Back In Gears

Immersion is a great way to learn.  Want to learn a language?  Go where the language is native, you’ll learn so much more.  That was my approach with single front chainrings.

1X drivetrains have, of course, been around for a long time.  5-speeds (1×5) were the envy of kids in my neighborhood growing up.  As we look at them again, there is a certain simplicity in bikes without the added complexity of a front derailleur, cable and shifter.  What’s old is new again — with a twist — of course.  Fueled in part by XX1, single front ring bikes are appearing everywhere, and manufacturers are jumping through hoops to get into the game.

Is it a game?  We’ll look at that question in minute, but first, we need to try it.  Because of the new popularity, a year and a half ago I decided to give it a try, and dove in — mountain and ‘cross.

Single Rings Love

Plenty Of Reasons For Love

The virtues of 1-by give a lot to Love* There is an elegance and a decided sense of simplicity.  * All the shifting is done with one hand, * and it’s sequential; * the system is lighter (some), and * there is less thought to riding.  * Fewer parts gives easier access, * less to adjust and maintain.  And * (as a functional side note) cleaning the bike is easier.

* New rear derailleurs and larger cassettes have solved many of the ratio issues — and made the single more appealing.  Oh, and * I love the greater ground clearance via the smaller front chainring, too.


Is It Love?  Or Heat Of The Moment?

The week before our Moab trip, WickWerks launched production of the Z-Rings, a new 1X system with some nice advantages.  After riding the Z’s and competitive rings for months, I turned my attention back to geared front drivetrains.  What a shock !!  …  I’ve been riding the mountain and ‘cross bikes for months in a 1X configuration, but now, back on multiple front rings, I re-found my love of the bike.  That’s very odd, because I didn’t know I lost it.

Wow, that really got me thinking.  The WHY for that statement is a very good question.


Full Disclosure

Even with all the virtues of the 1X, and the enjoyment, I’ve never been the guy that thinks one approach is the ONLY way.  In my mind there have always been good reasons for all the variations — 1X, 2X, 3X, geared hubs, single speed, etc..  I guess that’s why I was so surprised about my reaction to jumping back into multiple front sprockets.

It doesn’t take away from the beauty of 1X.  (See the Love above.)  And, I can’t quite put my finger on the “fun” factor of back in gears.  But it’s there!  Like getting on a motorcycle after riding a scooter — just feels like that’s how it’s supposed to be.  Granted, I have the advantage of great shifting WickWerks chainrings, so it’s not like going back to “smash and drag” front shifting — which I’ll never miss.  Yet, for whatever reason, I’ve fallen in love again.  Maybe the simpler things aren’t always better? — I can’t imagine giving up my smart phone for a land line again . . .


Learning From The Surprise

Deeper consideration of this little surprise brings some interesting revelations.  I mentioned (above) the things I love about singles — so here is the other side:

Doing the drops with gears

  1.   I like to participate in the ride – all it.  I like pedaling up, and when the slope turns down, sometimes I pedal there too.  Of course, the most fun downs don’t require peddling, but they aren’t all at that level of fun.  Am I a speed junkie?  Probably not, but if I’m going down hill on a fire road or something, I like to pedal . . . and go fast.  I found with 1X had limits because my peddling rpm doesn’t reach 150.
  2.   Like many people riding 1X, the full happy range is a little difficult to find.  Yes, I’ve plotted the charts, and they (almost) cover the whole spectrum, but with big steps, sometimes you just miss the “right” gear.  I hear it a lot, from people wanting a lower gear.  Yes, there are some massive rear cogs available and there are obviously smaller front rings, but when you get it right for the steep climbs, you spin-out at speed (or wear out the tiny cogs).  OK, it’s a balance — grunt a little on the ups, then coast on the downs.  I get it, but the compromise was not always good, and it takes away from the riding pleasure.
    For Example:  On a recent ride — The Iconic, Monarch Crest, Colorado — I rode with friends on 1×11.  On the steeper grunts (parts of Rainbow in particular) and on the long climbs, they ran out of gas climbing while I was able to spin right up.  (1×11:  32/42=0.762 vs. 22/36=0.611) (a smaller number is a lower gear)  25% difference is huge!!  More importantly, I was quite a bit faster doing it.
    OK, so I didn’t use the 22-36 very much (except following a slower rider), but let’s play the numbers.  What if they rode a 30 in front instead?  That’s:  30/42=0.714 — 17% higher gear.  What if they had a 44 in the rear?  30/44=0.682 — still 11% higher.
    Remembering that our bodies are very sensitive to small changes, 25% (or even 11%) is massive, and even if you CAN push the higher a gear, if it puts you in the red, it makes you slower (and in most cases, takes some of the fun).
    Take this for what it is.  Our single speeder friend was also along — he’s an animal, and he outruns us all.  I’m talking about most riders, not the exceptional ones.


  3.   Where has my cassette gone?  With 1X drivetrains, I found myself wearing out expensive parts fast.  Now I have some perfectly good cassettes — well most of the cogs are good, but the smallest 3 are toast.

