More Choices in 2011: 1X10, 2X10 or 3X10 Drivetrains

by editor on August 7, 2010

This coming model year will see the first, true, 10 speed mountain bikes. While many will grumble about thinner chains and tighter tolerances leading to more problems, others will realize that with 10 cogs in the back, they might only need two chain rings up front while others will opt for the simplicity and reliability of a single ring crank up front. But there’s a lot to consider..

So what’s the big news with 10-speed and how should it affect my mountain bike purchase?

There are three things that make this year’s across-the-board (meaning both Shimano and SRAM, the two firms that sell virtually all the drivetrain components used on mountain bikes) move to 10-speed rear cassettes important:

1) With ranges from 11 to 36 teeth on the rear cassette,  just one ring up front is roughly the same gear range (from easy-to-hard gears) as was the case when there were just five or six gears in the back some years ago. Two rings provides the equivalent pedaling range of triple ring set-ups that had seven gears just a few years ago and triple ring cranks and ten speeds cassettes will help those with the weakest knees as well as let others scale the toughest of climbs.

2) With such a wide range of gears on the rear cassette, riders won’t have to use their front derailleurs as often.  Changing front rings can cause chains to be “dropped” or grind. And front ring shifts are much slower and less reliable than rear cog shifts. And a bigger problem is that front ring shifts are typically equivalent to changing two or more gears in the rear which can really mess up a nice smooth gear transition.

3) Regardless of how you feel about the new 10 speed program, the one thing that you won’t be able to avoid is the reality of the change itself: in 2011 and beyond, virtually all mid-range and higher-end mountain bikes will come equipped with 10 speed drivetrains. And as you can probably guess, the new drivetrains will not be completely compatible with earlier drivetrain components (incompatibility will include shifters, chains, cassettes, and some cranksets)

So who should consider 1X10, 2X10, or 3X10?

Whether you should go with 10, 20, or 30 gears isn’t as straightforward as justwhere you ride or even how fit or strong you are. In fact, we think that the new 10 speed drivetrains really require some serious thought. For example, how important it is to retain that “granny gear” (the small, third ring up front)? Could ditching the front derailleur altogether make your riding more enjoyable, less hassle? Or would having the mega-range of a triple up front and an 11-36 in the back allow you to take good care of your joints or haul massive amounts of cargo up bodacious climbs?

For many, 2X10 is really worth considering…

The thing that makes the new two-ring drivetrains so compelling, in our opinion, is the availability of rear cassettes that have ranges as great as 11-36 teeth. Without getting too technical,  many if not most riders could handle a single ring crankset with say 36 teeth with the 11-36 rear cassette – even riding in a place like Marin County known for it’s hills and climbs.  But with two ring cranksets, with either 26-39 or 28-42 tooth rings, we think that most riders will find enough gears to make it up those long, steep climbs, yet have plenty of gears to rip on the flats and downhill sections.

But if you want more of a good thing, what’s not to like about 3X10?

The more we think about it, the irony is that if there’s one user group that will like 10-speed more than any, experience fewer downsides, won’t have to make any choices or sacrifices, it’s those who like triple cranksets just fine, and are A-okay with their existing eight, or nine speed drivetrains. These riders and buyers will have two options when it comes to the new 10-speed drivetrains: gearing that is “closer” in range, making for smoother and more seamless gear changes, or, being able to add even lower gears to tackle climbs not previously possible.

What about Weight Differences Between 9 and 10 Speed Drivetrains?

As for the added weight of 10 versus 9 speed, it’s negligible. In the end, the weight amounts to one more rear cog and as many of the new 10-speed components are actually lighter than the 9-speed they replace, our guess is that with 10 speed you’re getting 11% more gears and adding probably 2% more weight… if that. As for cost, that’s another story!

Sure, if you are going to ditch the front derailleur and shifter, you’ll save a fair amount of weight but you’ll probably be adding a fairly heavy chain guide and bash guard and besides, saving weight isn’t probably your goal in going to a single ring set up…

Then who is 1X10 right for?

The easy answer for who might be a candidate for 1X10 drivetrains are those who either like simple, and or need a more reliable and rugged drivetrain.

To be sure, to take full advantage of a 1X10 setup, you’re either going to have to be pretty fit and strong, live in a place where it’s relatively flat, or both. But again, with the option of an 11-36 rear cogset, don’t reject the idea of getting rid of not just two rings, but a front derailleur and shifter as well. Not only are you losing some serious weight, but cost and hassle was well.

But most who opt for running a single ring will be doing so, not to lose the weight or save money, but to ensure that they keep the chain from derailing over really rough terrain and or at high-speeds. And most of them will be swapping rings and front derailleurs for front chain guides and bash guards.

Is it the same as it ever was?

Depending on your point of view, the new 10-speed drivetrains coming our way may be much to do about nothing. If you’re thinking about getting a new mountain bike, are the casual or recreational rider, you might not care, or even realize you’ll be getting 11% more gears that were available on last year’s bikes. But, if you are looking for a bike that has a greater range of gears, or one that allows you to simplify and reduce the components, you have some new options. 

Here’s a summary of pros and cons of the new 10-speed drivetrains, and, some ideas on who 1X10, 2X10, and 3X10 set ups might be best for: 

PROS

Another gear. The option to have either closer gears, or a greater range of gears.

As is always the case, revised and refined components and technologies

Greater gear range will mean – for some – being able to run fewer rings in the front

For some, a single ring crank, a much more simple and reliable drivetrain than multiple front ring drivetrains, is a realistic option for more riders than was 9-speed

The new triple ring, wide range drivetrains will be even more knee friendly and let riders scale steeper climbs

CONS

Many of the new components will not be compatible with previous drivetrain components – either upward or downward.

As is always the case with “new” the reliability of 10-speed is yet to be demonstrated and proven

There are some “gearing” options with 2X10, especially deciding on front chain ring options to ensure both low and high ratio gearing that require buyers to choose between giving up higher or lower gears (compared to previous triple crank, 9 speed setups)

1X10 might be right for you if:

If you are a strong, fit rider who is ripping around relatively flat terrain, or your climbs are relatively short and you don’t have yor bike weighed down with 30 lbs of pack, panniers, etc. and you’re tired of your chain derailing, then 1X10 might be ideal for you.

2X10 could be the call for those of you who:

If you rarely use your granny gear (smallest ring in front) with your 8 or 9 speed setup (but like knowing it’s there). With one more gear in the back, you might find that you don’t need that granny gear and that less is more.

3X10 is the right choice, the only choice if:

If you find yourself pushing your existing mountain bike up hills you almost made, wish you had a more knee-friendly gear on long climbs, or are just going to buy a new, recreational level mountain bike, 3X10 is the easy, and right, choice for you.

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