It’s almost fascinating how quickly mountain bikes went to a 1x drivetrain in the past two years. Once a slap-dash set up that often included a front derailleur as a guide and maybe a ten-speed cassette, now even entry level rigs are coming 1x11 with SRAM NX or GX drivetrains. It’s to the point now that we poke and prod at front derailleurs like relics from the past, not unlike finding a Roman coin or arrowhead under the dirt.
It was never going to be a huge leap to see the simplicity of 1x going to cyclocross and, eventually, gravel and even road bikes. Wide range component groups allow road shifters to run what were always traditional mountain bike cassettes, from 11-36 and now 10-42. With the right chain ring selected, it’s not a stretch to use your cyclocross or gravel bike for everything, with the option of swapping out wheels with different tires mounted for different conditions.
Nailing that chainring selection is a big part of the process, and if possible, it’s worth trying out a ring or two before you buy. It’s not even too far a stretch to have two rings on hand, say a 40t and a 44t, with two chains, each cut to match the change in ring size. While you probably won’t want to switch your rings out every day, putting on the ideal ring a week or two before a big event is easy and puts you in a better position for the course or route you’re taking on.
The big argument against a single ring for road or gravel was always that there was no way to cover the full range of a traditional 53/39 crankset with an 11-25 cassette. And it’s really range that has driven the component changes over the past decade, with 52/36 and 50/34 compact cranksets all but driving the 53 ring to its grave. Even cassettes have gotten bigger, with 11-28 and 11-32 clusters now standard on most builds from SRAM and Shimano.
We really like using a single ring for a few reasons. First, it eliminates cross-chaining and finicky adjustments, especially if the bike is consistently thrown over rough gravel roads, sandy two tracks and wet and slick commutes. It also reduces drivetrain wear, and the odds of breaking a chain are exponentially smaller with a single ring, with most chain explosions coming with that aggressive, panicked shift from small ring to big ring at the top of a steep and slow climb.
Finding the right size is a bit of a science, with this Gear Calculator being maybe the most useful tool. You can adjust the sliders to pick a chainring, your cassette, and then use metrics like cadence and tire width to see the gear ratio or top speed of a gear setup. With races like Melting Mann and Barry-Roubaix coming up, there’s another great trick. If you’ve done those races before, look up your average speed over those routes. Then, adjust the ring on the slider until you’re in the middle of the cassette with the ring, running at around a 90 cadence. For example, if you averaged 17mph, you’re probably looking at a 40t chainring with a 90 cadence on an 11-32 cassette. Assuming you’re starting to spin out at 100 rpm, that will still give you a top speed of around 30!
There are a few good tips to looking at what ring you want. First, look at the average speed of your normal rides and find a ring that puts you at that speed in the middle of the cassette. This means you'll use all the cogs and wear it out evenly, instead of having to spend too much time at the top or bottom of the cassette. Second, look at the steepest climbs and the speeds you go on them. Is it creeping and crawling? Maybe go down a ring size if that's the case. Flying up the climbs like a skimpy Italian pro? You might even be able to push a slightly bigger ring.
When in doubt, split the difference. If you're coming off a compact 50/34 crankset, going halfway with a 42t, might be just the ticket.
Need help? We got you. Stop by and we can show you options on rings, plus let you know how big of a cassette your bike can run with your current derailleur!