By Vernon Felton


No front derailleur, no chain guide, 11 speeds out back...

SRAM just announced that it has created a dedicated 1×11 drivetrain system called XX1. Why should you care? What does this all mean? I'll answer as many questions as I can here, but the official press release just came across the wire and much of the details are still under wraps, so cozy up to the keyboard and get ready to know what we've learned in the past couple hours.

Why Just One Ring?

More and more riders have been ditching their front derailleur in favor of the decidedly Spartan 1×10 set up.

Why go single-ring?

In addition to instantly proving how studly you are (Look at me—I don't even need a granny ring!), the single-ring set up simplifies your drivetrain, reduces maintenance, is lighter and offers more breathing room between your chainring and the logs/rocks that want to rip off its teeth. All good things. If you're strong enough to never resort to the granny ring, there's no reason to saddle yourself with the extra weight and maintenance dual or triple-ring systems inevitably impose.

Ah, but here's the rub, most of us aren't strong enough to spurn our grannies: we need a nice low gear to scale great big climbs.

SRAM Goes Super Wide

SRAM's press release claims that their new 1X mountain bike drivetrain boasts "the widest range cassette available". Well, just how wide is wide? SRAM's not telling at this point, but rumors of a monster 11-speed, 10×42 cassette have been swirling around the industry for some time now (we even mentioned it in our 29er vs. 26er feature, back in our March issue).

Forty-two friggin' teeth? If that is actually what's in the works here, it'd be simply massive. For reference sake, the biggest thing you can slap on your freehub now sports six fewer teeth. More to the point—a 42-tooth cassette would dwarf the big ring on most 2×10 cranksets. Holy pie plate, Batman.

SRAM XX1 cassette

You'd think that a 10x42 cassette (that's what's rumored to be in the works) woud include massive, awkward jumps between gears, yet the spacing here doesn't look nearly as funky as you might expect it would. Only time (saddle time, that is) will tell how it actually rides.

If 1X really rocks a 10×42 spread, SRAM's new system will definitely give single-ring drivetrains a much broader gear range and that would make single-ring set-ups a more feasible alternative for a much larger cross-section of riders. Having said that, SRAM representatives are adamant XX1 does not signal the death knell of either the front derailleur or 10 speed drivetrains.

"This is not about replacing 2×10 drivetrains," says SRAM PR and media manager, Tyler Morland. "Ten-speed, dual-chainring drivetrains are not going away—they absolutely fill 90 percent of riders' needs, but SRAM is about innovation and we want to help our athletes win races and this is the solution to that."

Is that where the demand for this product came from? From racers?

"Absolutely," says Morland. "We have both cross country and enduro racers coming to us and saying, '1X drivetrains are what we need.' That feedback and demand has really been the driving force behind this—they wanted a single-ring drivetrain solution. Giving that system 11-speeds is simply the answer to the question of how you make the best single-ring drivetrain system with the most versatile gear range.

Where does the average rider fit into all this?

"There are definitely riders out there who will love XX1, but those are going to be the people who ride a ton, put in very big miles and are very fit: that percentage is fairly small. Again, we're not touting this as a replacement for X0 or XX. This is a standalone 1X group that's very specific."

Here's where the speculatin' begins

So, what do we know about XX1 so far? Very strong, fit folks will probably dig it. While the company is putting some serious R&D muscle into this new product, it is not, according to SRAM, the end of either 10-speed or dual-chainring cranksets. This, however, is where the official info train screeches to a halt and I start making educated guesses.

Since SRAM is developing the system with both cross-country and enduro racers in mind, I'm guessing that there'll be a range of different gearing options (and that this will come in the form of different chainring sizes).

Having stared at the photos of XX1 that SRAM just released, it also appears that this new single-ring system can be used without a chainguide…which would be a big departure from the current status quo.

Front derailleurs, a pain in the ass they might be, still help keep your chain from parting ways with your crankset. Lose that front derailleur and you start losing the chain more often, which is why just about everyone who runs a single ring also runs some sort of guide.

And yet the well-used Cannondale Jekyll in the photos doesn't sport a chain guide at all. Hmmm….

Has SRAM created a special chainring that retains chains all by its lonesome? Seems likely. Very likely. In fact, if you look closely at the image of the XX1 crankset below, you'll see some oddly-shaped teeth on that chainring. I'm guessing that those are what might keep the chain on the crank, absent a conventional chain guide. Imagine being able to run a single-ring set up without the added friction and weight of a chain guide….it'd be a significant improvement.

When will we actually see the new XX1 group in the flesh, so to speak? SRAM isn't saying, but it's a fair bet that a few will pop up in coming months as early-summer press launches get underway. A few companies, most notably Specialized Bicycles, have spec'd select models (such as the Epic EVO) with  single-ring drivetrains. I'm betting the 2013 versions of those bikes will rock this new set up. It just makes sense. We'll see. In the meantime, stay tuned for more information on XX1.