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Is single-chainring simplicity set to rule?

KISS — Keep It Simple, Stupid. There’s a lot to be said for simplicity, and one way to make a bike’s transmission simpler is to ditch the usual pair of chainrings and get by with just one.

A few years ago this would have been unthinkable. The unquestioned way to get a wide range of gears on road bikes was to have at least two chainrings. It’s generally a good idea for gear ratios to be fairly closely spaced. An eight- or nine-speed cassette and two chainrings gave you two overlapping ranges of reasonably closely spaced gears. When you ran out at the high end of the small chainring or the low end of the big ring, you just changed chainring and maybe changed a sprocket or two as well to get to the next higher or lower gear.

Polygon Bend CT5 - riding 1.jpg

Polygon Bend CT5 - riding 1.jpg

It’s taken the bike industry a while to catch on, but the development of 11-speed cassettes changed things substantially. You can now have 11 reasonably closely-spaced gear ratios with just one chainring. You save the cost and complexity of a double chainring, front derailleur and shifter, and it’s one less thing to think about as you ride.

Single-chainring systems are now very common on mountain bikes, where they're known as 1X (say "one by", as in 1X10, 1X11 and even 1X12). That’s driven development of the technology that has now spilled over to drop-bar bikes. Mountain bike designers had extra incentives to ditch the front mech; getting rid means no longer having to design a suspension system around it. You can put your suspension pivot where you like, and it’s also easier to accommodate fatter tyres if you don’t also have to find room for two or three chainrings between the frame and the crank arm.

Merida silex 9000 drivetrain crop

Merida silex 9000 drivetrain crop

So far, most the spillover of single chainring systems to drop-bar bikes has been for cyclocross racing. Cyclocrossers have been using single-ring set-ups for decades, because if you’re going slowly enough to need the low gears of a small chainring, you should probably be running. Single chainrings with teeth designed to keep the chain in place have helped make this more popular; some previous cyclocross single-ring systems used a pair of chain guards to keep the chain on. Effective, but hardly elegant.

Boardman CXR 9.4 - riding 3.jpg

Boardman CXR 9.4 - riding 3.jpg

Gravel/adventure riding is another genre where single chainrings have traction, for the same reasons of simplicity that make them popular on mountain bikes. However, at the moment you could argue that single-ring transmissions have a small problem with limited gear range for riding that often involves very steep climbs or luggage. Hubs with SRAM’s XD freehub body help solve this problem by allowing a ten-tooth smallest sprocket and we wouldn’t be surprised to see a version of SRAM’s Eagle 12-speed, 10-50 cassette for gravel bikes soon. If you’re looking at a bike with SRAM’s 11-speed 10-42 cassette and want lower gears, you can always fit a smaller chainring and coast on steeper descents.

polygon bend ct5 rear cassette

polygon bend ct5 rear cassette

Speaking of SRAM, most of the bikes here have SRAM transmissions. Shimano was slow to get on the single-ring mountain bike bandwagon and doesn’t currently make a single-ring version of any of its road bike transmissions. That means bike manufacturers have a choice of phoning up SRAM and ordering a complete set of parts or bodging something together. It’s not surprising they choose SRAM.

Is a single-ring set-up right for you?

Like all new developments in bikes, single-chainring systems divide opinion. Among the road.cc editorial team, for example, road.cc founder Dave Atkinson has enthusiastically embraced 1X and does most of his riding on a single ring. He says: "There are plenty of good reasons to run a 1X setup. For a start there's no front mech, and front mechs are a faff. They jam up easily because of their mounting position, they rub on the chain and they drop the chain or push it over the top of the big chainring if they're not perfectly set up. You don't get any of those problems with a single ring, and a thick-thin chainring never, ever drops the chain, in my experience. Ever.

Kinesis Tripster ATR v2 - riding 5.jpg

Kinesis Tripster ATR v2 - riding 5.jpg

Big Dave gives it some on a single-ring Kinesis Tripster ATR V2

"Secondly, gearing becomes rational, simple and logical. Too hard? Change up. Go faster? Change down. There's none of the psychological baggage that comes with swapping chainrings and no having to adjust your gear at the rear too when you do. And there's one less gear cable to look after as well. They're quieter, too: no chain slap because of the clutch (or stronger spring) in the mech, no movement of the chain on the chainring and no rubbing of the front mech plates.

