It won't be for everyone, but SRAM's new Rival 1 groupset offers shifting simplicity, a useable range of gears, powerful disc brakes and secure chain retention. It has no direct rival from Shimano or Campagnolo, although home-brewed single-ring drivetrains have been popular in some areas of cycling for a few years now, but SRAM brings plenty of technology to the table that makes it easy to ditch the front mech and go 1x11.
Gears: Simplicity of shifting and range wide enough for most
SRAM has enjoyed great success with 1x11 single-ring drivetrains in the mountain bike world for some years, and it has now developed a road version. Available in Force and Rival versions, both ditch the front mech and introduce a rear derailleur with a clutch mechanism and a chainring with wide/narrow teeth, plus a wide-range cassette designed to overcome the obvious shortcomings of losing one chainring.
Obviously, ditching the second chainring (and third if you're coming from a triple) is going to reduce your available number of gears. SRAM gets around this by using a wide-range cassette, with various options including a whopping 10-42. That one requires a special XD freehub (and there is plenty of wheel choice, and growing all the time), but I've been testing an 11-36 cassette which fits onto any Shimano/SRAM compatible freehub.
The single chainring is available in a wide range of sizes, from 38 to 50t with Rival (and up to 54t on Force). I've been using a 44t chainring and that, paired with the 11-36 cassette, offers a gear range from 33 to 108 inches. Compare that to a typical 50/34 and 11-28 groupset's gear range of 32.8 to 122.7 gear inches, and you can see it's pretty close, certainly at the lower end.
There will be slightly bigger leaps between certain gears, and cyclists who like to be in the cadence sweet spot all the time will be put off. This is one of the biggest compromises with this groupset, but for solo riding it's not nearly as problematic as you might expect. There's also the reduced top gear, but you have to be going some to spin out a 44x11.
The technology in Rival 1 has been tried and tested for a good few years in mountain biking. Because it has removed the front mech, SRAM has introduced several features to stop the chain dropping off the chainring, the biggest concern when you remove the front mech (which acts as a chain guide of sorts).
First there's the X-Sync chainring. It has alternating wide and narrow teeth that provide a more secure engagement with the chain. The large jockey wheels in the rear mech feature the same profile. The idea is to provide a more secure engagement between the chain and chainring.
Next, and the most important part of the groupset, is the Rival 1 X-Horizon rear derailleur. Inside its bulky exterior is a clutch mechanism that prevents unwanted chain movement. It basically eliminates chain slap when riding over bumpy terrain. The 12-tooth jockey wheels have the same X-Sync profile as the chainring, an extra measure in the defence against dreaded dropped chains.
SRAM isn't trying to replace a conventional double-ring drivetrain with Rival 1. It's simply offering a different option, and it will probably appeal to some cyclists. Anyone building a gravel, adventure, touring or cyclo-cross bike might be interested (and lots of new cyclo-cross and gravel bikes are shipping in 2016 with this groupset). It won't appeal to racers, where the gear jumps and simple lack of range, especially at the faster speeds involved in racing, will limit its suitability.
Brakes: Firm and powerful hydraulics
You can choose between mechanical or hydraulic brakes. As disc brakes are all the rage right now, and I had a disc frame to test (Bowman Pilgrims), I opted for the latter. The levers are essentially the same as the regular SRAM Rival Hydro brakes, with the same hoods, brake levers and callipers. You can read Dave's review of that groupset here.
The hoods are certainly chunky in appearance, but when you're actually riding the bike (and not judging the appearance behind a computer screen), they feel okay. I personally prefer the compact shape of SRAM's mechanical hoods, but you soon adapt to the larger ones. And one definite benefit is that there's no chance your hands will slip forwards over them when charging over rough ground. On the cyclo-cross bike with Rival 1 that I've been racing this season, this has been a real benefit.
I ran the brakes with 140mm rotors (160mm is available) and braking performance is very good. The lever feel is firm and there's plenty of power available, whether braking from the hoods or in the drops. The power is well modulated and there's no risk of locking wheels, unless you're really hamfisted, but anyone with a brain will be able to control the braking power on tap.
If you're used to the huge power of a mountain bike hydraulic disc brake, where it's easy to lock a wheel, these are nothing like that. SRAM has obviously tuned the performance to be more progressive and easier to manage on the road. I get asked if they're ever noisy, and most of the time they're not. Occasionally in the wet there's a bit of squealing, but it's never prolonged.
Ride and performance
SRAM Rival 1 is easy to use. That's the best way to sum it up really. You've only got one shift paddle to move the derailleur across the wide-range cassette. You quickly adapt to the simplicity of the shifting, and while the actual gear shifting is a little clunky – it doesn't have the lightness or quietness of Shimano – there's no mistaking a gear change. That's especially handy when riding over rough terrain, as accidental shifts are a rare, almost non-existent, occurrence.
I've had the opportunity to not only test Rival 1 on the Bowman Pilgrims all-road frameset, where I've used it as a regular road bike with 23mm tyres and taken it away from the road in search of dirt tracks with fatter tyres, but also on a Specialized Crux cyclo-cross bike, which I've raced on four occasions at the time of writing this review. Cyclo-cross is a pretty demanding discipline and the groupset has been brilliant, not letting me down once. The gear range has been just right, the brakes firm and dependable, and the chain hasn't dropped once. On the Bowman it's well suited, the lack of gear ratios hasn't caused any issues on or off road, and there's one less thing to break on the bike, plus a bit more clearance around the bottom of the seat tube.
