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Ask Uncle Dave

Dear Uncle Dave: What's with the Drivetrain Cartels?

Words Dave Tolnai
Date Jun 26, 2020
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Dear Uncle Dave:

Over the last few years, I've found myself switching loyalties between Shimano and SRAM for drivetrain parts. Shimano used to be the only real option that we had available. I moved over to SRAM in the 8/9 speed days, once they had stuff worth buying. I was back to Shimano for a while after that. Then back to SRAM for 11 and 12 speed. Now that Shimano is kicking ass again with 12 speed, I'm kind of sick of it. To be honest, I'm pretty excited to explore something else. I'm excited about some of the new drivetrains available from smaller companies, but from what I hear, none of these options stands a chance in hell of breaking through the Shimano/SRAM duopoly. Rumour has it that an OEM drivetrain spec is unattainable to anybody but those two, due to the market shenanigans that they can pull off with their ability to fully kit out a bike. Is there any chance that one of these smaller companies is going to be able to compete, or should I start pricing out a Shimano drivetrain for my new bike build?


Sick of it all

Dear Soffit:

I feel like you read my mind with this question! I've been curious about whether anybody can break through the Shimano/SRAM OEM spec glass ceiling, and I have long wondered if is any truth to the rumours that SRAM gets so much spec due to their aggressive package deals. Honestly though, I have no idea. But I know some people who might! I decided to reach out to the Product Manager for a well known bicycle brand to see if he/she could give me any answers. Here's what they had to say.

Uncle Dave - I understand that there is a lot that goes into selecting a drivetrain for a specific bike and price range. For a few years, it seemed like the decision was easier, since SRAM was the only real wide range 1x game in town. It feels like we are reaching more of a balance these days between SRAM and Shimano. Into this world, there are a few upstarts that are making waves. Box emerged a few years ago, and TRP is probably the most recent one. Whenever this happens, there seem to be many people eager to explain why these companies will never get any of the SRAM/Shimano OEM market share. The loudest of these opinions seems to be something along the lines of "SRAM offers such a huge discount for suspension/drivetrain packages. There's no way a bike company can spec anything other than full SRAM and remain competitive." Even though there are countless examples of bike companies speccing bikes with a mix of components, this comes up all the time when talking about fork or dropper spec - Reverbs in particular. Do SRAM/Shimano offer package discounts? How difficult is it for a company to pick and choose components from competing manufacturers? How much can you save by sticking with a one-stop-shop for all of your parts?

Anonymous Product Manager for a well known bicycle brand - This one's actually pretty easy- no, there aren't really package deals from either of the big S companies, at least that I've ever been offered. Tough to know for certain since of course negotiations between the vendor's different partners aren't really talked about, but I've never even heard a rumor of this sort of thing. I'm a bit out of my depth here, but there are also some legal complications at play that may be keeping this from being a common practice.

Discounts/rebates/team sponsorships are more likely to be based on total purchase volume, so there's certainly some incentive to buy a lot of stuff from one company, but you'd have to weigh that against losing an incentive from the competing suppliers.

There are a couple of major things to consider when asking why smaller component vendors aren't used more often.

1) Service and availability. Most decent-sized bike companies are selling bikes in nearly every country in the world. You want to make sure there is a solid support network in all of those countries so your customers don't have a nightmare hunting for brake pads, fork seals, chains, etc. When you smash your Box or TRP derailleur on a rock in New Zealand, is it going to be easy to get another one? Will your local dealer have something that's compatible in the case? If not- you as a product manager need to seriously consider what advantages you're getting from a smaller vendor that will make up for this deficiency. In my view, it better be a DAMN impressive product. Certainly some consumers specifically want something unique, but most people just want something that works well and isn't a hassle.

2) Compatibility. I'm not talking about the basic shit here, but what makes a nice factory bike feel like a cohesive package. Do the shifters and brake levers nest nicely with each other so you can get yourself good ergonomics? Better yet- do the shifters and brake levers mount to each other? How does the dropper lever fit into the picture? Do they have similar finishes so the complete bike doesn't look like something assembled from random crap someone had laying around? Does that lesser-known fork manufacturer make a shock that you like too?

3) Actual function. This is probably the most obvious and important one. Does a lesser-known drivetrain perform as well as one from a big S company? Reviews tend to say no. In my experience, no. It's easy to see why- Shimano and SRAM have been making drivetrains for a long time, and have massive resources and experience. There are a zillion patents on how shifters and cassettes work, and apparently it's quite the minefield to navigate. The big guys also already have a massive economy of scale to work with, and can likely deliver a better performance/cost ratio because of that.

