’s 1×11 drivetrains have made possible.