Gear Review: SRAM XX1 Drivetrain

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SRAM_660Even if you don’t want a 1×11 drivetrain, there’s probably one in your future. It has nothing to do with the fact that SRAM is pushing its XX1 system hard or that its new X01 is nearly identical to XX1 but costs about $200 less (few people are going to drop $1,300 to $1,500 just to change their drivetrain). No, it’s because 1×11 is genius and it’s soon going to be everywhere in mountain biking.

The reasons are many. Not having a front derailleur opens the door to rear suspension designs that do what they’re supposed to do — glue the rear end to the ground as it rolls over rock and roots and ruts. Get rid of the front derailleur and suddenly suspension designers can eliminate that huge airy space you see in the shot above — the gap between the rear tire and the seat tube, plus the space where the chainstays meet the bottom bracket and cranks. Frame builders can tighten everything by inches, and that truckish 29er handling goes away, replaced by a snappiness you’d expect from 26ers.

Even if you ride 27.5, or downhill on a 26er, the wheelbase can shrink. A shorter wheelbase steers better and corners quicker. All bike frames will get lighter. And not having a front derailleur leaves room near the bottom bracket for a suspension’s pivots, which could lower a bike’s center of gravity, making it easier to handle and eliminating issues like top-tube clearance. Even frame stiffness can increase — when you shorten tubes, making them more rigid is easier.

All of this will happen. 1×11 will debut on high-end bikes next year and move lower into lines after that. And that’s where SRAM’s push will make a difference: The company works closely with bike brands because the bulk of its revenue comes from the tens of thousands of bikes spec’d with its components, not in aftermarket sales.

Skeptical of an industry that seems to change just to get you to buy new stuff and call the old “obsolete”? I hear you. Change is hard, and not always good. I wasn’t even close to ready to embrace 1×11, but when I got my hands an XX1 I was sold. It took about five rides to figure it out, but once I did, everything changed. And today it would be very strange to go back.

After riding 1×11 since spring, here’s my takeaway:

It’s Lighter
This isn’t the biggest selling point, and that larger rear cassette clearly weighs more, but there’s no doubt that getting rid of a front derailleur, cable, housing, shifter, and at least one other front chainring drops both maintenance complexity and weight.

There’s More Bar Space
If you run a dropper post, you know the real estate on your handlebars is getting crowded. Losing the left shifter clears a bit of room.

Shifts are Quick
Two broad thumb strokes let you sweep the chain all the way from the hardest gear to the easiest; reversing that cycle happens snappy quick as you rattle the trigger and the chain tumbles toward harder gears. I didn’t miss the front gear changes, and the truer chain line means that rear shifts are remarkably clean.

No question, you get faster, large jumps in gearing with a front derailleur, but these put huge pressure on a drivetrain, with transitions to more difficult gears often the reason a chain snaps. Attempts to dump to easier gears are a common cause of dropped, jammed, and broken chains, as well. For all of these reasons, SRAM says it expects chain life on its 1×11 systems to be up to four times longer.

Great Climbing, Meh Sprinting
I’ve yet to find a hill I couldn’t climb with a 32×42 setup, though I’m a very rare user of my granny in conventional 2x or 3x setups. But in case you’re the type to spin up a climb at 3,000 rpm, SRAM has 28- and 30-tooth front rings. That would give you a system with an even broader gearing spread than a typical 3×10 mountain bike drivetrain. You could probably climb trees with it.

Occasionally, I did miss a front chainring. But it wasn’t the granny. It was a monster big ring to hammer fire roads. 32×42 doesn’t do much but spin impotently on a long, 40mph road descent.

$1,500 LINK


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{ 7 comments…read them below or write one }

  • jc

    XX1 certainly has it’s place on cross country bikes as well and the news of larger front rings sounds good. But remember a shorter wheelbase isn’t always a good thing. not every rider is going to want a twitchy handling bike, especially on a hard tail.

  • wunnspeed

    I’ve been a singlespeeder for 15+ years, in part, because I’ve always disliked the way that gearing was handled along with the extra weight, etc. Plus, for me, singlespeeding is just more fun. However, as an ultra-endurance bikepacking racer, something like the XX1/X01 makes a lot of sense. More gears, generally, means more speed. Looking forward to the price coming down out of the stratosphere so we ‘normal’ riders/racers can afford it but from all reports, it looks great.
    I’m with the other guys though, not all of us think that 29′er are slower or want a ‘trials’ bike. I like mine longer for stability and high speed handling.

  • Hotmann

    I built up my current mountain bike a few years back when they first came out with the 2×10 setup. I rarely use my big chainring anyways, so I will gladly switch to a 1×11 at some point in the future. Triple shifts are fast enough that I’ve never needed to switch front gears.

  • slappy

    sram, known to suck all the good parts out of whatever bike companies they take over, replacing them with flimsy disposable crap. . coming soon to a bike near you, $423 cassette that lasts a fraction of that $60 9 spd, hoorAY and a chain that goes 500 miles for $100 Yuipp been all down hill since the 8 spd grip shift with faux wood paneled rear mech

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