Where’s My Ring? SRAM Force 1x

Where’s My Ring? SRAM Force 1x

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.

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  1. Winky

    I figured out how to shift my front derailleur many decades ago, back when the levers were on the down-tube. It’s even easier now. So I’m yet to hear of a single upside (relevant to me) of effectively moving the inner chain-ring back the rear hub, just so I can give up gear ratios and/or range.

  2. Fuzz

    I must admit that with my 11/40 cassette, I could live with just my 34 little ring. But with Di2 and Synchro, I can have my gears and eat them too. It feels like the best of both worlds.

    It was funny reading your comment on discs. It was you more than anyone that convinced me to take the leap of faith and go for discs on my latest road bike. I just wasn’t convinced I really needed/wanted them on asphalt, but within 10 miles I knew I would never be able to go back. I never intentionally try for downhill PRs on the road bike – that just feels dumb, but with the discs, they just come naturally, while the feeling in the cockpit is that I’m actually riding downhill with even more margin than ever.

  3. Ron Callahan

    I have something like a 34 in the front with my Force 1x setup. While I’m not super fast, it gets me over the hills for the most part. I’m not racing and I don’t plan to start.

  4. Need more cogs

    I have a 1x disc setup for my rain bike; 44t front, 11×28 rear; but that’s for an area without a lot of climbing and I never do group rides on it. I’ve seen stories about the new 3T aero bike being raced by the pros and them bringing 10t or 9t cogs for that 1x setup, but I’ve never really understood why. You don’t need small rear cogs to make it viable, you need 13 or maybe 14 cogs in the rear. Pros could run a 54t front with an 11×36 in the rear and be fine on all but the steepest climbs. (54×36 is the same as 39×26) but you’ve got to fill in the gaps, particularly if you want wide acceptance in racing. 13 cogs could fill in the gaps you note, 14 would let you throw a 16t in there and pretty much anybody would be happy.

  5. Hans L

    Good read. I have 1x on both my commuter/gravel bike and (now) my road bike. For the gravel bike I have a 10-42 XG cassette with a 46t ring. The road bike has a 50t ring with an 11-40 XTR 11sp cassette.

    I will never go back to 2x on the gravel bike. I ride it off-road a lot and never dropping a chain on singletrack is more than worth a few gaps for me. But also not having a FD to get jammed up with mud etc. in a gravel race is really nice. And I hate adjusting FDs.

    On the road bike I wouldn’t refuse to use a 2x again, but I have also gotten used to the missing 14t and 16t and I definitely like never dropping a chain on the road bike too. The range is plenty for the DC-area hills (equiv to 11-28 with a 36/50 double). The simplicity of 1x is really nice. The gaps are noticeable, but I find when all your bikes are 1x you don’t notice them anymore … 🙂

  6. Trey H

    I live and train in the Flint Hills of KS. I ride 2x on my gravel bike. 1x on my Ibis mtb. I can’t stand the gaps on 1x, at least during hard efforts/races on gravel. It feels like I’m either whirling away with no payoff (like the wind turbine my neighbor put up) or grunting a gear that’s just a bit too big. The result is I’m either riding slower than I ought to be or digging myself a hole by going too hard. But that’s me, and I appreciate that others are fine with the 1x. What worries me is that bike industry is going to force us all into 1x for gravel.

    1. Author

      The folks at Shimano have no plans to stop producing front derailleurs. I can’t speak for our friends in Chicago, though.

    2. Trey H

      My bigger fear will be bicycle frames with no option for front derailleur a la 3T. And SRAM’s response to concerns about FD clearance on e-Tap with gravel bikes was that everyone is going to 1x on gravel, so it’s not an issue (they didn’t point out that 1x with e-Tap wouldn’t be prudent as they don’t have a clutch rear e-Tap). What I’m guessing they’ll do is have e-Tap Force components for gravel, and it’ll be 1x only.

    3. Winky

      Where I appreciate fine gaps is in group riding where I don’t get to set the pace for most of the time. When riding alone, I’m happy enough to just go a bit slower if I can’t maintain the higher speed in the next gear up. But in a group ride, you don’t have that option. OK, you can deal with a slightly higher cadence when in the draft for the most part, but I still prefer to be able to fine tune my pedaling speed, regardless of the pace. Moving to 10 and then 11 speeds was a real help. I wouldn’t like to go back to wider gaps. And, as I said, shifting a front derailleur is still within my skill-set.

  7. Spokey

    Your David Millar comment put a smile on my face. I was there in 2003 and his chain dropped right in front of me, almost at arms length. He manged to flick the chain back on without much trouble but it was enough to lose the lead. , that was a long time ago now.

  8. Michael

    I’ve recently got my first bike with 1X and SRAM. I do like the simplicity of the 1X on my Mason Bokeh, once I get the panniers loaded and do some touring of Scotland I think it’ll come into it’s own but at a 42×42 low gear it should climb anything. But I’m not feeling the love for the SRAM shifters, yet…

    I also refurb’d an Enigma Excel and upgraded to Ultegra 8000, wow! I cannot believe they’ve made it so smooth to change, on both derailleurs. The FD needs hardly any effort to move up to the big ring, I’m so glad I upgraded, the old Ultegra that was fitted as past it’s best, the brakes had lost their fine feeling for braking on wet roads and that could’ve been nasty.

  9. Seano

    Wholeheartedly agree with the comments on disc brakes – when I finally get around to spec’ing a new road bike, it will have them. The past 4-5 years have seen me putting in many more hours on my mtb than my road bike (with Dura Ace calipers) and while not a problem per se, the performance gains you mention that discs offer is significant. I will allow that it may be a bit terrain and weather dependent, too: if you ride flats and/or never in rain, you may never see the difference.

