Gearing: how looowww can you go?

Lee, I was just catching up on my email and noticed your newsletter article on the 1×11 drivetrain. I ride a 1×11 with a 30t chainring. I feel like I am working my ass off compared to my buddies with their 2×10 setups. What do you suggest? I ride a Santa Cruz Tallboy carbon, I am 60 years old, currently I am in early-season shape but a strong upper-intermediate rider in-season. Your article seems to suggest that a smaller chainring or a switch to a 2×10 might help.
“Mr. Fatigued” Marc


This has been an interesting topic on and Facebook:

Are you strong enough for a 1×11 drivetrain?

To sum it up so far:

1x drivetrains are light and simple and fashionable. If you have the right gearing for your terrain and body — or the right body for your gearing and terrain — they’re a great solution.

When I rode the Pivot Mach4C in Arizona recently, the XTR 1×11 worked perfectly. Here in Colorado, my main trail bikes have XTR or XT 2x10s.

The “classic” 1x solutions allowed a smallest chainring of 28t. This, with a 42t cog, yields a higher low-low gear than a standard 2x setup. For many riders in many places, this is fine.

But it’s not for everyone.

I’m out of touch with the compatibility details, but some of the newest 1x cranksets will fit a 26t ring. A 1x with 26x42t gear gives about the same low as a 2x with a 22x36t. This will work for more people.

But — still! — it’s not for everyone.

Some riders can benefit from even lower gears. Physique, fitness, terrain, fatigue, long warmups, easy training phases, personal preference … for whatever reason, some of us want to turn a smaller gear.

When I visited Pivot, I checked out Chris Cocalis’ personal Mach4C. Chris is a smart, skilled, experienced and fit rider. He rides very steep, technical terrain near the Pivot office (South Mountain!). Do you know what drivetrain he runs? A 2x with a wide-ratio cassette:

I believe Chris runs a 42 in the back, and it looks like a 24 in the front. This gives a low, low, low gear. You might not use it on every ride, but it’s there when you need it. With a clutch derailleur you’re not dropping chains. The only cost is an extra lever and some weight. Again: Cocalis is no schmuck; he’s one of the smartest people in mountain biking!

And now … the new Shimano XT

The new Shimano XT group, which is currently blowing up Pinkbike, comes with 1x, 2x and even 3x options.

There are lots of aftermarket upgrades and hacks out there. There are stock, dialed setups. I am too much of a stress case to gamble with the drivetrains on my work bikes.

30, 32 or 34t ring
11-42 cassette
Lowest gear: 30/42 (0.71)

24-34, 26-36 or 28-38t rings
11-40 cassette
Lowest gear: 24/42 (0.57)

22-32-40t rings
11-40 cassette
Lowest gear: 22/42 (0.52 – the lowest gear out there)

From this chart, you can see the XT 1X setup has a taller low gear than the lowest SRAM 1X. The XT 2X and 3X options give you a lower low gear (and higher high gears).

I’d most likely run the XT 2×11, which gives a pretty low climbing gear and all the top end I’ll ever need.

BTW: On my S-Works Enduro 29 I run an old XT 3X crankset with the two small rings and a Gamut bashguard:

Marc, we have lots of options. At the least, switch your 30t ring to a 28. If your crankset will take it, try a 26. Next step is a 2x drivetrain with a wide-ratio cassette (either stock XT or one of the aftermarket options). I believe 2X can help a lot of riders with minimal drawbacks.

Ride whatever works for you. Have fun out there!


Know more. Have more fun!

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15 replies
  1. Max says:

    I think 1x is nice and works for me, but like anything it is about trade offs. If you are willing to deal with the sacrifice and inherent physical demands required for the benefits it offers, great.
    Mountain biking is hard work, no matter how you slice it. Get your bike to work best for you over the conditions you encounter the majority of time and it becomes less hard and more fun.
    I think its also important to factor in your lowest level when setting up your bike. Meaning when your feeling tired and off your game. You need “margins for error” in your set up, gearing, suspension, tire, etc..
    Get it to work for you, no one else matters when it comes to your bike setup.

  2. Robbo says:

    I’m 45, a bit over optimum fighting weight – ahem – but I still have some of the skills earned over 25 years. I run and love XTR home-made 2 x 10, and it *really* steams my spuds when the young ‘uns look at my bike a say ‘Oh! Two by ten? That’s old school.’

    No… it’s a mountain bike. I have to ride bloody steep uphills, and I’m 110kg, so I NEED a 24/40 or 26/42 to clean the stuff I wanna clean.

    On the way down, I just don’t get why people want to drop into a 30/10 or a 32/11, either. Less chain security, more slapping around… and you just run out of gears! No speed!