Obviously another company making headway in this arena is totally possible, but it won't be easy. SRAM was able to pull it off many years ago, with a helping hand from Shimano's missteps at the time. Probably a fair bit harder now that there are two big players already battling it out.

Generally speaking there will always be some small company there waiting for the big boys to drop the ball. A few years back, it was fairly common to see Cane Creek shocks spec'd on complete bikes. Formula brakes were pretty mainstream. As few as 3 years ago, cottage-industry cassettes or even individual cogs were getting spec'd on bikes. Heck- a year ago, Shimano couldn't supply cranks for their own new 12 speed XTR- which opened up the door for the little guys a bit.

Right now the big players are doing a really solid job, but I'm sure it won't be that way for long.

Uncle Dave - I feel like I'm going to regret not walking through that door that you just opened about sponsorship dollars, but we're here to talk about drivetrains. Well...forks. Sorry. I can't help myself. I've noticed that in your range of bikes, you have a pretty even mix of Rockshox and Fox. But when you look at drivetrains, you have some XTR, but the majority is SRAM. How did that come to be?

Anonymous Product Manager for a well known bicycle brand - Good questions. Both of those decisions are a bit complicated- but here we go:

Rockshox vs Fox.

Part of this decision is trying to buy stuff from both companies to maintain good relationships. Both made nice offers for spec this year, and it was a tough call between them. Competition between those companies is pretty stiff these days.

A few things that can lead to a mixture of parts in a product line:

-The 36 is more complicated to adjust and has a “sportier feel” that will appeal to more hard-charging and/or fiddly riders. It’s the first fork I’ve seen where some riders are removing volume spacers to get the feel they want, which tells you something about the way it was tuned.

-The Lyrik is easier to set up and has a more all-around friendly ride characteristic. It’s interesting to note that the gap between these forks has closed dramatically for MY21, with Fox mellowing out the 36 and Rockshox updating the Lyrik to ride higher in its travel.

-Fox Factory suspension with its Kashima finish is like catnip to a lot of bike nerds. Not a lot of people are going to argue with that spec on a top-end bike. Especially when they have so many sweet, sweet clickers!

-The rear shocks from Fox and Rockshox have a very different feel and feature set, and you typically try to spec matching fork and shock. Some companies are more religious about this than others.

Why isn’t there more Shimano spec on complete bikes?

- Shimano is a pretty challenging vendor. I mentioned the XTR thing already - they really killed a lot of us with that. Cranks were over half a year late, causing factories to have to search for compatible substitutes- which really didn’t exist yet due to the new chain. Their hubs had to go back for redesign before they were released. By the time it really truly was available, SRAM AXS was there to steal some of its thunder.

- XT and SLX really weren't available in any real numbers until late summer, so they missed the model year and the selling season. For OE spec you need the parts to be arriving in your factory by April.

- We only get to pick specs once a year, so betting on the Shimano horse during the XTR debacle would have been BRAVE. You have to place these bets about 8 months ahead of time to make sure your factory gets its allocation. It's one thing to have a delivery fuckup on your halo bike, but a disruption to the $3000-6000 bikes will have a serious impact on your business and your dealers’.

- Shimano was being pretty ridiculous about the Microspline license up until this calendar year- really only licensing to a couple of companies. This ties our hands on spec and ties the hands of the rider when they want to upgrade or repair their bike later on.

- Personally I've struggled with the recent Shimano brakes, although that's a very emotional and contentious topic for many riders:)

All that said- XT and SLX are damn solid bike parts and we’re certainly seeing consumer demand for them. I think you’ll see more companies spec’ing SLX and XT now that it’s been available for a bit and is ready at model year time.

SRAM on the other hand is a very consistent vendor. Usually when they say they will deliver something on a certain date, they do. That's important.

-The bike parts work well. They're pretty sorted by now.

- SRAM has done a good job at being innovative lately. They’re consistently beating Shimano to the punch.

-The XD driver is ubiquitous and SRAM made that possible by making it free and available from the beginning.

-Their brakes are pretty solid and consistent now. Not everyone loves them, but I’m not aware of a brake that everyone loves.

Neither company is perfect, but we certainly feel more confident when putting SRAM in the spec than the emotional rollercoaster that is Shimano these days.

There you have it. That's what it feels like to ask questions of people that actually know what they're talking about. Don't get used to it, kids.


