12 Speed: Progress Or Excess?

Words Dave Tolnai
Date May 9, 2016

Dear Uncle Dave

Since SRAM introduced the Eagle 1×12 a couple of days ago the comments section in various social media have been flooded by hatred. In my opinion, more so than in days passed. Are people growing tired of advancement in technology that they don’t need to buy? Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t trade my current bike for what I used to ride back in 1996 but I kind of miss being able to use my old wheels on my new bike (since they are true and work perfectly fine) even though they have an axle “standard” that is now deemed obsolete by the manufacturer. Is the industry in the wrong track or are we (the riders) stuck in a rut?

Cheers/ I don’t care
Skickat från min iPhone


Hi Dave, 

What’s up with this backlash against 1×12? Bigger front chainring while still being able to crawl uphill at my usual pace because of the larger cassette, sign me up (in about 3 years when I can pretend to afford it)! Surely this is innovation at its finest within the cycling industry, but people seem scared of progress.

Please can you explain the hate?

All the best,
A Future 1×12 User 


Dear Sfami/FU:

I’ve sat on this for a few weeks because I honestly have no idea what to think. On one hand, who cares? New bikes are going to continue to come with expensive gizmos and we shouldn’t let that distract us from the enjoyment of our current bicycles. On the other hand…

Let’s start by looking at the history of mountain bike drivetrains. Until very recently, the rule was that road bikes drove the gear wars and mountain bikes followed a few years later once Shimano decided the dirty slobs who rode them needed some attention. We can best illustrate the advancement through the development of Deore XT, which generally indicated the mainstream acceptance of each system (pieced together from here and here).

1987 – 6 Speed (Lasted 2 Years)

1989 – 7 Speed (Lasted 4 Years)

1993 – 8 Speed (Lasted 6 Years)

1999 – 9 Speed (Lasted 11 Years)

2010 – 10 Speed

Until recently, the time between gearing changes was getting longer, not shorter. We were given time to wrap our heads around the change, slowly make our way over to the new standard, ride that stuff for years and years, and then, finally, be ready when a new standard was proposed. I’d hardly describe it as a glacial pace of change, but it was slow and steady and it generally worked out pretty well for everybody.

Then we got SRAM XX1 in mid-2012, the system was thrown into disarray and people kind of freaked out. Everybody had something to say. Some good, some bad. But it wouldn’t be Uncle Dave if we didn’t focus on the bad:

Why do we need a new cassette standard just so that we can get one less tooth?

Why don’t they just make 10 speed cassette with the same range?

What is this one chainring bullshit?

Why is this sh!t so expensive? It’s one extra cog? It’s made of aluminum? Why is everything so terrible?

Those gripes account for at least 90% of the complaints that people had about SRAM and their 11 speed system. I happen to think that some of these claims are somewhat valid, both then and now. Why couldn’t we make this work on the existing cassette body standard and why didn’t somebody throw a bone to all of the 10 speeders (many of whom who had just made the change) and why does it need to be so expensive? It was kind of maddening for a little while, but we moved on. Slowly. Lower cost options appeared. Shimano eventually jumped on board. The aftermarket built the wide range 10 speed stuff that a bunch of people wanted. The shitstorm died down and everybody seemed pretty happy.

But let’s amend our chart with the most current data.

1987 – 6 Speed (Lasted 2 Years)

1989 – 7 Speed (Lasted 4 Years)

1993 – 8 Speed (Lasted 6 Years)

1999 – 9 Speed (Lasted 11 Years)

2010 – 10 Speed (Lasted 2 Years)

2012 – 11 Speed (Lasted 4 years)

2016 – 12 Speed (???)

If I were to design change to maximally piss people off, this would be it. I’d set a relaxed, somewhat predictable schedule and lull people into a sense of complacency. I’d drop an arguably overdue change (10 speed) and I’d give everybody a bit of time to process and accept that change. And then I’d hit them right in the f@cking face with a totally unexpected doozy of a change that required all sorts of really fancy, expensive sh!t (11 speed). I’d laugh as everybody felt inferior, poor, frustrated and lonely. I’d let that stew, simmer and fester for a few years. I’d wait until everybody had stopped complaining and finally widely accepted my last change… and then I’d hit them again with another drastic change, playing the same notes that pissed people off in the first place, at a moment when change is even less necessary.

Insanely expensive? Oh hell yes.

