The Trouble With 1x

The Trouble With 1x

As an operating system, human beings have a terrible range of performance. If it’s much colder than 60 degrees Fahrenheit, we need clothing to keep warm. If it’s much warmer than 85 degrees Fahrenheit, we need shade to keep cool. We can’t see much except when the sun shines. Our sense of smell is the equivalent to being legally blind when compared to a dog’s nose, though given some of the smells my last dog made, I’m largely okay with that.

Unlike ants, we can’t carry 100 times our weight and unlike cats we can’t jump five times our height. When you consider the bulk of home-produced content on YouTube, it’s understandable if you conclude we aren’t good for much.

But we are creative and we understand a lot about math and physics and that has helped us bend the world to our needs. The block and tackle may not allow us to lift 100 times our weight, but it can allow one man to do the work of three or four. The properties that allow us to do so much with a block and tackle are what make the bicycle such a marvelous invention.

Which brings me to the subject of cranksets with a single chainring.

I’ve been mulling this issue for more than a year, wondering if it was just me being ornery or if there really is a problem. Honestly, I like anything that can improve my cycling experience. That can come in the form of new technology (tubeless tires, suspension lockout switches) as well as simplification (SRAM eTap shifting). However, this spring I spoke with rider after rider on Grasshoppers about 1x and was surprised by the number of riders who have it and are dissatisfied with it; they complained of being shortchanged at both the high end and the low end. Most reported a plan to replace it with a group with two chainrings. That’s when I began to think I ought to speak up.

Before I go any further, a caveat: Most of the world is reasonably flat. This is not to demean the Flint Hills of Kansas or the river bluffs of Memphis, but having lived in a place with less than 300 feet of elevation change, in most Zip codes I need neither the highest gears I’ve ever run on descents nor the inchworm ratios that allow me to ascend a long, steep climb. Honestly, if I were living in Florida, I’d wonder why the front derailleur is still a thing.

Here’s another example of our narrow operating range: We don’t do well with a cadence much below 80 rpm or much higher than 120 rpm. Let me illustrate: Only last night I was gawking at a 1980s-vintage bike built by Mark DiNucci that’s up for sale on Craigslist. There’s a corn cob on the rear wheel. I haven’t ridden a straight block since I was racing crits in Southern California at the turn of the century, though if I still was (racing those crits), I’m not sure what I’d do as I don’t know where I’d find a cassette with nothing but 1-tooth jumps today. (The tightest cluster on the market from the big three is an 11-speed 12-25 Shimano offers.) I mention the DiNucci’s corn cob because of that aforementioned problem with operating range. Anyone who has ridden a straight block will tell you how lovely it is to have single-tooth steps in their cassette or freewheel. You’ve always got the perfect gear to ke, provided you’re going somewhere between reasonably quick and really fast. I’m not sure when I was last fit enough to use a 42×18 gear for a recovery ride.

What a straight block will teach you is that human beings like gear ratios that don’t make huge jumps. Represented as a percentage increase (rather than using gear inches), my experience and the experiences related by others tells me that we are happiest with a 14 percent or less gain. For anyone racing on the road, though, I’ll say that number is more like 10 percent; if you’ve ever wished for a 16 or an 18 in your cassette, you know what I’m talking about. Forget for a moment talk of cassettes with a 500 percent range that can replicate the low and high gears of a 2x system. Having a huge range is helpful, but making sure that the steps are reasonable is every bit as important. Here is the example of an 11-speed, 11-26 cassette to illustrate:

  • From 26t to 23t: 13.0 percent
  • From 23t to 21t: 9.5 percent
  • From 21t to 19t: 10.5 percent
  • From 19t to 17t: 11.8 percent
  • From 17t to 16t: 6.3 percent
  • From 16t to 15t: 6.7 percent
  • From 15t to 14t: 7.1 percent
  • From 14t to 13t: 7.7 percent
  • From 13t to 12t: 8.3 percent
  • From 12t to 11t: 9.1 percent

I’ve included this cassette because I suspect most of you have ridden this configuration or something close to it. The biggest jump, 13 percent, comes at the low end of the cassette, making the bail gear truly a rescue gear. All the other jumps are less than 12 percent.

