When it comes to drivetrain options, trying to decide what you need can be overwhelming. This writeup will give you some thoughts on a good way ahead if your goal is a simple, capable, and durable wide-range drivetrain for bikepacking, adventure racing, mountain biking, or touring.
We’re big fans of 1x (pronounced “one-by”) drivetrains. Advancements in technology and components in the last few years have been huge, and riders can now achieve the entire spectrum of gear ratios they used to have on a 3×9 setup – and then some – by using a single chainring in the front and a wide range cassette in the back. Coupled with an appropriate derailleur and shifter, 1x systems yield drivetrains that are less complex, with fewer moving parts, and with less weight than older systems.
Question: Is it worth going to a 12 speed system? Answer: Probably not for most normal people. If you’re like us, you’d rather spend your extra money on experiences or travel than sinking it all into your drivetrain. We think 1×12 systems are too costly without much extra benefit right now. Mechanically speaking, 12 speed systems are also more fragile and finicky due to the larger number of gears crammed in there – and a finicky fragile system is not what you want to be dealing with out on the trail.
Our go-to recommendation is a 1×10 drivetrain using a wide-range cassette. Depending on your needs, you can go all the way up to a 46t cassette (!!!!) for steep climbs with fully loaded bikes.
What brands should you go to, or avoid? Shimano used to be the best of the best, and they did a great job of branding and advertising in the 90s and 00s. As a result, even my parents can tell you that Shimano is the BEST. Are they really though? Even as a shop owner, I go back and forth – there’ll be a post soon about Shimano vs others in general. I’ve become a really big fan of SRAM though, and often recommend them when building up a new system.
SRAM’s GX rear derailleurs are our go-to workhorse for 1×10 systems. They have great cost to value and get the job done well, over all kinds of terrain. Their max cassette size is 36t, but with an extender from Wheels Manufacturing that can be increased to 40, 42, or 46t. We couple them with SRAM’s simple flat-bar mountain bike shifters, and have been very pleased with the results. You can also go with “thumbies” (thumb shifters, for the uninitiated) by MicroShift that are SRAM compatible and are surprisingly good quality.
Shimano does of course make great products, I just think they’re overrated sometimes at the expense of others. They also make it difficult for independent shops like us to work with them by limiting our access to parts at competitive prices, while selling online at lower prices than what they claim is wholesale. We do like some of Shimano’s products though, particularly the Shimano Deore XT RD-M780/M770 series rear derailleurs for 10 speed systems. Thumbies from several companies are available, as well as extenders from Wolf Tooth that bring regular cassette maximums of 36t up to 42t and 46t.
Regardless of what brand you want to go with, we’ve got you covered on sourcing and installing parts. You’ll want to make sure you have a narrow-wide chain-retaining chainring for any 1x system, and a derailleur that has a clutch system like the two mentioned above. We’re happy to talk drivetrains any time – drop us a line!