Seemingly possible to do without requiring a new standard? Proven to be the case.

Sold in a way that suggests the old stuff is kind of crappy and anybody that continues to ride it is sort of an idiot? Of course. That’s just ‘marketing.’

Now, SRAM isn’t the only company that saddles us with change we haven’t asked for. You would have to be an idiot to suggest that Shimano only undertook change that made sense and had the best intentions for the consumer (their chainring bolt circle design department is enough to prove that they actively hate cyclists). But over the years, despite the odd misstep, Shimano has cultivated a reputation that they care. If you ignore rapid rise, dual control, biopace and dozens of bolt circle patterns, there are very few changes that Shimano has launched that have inspired any sort of uproar. If anything, we accuse Shimano of being too conservative and taking too long to give us the things that we demand (through axle hubs and disc brakes are two pretty great examples). They seem to take their sweet-assed time and get around to releasing things when they are good and ready and they seem to put a lot of thought into compatibility and the repercussions of messing with things.

This is exactly the kind of company that you want deciding on standards for your bicycle.

And SRAM is not like this at all.

Don’t get me wrong, I love SRAM. I’ve loved them to varying degrees over the last 15 or so years. They’ve made some great products. They’ve pushed others to up their game. They’re…well…they’re American. They want to be the best and make the best and it doesn’t really matter what anybody (even those a$$holes buying their sh!t) think about it. And sometimes…how can I put this delicately…well…sometimes they don’t appear to be a company that spends a lot of time sitting around and worrying about the impacts of their actions. Our long term interests don’t seem to factor highly into their decision making process.

Read this quote from here:

“Sometimes people, including ourselves, need time to acclimatize to change. When we looked at XX1 originally there was a fair bit of internal stress about the aesthetic change that XX1 had…. People getting used to these things slowly has made it easier for us. Can you go bigger? Yeah, you can go bigger, you can go more. Any of these things are possible, but we try to understand how much are people going to take, and I think that if you look at things like hub standards right now people have pretty clearly told me they don’t want any more… People have had enough.”

This sounds like a pretty great justification for not moving forward with 12 speed. Instead, the guy who said these things speaks on behalf of the company that within the last year has destroyed wheel compatibility by adding a few millimeters to our hub widths and foisted an extra cog upon us that nobody asked for. Will these things make our bikes ‘better?’ Lighter? Faster? Probably. But at what cost? I read that statement and I lose all trust in what those people are up to. What does he mean? Is he suggesting that Boost is a stop gap? That 12 speeds is some sort of short term solution until they sense we’ll accept more? What kind of delusional person admits that “people have had enough,” just before forcing another unwanted change upon them? This is crazy.

I read this Richard Cunningham piece a few weeks ago and I really liked it. I had to read the comments to fully understand his argument, but I liked it. And I’m going to steal his point and relate it here. A 12 speed drivetrain is not revolutionary. It’s literally just adding one extra thing to the thing that you already make. Even a pie plate sized cog isn’t all that new of an idea. As somebody in the NSMB comments pointed out, Shimano was kind of doing something similar years ago, they just weren’t quite clever enough to think it would fly with anybody other than recreational cyclists. There are dozens of companies that have the technical skills to create a 12 speed drivetrain. Two of these have the reach to push it through the industry. And only one of them has the balls to do it in this sort of fashion. This is not a leap in technology. It’s a leap in hubris, marketing and acceptance of risk sold to us as a groundbreaking technology. And I resent that. The chutzpah of a single company should not be a reason for a sweeping change across our whole sport.

As they say, great power comes with great responsibility. When you wield a company large enough to change the entire bicycle industry with the snap of your fingers, you owe it to all of us to consider the impacts and get things right. The turmoil created by this change is a great way to make money and build market share, but we shouldn’t have to bear the consequences of one company blowing everything up to get one over on another company. You can argue that we need to embrace technology or that nobody is forcing us to buy this stuff or any other number of arguments that get thrown around. But these changes represent more than just an evolutionary change with incremental performance improvements. It’s expensive wheels that no longer fit all of our bikes (ya ya, I know you don’t need boost for this, but please). It’s compatibility issues each time we need a new chain, cassette or derailleur. It’s ratcheting up the cost of this sport into insane levels. For some of us, this is not worth the trade-off and we have a right to voice our opinions because eventually, whether we want to or not, we’re going to get dragged down this path, leaving a trail of parts and standards in our wake.