Here’s a broader-range 11-30:

  • From 30t to 27t: 11.1 percent
  • From 27t to 24t: 12.5 percent
  • From 24t to 21t: 14.3 percent
  • From 21t to 19t: 10.5 percent
  • From 19t to 17t: 11.8 percent
  • From 17t to 15t: 13.3 percent
  • From 15t to 14t: 7.1 percent
  • From 14t to 13t: 7.7 percent
  • From 13t to 12t: 8.3 percent
  • From 12t to 11t: 9.1 percent

Only one of these jumps results in a more than 14-percent change. The 17 to 15 upshift is why my heart will always hold 16t cogs dear.

Now let’s look at an 11-speed cassette used with some 1x systems:

  • From 42t to 36t: 16.7 percent
  • From 36t to 32t: 12.5 percent
  • From 32t to 28t: 14.3 percent
  • From 28t to 25t: 12.0 percent
  • From 25t to 22t: 13.6 percent
  • From 22t to 19t: 15.8 percent
  • From 19t to 17t: 11.8 percent
  • From 17t to 15t: 13.3 percent
  • From 15t to 13t: 15.4 percent
  • From 13t to 11t: 18.2 percent

For those of you who, like me, can’t do quadratic equations in your head, it’s important to note that these percentage increases are consistent no matter what chainring size you use. The effective range for the 11-26 is 322 percent. Not bad, but considerably more modest than many current bikes. The wide-range 11-42 is larger, at 382 percent range, but still isn’t as great as the range of an 11-30 (422 percent) when combined with two chainrings.

So that covers the range issue. Now, back to the real question: How big a jump between cogs is uncomfortable? For road and gravel riding, I think that number is anything north of 14 percent. Let’s look at that 11-42. Five of the ten shifts involve a greater than 14 percent jump, but worse, the smallest single jump is still 11.8 percent; this only gets worse when you consider a 10-42. Practically, this means each upshift demands more power to begin turning over that bigger gear as well as a willingness to tolerate a broader range of cadence because you have to be spinning that much faster to avoid bogging down in the new gear. And that 18 percent chasm between the 13 and the 11? It guarantees that I’d only use the 11 when riding downhill on the road. The jump from a 12 to a 10 is even worse—20 percent.

The argument that 1x promotes is that there are too many redundant gears thanks to two chainrings. While none are exactly identical, there are a number of gears that come close, close enough to count as redundant. (I define redundant as anything less than 5.0 percent difference.) In a drivetrain with 50/34 chainrings and an 11-26 cassette, five gears fall under that difference; with an 11-30 cassette, there are only four redundant gears. Four or five redundant gears, out of 22 possible combinations. And it’s worth mentioning that you tend to find more redundant gears with compact and subcompact cranks, due to the 16t difference, than you do with a traditional 53/39 combination, due to the 14t difference.

Ultimately, what 1x proponents attempt to sell the single ring theory on is a combination of simplicity, reliability and weight. The weight savings, in a best-case scenario, can approach a pound, but it’s rarely that much. A big piece of reliability comes down to the clutch rear derailleur (I think that’s even more important than the narrow/wide chainring), and given how well Shimano’s Deore XT derailleur works, it’s fair to ask why road derailleurs haven’t already gone to clutch designs. As to simplicity, whether or not that is a gain depends on your outlook. Is it really that hard to shift a front derailleur? Considering how light a touch is required to shift mechanical Dura-Ace and Ultegra front derailleurs, I’d have to say no, it’s not much of an issue. And because I’ve been using bikes with multiple chainrings since the Nixon administration, it doesn’t require much thought at this point. What 1x advocates want you to overlook is how big those jumps are between the cogs. On a mountain bike, where terrain changes can be constant, I actually appreciate the bigger jumps, but in road and gravel riding, where terrain changes tend to be more gradual on the whole, I can’t get through a 20-mile ride without beginning to miss jumps of less than 10 percent. With 1x I’m faced with a choice due to where I live: Either the jumps in the cassette are ginormous, or I must run such a narrow cassette that while it would work great in Memphis, I’d never get up any of the climbs here in Northern California. Why should anyone be forced to choose?

 


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43 comments

  1. Steve

    Just as a clarification, Shimano does make a clutch derailleur, new this year. Basically, a take-off of the XT derailleur, in Ultegra colors. I just installed one last night.