    The science of wear has 3 compounding factors:
      – First,  when a chain rides on a gear, the force is carried by the covered teeth (about half).  If it were ideal, each covered tooth would carry the same force, but it isn’t ideal — a few of the teeth carry more.
      – Second,  when the front chainring gets smaller, it puts more tension on the chain (leverage ratio of ring size to crank arm length).
      – Third,  more chain tension means more force on the gear teeth — front and rear — and when we make the rear cogs smaller (like a 10 tooth cog) it exaggerates the loading (because there are even fewer teeth).
    Climbing Gear  – The Result?  Smaller chainrings mean higher chain forces (more chain tension), which causes more gear tooth wear as well as more chain wear (stretch).  A worn chain causes even less load sharing by the gear teeth (especially on small gears), which accelerates wear even more.  These three compounding effects add up in a spiral of accelerated wear.  The final result is more worn chainrings and more worn cassettes.
    I suppose this would not be so bad if parts were not so expensive, but the nice cassettes for 1X with the big cogs for low range are quite expensive.  And, only the small ones are wearing out.  The bigger ones have more teeth to share load so they don’t wear as fast.  Then, in the front, with only one chainring, there is not another choice for how much force to put on the chain.  If I am pedaling, then that is the force on the chain.  Compared to a 2X system where a bigger chainring in the front is used much of the time, and the smallest cassette cogs are not used as often, and when they are, the forces are lower (because of the bigger front chainring) — (Unless you cross-chain which is a bad habit).

    To Highlight This Point:  At a recent UCI race, I watched gear choices of the Pros.  For steeper climbs they used the larger rear cogs, but most of the time they rode the smallest 3 or 4 cassette cogs.  On the pedaling descents, they were almost always in the smallest cog.
    What’s worse, when they hit the flats at the bottom, they all stood up and cranked — on the smallest few cogs.  (To me, they seemed gear limited, and some could have been faster.)
    That’s OK for them, most get equipment for free, but what about for you and for me?


  4.   From the standpoint of physiology, speed and efficiency, a rider should choose an appropriate gear for their cadence and power abilities given the terrain.  For me and for others I’ve experimented with, it means you are slower riding a 1X system if the slopes exceed your range (up or down), or if the steps between gears are too big to find the sweet spot.  Either you’re geared too high (when climbing), or geared too low (for pedaling descents).  The physiology and efficiency equation may or may not outweigh the simplicity and weight of a 1X system.  My experience shows that strong riders who have good endurance and cadence range, get away with it better than those who are not cycling professionals.  For me the 1X system makes me slower in some situations.
  5.   Though not a drawback to 1X systems, I believe crappy front shifting brought the industry to embrace singles.  If shifting in the front was improved by the big components manufacturers, 1X systems would not have had the stimulus.  To put in a shameless plug, that is why WickWerks started.  We were tired of crappy front shifting too, but we took a different approach — we improved the front shift rather than just give up.  If you haven’t tried the better shifting of WickWerks chainrings, then you probably won’t understand this point.

Is It A Game?

Maybe.  So, who’s winning?  and who’s loosing?  Now before getting fired up, let’s look at some facts:

First,  1X is not new.  Many riders made their own 1X ( me included ) long ago.

Second,  the big move to 1X was stimulated by massive (and convincing) advertising, not by a new way of thinking.  Advertising costs lots of money, and it was NOT done for you — rather, to pull money from your pocket.

Third,  There has been a lot of inside influence on bicycle manufacturers to make bikes for 1X.  It’s been successful in part because we, as the community of cyclists, have responded to advertising pressure, but also because of incentives and promises for higher profits.  (Fewer components, but “new” features to raise prices.)  It’s not rocket science.

Fourth,  this change in drivetrain layout accelerates wear of expensive components — meaning you will buy more replacements — increasing yet more the flow of money out of your pocket.

To be sure, it’s not a conspiracy, it’s shrewd advertising and a great play on the market.  Like the King with invisible cloths, in my view, it feels like they couldn’t figure out how to make front shifting right, so they chose to convince the market it wasn’t needed — AND suck more money from our pockets.  Making the new products available is great, but riding the wave to the point it takes advantage of the cyclists they claim to serve . . . well, you decide.

Is there a net benefit for the end user?  Or is it a game for big manufacturers?  The big winners may be the advertisers.



Though I love the 1X for so many reasons, and it was a great experience to immerse into the 1X paradigm, I’ve learned that all the analysis on paper misses, somehow, the “real life” situations and a fundamental “feel” for the ride.  I’m still not sure how to quantify it — which is a funny place for an engineer — but that’s the reality.

I love the 1X!  But, not all the time.  There are so many virtues, and some significant limitations.  Maybe we, as an industry, are ignoring that for the moment?

The most interesting take-away from the experiment is — regardless of industry trends — there is big value in variety — 1X, 2X, 3X, internal gears, single speed, etc..  To think otherwise . . . Well, I hope I don’t get caught in the narrow view of 1.

To the cyclist, I say  Shift Your Expectations.   There’s nothing wrong choosing different if it’s better for you.


By Eldon Goates – WickWërks Engineering Manager
  – I ride because I love it.

Moab - Mountain Bike Mecca