To put this another way, I remember one of my engineering professors explaining that the hard thing about engineering isn’t building a bridge…any idiot with some rebar and concrete can do that…the hard thing is figuring out if the bridge needs to be built.*

In my eyes, this was not a bridge that needed to be built.

Sorry,
Uncle Dave

*Obviously, it’s not Engineers that get to decide if a bridge gets built. Those decisions are made by politicians trying to appease industries that paid for the election campaign. This is just a fancy way of saying that the hard part of engineering is managing the impacts of what you are doing and dealing with the humans that want to kill you when you get things wrong.


Is Dave less grumpy on other platforms? Tune in and see. @ReallyUncleDave,(twitter) or @davetolnai.  (Instagram). And keep those questions flowing to askuncledave@nsmb.com


This week’s winner (yet to be decided at press time) gets a Giro Montaro helmet. Equipped with MIPS and tested on real human skulls, the Montaro provides ample coverage, an integrated, removable mount for your GoPro and 92 vents to keep you cool. Actually it might be fewer than 92, but it has vents.

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The winner gets one lid – not 11 – but he or she can choose the flavour.


How shocked are you that Uncle Dave is cynical again this week?

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Comments

steve-low
0
steve low  - May 15, 2016, 1:38 a.m.

Great article! …..no f@$%ing fantastic article! So good to see that were finally starting to see Sram for the money hungry scumbags that they are! Im not so naive that i dont understand ALL bike companies want/need to make money BUT, whilst the industry in the last 5 or 6 years has made some massive advances in usable technology, its also produced sooo much unnecessary crap that has been 100%driven by Sram and is 100% designed to make us spend money. The icing on the cake as far as unnecessary crap goes is the boost rubish. I mean really what shite! And yes shimano with their odd bolt circles has been guilty of it too but 20 odd years as a bike mechanic has led me to the conclusion that Sram is just overpriced poorly engineered lifespan specific rubbish. If only campagnolo stepped into mtb. Sram to me is the iphone of the bike industry; designed to fail.
Lets also look at tyres. They've gotten so soft now that literally a couple of solid days of dry rocky steep riding and they're half shot!! WTF! Absolutely ridiculous!

Ok im done now, apologies to all ☺

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tim-p
0
Tim P  - May 13, 2016, 3:25 a.m.

No doubt after the great big 1″ bigger wheels are better con was a success bike companies learned they can push the envelope and people will suck it up. Its not necessarily a bad thing - I don't mind more gears at the back and 1x rocks for what I do, but when we get to slightly bigger hub standards it starts looking like change for change's sake. The bottom line is that MTB is not a fashion show, its a talent show. The new bub standard or carbon rims wont make you win or ride better - thats down to skills and fitness 99.9% of the time…

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vincent
0
Vincent  - May 11, 2016, 11:17 a.m.

My XO1 11spd is hands down better for the type of riding I do compared to 10 Speed XT- Shifts are easier, it's lighter, the clutch works better… The new XT 11 speed is a big leap forwards as well, but with a heavier cassette. The older gear hasn't gotten any worse, but I don't want to switch back. I'll accept $250 a year for a cassette that makes this significantly better system work- some will not. Both will be available at most US bike shops. Elsewhere in the world, good luck. The Eagle drivetrain looks like a step forward- not just because of the range, but due to small improvements like better machining on the chain and chain-ring teeth. I'm planning to ride my 11speed for many years still, but if I lived in an area where I needed the additional range I would consider the upgrade- or ride a new XT 2x setup.

I guess what I'm staying is that 11speed and 12speed and what comes with it is just another option.

What I find disappointing in the industry today are the little details of compatibility that are falling by the wayside. If you want to run a Boost fork on your hardtail, but also sometimes switch to a rigid carbon fork, you need 2 wheels. If you want to buy a SS hub from Chris King or Hope in Boost, no luck. (I know it's already dishless, but what if I want to swap back and forth from summer to winter… then I can't buy a Boost frame) - Also, no SS on and XD freehub- you have to buy a shimano freehub for that. Anyway, rant over. Thanks for the thoughtful article!

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avner-b
0
Avner B.  - May 11, 2016, 7:13 a.m.

Sorry, but it sounds to me like people who wants to put progress on hold just because their horded equipment might loose value.

Had
anyone really stopped using a bike because they couldn't get some old
part to maintain it? I believe you can still buy any old standard part
you look for, and it will probably be cheaper than it was.

