1x Drivetrains and Replacing Chains – Review

by Garrett Hubbard

Straight talk from the Gravitas garage. Your 11 or 12 speed setup has needs (that your double or triple ring didn’t)

Parts lingo key:
1x = one by, or one front chain ring
2x = two by, or two front chain rings, or “double”
cassette = the cluster of gears on your rear axle.
chain checker = small, inexpensive tool to check chain length

The facts of life and the wonderful world of the drive 1x drive trains:

  1. Single chain ring setups are possible because of the fantastic clutches we have on our rear derailleur’s and the narrow and wide tooth pattern on the front chain ring. The clutch keeps tension on the bottom part of the chain so it doesn’t fall off the front chain ring and bonus, it keeps the chain from slapping your bike to death.
  2. All but 1 gear on SRAM 11 and 12 speed cassettes are made of hardened steel, therefore it can last a long time. Shimano cassettes may have more or less steel on them.
  3. SRAM 12x cassettes are wider than 11x and put the large 50t gear closer to the center of the rear hub.
  4. Your chain is made of steel.
  5. Your chain ring is likely made of aluminum. The older 2x and 3x setups were also aluminum. But because there is only 1 ring on 1x setups, it sees action continuously and needs to be replaced more frequently than the 2x and 3x setups of old.
  6. The first things to wear on your drive train is the rollers and pins on your chain leading it to “stretch”.
  7. Steel is hard. Aluminum is not. When your chain stretches, the aluminum chain ring is the first thing to wear to fit the new stretched chain. A worn chain ring also leads to more dropped chains.
  8. Your cassette will stretch out, too, if you don’t change the chain as soon as it shows some wear.
  9. If you get to step 8, you gotta replace the whole drive train and kiss $175-$600 goodbye.

I don’t want to see mountain bikers do any kissing. I just want you to replace your chain before it gets stretched. I want you to get lots of life out of that cassette and chain ring and save your money for more important things like creating memories with those you love.

What’s that saying about an ounce of prevention…? Want to have a better performing drive train? Want to replace your drive train less often? Want to save money? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then read on. If you answered no, you are dead to me.

I usually get well over 3000 miles out of my cassettes. That means I’ve replaced the chain 3 or more times before I need to replace my cassette (I replace my chain ring more frequently). I do this by keeping everything clean and replacing those chains when they get between .5 and .75 of stretch on a chain checker. I went through 3 chains 3 chain rings and about 3200 miles on my 11x SRAM XX1 cassette over a 4 year period and it was still running great when I sold it. Here are my tips for maximum performance and longevity.

1.     Keep your drive train clean. Learn more about how to do that in my review Rock “N” Roll Holy Cow lube for some tips.
2.     Keep your friggin’ drive train clean.
3.     Replace your chain when it gets to .5 on the chain checker. (This is how you use a chain checker https://www.parktool.com/blog/repair-help/when-to-replace-a-chain-on-a-bicycle If you get beyond this point, you may need an entire new drive train. New chains and used cassettes that have been paired with stretched chains used on them just don’t mix. Oil and water kind of thing. I could go into more detail, but I wont.
4.     You get what you pay for. The less expensive chains generally wear, therefore stretch more quickly. Stretching is bad. Stretching leads to the dark side.
5.     Buy a good chain. I’ve always stuck with Shimano chains on Shimano drive trains, and SRAM on SRAM. Another brand is popular, but I don’t care. Nobody knows their cassettes, ramps, chamfers, and prime numbers [joke] like the company that made it.
6.     For heaven’s sake, don’t buy a chain that has colored links to match your bike.
7.     You’re not “supposed” to re-use the SRAM Eagle powerlinks.
8.     Replace the chain ring every 1000 miles or so. Chain retention will be better if you use a simple top mount chain guide.
9.     If you run a top mount chain guide, then your chain ring should actually last longer. Some companies claim twice as long. I run a MRP SXg chain guide on both of my bikes.
10. SRAM eagle chain rings are the best for SRAM 1x setups. Yes, the eagle chain ring (12x) work quite well on 11x setups and retains the chain better and is a touch quieter.

A chain checker tool. Learn to use it. Learn to love it.

Bottom Line

This stuff is expensive. Protect your investment and buy yourself a chain checker. Get a simple one without moving parts, and check that chain often. Replace it as mentioned above. Spend the money on a mid to upper tier chain.  Get a simple chain guide by MRP, One Up or Wolf Tooth. Mojo Cycling has those and the chain checkers in stock most of the time.