Single Ring Bliss

Why so many riders are ditching their front derailleurs for a single chainring setup.

What The Heck is a “One-By?”

Simply put, a one-by—or 1x—drivetrain refers to a setup with a single chainring up front and any number of gears on the cassette, though the most commonly seen on the trails today are 1x10 and 1x11. The concept of 1x drivetrains is nothing new. For many years, if riders wanted a drivetrain that was more simple than a 2x or 3x, yet more versatile than a singlespeed, they had to resort to cobbled together solutions with lackluster reliability. Chains would drop, gears would mis-shift, and the ideal gear range simply wasn’t there. Luckily, with the advent of three key technological innovations, 1x drivetrains are now more attainable and easier to set up than before.  

Why Go 1x?

While there are a number of benefits that 1x drivetrains offer, the best answer to “Why 1x?” is simple—simplicity. Front shifting is more difficult to set up and maintain, and is the least mechanically robust part of any drivetrain. By removing it from the equation, the drivetrain becomes more simple and effective. In addition, it’s not uncommon for less experienced riders to misuse their front derailleur and find themselves cross chaining. This can cause issues down the road, as cross chaining puts extra wear and tear on a chain, requiring it be replaced more often than it would otherwise need to be. Again, removing that front shifting variable allows the rider to focus on only the rear derailleur and eliminates any fear of cross chaining. Lastly, for riders who like to watch their weight, switching to a 1x is ultimately going to be lighter than any 2x or 3x drivetrain. Although a clutch rear derailleur is slightly heavier than a standard rear derailleur, removing the front shifter, front derailleur, and a chainring or two can shed almost a pound from the weight of the bike!

How Does 1x Work?

As long as the following three things are present, a 1x drivetrain will provide the rider premium and precise shifting performance.

Wide/Narrow Chainring
One of the biggest issues facing DIY 1x setups of the past was dropped chains. Caused by a buildup of mud or debris on the chainring, dropped chains were once a regular occurrence while shifting, sprinting, or taking sharp turns. Enter the wide/narrow tooth profile. These specifically designed chainrings mirror a chain’s inner and outer links and guide the bouncing chain to mesh with the chainring’s teeth as it falls into position. This provides a secure fit and maximum control. While this technology on bicycles dates back to the 1970s, it really wasn’t until it was combined with clutch rear derailleurs and wide-range cassettes that it was deemed a viable option for 1x setups. Several different brands utilize wide/narrow, like SRAM’s X-Sync™, Wolf Tooth Components’ Drop-Stop™, e*thirteen’s M Profile, and Race Face’s Narrow/Wide series to name a few. Each brand has slight variations in the design and engineering of how the technology is utilized in its rings, but the same three things are considered: wear, mud and debris clearing, and the chain retention on the ring.

Wide-Range Cassette
Ten years ago, the average mountain bike cassette had a 9-speed range of 11- to 32-tooth. With the birth of 10- and 11-speed drivetrains—along with SRAM’s XD driver body—that range has been expanded greatly, with 10- to 42-tooth 11-speed cassettes being one of the most common gear ranges seen on the trail. This wide gear range has virtually eliminated the need for multiple chainrings up front, as nearly the same gearing can be achieved by going 1x. Additionally, for those that aren’t quite ready to go all in and make the jump to 11-speed just yet, extended range cogs allow a rider’s 10-speed cassette to be expanded by removing one of the mid-range cogs in order to make room for a 40- or 42-tooth cog at the low end of the gear range.

Clutch Rear Derailleur
The final piece of the puzzle when it comes to a successful 1x setup is a clutch rear derailleur, which utilizes a roller clutch to minimize the chain’s movement as the bike bounces around on rougher terrain. While initially expensive and only available at the top end, this technology has trickled down to lower price point groups making it much more affordable. Both SRAM and Shimano offer clutch rear derailleurs, meaning you can experience virtually no chain slap regardless of which brand you prefer. In fact, clutch technology has proven so beneficial to performance on the mountain bike side of things that SRAM has begun utilizing it in its road and cyclocross drivetrains as well.

Now What?

For many people, switching to a 1x drivetrain seems like a fairly daunting, not to mention expensive, task. It’s a common misconception that when it comes to 1x: it’s all or nothing—you either have to buy a full group, or keep shifting with a front derailleur. Fortunately, that’s not the case at all. While there are a growing number of complete 1x groups on the market that work extremely well, other brands—like Wolf Tooth Components and Race Face—have products available that convert a rider’s current setup to 1x. For example, say a rider comes in with a SRAM X9 2x10 setup. They’ve been hearing a lot about 1x and are hoping to test the waters without a lot of investment before going to a full 1x11. By recommending a Wolf Tooth Drop-Stop™ 32-tooth chainring, and X9 Type 2 rear derailleur (if they don’t already have one), you can help them dip their toe in to 1x for a fraction of the cost. Additionally, if they’re looking to extend their gear range to more closely match an out-of-the-box option, adding a 42-tooth cog will do just that. If and when they decide they want to go full 1x11, there are a growing number of options available in complete groups. With SRAM being 1x pioneers of sorts, the technology extends to a fair share of its mountain groups—XX1, XO1, and X1 are all 1x11-specific groups. Shimano has only recently entered the 1x game with its XTR and XT (look for more on that in late fall) groups now being offered in a 1x11.

With the amount of 1x-specific components on the market, it’s clear that 1x is here to stay. But as more people realize the joy that single chainring setup can bring to their lives, what does that mean for future of the front derailleur? Only time will tell if this component will weather the 1x storm.

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