    I agree that the arguments for 1X drivetrains are pretty thin. Front derailleurs (at least Shimano) shift pretty darn well, don’t really weigh that much, and give you many more options. My worry is that the 1X frenzy will completely drive 2X drivetrains away. I have a double on my gravel bike and mountain bike and am quite happy with them. The jumps on a MTB 1X drivetrain always seem way too big, at least for me being a road rider most of the time.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Yes, the Ultegra clutch rear derailleur is coming, but for all practical purposes, it’s not here yet. That said, I can’t wait until they start shipping them in big numbers.

    2. Jeff Dieffenbach

      I don’t understand–I just installed a clutch-equipped Ultegra derailleur on my CX bike. At least, according to the spec I did. Is there something I’m missing?


    3. Author
      Padraig

      If you’ve got it, terrific! There are lots of shops that are still waiting for their orders to be fulfilled, though. By fall, they should be pretty easy to get.

  2. AC

    Finally, someone recognizing the emperor’s new clothes are lacking.

    I too, have questioned why we are being pushed toward 1X by bike and component manufacturers. I blame dropper posts and SRAM. Droppers because MTB riders wanted the clean look of only one lever on the left, and SRAM because they went 1x when they realized they’d never equal shimano at front derailleurs. And now we’re stuck with MTBs that won’t even accommodate a front derailleur.

    In the MTB world, I’ve begrudgingly learned to live with limited top end, since I can’t/won’t sacrifice bottom end range. On road/CX/gravel, I’ve stuck with a front derailleur, and been very happy with that choice.

  3. Quentin

    The recent announcement from Rotor of a 1×13 group is really intriguing. I think your analysis of 1×11 is spot on, and adding a 12th cog may still not be enough to close the gap. However, 13 might just get close enough to make 1x a viable alternative. The decision to skip 12 and go straight for 13 may be the thing that finally gets Rotor a foothold in the market.

    1. toro toro

      It’s all getting a bit like razor blades now, isn’t it? “This one has nine, no, TEN blades!!!”

      Switched to an 1880s-style safety-razor about five years ago, and haven’t looked back. Make the analogy as tight as you like 🙂

  4. Alex Wassmann

    ‘Lordy..shall we condemn single speeders to life as unwashed outlaws too? To each his/her own bliss! Thanks to my former colleagues we have a fantastic option in 1X drivetrains, one I happily accept as more than sufficient for the wide range of MTB & gravel conditions I encounter here in NorCal. My 2 cents, anyway.

  5. Jeff vdD

    “What 1x advocates want you to overlook is how big those jumps are between the cogs.”

    I’m a “1x advocate,” but fully acknowledge (and would never want to conceal) the gear jump problem. When eTap is able to accommodate a 12-speed 10-42 or 11-42, the problem gets a bit better, but not to the level of coming in under the very reasonable sounding 14% threshold.

    For my part, I tolerate the >14% issue because of the benefits of reliability, weight, and appearance.

  6. Brian Ogilvie

    I find the issue of “redundant” gears to be a non-issue. My go-to bike for most of my riding is an allroad 650B bike with a 44/28 double crankset and a 13-30 9-speed cassette (13-14-15-17-19-21-24-27-30). That gives me a useful range with moderate jumps between gears on each chainring. I’m in the 44t ring 60-80% of the time, depending on terrain; I reserve the 28t ring for steep or long climbs, especially on gravel, and when I’m going slow on discontinued or fire roads. The four “redundant” gears just allow me to stay on the big ring for short sections of steep climbing or to stay on the small ring if there’s a short section of moderate grade on a climb.

    1. Rod

      I agree. I have 2x systems in all my bikes except a fat bike. They are the “cruise range” and the “climb range”. I like to stay between 80-100 rpms.

  7. Aar

    Preach the gospel minister! My love of close ratio cogsets has left me skeptical of 1X since their introduction. I’m glad to hear a dissenter and see the related math.

    After way too many years stuck in 50-34 x 11-28 purgatory, I’m finally light and strong enough this season to run a 52-36 and a close ratio cogset in my area. Just found old Ultegra 11-23s and picked up one for each bike. Love the 16t and close gear ratios. Rolling terrain is so much more fun when fewer chainring shifts are required to get the perfect gear.

