Eleven-speed drivetrains are doomed.
|Seven is the number of a man. - Dave Carter|
How do I know this? As a former member of a new age cult, I am aware that there are powers acting upon the cycling world, greater than science, engineering, or popular opinion, and they are not to be trifled with. In the case of eleven speed, it’s all about numerology. If you don’t believe me, you could run down some long-haired vortex guide, with a bag of herbs around his neck and a wad of smoldering sage in his right hand who is herding middle aged aspirants around Sedona and ask for yourself – but I can save you the trouble. Even if you are a non-believer, you may be shocked to discover that history and statistics (science, if you will) also indicate the early demise of the eleven-speed drivetrain. Numbers, it seems, do not lie.
Ruth Drayer, in her book, “Numerology: The Power in Numbers,” writes:
|Odd numbers - which correspond to the right side of the brain - represent intangible things, such as creativity, flair, inspiration, and love of adventure. They do not like to "fit in" and sometimes will stop right in the middle of something and go off in another direction.|
Even numbers - which correspond to the left side of the brain - represent things of form and structure, tangible things, anything that can be seen or touched. They like to conform and want to "fit in." They prefer for their lives to go smoothly and do not like the unexpected.
I can’t vouch for you, but I’d prefer that my drivetrain components conform, fit together and run smoothly. When I ask for a shift, I don’t want my derailleurs searching for adventure or taking creative lines across the cassette cogs. It could be argued, though, that the present eleven speed groups made by SRAM and Shimano do actually fit together and run smoothly, so what is the point? Where is the substance behind this theory? For the sake of discovery, let’s look at the brief history of the mountain bike drivetrain.SIX
Before true mountain bikes hit the trails, pioneers cobbled up balloon tire bikes with five-cog screw-on freewheels and road bike derailleurs, but by the time the term “Mountain Bike” was trademarked by Gary Fisher and Charles Kelly, Shimano and Suntour were developing six-speed freewheels. The mass-production mountain bike and the sport itself was launched in the early 1980s with the six speed freewheel, which would carry it through the birth of the freehub cassette and the first viable index shifting system from Shimano – arguably, the two most important innovations of the MTB derailleur drivetrain. SEVEN
Shimano pushed the seven-speed drivetrain into existence in 1989, which, in conjunction with its SIS index shifting and cassette rear hub, signaled the beginning of the Japanese parts maker’s near monopolization of the mountain bike drivetrain and encouraged a lawsuit by SRAM in 1990 to gain access to the OEM market. Seven speed’s tumultuous lifespan was defined by Shimano’s insistence on poor-shifting BioPace chainrings and a number of dead-end innovations, like one-piece shift and brake levers, double push-button shifting, and the scourge of the under-the-chainstay-mounted U-Brake. It was an era of mediocre drivetrain performance, chain suck, and poor braking that spawned the “purple parts makers” - cottage industry aftermarket component startups by ex-aerospace workers – riders themselves - who were fed up and thought they could do a better job.EIGHT
Eight speed was ushered in by Shimano’s first XTR group along with trigger shifting and a return to round chainrings in 1992, and it was all unicorns and rainbows from the start. Many riders maintain that to this day Shimano’s eight-speed transmissions are the most trouble free, positive shifting and durable derailleur systems ever made. SRAM’s eight-speed transmissions were pretty darn good too, and for the first time, there was extensive cross-brand compatibility between hubs, chains, cassettes and cranksets. Eight-speed was so stable that it would shift happily with sticks and mud packed into the cassette, and unless something was bent, the derailleurs could stay in adjustment for an entire season.
My even-odd theory took a brief U-turn, however, in 1997, when Shimano introduced “light action” to its eight-speed groups. Some say the motivation was to prevent OEM bike makers from spec’ing SRAM’s very popular twist-type shifters with its XT and XTR drivetrains. Others maintain that Light Action was an internal mandate to make shifting feel effortless to yuppie customers testing bikes in the retailer’s parking lots. The end result was that SRAM twist shifters were no longer cross compatible with Shimano and Shimano’s shift levers felt worthless and weak. Soon after, Shimano introduced “Rapid Rise” which reversed the direction of the rear derailleur’s action as a means of preventing riders from forcing the changer to shift gears when the ramps on the cassette cogs were not in alignment. With limp levers and reverse shifting, Shimano’s once magical eight-speed drivetrain was emasculated. The unicorn was dead. By that time, however, SRAM’s shifting performance had improved and Big Red began eating into Shimano’s domination of the market – Light Action may have been a great disappointment for Shimano fans, but it was a major boost for SRAM.
|You may ask yourself, "How did I get here?" - David Byrne|
Nine speed, by contrast, was a disaster from the first day it was bolted to a bike. It was as if in 1999, Shimano had forgotten how to make a mountain bike transmission. It had narrow cassette spacing and a thinned chain that could never seem to find its way to the correct sprocket. The derailleurs were Light Action, and while a conventional mech was offered, Shimano pushed OEMs heavily to spec the Rapid Rise version, and the new shifters were still vague feeling with nearly indistinguishable index points. Broken chains were more common than dead lizards on a downhill trail and tuning the derailleurs required the skills of a safe-cracker. When you did get a nine speed running right, a single blade of grass in the cassette cogs could set the chain jumping all over the place.