The drivetrain is very quiet. This is most noticeable if you ride over some rough roads or terrain. Because of the clutch mechanism in the rear mech, the chain doesn't slap against the chainstay. That also ensures that the potential for the chain to derail over such bumpy roads or paths is greatly reduced. I've been testing it on various different bikes (and in a handful of cyclo-cross races) and the chain hasn't fallen off once. It's also been very reliable throughout the test period.
The range of gears with my setup proved ideal for my local Cotswolds roads and hills, low enough to get up the steepest incline, high enough to keep up with the fast weekend club run. Occasionally the jump between sprockets can be an annoyance on long, gradual climbs, but for solo riding I simply adapted to this. Riding in a group showed it to be a slight handicap at times, when you want a sprocket just one tooth bigger; you can be caught between two gears when you want to maintain the ideal cadence.
There is some gear range adjustment, too. The 11-36 cassette is the widest that will fit to a regular freehub. To use SRAM's 10-42, you need a wheel with one of SRAM's XD driver bodies, and there are quite a few compatible wheels now available. The chainring can also be changed. As I've already mentioned, SRAM offers 38 to 50t (up to 54t with Force), so you could adapt the drivetrain for your specific requirements. Changing the rings should be a lot simpler than it is, it's really not a five-minute job. I've also tested the groupset with other cassettes, including an 11-25, which on flatter routes provided the benefit of closer ratios.
All things considered, the SRAM Rival 1 groupset delivers pretty well on its promise of being ''simpler, lighter and more durable'. I'm not sure it's actually any lighter – that rear mech isn't light – but it has certainly proved to be durable and simple. For any cyclist putting those requirements at the top of the list when shopping for a new groupset, Rival 1 is worth a look. It won't be for everyone, but for certain cyclists and certain bikes, it is perfectly suited.
SRAM Rival 1 won't appeal to everyone, but for those to whom it does the performance is impressive
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Make and model: SRAM Rival 1
Size tested: 172.5mm, 11-36t, 44t
Tell us what the product is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
SRAM says: "The Definition of Road is Changing. Paved or not. Cyclocross or triathlon. Crit racing or uncharted journeys. SRAM Rival 1 provides the tools and technology to meet each challenge. All with a single X-SYNC™ chainring, matched to our dedicated SRAM 1x™ drivetrain. 1x for the new era of road rider can provide a simpler, lighter and more durable solution."
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
SRAM Rival 1 Rear Derailleur -
X-HORIZON™ design reduces shift force while eliminating ghost shifting and chain slap 12-tooth X-SYNC™ pulley wheels
Large upper pulley offset automatically adjusts chain gap
Sealed cartridge bearings Aluminum cage
Technologies: X-HORIZON™, EXACT ACTUATION™, X-SYNC™, ROLLER BEARING CLUTCH™, CAGE LOCK™
Medium cage: 11-26 through 11-36 cassettes(269g)
Long cage: 10-42 cassette
SRAM Rival 1 Crankset -
Forged aluminum with detachable spider 38, 40, 42, 44, 46, 48, 50T X-SYNC™ tall, square tooth design provides maximum chain control.
Sharp, narrow tooth profile and rounded chamfer edges help manage a deflected chain.
Mud-clearing recesses for the inner chain links and rollers 24 and 30mm options.
Compatible with 130mm & 135mm rear frame spacing.
SRAM Rival 1 X-SYNC Chainrings -
SRAM X-SYNC 1x chainrings provide the highest level of performance and durability.
SRAM X-SYNC wide-tooth, narrow-tooth chainring technology provides maximum chain control, crucial in 'cross.
The sharp and narrow tooth profile as well as rounded chamfer edges help manage a deflected chain.
Designed by SRAM in Germany, X-SYNC rings are an integral part of the SRAM 1x drivetrain.
Very solid construction but the rear mech isn't pretty.
If you get the idea of a 1x11 drivetrain and have the right bike for it, Rival 1 offers great performance and it proved faultless during testing.
I've battered it on and off road, raced cyclo-cross and even crashed it, and it's not gone wrong yet. There's one less component/cable to let you down as well.
You'd think it would save you some grams, but Rival 1 won't win any weight competitions.
Ignore the appearance and the hoods are acutally very comfortable places to put your hands, big or small.
You can probably get it a fair bit cheaper if you shop around, but you're most likely to be looking at a new bike with this groupset already fitted.
Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose
Works brilliantly on an all-road bike and well in cyclo-cross races.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
Easy shifting, powerful disc brakes, good range of gears.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
The only things I would want is for it to be lighter, and for easy bite point and reach adjustment on the brake levers.
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes
Would you consider buying the product? Yes
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your score
All things considered, the SRAM Rival 1 groupset delivers pretty well on its promise of being "simpler, lighter and more durable". I'm not sure it's actually any lighter, that rear mech isn't light, but it has certainly proved durable and simple. For any cyclist putting those requirements at the top of the list when shopping for a new groupset, Rival 1 is worth a look. It won't be for everyone, but for certain cyclists and certain bikes, it is perfectly suited.
About the tester
Age: 31 Height: 180cm Weight: 67kg
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: 10-20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, time trialling, cyclo-cross, commuting, touring, mountain biking
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.