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sean
0
Sean  - May 11, 2016, 7:11 a.m.

Drivetrain to me and my riding friends is a consumable, most of which gets replaced seasonally due to wear and tear - especially the cassette, chain and chainring(s). SRAM 11 speed was a turn off due to the cost of the components and the need for a new freehub body or rear hub. But Shimano XT 11 speed has now dropped and it's compatible with the same old freehub standard as before. If you want to run it 2x you can, and if you want a 1x system with a 50T cog then the aftermarket has that covered as well. Fraction of the cost of EagleXX1X01 etc. SRAM may have pushed the change forward, but Shimano has delivered it to the masses now.

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0
mevp  - May 11, 2016, 9:56 a.m.

This! Bike parts are consumable. In my world you either
1) Ride enough and hard enough that your wheels, cassette, derailleur wear out within 3 years. Usually within 2 years.
2) Don't ride enough or hard enough, your stuff will last forever, so who really cares?

If you ride your stuff till it dies, none of this really matters. If you like shiny new stuff, well that's your problem.

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Cheez1ts
0
Garrett Thibault  - May 10, 2016, 3:34 p.m.

I really like this. Great work Dave and NSMB.

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richard-hayter
0
Richard Hayter  - May 10, 2016, 10:56 a.m.

There are plenty of people, like Mr Bungle, riding "old" gear and loving it. There's plenty of 9-speed cassettes, chains and derailleurs knocking around and I'm sure we'll be able to get our hands on 10 (and 11) speed for some time to come. But there are probably (another) plenty of people who are desperate to try Eagle. And while we might rail against the timing (and yes, the cost) we must surely have guessed this was coming?

OK, let's back-track. I was riding a 29er hard tail. I bought a new bike in 2015. It's carbon fibre (my first), came with 650b wheels (never ridden them before) and SRAM 11-speed X01. Nice. But I didn't buy the bike because of any one of those factors – the bike felt great, I had the cash burning a hole in my pocket and the shop was having a crazy sale on new gear… and BINGO! I was riding an 'on-trend' bike.

Then along comes BOOST. And my half my frame, plus the rear wheel, were old hat. Oh, and the forks and front wheel if you want to all-in.

I'm rambling now, but I guess my point is – ride what you got and love it. Maybe you'll get the next shit-hot gear when you buy another bike in a few years. Or maybe you just can't wait and HAVE to upgrade to 12-speeds. Then you go for it. Enjoy.

Relax. Mountain biking is a broad enough church to deal with all of us.

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Dirk
0
Dirk  - May 10, 2016, 11:08 a.m.

It's never a problem now. It's a problem a few years down the line when the support dries up. You'll probably always find a part to keep you running, but it will get harder and harder and the selection will be limited. And if you do want a new bike, none of your fancy parts will swap over. There's absolutely nothing wrong with not worrying about this stuff and continuing to ride what you have. This is just questioning why we continually need these improvements that make it more difficult to do just that.

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richard-hayter
0
Richard Hayter  - May 10, 2016, 11:11 a.m.

Because Capitalism (whether we like it or not, we're in it).

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nat-brown
0
Nat Brown  - May 10, 2016, 4:07 p.m.

How did that come to be not industry catering to market forces, but the market being subject to industry forces? I'm not sure I agree that we are 'in it'.

Reply

zigak
0
ZigaK  - May 10, 2016, 10:37 a.m.

To be fair, the chart should continue with:
2010 - 10 Speed (Lasted 5 Years)
2015 - 11 Speed (Lasted tbd)
as it is a chart of XT group

Reply

Dirk
0
Dirk  - May 10, 2016, 10:57 a.m.

Yes, but there was a bigger point here, but I don't think I illustrated it clearly. I meant to show that Shimano is no longer setting the standards, SRAM is. And their pace of change appears to be much more aggressive.

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zigak
0
ZigaK  - May 10, 2016, 12:42 p.m.

I agree with you completely. Sram is currently setting the pace of "new" technology introduction, but as you say Shimano is the one that brings acceptance of said technology. I'm hoping that with 12 speed they leave them hanging.

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extraspecialandbitter
0
ExtraSpecialandBitter  - May 10, 2016, 11:53 a.m.

pre 1900 - 1 speed (100+ years)

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zigak
0
ZigaK  - May 10, 2016, 12:37 p.m.

