1×11: just for racers? Er, no. Dr. May has seen the wide-range light – and he’s here to explain why you should try it, too…
I can’t fail to quote rock documentary ‘This is Spinal Tap’ when it comes to the ever-inflating war on gears, when Nigel Tufnel utters those words: “Eleven. Exactly. One louder.”
But here we are, we’ve gone to 11, one louder, we’ve had that push over the cliff. When SRAM released XX1 to the general public nearly four years ago, it came amidst wails of despair and cries of heresy. How dare they claim that we should ditch our front mechs? How can you charge so much for a cassette?! No pudding for SRAM.
So, why would you want to run a single ring on the front, let alone limit yourself to so few gears?
For many, it’s about simplicity. Not about the weight reductions. Sure, you save a few grammes with no front mech or shifter, but in reality it’s about having less to go wrong, or less to clog up with mud. But these systems weren’t foolproof. Before the advent of the thick-thin chainring, these one-by systems required the use of a chain guide, even a mini one, or at some point you were going to drop your chain and end up with a face full of dirt. Clutch mechs helped, but now, with the combination of grabby chainrings and tensioned rear mechs, there really is a reason for most riders to adopt the simplicity of a one-by system.
Lately, the price of 11-speed systems has started to filter down to non-sponsored rider prices too. With Shimano’s 1×11 offering and the new GX1 from SRAM, it’s got to the point where everyday consumers are going to be able to embrace them without the high buy-in (and replacement) costs of XX1. Most importantly, they come without the shortcomings of home-bodged expander setups that haven’t always delivered quite what they claim to be capable of. Now that Shimano has come on board we also no longer have the need to adopt the ‘standard’ that SRAM forced many of us into with its propriety XD driver hub.
So why shift to a single ring and cassette setup? Well, 1×11 systems are designed to do a few different things at once, and all for a reason. First off you get a range of gears that is close, but not quite the same as, what you would get with a 2×10 setup. Sure, you lose a few gears, but let’s be honest about it: 2×10 and 3×10 systems do have overlap and redundancy, gears that you probably never use, or use very infrequently. A 1×11 system gives you less to choose from, and forces you to move around the cassette a lot more in order to get the gearing you want. This in turn should spread the wear better over the cassette. (If you find yourself always wearing out the same gear combination, may I suggest you start single-speeding – you more or less are already).
The loss of range is an oft-cited drawback, but one which can be avoided with a little honesty. Look at what you ride, work out what chainring gives you the gears you desire the most and ride to that. Sound too simple? Let’s go into more detail…
Gear inches (GIn) are mostly the domain of the fixie-toting hipster, but for comparitive purposes they provide a simple way to see exactly how your gears might be distributed across a one-by drivetrain; the lower the number of gear inches a particular sprocket and chainring combination delivers, the more crank revolutions are required for each full turn of the wheel. In short: the smaller the number, the easier the gear.
Let’s start with a baseline. A ‘standard’ 10-speed double set-up of 38/24T chainset with 11-32T cassette, gives you a 24/32T crawler gear of 19.5GIn and a 38/11T top gear of 89.8GIn.
Now let’s turn it up to eleven. A 32T chainring matched to a 12-42T cassette, delivers an easy gear that’s near-as-damnit the same as that on the double set-up (19.8GIn) – but you lose quite a few gears at the top end (69.3GIn). Realistically that’s not too much of an issue off-road unless you’re racing, or doing most of your riding somewhere very flat.
Drop that chainring all the way to a 28T however and you become the proud owner of a truly dinky 17.3GIn crawler gear. Yes, you probably will notice that you’ve not got warp speed at the other end – but it all comes down to what you want the most from your drivetrain. Do you want to be the first (or even just ride, rather than hike) up every hill, or win the sprint to the pub at the end of the ride?
For me, I opt to take a better gear for climbing moderate grades, and find that a 32T on the front gives me everything I need to get up anything I ride normally. However, if I’m riding somewhere with longer hills like the Lake District or the Alps I tend to drop down to a 30T, or even as far as a 28T. Combined with the massive spread of a 11-cog cassette at 12-42T, there’s not much I shouldn’t be able to get up. Failing that, I just need to get a little fitter or get off and push, that’s all. Not a bad thing is it?
So we’ve dropped the front mech, fitted a single ring in a size that’s suited to most of the riding that we do, and freed up some space on our bars. Now the main joy of using a one-by system becomes apparent: a single point of interaction with your drivetrain. With it comes the ability to rapidly dump gears, quickly at that, across a huge range. For racers, the ability to keep the power on as long as possible, then shift rapidly is of vital importance when those few seconds do count. But for us, the average consumer? Well it means that when we bite off a bit more than we can chew we can get into the gear we need, with little to no time delay, assuming you ease off the pedals a little.
With no pesky front mech getting in the way, bike designers can do a few smart things too. They can move your chainline inboard a bit, so that your chain works all the way across the block with little cross-chaining at either extreme. For many who prefer a narrow pedal stance – AKA Q factor for you nerds – this is a blessing. But let’s think of the really neat things that a single-ring drivetrain lets designers do. With less to worry about up front we’ve seen a load of new ‘modern’ frames drop into the market with super short and playful back ends. The ability to get the rear wheel right up under the rider and still have reasonable tyre clearance, has given rise to the long front centre, slack-angled and low bottom bracket bikes that are the current trend du jour.
Of late, bikes shod with wider tyres have hit the ground running and are gathering momentum – and that’s thanks to the the one-by movement, too. The B+ and 29+ revolution would still have been possible without the 1×11 system, don’t get me wrong, but the wide Q factor bikes of the early models were a literal pain in the knees to ride. But add the 1×11 model to the new ‘standard’ of 148x12mm rear spacing, and designers have more room to play with to fit their obese tyres in.
The move to one-by drivetrains also had great design benefits for full suspension frames. With a single ring with only 11 permutations, it is easier for a designer to tweak a suspension platform and shocks to suit the changes in chain length, tension, and pedal feedback that occur with full suspension platforms. In days past, many full suspension bikes would have a sweet spot where the suspension was tuned to work optimally within a narrow band of gears. Within this sweet spot, they were a joy to pedal. Outside of it, there was often a large range of gears where the frames would experience chain growth with… let’s say ‘differing’ results. Now, by reducing the number of possible iterations, a designer better knows the range of gears and chain length that the rear axle path needs to deal with. By making the drivetrain simpler for the designer, it makes things a bit easier for that nice bike you bought to act predictably under pedalling no matter what gear you are in.
So there have to be some downsides to running a 1×11 system, right? Well, initially there were worries from riders who tended to wear out the same gearing combination quickly and worried about price of new cassettes. Frankly this is still a worry. We’re not at the point where you can just buy a new 17T cog, though that might come at some point. Other than that there really are no worries that aren’t financial. Now that the 11-speed cassettes take up the same space as a 10-speed without a proprietary driver, the need for new wheels is gone. One less nail in the one-by coffin.
For anyone who doubts they can live with just 11 gears, I say this: try it. Go get a demo bike, borrow a mate’s bike who runs it, just have a go. It really is a bit of a revelation. The simplicity of just having one control to twirl or tap to get a full range of gears frees you up to worry about other things, important things – like where the fastest lines are.