One ring to rule them all

Do we re­ally need two chain­rings on our road bikes? Cy­clist in­ves­ti­gates the pros and cons of the 1x set-up

Cyclist - - Tech - Words PETER STU­ART Pho­tog­ra­phy TA­PES­TRY

In the early days of the Tour de France, rid­ers not only had to con­tend with 400km-plus stages, but they had to do it with just two gears. Not only that, to move be­tween them, they had to get off the bike, re­lease wing nuts on the rear wheel, flip it around and re­place the chain on the sprocket be­fore re­mount­ing.

Th­ese days we ex­pect 22 gears as stan­dard, but do we need quite so many? It might seem ob­vi­ous that hav­ing more gears is bet­ter, but there is an ar­gu­ment to be made for los­ing gears. Specif­i­cally, the switch to a sin­gle front chain­ring, known as 1x (‘one-by’), means you can do away with messy ca­bling, mounts and a bulky de­railleur.

‘For me as an en­gi­neer, the front de­railleur is rather of­fen­sive,’ says Ger­ard Vroomen, co-founder of Cervélo and cur­rent owner of Open Cy­cles. ‘The rear de­railleur is a beau­ti­ful piece of ma­chin­ery. The front de­railleur con­sists of two plates that push against the chain un­til it falls off.’

It’s not just a ques­tion of aes­thet­ics. ‘Los­ing the front shifter makes the bike more aero and lighter,’ Vroomen says. ‘It also re­quires fewer parts, means no chain drops, and makes shift­ing eas­ier to un­der­stand – that’s im­por­tant for first-time cy­clists.’

The 1x prob­lem

So what’s to stop a rider from con­vert­ing a nor­mal groupset into a 1x by sim­ply re­mov­ing the small chain­ring? ‘Noth­ing re­ally,’ says Josh Rid­dle, Cam­pag­nolo’s global press man­ager and a keen crit racer. ‘The only is­sue is that you don’t have the most ef­fi­cient chain­line when us­ing the larger sprock­ets in the rear.’

Ac­tu­ally, that’s not the only is­sue. Oth­ers point out that there’s a good chance the chain will re­peat­edly bounce off the chain­ring with­out some­thing other than the de­railleur to keep it in place.

‘The front de­railleur is a good chain guide, but it isn’t fool-proof,’ says JP Mccarthy, Sram’s road prod­uct man­ager. That didn’t stop time-trial spe­cial­ist Tony Martin from tak­ing on this year’s Tour de France’s open­ing TT us­ing a sin­gle 58-tooth chain­ring and a Sram etap rear de­railleur. He com­pleted the stage with­out chain is­sues, but then he was rid­ing on a very smooth course and has an im­pec­ca­ble ped­alling style.

As Tim Ger­rits, road prod­uct man­ager at Shi­mano, says, ‘It de­pends greatly on the state of your roads. If you’re rid­ing on pris­tine tar­mac every day the chance of drop­ping a chain is min­i­mal, but how many of us are that lucky?’

Mccarthy is in agree­ment: ‘Even on smoother roads, nar­row tyres trans­mit more of the road to the driv­e­train. Even a paint stripe will chal­lenge the wrong set-up if the chain is long enough to ac­com­mo­date a 32-tooth cog but you’re rid­ing on an 11- or 12-tooth sprocket.’

To com­bat this prob­lem, the likes of Sram and Shi­mano have de­vel­oped spe­cific 1x groupsets that in­clude a clutch mech­a­nism for the rear de­railleur to keep the chain un­der ten­sion – mak­ing chain drops near im­pos­si­ble.

‘In ad­di­tion, the chain­ring in­cludes Di­rect Chain En­gage­ment, where teeth are shaped in op­pos­ing ways to hold the chain to the chain­ring more se­curely,’ says Ger­rits. Shi­mano’s sys­tem is sim­i­lar to Sram’s X-sync, where teeth are shaped for im­proved chain re­ten­tion.

De­spite this tech­nol­ogy be­ing avail­able, there are still few 1x set-ups de­signed for road bikes. Shi­mano’s 1x sys­tems are MTB prod­ucts, and it’s only Sram that of­fers a pos­si­ble road so­lu­tion with Sram Force Ri­val 1 and Apex 1.

It seems a fear of los­ing the full range of our gears is hold­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers back from en­cour­ag­ing the use of 1x on road bikes, but that sacri­fice may be more a mat­ter of per­cep­tion than re­al­ity.

Find­ing the gear

While there are fewer gears on of­fer with a 1x groupset, one of the strange re­al­i­ties of a sin­gle chain­ring set-up is that it doesn’t greatly, if at all, limit gear­ing range.