    1x on the road/gravel is a tougher switch for me… I’ve been contemplating something like the Easton EC90 crank to allow me to use/lose the front ring/derailleur at will… and I’ve been using XX1 on my mtb since early 2013 (which I love)

  10. Ron Reed

    I use Force 1X on my Scott cross bike, which is also my main bike for riding around the rough and rainy hills of Seattle, and I love it (42, 11-36). Having said that, I am looking forward to the SRAM 1x 12 speed road group or groups about to come in the next few months. Perhaps it will be upgrade time. For my dreamed-of second drop bar bike, perhaps an Allied Alfa All Road, I’m keen on a Record H11 drivetrain with an 11-32 cassette.

  11. Quentin

    The confusion for new riders about front derailleurs is real. When my wife got her first road bike, she loved the intuitiveness of DoubleTap, but she still avoided shifting the front derailleur because she’d rather spin out a 34/11 gear than think about how to do front shifting. I set her up with 1X, and I think it’s been a good solution (it helps that it’s flat here). I’m not sure I’m ready to give up my front derailleur for 1×11. If the 1×12 rumors are true, that’s another matter entirely.

    1. Martin

      Not just new riders. My wife has been riding for years and still doesn’t quite get the shifting with multiple chain rings.

  12. Andrew

    I’ve been very impressed by the performance of my 1X SRAM set up on my fat bike. Amazing how well it works in snow and ice- no missed shifts or jams, ever.

    Having said that, I prefer having a wider gear range for gravel. On my gravel bike I run 50/34, 11-32, and think that is just about perfect. Until I can get that kind of range on 1X, I’m sticking to 2X for gravel and road.

  13. Niko

    Never knew a rider that was perplexed, after a short orientation, with the intricacies of shifting a front derailleur including members of a wide range of ages and genders. Admittedly my experience is with a relatively small number of people. That said in my experience, many millennials I have worked with are very uncomfortable with concepts that were almost second nature to members of older generations, i.e. parallel parking, manual transmissions and some low-level survival skills. Conversely, millennials usually adapt to new technology more readily than boomers.

    1. Winky

      Yeah, I don’t get that the FD is somehow “too complicated” for people to understand. I find it hard to imagine how anyone that finds it too difficult gets much else done. Life in general is much harder.

    2. Tim

      I have to agree that 2x gears really aren’t hard for anyone who wants to learn them. The problem is so many people don’t want to learn them. I don’t say that as any sort of defence beacause people that can’t be bothered learning new things (in all areas of life) frustrate me endlessly, but it does make it a legitimate concern for the bike industry.

      I’m a complete convert to 1x on my MTB but can’t get the range I currently want on my road bike without 2 rings at the front. We don’t have any big hills in my local area but I still use my 50×11 and 34×28 gears and could even use another low gear. If I installed Sram Eagle 12 speed (if possible?) with a Force Crank it might work but that’s some way off being affordable for my limited road bike budget.

  14. Ron Callahan

    In my experience, I’ve seen more riders that seem oblivious to the fact that they have gears (or they don’t work) than those that know how to use them. Seeing that, it’s really no surprise to hear people complain that it’s “too hard” to ride a bike.

    I get a number of those “big box” store bikes in for tune-up and the shifting components are scary cheap and hard to keep working.

    Add questionable bike storage and treatment to the mix and “shifting is hard”.

    1. Winky

      I think that many (non-enthusiast-type) people find that once their gears start to skip (due to cable stretch or whatever), just leave it whatever low-enough gear doesn’t skip and then just suck it up, rather than explore the options to get their gears working properly.

    2. Ron

      I don’t think that ‘exploring the options’ even enters into the minds of most. We are in the age of the ‘big box’ bike of questionable quality and even more questionable assembly. A lot of folks don’t know what good shifting looks like. Sport riders, those who race, and even those that purchase their bikes from an IBS are a rarified crowd.

  15. John Moore

    I recently picked up a new roadie – I’ve been riding with a group after moving to a new town and the 10sp Compact crank I was riding in Colorado was outgunned on the flats here in SoCal. I went 2x eTAP with rim brakes…

    Mostly love the eTAP ( blips have been problematic – two pairs worked for a week, then quit) but I’m kind of regretting the rim brakes.
    I had a near-death experience this weekend at Tour De Palm Springs back in town over the last couple miles we were in a coned off bike lane with cops managing car traffic in the other lane. A cabbie from the car lane suddenly turned into the bike lane to reach the parking lot across the lane ( No signal ). Panic brake time – my buddy ( we were riding side-by-side in our lane) on his disc brakes does a nose wheelie and stops no issues short of the car. My rim brake / carbon wheels slowed me a bit, but I was only saved by having room to button-hook out of the idiot’s way. If I had been faced with a high curb or other barrier I would most likely have had a bad crash or worse.

  16. Scott M

    I wear stuff out. So, when you say most bikes get hung up before reaching 100 miles, my brain almost explodes.

    The constant wearing out of tires, chains, cassettes, cables and clothes means more $$ in sales and services for my LBS and the industry at large.

    My LBS encourages an active cycling community that results in lots of riders wearing out lots of parts. They do that by sponsoring multiple local teams and clubs, programs that serve women, and other tactics. Not only does this provide opportunities for riders to participate at all levels, it contributes to Folsom’s thriving cycling community. Shop loyalty is a direct and observable by-product.

    In sales, it is generally understood that it is more expensive to gain a new customer than to retain an existing one. Given the revenue stream of bicycle maintenance, I’m amazed that the industry hasn’t researched this abandonment phenomena. It stands to reason that if the Bike industry at large were to understand this issue better, they could systematically change behavior and ultimately affect change.

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