  8. Neil Winkelmann

    MTB and Cross are a style of riding/terrain where you are only ever briefly in the right gear anyway. Big jumps are perhaps less an issue. I don’t do either type of riding.

    On the road, especially in group riding and racing 1X seems to be fatally flawed for the reason Patrick lays out. On my road bike, I usually run a 12-27 where my biggest jump is just 10.5%. I like it. I don’t often find the 50 x 12 high gear limiting, but then the closest I get to racing is a fondo/sportif type ride.

    On gravel, it is a mix. I have a 2X and am very glad I do, but then, I’m a die-hard roadie at heart. I get it that many are happy with 1X.

  9. Jeff

    It would seem they are solving the wrong problem. Shouldn’t it be to solve for a 19 or 25 tooth difference up front to decrease the overlap of ratios?

  10. Hans

    I like 1x. I am running 1x on my road bike and my commuter/gravel bike. I don’t consider myself an advocate; I don’t know that I would say 1x is better for road riding, but I love the simplicity and not dropping a chain. I’ve wrestled with dropped chains jammed on the other side of chain catchers — that sucks. Not having that happen is great. Maybe it saves a bit of weight. The 11-40 Shimano XTR cassette with a 50t N/W ring is a great range for the Mid-Atlantic (equiv to 11-28 with 36/50 rings). My gravel bike has a bigger range, but of course also bigger gaps. And the XTR cassette is a lot smoother shifting than the XG cassettes IMO. I do notice the gaps, though more on the gravel bike. But it doesn’t prevent me from riding anything. I don’t expect to ever go back to 2x for the off-road bikes (including gravel). Less dogmatic about the 1x choice on road, but no plans to switch back to 2x.

  11. satanas

    FWIW, I rode a mostly flat 200km brevet on Saturday, and used a 12-23 10 speed cassette with both 16 and 18T cogs. Most of the time I happily shifted up and down between gears 1T apart; 2T would have been too much.

    On MTBs, especially if it’s technical, then 1x has it’s good points, but SRAM shoving it down everyone’s throats because they couldn’t make MTB front derailleurs work decently is pretty twisted. Now we’re seeing what appears to be the majority of new MTB frames with no way to attach a front derailleur. 🙁

  12. Andrew

    I have 1x on my fat bike. It’s fine there, because I’m slogging along. I really notice the big jumps and spinning out when I use it on gravel roads in the winter. No way I’d want to do my core gravel or road riding with those few gears and big jumps.

  13. TreyH

    I totally concur with your take on this, Patrick. I ride mostly gravel in the Flint Hills. On the pointy end of our races, at least for me, close gear ratios are necessary for Goldilocks efficiency. What really ruffles my feathers is the insistence that 1x is our destiny by frame builders (3T/Lauf comes to mind) and component manufacturers (SRAM e-Tap statement re: gravel and their lack of clearance for front battery) that are telling he that 1X is destiny). I fear that in five years I’m going to be stuck with a 9-46 1X. Works fine for mountain biking, but DK, Gravel World’s, etc. isn’t mountain biking. It’s just dirty road racing.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      “Goldilocks efficiency.” I love that. How apt.

      While they haven’t made much noise about it, 3T just introduced the Strada Due, which includes a front derailleur mount. Something tells me the initial Strada may not have gotten many orders.

      And I’m not sure why there’s any noise about tire clearance and batteries with eTap. I’ve got that group on my DiNucci and with a 35mm tire I have zero clearance issues, whereas on another bike with Di2, the front derailleur itself is so big that I can’t run a tire wider than 38mm.

  14. Mark H

    How did we ever get by in the past with 13-25 six speed freewheels? I’m sure there was more than a 10% jump there. It didn’t help that my 45-52 crankset pretty much ensured redundant gears. And I can’t even remember the gearing on the 5 speed freewheel I started with.

    But you’re right, it was that 16 tooth cog on my Regina 7 speed freewheel and 38t chainring upgrade that allowed me to keep in my power band, sometimes by shifting only the front.

    I guess the answer to my rhetorical question is that we suffered through those bicycling dark ages, but we weren’t efficient.