‘If you com­bine our 9-32 cas­sette with a 36t chain­ring, it gives you the same range as 48/34 us­ing a 1230 cas­sette,’ says Vroomen. That’s the same range as a sub-com­pact dou­ble chain­set, but it beats the more

con­ven­tional set-ups in terms of range too. ‘With a 40t ring it’s equiv­a­lent to 50/36 by 11-29, and with a 44t ring it’s equiv­a­lent to 54/39 by 11-28.’

While the range may not be a se­ri­ous is­sue for 1x, there are more jus­ti­fi­able con­cerns that the jumps be­tween gear ra­tios will be sig­nif­i­cantly big­ger than with a stan­dard dou­ble-ring set-up.

‘With 1x there are large gaps in met­ric de­vel­op­ment be­tween one sprocket and the next,’ says Rid­dle. ‘While this is fine for cy­clocross, which tends to find rid­ers look­ing to power up as­cents, it might not be best suited for road rac­ing. To main­tain proper cadence and wattage on a long and var­ied climb, you need a per­fect ar­se­nal of gear­ing.’

That’s true, although it’s im­por­tant to note that the num­ber of sep­a­rate gears is not enor­mously dif­fer­ent to a con­ven­tional dou­ble chain­set. While we may think we have 22 gears with tra­di­tional sys­tems, in re­al­ity we have use of far fewer. Partly that’s down to chain­lines – we shouldn’t use the small­est sprocket with the small chain­ring or the largest sprocket with the largest chain­ring – but also be­cause many gears over­lap. Here’s where we get a lit­tle tech­ni­cal.

Tak­ing for ex­am­ple a 52/36 mid­com­pact with a cas­sette rang­ing from 11-28, four gear com­bi­na­tions are within a sin­gle gear inch of one an­other. That means in a full ro­ta­tion of the ped­als, there would be only a sin­gle inch of for­ward move­ment be­tween them.

When con­sid­er­ing gear habits, the gains shrink fur­ther. Rid­ers will rarely shift from the up­per half of the cas­sette on the large chain­ring to the lower half of the cas­sette on the small chain­ring to find a per­fect gear ra­tio. Then there are those rid­ers who ef­fec­tively deny them­selves the ad­van­tages of a dou­ble chain­set through a fix­a­tion for the big ring and hard gears.

‘Let’s talk about triathlon,’ says Mccarthy. ‘Have you ever seen a triath­lete go­ing up a hill? I was at one Iron­man a cou­ple of years ago – th­ese guys were ped­alling up a mi­nor rise lit­er­ally in their 53x11.’

Mak­ing the switch

For many, then, 1x of­fers big gains with few sac­ri­fices. So why aren’t we see­ing it more? That’s be­cause, as with many things, change starts at the top. For the most part, pro cy­clists won’t be us­ing 1x in the near fu­ture (although we may see the Aqua Blue team rid­ing 1x 3T Strada bikes next year) as the near-neg­li­gi­ble in­crease in gaps be­tween gears can be­come quite a big is­sue on long, fast days in the Grand Tours.

‘I like to think of it as speed dif­fer­en­tial be­tween user groups,’ says Mccarthy. ‘If you look at the World­tour groups, they’re fast. When you’re ap­proach­ing a stage fin­ish in the Tour de France you may be rid­ing at 75kmh but still look­ing to push up a gear, so you have a pre­cise high gear re­quire­ment. Yet on the same stage the same rider could also have a low gear re­quire­ment to hit that cadence and power sweetspot go­ing up a long Alpine climb.’

So pros need all 22 of the gears on of­fer, but for the rest of us per­haps our de­sire for front shift­ing is in­deed sim­ply an il­lu­sion. If so, it’s only go­ing to be­come more of one when a fu­ture of 12 or 13-speed cas­settes un­veils it­self ahead of us.

As Vroomen puts it, ‘I tell peo­ple, if cur­rently 1x11 doesn’t do ev­ery­thing you want, don’t fo­cus on chang­ing the “1” at the front; soon they will be chang­ing the “11” at the back.’

‘With 1x there are large gaps be­tween one sprocket and the next. To main­tain proper cadence and wattage on a long and var­ied climb, you need a per­fect ar­se­nal of gear­ing’

The 1x chain­ring ap­pears to of­fer big ben­e­fits with few sac­ri­fices, but the fact that pro rid­ers won’t be us­ing it very of­ten means man­u­fac­tur­ers are hes­i­tant to put it out there

‘The rear de­railleur is a beau­ti­ful piece of ma­chin­ery,’ says Cervélo co-founder Ger­ard Vroomen, who is far less keen on the aes­thetic of the front. But ap­pear­ance isn’t the only rea­son for do­ing away with it – a 1x set-up is lighter, more aero­dy­namic and there are fewer parts to go wrong

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