Opinion: 1x Gearing For The Road Is The Emperor’s New Clothes

Single-chainring drivetrains have no place on road bikes, and it’s symptomatic of a wider industry problem. It's one half of the argument, expect the other soon...

The entire history of cycling has been a pursuit of speed and of more speeds. The earliest shifting systems are as old as the bicycle itself*, with literally hundreds of patents filed by the turn of the 20th century, and it never stopped. More was better, and the benefits were obvious to all. For 70 years now, nothing in cycling represents such a generational shift as the arrival of an extra sprocket on the back.

Then, in 2015 this trend emerged – there was suddenly a suggestion that what we really needed was fewer gears and a single chainring. Neophiles lapped it up, presumably forgetful of how they’d gushed at the arrival of 2x11 a few years earlier. For the road, it's total nonsense, the emperor's new clothes. The claimed benefits of saved weight and reduced ‘hassle’, while glossing over the clear downsides that stood in contrast to the close-ratio selling point of the likes of the Red 22 group, bordered on Orwellian ‘doublethink’. 

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The momentum of 1x for the road has been fading, but a vocal militia of apologists remains. I’d like to bury it for good, suggest a better way, and then shine a light on an awkward truth of the bike industry.

The problem with 1x is simple: you can have a suitable gearing range for hilly terrain or you can have closely stacked gears to maintain an efficient cadence, but you can’t have both. 

Yes, of course it’s possible for 1x to feel ok on the road if the terrain is flat enough; many rides and races have been ridden with an 11-25 cassette and never shifting from the 53, but that doesn’t make the inner ring redundant.

‘But in a 22-speed drivetrain you only have 15 unique gear ratios anyway,’ say the apologists. Sure, and 15 is more than 12. I still find an 11-28 too gappy; a 10-42 cassette has yawning chasms between most of the sprockets.

The very brief pro team experiment with 1x should have told us all we need to know. Crane flies live longer than 1x in the peloton. Most infamous was the Aqua Blue team – itself a flame that shone both briefly and dimly – which was sponsored to ride 3T’s 1x-only Strada in 2018.

Adam Blythe was a vocal critic of 1x groupsets on road bikes when racing with Aqua Blue Sport, but the bikes have proved popular for many amateur road riders (Photo credit: SWPix)

“Day one, I was like: this is not a good idea,” former Aqua Blue rider Adam Blythe told Bradley Wiggins on Eurosport in September that year. “Imagine that you’re doing a climb and…you’ve just got a 10-42 cassette with a 50 ring on the front, so you’re knackered. You can’t do a one-day race on it, let alone a (stage) race.” Of course, 3T’s Strada 1x proved a hit with many consumers, but it seemed the pros simply wouldn’t put up with it. 3T announced a Strada Due with a front mech that summer.

It isn’t just that the downsides of 1x are obvious and significant, the so-called benefits are pretty tenuous: 

Save yourself the hassle of shifting chainrings: Really? Is it that hard? Presumably those who think so live on nothing but microwave meals and wear the same clothes every day.

Save weight: Sure, saving around 200g anywhere on a high-end bike is difficult but removing useful components isn’t a net gain. Want to save another 350g or so? Simply remove your saddle and seatpost and stand up the whole way.

More aero: Unless you’re racing or obsessed with speed and you have aero everything, this is irrelevant, and if that is you, then you will want proper gearing. 


Hey, you know what's really light and 'hassle-free'? A brakeless fixed gear track bike. And no one – hipsters aside – wants to ride one of those on the road (plus, for UK riding at least, it is strictly against the law).

The advent of 13-speed drivetrains from Campagnolo and Rotor definitely reduces the compromises, but it doesn’t eliminate them, and both have real issues preventing wider adoption for road use. A 15-speed cassette isn’t going to happen, so, to me, 1x is a dead end.

Rotor's hydraulic 13-speed groupset was a trailblazer on the road, but hasn't taken the market by force

What we really need is a new innovation that adds range to 2x by widening the gap between chainrings — maybe a 53/33, 50/30 choice, giving 16 unique ratios with more compact cassettes. You’d have tall gears for sprints, close ratios for efficiency, and really low gears for when you go on your dream holiday to the mountains at our guest house (Escape to the Pyrenees, admit it – that was smooth). The issues have always been moving the chain quickly and precisely across such a difference and managing the tension. Today’s long cage rear derailleurs should take care of the latter. 

