There was a time when a 12-25 cassette and a 53/39 crankset could get me over anything in California. I miss that the way I miss having seven percent body fat. These days, I need more more range, more low-end, specifically. So while that old gear set gave me a less than 300-percent gear range, giving me a slightly more than 300-percent gear range is an improvement of dubious merit, much the way that a cat that throws up daily is better than one that poops on the carpet daily. Don’t ask me how I know this.
So when the folks at SRAM suggested I try the Force 1 hydro group, I was intrigued to try it, if not entirely sold on the idea of a single chainring. The record will show that my reticence is entirely a function of geography, that if we were living in West Tennessee, Northwest Arkansas, Kansas (all of it) or the greater Boston metropolis, I’d be all about the single chainring.
Single-ringing a road bike became a non-starter in 2003 when a Cofidis mechanic decided that likely Tour de France prologue winner (and soon-to-be yellow-jersey wearer) David Millar was going to go so fast that he only needed the big chainring and no front derailleur. Once upon the cobbles near the finish the chain was bounced off the chainring. Yadda, yadda, history.
Most of us decided that a front derailleur was a good idea, full stop. The stroke of genius in SRAM’s thinking came in two parts, as many of you are now familiar: the narrow-wide teeth of the 1x chainring and a rear derailleur with a clutch.
I’ve now ridden this system on the road and on dirt roads. Those dirt roads at times struggled to earn the term “road.” If the ever there were conditions that could have bumped the chain from the ring, I can say I’ve ridden them. In this regard, the system is surprisingly reliable. I mean, I figured at some point, some bump would be its undoing. Nope.
The other big ingredient to this group is the hydraulic disc braking. While disc brakes are as accepted in mountain biking as teenage girls and makeup, the road world still really struggles with it. Katie Compton’s recent injury at the Cyclocross World Championships serving as an exclamation point to every objection yet raised.
I need to be honest and say I’m still developing my feel for disc brakes. While my touch has lightened significantly so that I can scrub speed the way I would with rim calipers, I brake too much in corners. By that I mean I slow down more than is necessary. I love waiting until the last possible second to begin braking and I’ve developed enough touch that I don’t skid or otherwise break the tires free, but I do slow more than is absolutely required for safe turns. That part still requires work on my part. That said, if I could snap my fingers and change my rim brake bikes to disc brakes, I would. The more progressive brake response inspires confidence on terrain that would otherwise frighten me. I can’t find a downside to that.
The real question that Force 1x requires us to resolve isn’t just how broad a range of gearing you need, but what sorts of steps you need between those gears. It’s easy to observe that Force 1x’s sister group, Force 22 has four gears that overlap, provided you don’t cross chain, but if you do, then it’s five. So from the most critical outlook, Force 22 has only 17 gear combinations, still more than the 11 in Force 1x. However, those dead gears aren’t entirely dead. When you look at the 11-36 cassette’s selection of cogs (11, 12, 13, 15, 17, 19, 22, 25, 28, 32, 36) you see a two nasty jumps in there: the 13 to the 15 and the 19 to the 22. In a 2x drivetrain redundant gears mask those jumps.
The Force 22 group I rode for a couple of seasons had a 428-percent range (50/34, 11-32). By comparison, Force 1x has a 327-percent range in the configuration I rode (38, 11/36). That’s a pretty big range, bigger than I was riding 20 years ago, but my preferred gearing for a drop-bar bike these days is a subcompact crank (46/30) with a wide-range cassette (11/32). That particular combination yields a 446-percent range. Sure, it doesn’t have the high end of the 50×11, it has enough high end for the roads I ride here, plus it has significantly more low end. The 1x group robs me of both high end and low end. Back when I could produce 300 watts for the better part of an hour I didn’t need as much range.
Yesterday I came upon a family out for a ride. While dad and the two brothers were on road bikes, the daughter—the youngest of the bunch, but still college-aged—was on a hybrid that I quickly gathered was new to her. One brother rode next to her trying to explain the GripShift. He got her more or less clear on the right shifter and what the rear derailleur did when he began explaining the left shifter and front derailleur.
The next thing I heard was, Wait. What?
To my knowledge the industry has never done an in-depth study of why people who aren’t dedicated cyclists stop riding their bikes after riding them fewer than 100 miles. We know that most bikes are ridden less than 100 miles before being hung up to serve as foundations for cobwebs. Anecdotally, we hear traffic, flat tires and the challenge of gears. I’m curious about how big an issue gearing is. I see 1x systems as a genius way to simplify bikes for people who are wary of all the fiddly bits. All they have to learn is one shifter.
Easier to learn, less weight, less maintenance. Cheaper, too. A complete group including crank, levers, brakes, derailleur, bottom bracket, cassette, chain and rotors goes for $1336.
If I lived in a flatter place, like Florida, I’d probably have changed all my drop bar bikes to 1x. The only questions would be the size of the chainring and whether the cassette would end in a 25 or a 28.
Final thought: Geographically dependent genius.