Uncle Dave

Uncle Dave's Music Club

This is not the first time that I have spoken about Fucked Up, here at Uncle Dave's Music Club. My relationship with Fucked Up is a strange one. I think they are #1 on my list of bands that I have somehow avoided seeing live. I can count at least a half dozen times when I've thought of going to their show, but just have not. My reason for doing so probably strikes at the heart of why Fucked Up is such a polarizing band.

If one was forced to describe Fucked Up in one sentence, it might be something along the lines of "a man screaming over beautiful arrangements." For me, this requires the right frame of mind, and it sometimes takes a little while for me to prepare myself for a Fucked Up album. I think that I take the same mindset towards their live show, and I've never felt mentally prepared for the experience. Part of me worries that the balance of screaming to music contained in the live show might throw me off a bit, and I'm just not willing to risk my love of Fucked Up for a few hours of live entertainment.

I've been listening to Dose Your Dreams a fair amount recently. It's a couple of years old now, but for me, the time feels right. It starts with giant kick to the crotch in the form of "None of your business, man", which is a great fucking song.

There's also the title track, "Dose your dreams", but totally throws off the screaming/music balance, but is worth a listen, as well. Fucked Up goes pop.

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+2 Pete Roggeman Jenkins5
Kenny  - June 26, 2020, 6:39 a.m.

I just ordered an E13 9-46 12 speed cassette to replace my tired GX unit.

Interested to see how that goes. It was about $100 cheaper and weighs 200g less, so if it shifts ok that will be a win for sure.


+1 Pete Roggeman
Lu Kz  - June 26, 2020, 7:47 a.m.

If they're anything like the 11 speed equivalent the E13 Cassettes work really nice. They seemed to have some QC issues or a bad run or something at the factory a few years ago when some of the larger rings were cracking in half (bad metal?), but it appears to be sorted now. It's something E13 always seemed to have struggled with: brilliant ideas, lower quality materials.


+3 Pete Roggeman Jenkins5 Andrew Major
Tehllama42  - June 26, 2020, 8:01 a.m.

If you're intensely nitpicky about mid-cassette shifting rapidity under load, they can be one tick off the mark for how quickly they react and the chain plays along... but that's the sum total of complaints I've been able to develop on the eTRS cassette over two years of abuse for something that is lighter, cheaper, has a wider range, and to my eye is better looking.


Jenkins5  - June 26, 2020, 9:31 a.m.

I’m using the e13 12 speed 9-50 version with XTR on one bike and it works great. Maybe not as smooth as an XTR cassette, but about as light and waaaay cheaper (picked it-up for $195 USD) plus I didn’t  have to get a new driver for my carbon wheels. I’m still on the 9-46 11 speed on my other bike and never had issues. I’m a fan of the e13 cassettes.


Pnwpedal  - June 26, 2020, 10:38 a.m.

I have had great luck with a TRS+ 11sp cassette, it's a subtle upgrade from the 11sp GX cassette it replaced. I've never had a bike that smoothly shifted to bigger cogs under "load" and always back off the pedal force while shifting, so it's good under those conditions.


+1 Jenkins5
AndrewR  - June 27, 2020, 7:03 p.m.

My E-13 11 speed TRS cassette was pretty hard wearing the revision to the pinch bolt rather than the lock ring was a big improvement in ease of fitment (and removal). You need two chain whips or a chain whip and a Unior style cassette tool (and four hands) to remove the cassette. It even comes with a little tube of grease for the cassette interface. Mine did not creak at all in two seasons of hard use in the Chilcotin.


0 Velocipedestrian bananowy
peterk  - June 26, 2020, 7:02 a.m.

Interesting article. It took Shimano longer to get to 10, 11, and 12, but was the general consensus that it was easier to sell a bike with plastic NX or SX components that go to N speeds, than a better Shimano SLX setup at a similar cost but with N-1 speeds to a clueless consumer?


+2 AJ Barlas Pete Roggeman
Vik Banerjee  - June 26, 2020, 7:49 a.m.

I have two new drivetrains ready to go for a couple bikes. Both Shimano 11 speed. Good price. Work great and they fall to hand easier for me than SRAM. But, you're not going to sell a new bike with "obsolete" tech like that on it! ;-)

Interesting take on OEM specs. I can 100% relate to the need for reliability in your supply chain. I've also had problems with the last few versions of Shimano brakes. So I can see why bike companies are going with a lot of SRAM build kits.

OTOH SRAM has made it hard for me to buy their parts at a decent price so as someone that doesn't buy complete bikes often I'm kind of Shimano by default. I don't really care about brands and if Shimano can sort out their brakes I'm happy to run their stuff.

I've been intrigued by the smaller drivetrain companies, but when it comes time to buy something my laziness wins and just going with Shimano or SRAM is easier and less hassle so I never break out of that part of the market.


