Test Ride: XX1: SRAM’s Single-Ring Group

Could this be the end of the front derailleur?

Less really is more in this case, especially handy when you are climbing... and the temperature is tickling triple digit territory.

By Ed Snyder
Photos by Dan Barham

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it"

That old adage makes a ton of sense in most cases. However, the point the coiner of that phrase failed to take into account is if you really can build something better than what currently exists, why not give it a rip? SRAM is pretty sure that, for more than a few riders, their new XX1 1×11 drivetrain is just such an advance.

We've covered the basics of XX1 a few times already, but I (like most average mountain bikers) have not had a chance to toss a leg over a bike equipped with the new system. The On Dirt Demo at Interbike may not be good for some things, but it does offer chances like this in spades.

The chain is specific to the system and mates perfectly with the custom shaped and sized teeth on the front chainring. While it looks a bit like a puzzle it works like mechanical duct tape.

My chance to assess whether SRAM's 1×11 drivetrain is actually a better mousetrap came aboard a Rocky Mountain Element 70 equipped a full SRAM kit including air sprung suspension on both ends, Avid Trail XO brakes, a Reverb dropper post and the Rise 60 carbon wheelset. Calling this bike light is like calling Olympic powerlifters strong... it doesn't really cover it. A whiff of power on the pedals made this rig jump forward like a scalded cat. In other words, some of your results may vary depending on your own personal setup.

The benefits of a 1×11 setup are obvious fairly quickly: way less crap. No front shifter, no front derailleur, no chain guide, no bash ring. This lack of parts leads to a clean, all-business look that, in an era of overcrowded handlebars, I could get used to in a hurry. Once you get down to business on the trail the system continues to deliver.

Gear changes are typical, solid SRAM and the simplicity of using one hand for all your gear choices is pretty slick. The unique tooth profile on the front ring that serves to basically bond the chain to the chainring while they are in contact, works as advertised. Bootleg Canyon has plenty of sharp-edge hits and sudden, rocky drops. I hit bunches of them flat out and pedaling or not, the chain never gave any hint of hitting the eject button. This is an elegant and clear upgrade over previous systems.

I tried to dump the chain off the ring. Hard. Despite multiple runs and serious efforts towards the goal, I was closer to getting bucked off than the chain ever was.

Many riders I've talked to about the potential of XX1 have worried there would not be enough range to cover everything from technical steep ascents to blasting down fireroads at mach speed. That worry was laid to rest when I had enough gears to cover some grunt-inducing ups and still never hit the bottom of the cogset on the way down the smoothest lower sections of the trail system. If the system was mine, I might even drop to a smaller front ring to make the gear spread better suited to my local trails.

So what's not to like about this new super system? There are a few details that may keep XX1 off your bike for now. The first is cost. At over a grand for just a drivetrain, the price of admission is steep. Some entry level hardtail 29'ers will set you back less... for a complete bike. Another factor is specialized parts that can only be run with other XX1 components (for now). It limits your choices on building a bike and (pardon the Vegas pun) makes you go all-in on your choice of a drivetrain. The last possible variable is wear and how the new system will stand up over time in real world applications. SRAM assures us that they have engineered extra durability into the single front ring to withstand the fact the chain never leaves it. Once we and the riding public get their hands on the system, we'll know soon enough.

The amount of thought that went into every piece of XX1 is evident everywhere you look. The rear derailleur moves on a horizontal path (as opposed to diagonal) that allows a constant distance between each gear and the pulley wheels, allowing for more consistent shifting.

So with the pros and cons settled, who is XX1 really for anyways? The answer your checkbook probably doesn't want to hear is, potentially, everybody. With the six front chainring options available, XX1 offers you an amazing range of gear spreads, probably the most positive chain retention system I have ever run and the removal of a bunch of weight and complexity (from machines that we like to be as light and simple as possbile). XX1 has serious potential. It can satisfy the needs of the weight-conscious XC rider, serious enduro riders and downhillers . That just might make it a better mousetrap worth sticking your finger into.