SRAM had to respond, and to its credit, the Chicago-based component maker kicked Shimano’s ass with a super-positive feeling trigger shifter and a bomb-proof rear derailleur. The benefits of which were not lost on riders - or OEMs. Nine speed backfired on Shimano, as elite and performance level mountain bikes began appearing in huge numbers with “split” drivetrains: Shimano front derailleurs (SRAM’s front mechs were pathetic) paired with SRAM shifters and rear derailleurs. SRAM benefited further from another ill-fated nine-speed Shimano innovation when it released its Dual Control STI-style brake-lever shifters in 2003 – at the inopportune moment when nobody gave a damn about XC racing and freeriders had no use for wiggly brake levers. If there was a benefit to nine-speed’s trail of disappointment, it was the opportunity it created for OEMs to dispel the notion that a bike must be outfitted from tip to toe with either Shimano or SRAM components.TEN
Most Pinkbike riders grew up on ten-speed cassettes – which marked a return to most of the stability and reliability of eight-speed in its prime. Better still, ten speed came in with a number of important improvements, like through axles on both ends of the bike and wide-range, 11 x 36 cassette gearing. Ten-speed drivetrains also marked the return of some cross-compatibility between SRAM and Shimano’s major drivetrain components, as well as a return to sanity for Shimano’s engineers. Shimano shifting again felt beautifully functional, and they were back at the helm, taking a leadership role - most notably with the invention of the Shadow Plus clutch derailleur.
Ten speed was a return to peaceful times. Near parity between the performance of SRAM and Shimano, and the welcome return to a reliable and very stable drivetrain, had the effect of removing the customer’s emphasis on the bike’s transmission and encouraging growth in other areas of the bike. Disc brake development made large strides and OEMs shifted more resources into upgrading suspension components. This was the drivetrain that powered DH racing to its highest level and made the all-mountain bike a reliable tool. Its wide-range cassette ushered in the 29er and gave rise to the first truly useful one-by drivetrains for trail riders and XC racers – which brings us to the present moment.ELEVEN
Now you can chalk it up to metaphysical science or serendipity, but the pattern is undisputable: drivetrains with even numbered cassettes have far better track records than those with odd numbered cassettes. The pattern also directly reinforces Ms. Drayer’s numerological distinctions between even and odd numbers, all of which casts a dark shadow upon the present eleven speed groups from SRAM and now, Shimano. Granted, the derivatives of SRAM’s XX1 are pretty awesome performers, and after riding XTR in both the mechanical and Di2 electric versions, I can vouch that Shimano’s eleven-speed ensemble is at least on par – and I’d bet that if you asked any industry luminary about it, their response would be something along the lines of, “Eleven speed has become the best thing for mountain bike drivetrains since, um, ten speed.” And if that notion doesn’t send up a red flag, it should, because that’s what they said about all the other ones.
Pretend that you were an esteemed mountain bike engineer who masterminded the fabled eight-speed system and, after contracting a near-fatal bout of narcolepsy, you slept through all subsequent drivetrain developments, awakening magically sometime after the debut of XX1 and XTR M9000. (I think there is a mythological fable that goes something like that). At first, you might say, “Wow, this stuff shifts awesomely well.” And you may initially be fooled by all that awesomeness into believing that, “Wow, this stuff is really innovative.” But it isn’t. As your engineering brain began connecting the dots, you would probably be appalled by the fact that the designers of eleven speed drivetrains simply used old technology, and then crammed it all into an impossibly small space so they would not have to redesign bike frames or any other nearby components to make it work.
While I was taking instruction at the new age ashram, the High Priestess there offered up a simple explanation of how deadly complacency can become. (And, please don’t try this at home) She said:
|If you toss a live frog into boiling water, it will jump out and run away. But, if you place it gently into cool water and slowly turn up the heat, it will happily swim around until it is cooked.|
Essentially, today’s eleven-speed transmission represents the end of a long and sometimes ridiculous chain of incremental improvements and Band-Aid fixes – most of which would have never occurred, if drivetrain designers were not encouraged to float around in Shimano and SRAM’s warm pot of status quo. Chains are so thin that the power of positive thinking is actually an ingredient in their metallurgy. Cogs are so closely spaced that they can electromagnetically communicate, and when designers speak in hushed tones about clearances between frames and neighboring components, they often argue about fractions of a single millimeter. Eleven speed, like all of the odd-numbered drivetrains which preceded it, will function as both an evolutionary dead end for drivetrains based upon old-school hub, bottom bracket and associated frame standards - and as a transitional bridge to allow braver and bolder designers to circumvent the prisons of convention and minutia which had incarcerated their predecessors.
Numerology tells us that eleven speed will bring about turmoil and creativity, which seems to be the case. Trek and SRAM’s Boost hub standard is more of a cry for help than it is an innovative solution, but it indicates that designers at the highest level are disillusioned with the status quo – and they are not alone. We are poised at the brink of a significant collapse of industry standards and a period of chaotic innovation – most of which are long overdue and some of which will not be a pretty sight.TWELVE
But, the dust will settle quickly. Numerology (and history) strongly suggest that the inevitable dawn of twelve speed will also signal the beginning of a lengthy period of drivetrain stability and with it, another series of truly beneficial improvements to the mountain bike as a whole. And, if history repeats itself (it always does), some bike industry luminary will post a clever headline like: “Is 11 Speed Doomed? Will 12 Speed Be the new Game-Changer?” If you want to talk about that, go to Sedona and look for a guy with a crooked walking stick, flowing silver hair, a bag of herbs around his neck, and a wallet stuffed with hundred dollar bills. I have to warn you though, my answer may be, “Duh.”