Tehllama42  - June 26, 2020, 8:03 a.m.

Yeah, that OEM price delta feels painful, although it's probably an availability/supply side thing where SRAM is prioritizing OEM customers, and the market price stuff works out to to while keeping in stock ends up being what it is, and it doesn't hurt that bike MFG's can claim a large equivalent value on the included parts.
If they end up at the point where they can be part for part competitive in the aftermarket, it's likely game over going forward - as it is most of my bikes run OEM takeoff SRAM stuff where I could find it, the rest is all Shimano stuff because that made more sense.


+2 Pnwpedal Cam McRae
JVP  - June 26, 2020, 9:57 a.m.

SRAM does a good job controlling their MAP (min advertised price), where Shimano has allowed low margin online sellers to flood the market. Good for consumers, terrible for local bike shops, and LBS hate Shimano for this. Online prices have often been lower than LBS wholesale pricing.


+2 Luix Cam McRae
Pnwpedal  - June 26, 2020, 10:34 a.m.

From an LBS perspective, Sram is also very pleasant to work with and will warranty pretty much anything quickly and easily. Shimano is a royal pain-in-the-arse to even set up accounts with, worse yet to order from, and spotty at best for warranty CS. The shops I interact with don't even bother stocking Shimano, but have plenty of Sram (and a variety of "other" brands) on hand.


+3 twk Reaper Cam McRae
Mammal  - June 26, 2020, 10:48 a.m.

Traditionally being a Shimano guy, and after buying my first new complete bike in 13 years, I was interested in comparing the NX stuff on my new bike to what I was used to with the hacked 10 speed Shimano wide-range stuff that me and my girlfriend have been on for years now. Shifting was "fine", but the quality certainly wasn't there at all. I was hoping it would offer an SLX-comparable experience, but the shifter felt vague, the derailleur B-pivot was loose after a week, and the clutch gave out within 2 months of sparse covid-riding. Absolutely unacceptable from my perspective, regardless of NX's position in Sram hierarchy.

Then I see Deore release, not just a good quality groupo in the fashionable 12-speed version, but also in 11 and 10(!) speed versions as well. So they're basically saying "for those of you who care more about value per dollar than fashion, we've got your back with product on the shelves for years to come". The Deore and SLX 12-speed stuff will get some OEM sales for sure (the new NX bike I bought, is now only available with Deore), but the 11/10spd stuff is going to kill it in the aftermarket game as well. As a present and future consumer, this is what has me most excited I've been about the drive train stuff in years.


IslandLife  - June 29, 2020, 10:55 a.m.

Yep and all the min/maxing mixed drivetrain potential from Shimano now is huge!  XT shifter and derailleur (or even SLX derailleur?), Deore crankset, SLX cassette.  Boom, done.


0 taprider IslandLife
Endur-Bro  - June 26, 2020, 12:03 p.m.

Big drivetrain killed internal gearboxes by flogging e-mopeds

No way I’d want to be confused as an e-moped rider.


+3 danimaniac Neil Carnegie Luix
Dave Tolnai  - June 26, 2020, 4:03 p.m.

Make sure you don't ride the new Specialized Enduro, either. Those look a bit e-bikeish. When I had the Orbea Rallon test bike, somebody asked me if that was an e-bike, so best skip that one too. This could get really tricky for you.


+1 Nouseforaname
WalrusRider  - June 26, 2020, 1:50 p.m.

I'm fine with SRAM or Shimano drivetrain if I'm buying a complete bike. Same with brakes. But if I'm building up a frame I will choose Shimano drivetrain and Code brakes every time.


+7 Mammal Alex D Neil Carnegie twk Skyler Sandy James Oates Metacomet
Skooks  - June 26, 2020, 3:01 p.m.

IMO, Shimano is better value and is more robust than SRAM. SRAM works beautifully when it is new and properly tuned, but Shimano seems more tolerant of wear and misalignment. I have been running the 11-speed sunrace cassettes for quite a while now and they're great. They shift fine and last reasonably well.


+2 Velocipedestrian twk
Mammal  - June 26, 2020, 4 p.m.

My household has been on 10spd SLX mechs (goat link) with sun race 11-46 for a while now. No complaints at all.


Velocipedestrian  - June 26, 2020, 9:18 p.m.

I got the goatlink after fitting a sunrace 11-42 10spd and being disappointed with the shifting (slx derailleur, xtr shifter). Now I wish I'd got the 11-46... Next time.