  15. Adam

    I did the entire Grasshopper series on my 1x. I placed 3rd overall in the competitive 30 something age group. You may have seen me in my 7-11 inspired jersey on a flat bar set up on a 26″ Ti Ibis hardtail converted to 650b with tires in the 40 range. I first found the 1x gear range limiting when I was on 1×11 with shimano and an 11-46. The biggest chain ring I could find that fit the XT cranks was a 36 oval which gave me the climbing range I needed but left me at a disadvantage on the descents. I used an e13 9-46 cassette to get my top end back but never could get the shifting to my liking and wore the 9 t cog out relatively quickly. This year I bumped up to a 42t ring on a white industries crank but switched to SRAM Eagle with the 10-50 cassette. This finally got the range exactly where I wanted. Yes the jumps are a bit bigger, but in events like the hoppers I found it to be more important to be able to keep my cadence up when the going got steep and to not have to push over gears outside what was comfortable leading to early exhaustion. I could attack on the climbs with spinny efforts. I didn’t have a missed shift and have yet to throw the chain on that set up. I was absolutely satisfied with my configuration and will be bringing that bike to the Mendo and Usal hoppers, too. I wouldn’t use 1x for road though, and I acknowledge that the hoppers/nor cal gravel racing is not the same beast as what goes on in other parts of the country.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I remember seeing you out there. Loved seeing that jersey in the early part of the day (prior you riding off with another, faster group). Thanks for being part of the conversation.

  16. Mike E.

    My road and gravel bikes will always be 2x, even though I spend 75% of my time in the big, I want the small chainring for when I head out to the hillier rural areas. I don’t race mtb anymore, so 1x work is perfect, and for cross I’ve been doing 1x since my 1st season and never looked back (if I can’t get up it in 40×11-32, it just becomes a run-up…)

    However, I am thinking that once I finally get my bucket list road bike, my current roadie will become a 1x for trainer use (erg mode doesn’t need gears…) and the occasional business park crit/circuit race I partake in that I don’t want to race the nice bike.

  17. Benzo

    I’m with you for the most part. My road/gravel bikes get 2x setups, My Mountain bike gets a 1x Setup.

    I really appreciate 1x for mountain biking because of the biggest benefit I notice… No Chain Drops, especially on really rocky/technical trails.

    I really appreciate 2x for road/gravel biking because I have a ring in front for flats/descending and a ring in front for climbing, and I’m in a place where you’re doing a lot of climbing and descending. It’s nice to have the wider range and smoother transitions on the roads for sure.

  18. RM2Ride

    Technical blah blah blah. Missed the point: That DiNucci. Wow. 😉

    I still have a 6-speed straight block 12-18 on my 1988 Cilo, 52/42 chainrings, and damn I have no idea how I ever rode that thing up Vermont gaps in college… To my mind 1x on road bikes is like disc brakes: solving a problem that doesn’t exist.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Yeah, that DiNucci. Holy cow.

      I still have a 12-18 six speed in a bin somewhere in my garage. Last time I had a parts sale I couldn’t get rid of it.

    2. Dan Murphy

      Man, my knees started hurting after just reading that – using a 42-18 on Lincoln Gap. Ouch.

  19. Dustin Gaddis

    I use every gear of my 2x on my road and gravel bikes, I have no interest in a 1x for that use.

    Interesting data point on my MTB tho. Last year I upgraded from a 3×9 to a 1×11.
    I had:
    XT triple crank, front and rear derailleurs
    SRAM Attack gripshifters, 11-32 cassette
    KMC chain

    The new system:
    Kept the crank, replaced the three rings with a sing narrow/wide Raceface ring
    11-42 Shimano XT 11spd cassette
    11spd KMC chain
    SRAM GX grip shifter and X01 RD
    Lost the FD and shifter/cable/housing entirely

    The bike got heavier. By about 100g if my memory is correct.

  20. Ron

    I got a sweet ‘gravel’ ride last year that came with a 1x SRAM drivetrain and I assumed right off the bat that I would ditch that and go for a 2x system, but even in my hilly locale that just hasn’t happened. It’s so easy to maintain and incredibly simple to operate. Riding mostly alone and coming from a mtb and cross background, the big jumps don’t bother me that much. So on it has stayed, although recently I have found myself gazing longingly at pics of the 12 speed Campy groups.

