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SRAM Force 1 review

SRAM Force 1 crank
18 Nov 2015

With just one chainring on its new Force 1 groupset, SRAM aims to prove that simplicity is often the best solution.

I can remember, as a kid, getting my first 10-speed ‘racer’. It had a five-speed freewheel with a double chainset, which was important because in those days your bike’s kudos was judged by how many gears it had. Since then, gradually more and more sprockets have been crammed in, with all the big three groupset brands now topping out at 11-speed cassettes, facilitating (with a triple chainset) the potential for a mindboggling 33 gears. More, however, is not always better. All those options can make for a finicky set-up, with awkward chain lines and issues with the chain rubbing the front mech. Besides, some of those gears will be wasted because of duplications (for example, 50/25 is the same as 34/17). Instead, consider the possibility of ditching multiple front chainrings and removing the fuss of front shifting entirely, yet maintaining a spread of gears comparable to that currently available using a compact set-up. Enter Sram’s Force 1 – the groupset that has convinced me I may never again need any more than 11 gears. 

Proven pudding

1x11 (‘one-by’ for short) gearing is not a new concept – it has proved itself over a number of years in mountain bike and cyclocross. The road market is going to be a harder nut to crack, but Sram has done the maths and claims its one-by road groupsets (there are Force and Rival options) can cover 97% of what is currently available using a two-chainring set-up. Whenever I’ve ridden a one-by bike, it has been met with scepticism by people who can’t believe it offers a decent spread of gears or who think that the jump between gears must be too big. My response to them all has been to try it before passing judgement.

I’ve ridden the one-by set-up for an extensive test period and I’ve yet to encounter many downsides to this concept

I’ve ridden the one-by set-up for an extensive test period, spanning close to a year. I’ve used it on a variety of terrains and locations, culminating in the toughest test of all, the Alpen Brevet sportive in Switzerland, known to be one of the most brutal single-day events at nearly 280km with more than 7,000m of vertical ascent.

Throughout this ongoing testing period I’ve yet to encounter many downsides to this concept, aside from occasionally needing to change the cassette depending on where I was riding. My 11 gears haven’t missed a beat and I’ve seldom been left wanting more. For the majority of the riding I’ve done around the undulating roads of rural Dorset, I found that a 46t chainring paired with Sram’s 11-32 cassette covered most situations. Rarely did I find myself spinning out the 46/11 top gear. Only when speed reached around 60kmh on a downhill, or fast tailwind stretch, was this really an issue. At the other end of the cassette, the 46/32 bottom gear was sufficient to carry me at a comfortable cadence up most gradients, perhaps with the exception of something like a 20% ramp, where I would be forced to ride a lower than preferred cadence out of the saddle. But the occasions when the gearing didn’t suit my needs were rare indeed. When I did the Alpen Brevet I switched to Sram’s widest ranging 10-42 cassette, giving me a higher top gear as well as a lower bottom gear than a compact chainset paired with an 11-28 cassette. 

Broad appeal

Using a 10-42 cassette means bigger jumps between gears, which might put off some riders, but my experience was that it’s far less noticeable than you might imagine. In fact I found it of little consequence for the majority of situations.

SRAM Force 1 cassette

More important is the fact that this one-by drivetrain feels tangibly smoother, more solid and ultimately more efficient in transferring power thanks to Sram’s X-Sync chainring. The ring itself is laterally very stiff and its specific, wide-narrow tooth profile is designed to locate and securely hold the chain, whereas multiple chainrings are usually designed for the complete opposite – with teeth shaped to facilitate easy unloading of the chain. Plus the clutched rear derailleur helps to keep the entire drivetrain more taut. As well as feeling really positive, this also keeps things quiet, as the chain will no longer slap and bounce around on a rough road surface. And I didn’t drop a chain once during the test period.

Aesthetics are of course subjective, but I’m a fan of the way the single chainring cleans up the look of the front end of the drivetrain, especially when the frame has no braze-on front derailleur mount or, as is sometimes the case (Giant and Canyon to name two), the mount can be removed, leaving no trace of front shifting at all.

There’s an argument that it could also be more aerodynamic. Certainly designers could focus more attention on the shaping of the seat tube if they didn’t have to worry about the placement of the front mech.

Its simplicity of use is also very appealing – no more having to think about chainlines or consider the best combination of chainring and sprocket. You just shift up or shift down.

It’s easy to see why riders might feel cautious about embracing a system that shuns the established norms of road cycling, but don’t dismiss the Force 1 until you’ve tried it. You might just be surprised at what you find.


From £888

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