"I've been running a single ring transmission on my main bike, a Kinesis Tripster ATR, for a couple of years now, and I'm sold on on it as a great general purpose setup. It'll depend on what you use your bike for, but for an everyday machine they're great."

Polygon Bend CT5 - riding 1.jpg

Polygon Bend CT5 - riding 1.jpg

Mat Brett searches for a higher top gear on the Polygon Bend CT5

On the other hand, technical editor Mat Brett is a sceptic. He acknowledges the simplicity of 1X and the way you can't get chain rub on a front mech that's not there, but says: "You get some gert big jumps in gear ratios across such a wide-range cassette. In a typical set-up, the 38-tooth chainring and 42-tooth sprocket give you a 24.3in gear while the next largest sprocket is 36-tooth and gives you a 28.3in gear. It can be difficult to keep your rhythm when swapping from one to the other.

"That said, the 42-tooth sprocket will get you up nearly anything – not necessarily quickly, but at least you'll keep progressing.

"At the other end of the scale, I find myself running out of gears on long, fast descents. If you want to pedal at over 28mph you have to spin at more than 100rpm in an 11-tooth sprocket. If you want to pedal at over 33mph you're looking at 120rpm, so I find myself just coasting more often than usual. If you're going to ride only on tarmac and unladen you might find many 1X systems under-geared."

The bikes

Let’s take a look at some single-chainring bikes.We've listed the gear range for each one, in gear inches based on a 27-inch wheel. That's about the rolling diameter of an ETRTO 584mm (650B) wheel with a fat tyre or an ETRTO 622mm (700C) wheel with a 32mm tyre. A change of tyres will change the gearing, but these numbers provide a basis for comparison of gear ranges between bikes.

Specialized S-Works Diverge — £8,500

Specialized S-Works Diverge.jpg

Specialized S-Works Diverge.jpg

The is the only off-the-peg Shimano-equipped bike here, and Specialized makes it work by exploiting the compatibility between road bike and mountain bike Di2 shifting. Specialized has paired an XTR Di2 rear derailleur from Shimano’s mountain bike line with Shimano R785 Di2 hydraulic brake/shift levers to drive an 11-40 XTR cassette. An Easton carbon chainset carries a 42-tooth chainring.

The Diverge is one of our favourite bikes of recent years, and this luxury edition is no exception. Dave Arthur described it as “one of the best adventure bikes I've ridden” and added: “It's a sophisticated ride with buckets of capability for going fast and tackling big journeys over varied and challenging terrain.” It’s not exactly cheap though.

Gear range: 28–103 inches

Read our review of the Specialized S-Works Diverge
Find a Specialized dealer

3T Strada — £3,600 (frame, fork & seatpost)

3T Strada.jpg

3T Strada.jpg

One of the most exciting road bikes around, 3T's Strada is the only single-chainring aero road bike available, and while its tight clearances and inability to run a double chainset might put some people off, those issues fade away when you ride it. It's a truly stunning bike with breathtaking speed, impressive smoothness and fine handling balance.

Gear range: up to you

Read our review of the 3T Strada
Find a 3T dealer

Merida Silex 9000 — £3,500

Merida Silex 9000.jpg

Merida Silex 9000.jpg

Stick knobbly tyres on a road bike and you get an indifferent off-roader, at best. But put slicks on a mountain bike and it'll blat along on the road perfectly well. With that in mind, Merida based their Silex bikes on mountain bike geometry and – to a certain extent – riding position, and the result is a belting all-rounder that's lots of fun off-road.

Gear range: 28–119 inches

Read our review of the Merida Silex 9000
Find a Merida dealer

Bombtrack Hook EXT-C — £3,000

Bombtrack Hook EXT-C.jpg

Bombtrack Hook EXT-C.jpg

This is the carbon fibre version of a bike we reviewed and really liked in 2017, and in going composite it's shed a couple of kilos of weight, which is impressive. We expect the Hook EXT-C to be as big a bundle of fun as its steel cousin, but less work on climbs and on the road. Trail riding is where the Hook EXT really excels though, thanks to huge 2.2-inch ETRTO 584mm (650B) tyres.