ChazzMichaelMichaels  - June 26, 2020, 8:54 p.m.

I'm still on eight year old Saint brakes, shifter and derailleur, one up cage and my third Deore 11-42t cassette (10 speed).

Having a decent injury and just getting back on trainer, I've noticed that I'd rarely shift one cog at a time on a trail. (as opposed to the trainer) More multi shifts. Does 11 or 12 speed change this or make it worse?


danimaniac  - June 27, 2020, 12:27 a.m.

Makes it worse. Running GX absolutely trouble free here but doubleshift a lot. Even tripleshift quite some. Though on the lower gears/bigger cogs I tend to singleshift going uphill to keep cadence nice with slight adjusts of steepness. But you actually get similar gearing on a 10/11 speed "widespread" cassette. And I rarely use the 10t cog. So I'm actually thinking about downgrading to a 10/11 speed with 450% range.


-1 bananowy
Luix  - June 27, 2020, 5:41 a.m.

Didn't YT move out of SRAM suspension/drivetrain/brakes a couple of seasons ago to Fox/Shimano/Race Face because the 'Murikan giant wanted them to spec complete packages only? I recall reading in some German forums about it, it was an all-or-nothing kind of deal, and YT wanted to spec Race Face cranks for the added value they brought to their bikes.

And locally, I've heard a couple of similar stories, if you want to have SRAM GX/NX/SX drivetrains in your hardtails, you'd have to pony up for a Rock Shox fork, or look for a different drivetrain supplier. They would also sell you separate drivetrain components, but the price step up when going that route is certainly noticeable when bulk buying for a whole new bike line.


+6 Aaron Croft Luix cedrico Andrew Collins IslandLife bananowy
Dave Tolnai  - June 27, 2020, 9:50 a.m.

I mean....that was the whole point of the article! This is a myth! I talked to somebody who works every day with these scenarios and he said there is no truth to this. Discounts are based on total volume, not individual bike spec. Judging by the number of fox forked sram drivetrained bikes available for purchase, this does seem to be the case.


+1 Luix
Aaron Croft  - June 27, 2020, 10:03 a.m.

But, but, it's a global SRAM conspiracy!

I guess I'm not discerning enough, but I've had had both Shimano and SRAM components on numerous bikes. They both have their pros/cons but mostly work well with minimal issues. I stuck with SRAM because I got a good deal and didn't see the point in buying a new freehub standard.


+1 Cam McRae
Luix  - June 27, 2020, 10:21 a.m.

Hey, don't you dare ruin my conspiracy theory with some old fashioned facts!

I bet your last name isn't Tolnai, but Rothschild, Illuminati, or Rockefeller. Next time you're surely going to post something trying to justify that NASA nonsense about how the Earth isn't flat.


+1 Luix
Dave Tolnai  - June 27, 2020, 2:53 p.m.

The most interesting thing in all of this is that whenever I talk about these conspiracy theories with people that work with this sort of thing every day, they seem totally baffled as to why anybody would think something like that, to the point where I feel kind of stupid for asking the question.


+2 Luix Cam McRae
Pnwpedal  - June 27, 2020, 3:21 p.m.

There's definitely an interesting "curtain" in the bike industry that many enthusiasts never get to see behind. And they probably don't want to, as it's not that pretty and somewhat boring. But most of it includes working really really hard for not much profit and a small chance of long-term success in the industry.


+1 Cam McRae
Luix  - June 27, 2020, 5:46 p.m.

I didn't include this next paragraph in my previous post to keep the joke going, but it was originally meant to be there:

I really appreciate you had the courage to ask those stupid questions for us. I was actually thinking of how embarrassed I would feel if I had to be in your position. My original post was directed to highlight how quickly this kind of rumors spread, and how little evidence they need to be taken as true.


+1 Cam McRae
Reaper  - June 27, 2020, 6:26 p.m.

The bashing your TRP or Box derailleur on a rock in New Zealand had me chuckling. As being from NZ, the irony is you could actually get the spares for it here. Other irony is, if it was mid-to-upper tier Shimano you might be outta luck. I had to wait 3 months for a Zee rear derailleur, and that was well before anything Covid-19. Then again the Shimano NZ is run by people who still think an MTB is just a BMX with gears therefore not important, and hardcore road cyclists.

Commencal have done it the interesting way for their 2021 bikes. Some (example Meta TR), are full Shimano and Fox, others are full Sram with Rock Shox.

Also see Microshift for their new wide range groupset. Reviews I've seen and read are pretty good. Kinda inclined to give their 10 speed wide range a go on a 1989 Rockhopper (insert lol comment).


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