  21. Pat O'Brien

    That was well written and very interesting. Chapeau. I agree with the double on the front, and run one with my 2X11 SLX drivetrain on my old Niner MCR.

  22. Ray

    The talk about straight blocks brought back memories of training crits in summer in Dallas on a straight block 11-17 7 speed cassette, which I also used for time trails. My TT rig was one of those funny bikes with a 24” inch wheel and 48-55 gearing in the front with 180mm cranks. Took an act of faith to get out of the saddle when climbing as the small front wheel had a tendency to flop and twitch. Yikes. The things we do when we are young and invincible.

  23. John

    I had a funny experience at an MTB race last year. I’ve still got a 2×10 SRAM drivetain and when the gun went of, I jumped on it to make sure I wasn’t bottlenecked when we cut from the road to the single track . Lo and behold – for the first time ever – I was leading the race after 100 meters because everyone else had a 1x drivetrain and I just outgunned them.

    The problem however is that I DO NOT BELONG at the front of the race, once we hit the singletrack climb, I was cork in the bottle with the leaders streaming past me with varying degrees of courtesy…when you drive a dump truck in the fast lane you’re going to get a few birds flipped!.

    Despite my rapid descent from glory to ignominy, it was a great proof point that gear range can be an advantage.

  24. John Borstelmann

    Thanks, Patrick, this was a very useful and insightful column. I just installed an Ultegra 11-34 cassette on my trusty 24 year old Merlin frame, with other new Ultegra parts. Love it! The low range is great for an old guy who drinks too much beer and still wants to spin up steep hills. Your explanation makes perfect sense. Too big a change is not comfortable nor efficient, especially for road riding.

  25. Mike

    At first I was excited about 1x as I have a deep-seated hatred of front derailleurs. Unlike a rear mech, which shifts, tensions, and holds the chain where it needs to be at all times, the front does it’s very occasional work then just needs to stay the hell out of the way. Except that it doesn’t. It rubs, it can’t quite make the range of the cassette without trimming…just a nuisance.

    But years ago I found that, without having ALL the gears between 12 and 17, I had a hard time holding up my end of the deal in a hot paceline. Really missed the 16. Can’t imagine life without 13, 14, 15 as it is just too hard to find that sweet spot where lungs and legs both hurt some, but neither is too much. Newer riders who have never had the bittersweet experience of the corncob have no idea that there IS a perfect gear out there. You just need to put up with a front derailleur to find it.

  26. Dave

    Riders like me–slower road touring/pleasure cyclists who almost never ride with groups–can find a lot to like about 1x. Front derailleurs have been as well developed as they can, and it’s good to see 1x not as a ‘who needs front derailleurs,’ but “who needs triples?” I get a good low, usable high, 9 gears in between those. I might convert one triple-ring bike to something like a 44/28 double–something that with 10 or 11 rear gears give me exactly what I need. Triple rings are obsolete for almost every bike and cyclist–seeing one now makes me think of seeing a Lexus or BMW with a starter crank sticking through the front bumper!

  27. Jackie Gammon

    As a shop person, I’ve always thought that triple cranks shift well for those that want/need them. Personally, the 1x drivetrains remind me of the old 5 speed freewheels that were around many years ago, and shifting simply left folks with too big of a change… either too easy or too hard… just like the info above mentions. Saving weight on the 1x is a selling tool, sometimes you can save a few ounces… but truly is that worth having a tighter range of gears, regardless of what you want?

    I will say that I do have a 1x on my fatbike, and haven’t disliked it… but would still prefer to have a 2x or a triple.

    So, the choice for all of us is this: we don’t always have to drink the kool-aid simply because the manufacturers tell us so. If you’re willing to try it, go for it! If you don’t want to try it, then find ways around the new changes and let your opinion be known.

  28. Brian

    Central North Carolina is flat enough that I rarely need to get out of the big ring on a 53/39 11-27 setup.
    But out in the mountains or on my gravel bike, even with a compact and 11-32 I can’t think of a time where I was ever like “GAAAAH! If only I didn’t have so many gears to pick from!” I think when you’re in the hurt locker on a double digit gravel grade, the idea that a few of your gears might technically overlap is of little concern– I’d rather have a little bit of overlap but know I can find the right gear for me on that hill on that particular day.

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