Read our first look at the Bombtrack Hook EXT-C
Find a Bombtrack dealer

Gear range: 26–98 inches

Specialized CruX Elite X1 — £3,000

2018 Specialized CruX Elite X1.jpeg

2018 Specialized CruX Elite X1.jpeg

The cheaper of Specialized’s two single-ring cross bikes is a simply brilliant crosser that provides really good handling, bags of pace and all the benefits that disc brakes bring to the party, all wrapped up in a bold looking package. It's ready to race, but is equally at home blasting along bridleways and through the local woods for a couple of hours.

Gear range: 34–98 inches

Read our review of the Specialized Crux Elite
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Trek Crockett 7 Disc — £2,800

2018 Trek Crockett 7 Disc.jpeg

2018 Trek Crockett 7 Disc.jpeg

Trek's Crockett is mostly a race-ready cyclocross bike, but features like the clever Stranglehold rear dropout and relatively tall head tube make it more than a one-trick pony.

Gear range: 34–98 inches

Find a Trek dealer

Cannondale Superx Apex 1 — £2,500

2018 Cannondale Cannondale Superx Apex 1.jpg

2018 Cannondale Cannondale Superx Apex 1.jpg

The SuperX has a stellar frame, with a smooth, stable ride that's perfect for flatter cyclocross courses and playing in the trails. You'll probably want to upgrade the wheels though; they're a bit beefy. While you're at it, get wheels with a SRAM XD freehub if you fancy wider-range gearing.

Gear range: 30–98 inches

Read our review of the Cannondale SuperX 105
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Whyte Wessex One — £2,199

2018 Whyte Wessex One.jpg

2018 Whyte Wessex One.jpg

Whyte's Wessex is a longstanding road.cc favourite. Here it's configured as perhaps the ultimate fast day-ride bike for dirt roads and neglected, frost-ravaged back lanes. Racing aside, it's all the bike you really need for year-round riding in the UK, fast enough for sportives and pacy training runs, comfortable and reliable for grinding out winter miles, and at home on longer commutes. Only a British company could design a bike that is absolutely, perfectly, 100 per cent suited to the demands of year-round UK road cycling.

Gear range: 28–119 inches

Read our review of the 2017 Whyte Wessex
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Marin Cortina AX 2 — £2,195

2018 Marin Cortina AX2.jpg

2018 Marin Cortina AX2.jpg

The two-bike Cortina range is aimed squarely at the privateer weekend cyclocross racer. Fortunately, what goes into making a decent cyclocross bike can – sometimes – make for a decent road and gravel-adventure bike. This is one of those times. The Cortina's handling is exemplary. Testing the AX1 in the winter, our Mike Stead snagged number two spot on a Strava descent, bested only by a mountain biker the previous summer. It'll take mudguards and racks too, and out of the box the gearing is suitable for almost everything but racing.

Gear range: 24–103 inches

Read our review of the Marin Cortina AX 1
Find a Marin dealer

Boardman CXR 9.4 — £2,000

Boardman CXR 9.4.jpg

Boardman CXR 9.4.jpg

The gravel/adventure thing may have softened some cyclocross bikes a touch to make them more versatile but Boardman's CXR 9.4 is having none of it."Ready to race straight out of the box," it says on Boardman's website and while it could do with a couple of minor tweaks the CXR 9.4 is one flickable, lightweight off-road rocket which is an absolute blast on the technical stuff.

Gear range: 29–93 inches

Read our review of the Boardman CXR 9.4
Find a Boardman dealer

Giant TCX Advanced SX — £1,999

2018 Giant TCX Advanced SX.jpg

2018 Giant TCX Advanced SX.jpg

Very much a bike for high-speed playing in the trails, the cyclocross-derived TCX Advanced SX has a carbon fibre frame, tubeless wheels and proper dirt-road tyres in its 40mm Maxxis Ramblers. If you want to load up and disappear into the distance you'll need bikepacking bags; there's no provision here for racks.

Gear range: 26–98 inches

Find a Giant dealer

Kona Sutra LTD — £1,999

2018 Kona Sutra LTD.jpg

2018 Kona Sutra LTD.jpg

With its chromoly frame, 50mm tyres and the lowest bottom gear here, the Sutra LTD is like a cross between a touring bike and an early mountain bike. Unusually, Kona have gone for hubs with SRAM’s XD freehub body, allowing a ten-tooth smallest sprocket so the titchy 36-tooth chainring still provides a decent high gear. There are plenty of rack and mudguard mounts, and three sets of bottle mounts.