1817 - 0 Speed, so called balance bike
1869 - 1 Speed, so called boneshaker, first bike with pedals
1870 - 1 Speed Penny farthing
1880 - 1 Speed Safety bicycle uses a chain to drive back wheel
1908 - 2 Speed Boizot 2 speed derailleur

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mrbungle
0
Mr.Bungle  - May 10, 2016, 9:20 a.m.

I'm riding a 2009 Intense Slope Style, 2 x 9 gearing, 26″ wheels, 135mm rear spacing. and it works perfectly.

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kyle-doherty
0
Kyle Doherty  - May 10, 2016, 8:09 a.m.

It's never been harder to sell used bikes than it is now.

Reply

extraspecialandbitter
0
ExtraSpecialandBitter  - May 10, 2016, 12:02 p.m.

It's never been cheaper to get a good used bike than it is now (actually it's more expensive - but relatively speaking…)

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blackbird
0
tw  - May 10, 2016, 7:41 a.m.

Still on 9 speed……..
These guys are changing so fast I can't make up my mind on what standard to use.
A dropper? Easy. Carbon bars? No problem. Exo tires? Hell ya! 142 thru? I'm in.
10…I mean 11…holy $&@@ 12?!!!. I bet those posers skip 13 and go straight to 14 so as not to offend all the superstitious types.
You heard it here first.

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extraspecialandbitter
0
ExtraSpecialandBitter  - May 10, 2016, 9:14 a.m.

SRAM XX-Bakers Dozen

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oldmanbike
0
OldManBike  - May 10, 2016, 7:04 a.m.

This is a glorious column. One day, there will be an MTB media outlet with the courage to present common sense rider-centric views like yours as mainstream, and industry-dry-humper views like -- well, let's just say like others' -- only as amusing eccentric ravings.

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cam@nsmb.com
0
Cam McRae  - May 11, 2016, 11:58 p.m.

Wait… Isn' that us?

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Vikb
0
Vik Banerjee  - May 10, 2016, 6:12 a.m.

As someone who's still riding [and plans to keep on riding] a 26er from 2008 that's still an amazing bike I laugh at all the hyperfast standards coming out and then ignore them. I can buy compatible 10 spd drivetrains nice and cheap. I've got quality hubs on that bike that just need to be fed bearings to keep rolling another 8yrs.

My advice….buy something that's amazing and that you love…ride it, maintain it well and have a great time for many years. Let the bike ADHD marketing freakout happen without giving a shit. Repeat for next bike.

Okay I lied I do give a little bit of a shit. I had thought my next bike would be a 29er so I could swap expensive wheels with my bikepacking rig [also a 29er], but ya I've come to terms with the reality that the chances I can get both bikes on the same hub standard is nearly impossible unless I sell th current bikepacking bike and when I buy a 29er FS bike buy a new bikepacking bike at the same instant in hub history! Possible, but a drag…moving wheels from one bicycle to another shouldn't be that hard.

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tehllama42
0
Tehllama42  - May 10, 2016, 10:56 a.m.

This. So much this. I'm totally good with justifiable incremental progress, so long as opportunities to keep things backwards compatible are taken. This keeps bikes that are still rad from a few years ago useful (e.g. 10 speed drive trains still play nicely with 10x135mm and 135mm QR stuff - feed that bike bearings, lubricant, and rubber and it'll shred into the sunset).

I think what's actually pissing people off is that with the growing price of bikes, the implied expectations of buyers is that if they're forking over a few grand that it'll be a platform which is supported for a few years (I don't think it's wholly unreasonable to expect that a $5k bike should have five years of really solid support in terms of parts availability), but it simply isn't looking to be the case. If the performance delta was a quantum leap it would be one thing, but to be completely honest the latest and greatest 12 speed and super-huge 11 speed drivetrains still don't offer the range of my recent deprecated 2×10 setup or as many useful gear ratios.

The really successful technological additions are unsurprisingly stuff which is backwards compatible - dropper posts play nicely with existing stuff - sure using a lever in the place a front shifter is really nice, but not requisite. The best rim and tire setups happen to be the ones which leverage the UST standard. I know the word 'standard' is much maligned in current MTB parlance, but ones which actually are reasonable, logical, and therefore get re-used over time are a wholly different thing than some half-cocked stop-gap of a specification which designers know is a dead end, but the marketing group can't help but see as a 'latest and greatest' piece of technical jargon which further differentiates the product.

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