1x Drivetrain for the Road or Gravel?

In the “worst kept secret” realm, Bike Radar is running a story today about SRAM’s “reveal” of their 1x cyclocross drivetrain, the CX1.

Photo from Bike Radar:

One question posed in the article is whether companies are going to move to 1x drivetrains for road and triathlons.  Being a lover of weight reduction, you might think I’d be enthused about this potential.  I’m not.

1x for CX races makes a lot of sense.  There’s so much off the bike/on the bike, and so much maneuvering and changes in cadence that you don’t really need 2 chainrings.  There are rarely opportunities to fine tune your cadence.  In fact, in the first ever CX race I did, I dropped my chain when I tried to shift the front chainring.  Thereafter, I never touched the front derailleur during a race.  (It was well adjusted, but I shifted at an incredibly inopportune time).  I can see the benefit of 1×11 for CX.

I can potentially see the benefit for crits as well…depending on gearing.  Going with a single chainring and an 11-42 cassette, or 11-36 cassette, or even an 11-32 cassette for a crit seems like a bad idea.  But for a relatively flat crit, going to a 1×11 with a large chainring (52/53T) and a narrow-range, close-ratio 11 speed cassette (11-23 or 11-25) makes sense.  You’re not using the little chainring anyhow, and the gears would be close enough to be useful.

I won’t comment on tri-bikes, as I’m not a tri-athlete.  I’m a do-athlete.  (huh-huh).

For general road or gravel use, it strikes me as a terrible idea.  I love the XX1 on my Beargrease the vast majority of the time…the wide-range cassette gives me a lot of gearing options.  Where I don’t love it is when riding in a group on the road/gravel/path.  You simply lack enough ‘close’ gears in the working range to be able to make critical adjustments in cadence.  You’re often just a little bit over or under-geared.  The problem isn’t in having only 11 gears; the problem is having 11 gears covering a wide range.  For our road rides around here, the vast majority of your time is spent in the big chainring.  Having a 1x setup with a large chainring and a narrow-ratio cassette would work for much of what we do…if you’re willing to give up the lower gears.  Trying to hang on the group rides with a wide-ratio, 11 speed cassette will put you in a condition where you don’t have the right ratios for the speed of the pack.

In fact, even with a 20-22 speed drivetrain, I find myself wanting to narrow my gear range. I’ve always had an 11-28 cassette on my road bike, believing that I need that low gear (even with a 53/39 crankset).  As I refine my bike specs through greater experience, I’m going to an 11-25 cassette, to get my gears closer together, and to give myself the ability to fine-tune my cadence more on a road ride.  I’m not ditching the 2 chainring setup anytime soon, as a 53-25 low gear is not low enough, even for Illinois, unless you confine yourself to sucking on every incline.  (Similarly, on my Moots, I’ve gone from an 11-32 cassette as I used to have on the Vaya to an 11-28 cassette…now 11 speed.  34/28 is low enough for me, and having more gears in the useful mid-range is worth the loss in ultimate low gearing).  The CX1 drivetrain has an 11-32 cassette.  A similar cassette on a road or gravel bike, with a larger chainring, would have too big of jumps between gears for my taste…and a narrower-range cassette would not have enough gear spread to accommodate changing conditions / climbs.

So: 1x drivetrain for the road?  I’m not going that direction.  I’m enthused about 11 speed cassettes on road and gravel, only when combined with a traditional 2 chainring setup.  For me, even the benefit of losing some weight up front and gaining simplicity in the drivetrain is greatly offset by the loss in versatility and the reduced ability to fine-tune gearing to match challenging situations on the road or on the gravel.

What’s the over/under on when SRAM releases their electronic drivetrain?

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5 thoughts on “1x Drivetrain for the Road or Gravel?

  1. I’ve gone 1x on my Warbird. I never used the little ring so I just got rid of it.
    I’m not racing my bike and I rarely do group rides so making minor adjustments with my cadence isn’t such a big issue. I’m using the stock cassette and I don’t think I’m missing any gears. Sure if I come across a steep hill I’ll wish I had kept the little ring and going down the hill I’ll be doing a lot of coasting because I’ll gave run out of gears but…ok.
    Could I have kept the 2x system? Of course. There wasn’t really a need to go 1x. But it makes the bike a little lighter and simpler. Plus I think the bike looks better. It looks cleaner. Front derailleurs are the prettiest looking components.
    I’m using a 42t Raceface narrow/wide chainring and just the stock cassette.

    As for the over/under with SRAM’s 1x system. I wonder if they will be more cautious then they were with their hydro brakes. We’ll see if they learned anything from that debacle.

    • Yeah, it undoubtedly works well for some conditions. For the group rides we do, there are times when the group is riding 19.5mph. Not 18 and not 20. In those conditions, a big jump between gears can be unbearable…at least for a wimp like me. I’ll gladly take the extra couple hundred grams to have the ability to jump between gears.

      Also, even if you had a 11T gear in the cassette, 42×10 is simply not fast enough to keep up around here. Catch a tailwind, and the group flat hauls.

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