Gear range: 23–97 inches

Read our first ride of the Kona Sutra LTD
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Rondo RUUT AL — £1,700

Rondo Ruut.jpg

Rondo Ruut.jpg

The RUUT AL is an aluminium gravel/adventure bike from new Polish brand Rondo. It’s a super comfortable multi-surface machine with agile handling that can be adjusted between fast and racy to more upright and relaxed through its cleverly designed, geometry adjusting Twintip fork. The 43mm Panaracer Gravel King tyres work well in all but silly conditions, and there's scope for 55mm ETRTO 584mm (650B) tyres and wheels if you want to go even fatter.

The RUUT distinguishing feature is that fork, which has swappable 'chips' in the tips that change the offset and ride height. The difference is not that noticeable at the handlebars as it’s only 1cm in height difference, but turning into switchbacks and barrelling along the singletrack, the difference in steering feel is noticeable. In the low axle position with the longer trail, the bike needs more input to take the same lines as the high axle position with the shorter trail. It's a clever feature, letting you choose the handling that you like best for your own trails and style.

Gear range: 26–98 inches

Read our review of the Rondo RUUT AL
Find a Rondo dealer

BMC Roadmachine 03 Three — £1,600

2018 BMC Roadmachine 03 Three.jpg

2018 BMC Roadmachine 03 Three.jpg

As the name suggests, this is an endurance road bike, the only one of BMC's Roadmachine family to dispense with the traditional triple chainset. By the standards of most of the bikes here it has skinny tyres at 28mm, indicating its purpose is more Tarmac than trails, but with a wide, low gear range it looks well suited to long days in the hills.

Gear range: 26–98 inches

Find a BMC dealer

Giant Toughroad SLR GX 0 — £1,549

2018 Giant ToughRoad SLR GX.jpg

2018 Giant ToughRoad SLR GX.jpg

With its long back end, Giants Toughroad platform is very much at the adventure end of the gravel/adventure spectrum: long stays make for more heel clearance with panniers. The gear range is wide and low, the wheels and 40mm tyres are tubeless and there's built-in protection for the down tube and chainstay.

Gear range: 26–98 inches

Find a Giant dealer

Polygon Bend CT5 — £1,300

Polygon Bend CT5.jpg

Polygon Bend CT5.jpg

The Polygon Bend CT5 is a rough and tough 'urban sport' bike that offers loads of versatility. It's not the lightest bike out there but it'll handle everything from all-weather commuting to gravel tracks, and it's a lot of fun. It offers a fairly upright riding position and a decent level of comfort, largely thanks to 30mm-wide Schwalbe G-One Speed tyres, and it's easy to fit mudguards and racks.

The Bend CT5 really shows its worth over poorly surfaced roads. It doesn't just cope with randomly-varying crummy road surfaces, it eats them up, giving you the confidence to tackle the next section that bit quicker and generally putting a smile on your face.

Gear range: 24–93 inches

Read our review of the Polygon Bend CT5
Find a Polygon dealer

Vitus Substance V2 Apex — £1,300

Vitus Substance V2 Apex.jpg

Vitus Substance V2 Apex.jpg

Drop-bar bikes with ETRTO 584mm (650B) tyres are still quite rare, but Vitus chosen the smaller and arguably more versatile wheel size here, and built it in steel too, a material that has long been the preserve of the adventure/touring rider. Don't go thinking it's an exercise in nostalgia though: with hydraulic disc brakes, 1x groupset and full-carbon fork, this Substance V2 Apex holds plenty of appeal for the modern day on/off-roader.

There are lighter and quicker bikes out there to take on the gravel, but if comfort and stability are what you're after then the Substance will make a loyal companion.