    I get one-by, I really do. But no way is it the only solution.

  3. leelikesbikes says:

    Yep …

    And let’s not forget that chain torque is higher with physically smaller gears than with larger ones.

    Given the choice, I’d rather lay my Awesome Power into a 36×19 than a 28×15.

  4. Dave says:

    Lee, as I read it only the 40 tooth cassette will work on 2x and 3x cranks. Can you check into that and reconfigure the charts? I ride a 29er and am of average fitness – for a flat lander. When riding out west I need every bit of my 22/36 set up and am really hoping to run 22/42 or even 22/40…but it looks like 24/40 is as close as I am going to get, but don’t want to plunk down the cash if it isn’t a noticeable difference. I have looked into the 42 tooth aftermarket cogs are said to not “work” with a 22 tooth ring…due to high torque issues, which I read to mean you could rip s$%t up on your freehub body and or internals running that combo. Thoughts?


  5. Mike says:

    Mine 1×11 bike (Canyon Strive) is on it’s way to me so i’m kinda worried that i might be to weak for it.I know that most people didn’t handled 34t at front and went for 28-30.I can only guess that if it will be to much i will just go to shop and buy more weights…

  6. leelikesbikes says:

    Dave, good catch. I’ve updated the text and chart.

    I’ve ripped the s— out of certain freehub bodies no matter what gear I use. A 22×42 is just increasing that chance — provided you have traction and can actually put all that torque to the ground. Bring a spare freehub to Slickrock?

  7. David says:

    Well, with XX1 you can always run 26T or even 24T on front. I have both from Wolftooth, though unfortunately the 24T only works fine with long spindle crank.

    Can’t beat 24/42 on certain Alpine climbs and with knees that need gentle care.

  8. cycloscott says:

    “I’ve ripped the s—- out of certain freehub bodies no matter what gear I use.”

    ahem… Sea Otter? Twice perhaps?

  9. boxman says:

    Hello Lee,

    I have a Question for you but allow me share who am I. I’m in the process of building my 29er Rig.. Niner E.M.D.

    The background info on me – Now I have been an avid bike rider for as long as I can remember. I have done BMX. I used to Road Race, (Long distanc and Crit). I have done Track riding. I have done some mtn biking.

    It’s been long while I have done any serious racing. Although as of now I’m riding a fixed/single speed bike. Another thing about me- I do have pretty strong legs and I am more of speedster when it comes to flat whether it be on dirt or road. Although my climbing skills are somewhat ok. If there’s a pure climber riding with me up the hill then I’d try to stay with em although I may get drop if I start to fade away. I always try to make it up catching up with em on downhill or on flats. One last fact – I’m 6’3″ 220 pounder dude aged at 47 years old set on losing some weight.

    Now the question – I am looking into RaceFace Turbine. Should I go with 2×10 or 3×10? Where I live is flat and there are mountains in the Asia parts.

  10. leelikesbikes says:

    Hey there,

    2×10 should be fine. The low gear should be low enough (and you can make it lower later if you want to). You don’t need the high of a 3x unless you’re racing (maybe) or riding a lot of road.

  11. Mark says:

    Hi Lee:

    One thing that weighing for a new bike is 1x vs 2x, and gearing is obviously one part of the equation.

    But a second part of the equation that I’m considering is suspension performance. Anti-squat is higher in a lower chainring (more pedaling support and kick back) than in a higher chainring (more supple suspension).

    So I could go with a 28T front ring, and probably pull the gearing. But I’m concerned that I would have a higher anti-squat through out the gear range. For the bike that I’m looking at (HD3), I would actually have more anti-squat in the higher gears with a 1x and a smaller front chain ring.

    Wondering if you have any thoughts on this?

    Is the impact on anti-squat so subtle that I shouldn’t even consider it?

  12. leelikesbikes says:


    A bike like the HD3 (with a DW Link suspension design) is optimized for a certain chainring size. Too small and you feel chain/suspension interaction. Too big and the bike wallows (and you can’t pull the gear). If you have the legs, find out what size ring is ideal, then run a 1X. Otherwise, I suggest running a 2X with small ring for long climbs, then optimize your bigger ring for the suspension design.

    The Ripley seemed to be ideal with a 32-34 ring. I rode one with a 24/36 2x. It felt awful in the 24*; it felt better in the 36, but I had to pull the 36/36 all over tarnation.

    *Awful is a strong word. I got used to it, but I felt the extra movement and loss of energy. You might not even notice.

    A design like the Specialized FSR has little to no chain/suspension interference. This gives you more drivetrain options. I’ve been on FSR bikes forever; that might be why I notice any interference.


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