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At the front, I think electronic shifting holds the key, ensuring shifts are timed and paced precisely to match the ramps of the rings. Current electronic front mechs use a decades-old parallelogram action but powered by a servo instead of a cable. Automatic trimming for chain line was a great use of the tech to solve a problem, but what if a new type of electronic front mech could be designed with an action far more sophisticated than crudely pushing the chain side to side?

1x originated in MTB to open up rear suspension design by removing the issue of chain angle and the need to provide a front derailleur mounting point, and enable use of chain retention devices. It carries over well into cyclo-cross because the speed range is even more compact, it creates extra mud clearance in a critical area, and there’s barely a chance to shift chainrings on most courses anyway. 1x is as obvious for CX as disc brakes.

Time trialling is a reasonable application, too, when the course is flat enough. If you’re not even using the inner ring, there’s no point in it being there, and the aero gain matters when everything else is so single-mindedly honed.

Gravel is where 1x starts getting blurry. Some riders love it, others hate it. I even swayed between the two camps myself within one ride until I realised that the answer lay in effort: at an easy pace I didn’t care about my cadence, so I was barely aware of the big jumps in the cassette. When I was riding hard, however, those gaps were infuriating. My own gravel bike has 46/30 chainrings and an 11-30 cassette.

Road bikes are where things really start to overreach with 1x, and that’s the bigger point here. Aero V-brakes came and went in just one generation of bikes. They looked great in CFD or a wind tunnel, and were tolerable on TT bikes, but they were a nightmare to live with when it came to road bikes.

1x has proved popular, but not ubiquitous, in cyclo-cross. But the benefits are perhaps a little more obvious than on the road (Photo credit: Joris Knapen)

Right now, we’re suffering TT-style visors on road helmets (an affront more sartorial than functional, I admit) and MTB dropper posts on gravel bikes (excused if you’re actually riding MTB park black runs on your gravel bike, otherwise ridiculous). These products are highly effective in their original jobs, but they need to stay in their lane. Heck, to my mind, even disc brakes are an over-reach when we’re talking about the lightest road bikes.

The industry should absolutely play around with all of this stuff. Build test hacks, kite-fly it on social media, produce a show bike, and especially enable cross-compatibility so that riders with one-percentile riding habits can create their chimeras… but I'd suggest being wary of putting it out there as a better alternative to traditional gearing. 

Perhaps some elements of the media are especially partial to glugging the Kool-Aid, and that doesn’t help. I’ve just read a suggestion that pros could use dropper posts to dodge the ban on the supertuck position, so I’m going for a ride before I tear my hair out.

 

Keep an eye out for our counter-argument, in favour of 1x for the road, next week

 

A brief history of cycling gearing

Among hundreds of attempts to crack a multi-geared system during the late 1800s, Jean Loubeyre created his ‘La Polyceler’ in 1895. It used a lever and rod operated fork to push the chain between two rear sprockets and featured dual chain tensioners above and below the chainstay. It’s generally credited as the first derailleur. 

Sturmey Archer launched its first three-speed hub in 1902, arguably well ahead of its time and certainly much more commercialised. It debuted in the Tour de France in 1913, where Lucien Petit-Breton (winner in 1907, 08) was taken out by a loose dog before he could test its value in the mountains. 

The first chain tensioning rear derailleur was made in 1928 by Nivex but banned from the Tour until 1936 because founder and renowned sadist, Henri Desgrange, believed that “variable gears are only for people over 45. Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft.”

Tullio Campagnolo (you were waiting for this name, right?) produced his first derailleur in 1940, so wasn’t the first as some believe. However, he arguably popularised the system with the launch of the Gran Sport rear mech in 1949, the first to use a parallelogram design. He followed it quickly with the first front derailleur in the early 1950s, then with six-speed cassettes in 1963. 

A long wait followed before Campagnolo introduced 7-speed in 1985. In 1988, Shimano jumped ahead with 8-speed and was the first to nine sprockets in 1996. Since then, Campagnolo has made a firm point of being the first to 10 (2000), 11 (2008) and 12 (2019), though Rotor beat it to 1x13, also in 2019.

 

*1868, 1876 or 1885, depending on whether you credit Thomas Humber, Harry John Lawson or John Kemp Starley respectively with creating the true forebear of modern bicycles