Gear range: 26–108 inches

Read our review of the Vitus Substance V2 Apex

Whyte Glencoe — £1,299

2018 Whyte Glencoe.jpg

2018 Whyte Glencoe.jpg

Whyte is also clearly a believer in the 650B concept too, enough to call the Glencoe " the best all round road bike we have ever made". But like the Merida Silex it shows strong signs of Whyte's expertise in mountain bikes, with a long frame, short stem and wide bar for control on crummy surfaces. The 47mm tyres put the Glencoe in the RoadPLUS category, Marin says and we've certainly been impressed by the capabilities of the WTB Horizon tyres Whyte has chosen. If you're looking for something a bit out of the ordinary, the Glencoe deserves close examination.

Gear range: 28–108 inches

Find a Whyte dealer

Vitus Energie VR — £1,200

2018 Vitus Bikes Energie VR.jpg

2018 Vitus Bikes Energie VR.jpg

The Energie VR is an excellent tool for thrashing round in the mud for an hour on a Sunday, and it's versatile enough for more general riding. The drivetrain is excellent and it's tubeless-ready out of the box. For the money, it's hard to fault. It's built around a 6061-T6 triple-butted hydroformed aluminium alloy frame that's mated to a full carbon fork, and both of those are tidily built. The bike has mounts for a rack and full mudguards and two sets of bottle bosses, so it's properly versatile if you want to run it as a winter bike/adventure bike/tourer.

Gear range: 34–98 inches

Read our review of the 2017 Vitus Energie

Sonder Camino Al Apex 1 Hydraulic V2 — £1,049

Sonder-Camino-Alloy-100.jpg

Sonder-Camino-Alloy-100.jpg

With its wide, flared bar, the Sonder Camino from outdoor equipment specialists Alpkit is very much at the 'off-road adventure' station on the liine spectrum from pothole-basher to intercontinental expedition. This is a bike that enjoys going off-road but would also be quite happy taking you longer distances on tarmac too. The bias – and the way the bike is specced certainly corroborates this – is towards off-road adventuring. The comfortable position is perfect for gravel excursions or riding long distances loaded with luggage, but is just a little too upright for longer (proper) road rides. It’s a do anything bike with a definite off-road flavour, but above all, it’s a bike to have fun with at a price that belies its capabilities.

Gear range: 26–98 inches

Read our review of the Sonder Camino Al Apex 1 Hydraulic V2

Pinnacle Arkose X — £900

2018 Pinnacle Arkose X.jpg

2018 Pinnacle Arkose X.jpg

This is the other way of making a Shimano-equipped single chainring bike: drive a cable-operated mountain bike rear derailleur with a bar-end shifter and slow things down with TRP's hydraulic brakes and drop-bar levers. This is the least expensive bike on Evans' Pinnacle Arkose platform, but it's a very sound frame that builds into versatile, enjoyable bikes.

Gear range: 29–93 inches

Read our review of the Pinnacle Arkose 3
Find a Pinnacle dealer

Boardman CX Team — £900

Boardman CX Team.jpg

Boardman CX Team.jpg

Chris Boardman has always said that his cyclocross bikes are his favourites in the range. With a huge gear range, SRAM Rival hydraulic discs, and mounts for racks and mudguards, the CX Team exemplifies the versatility Boardman loves about cyclocross bikes, and it's outstanding value for money.

Gear range: 28–119 inches

Find a Boardman dealer

B'Twin Triban 540 1x11 SRAM Apex — £699

B'Twin 540 1 x 11 Apex.jpg

B'Twin 540 1 x 11 Apex.jpg

You know something is in the air when usually-conservative French sports megastore chain Decathlon is on board. The cheapest bike here is also the only one with rim brakes, but still has 32mm tyres, rack mounts and room for mudguards, making it an ideal commuter and light tourer.

Gear range: 28–108 inches

Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.

Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.

Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.

The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

3 comments

Avatar
TheSmallRing [14 posts] 6 months ago
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Just started using 1x on my new commuter. Haven't noticed the big jump between gears, probably only an issue when on a fast pace club run or racing.

What I do notice is the lack of chain slap, especially when hitting potholes or jumping up curbs. Very satisfying. 

Indexing seems a bit more fiddly though. 

Avatar
jterrier [210 posts] 5 months ago
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Love a sram 1x. If you are having indexing issues, remember that they are very sensitive to the b screw being in the right place. There are plenty of youtube vids from sram on the topic.

Avatar
matthewn5 [1222 posts] 5 months ago
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If people want simple, why not go for hub gears? No derailleurs, no problems, last for ever.