Mrs. Mechanic: The One By
This Suess-ical list of options refers to the number of rings on your front crank. Which is about how much I knew in 2013. Actually, I did not know that there was such a thing as a “one by” (1x), except on single-speed and fixed gear bikes. Vaguely, I could recall reading somewhere that the number of pointy-thingies on the ring could be mathematically coupled to the number of pointy thingies on the cassette ring that the chain was in contact with on the rear wheel, and that would tell you how hard the gear was. Though, I did have the basics down: big ring in back, big ring in front, and a grating noise coming from the vicinity of your front derailleur might suggest that you were “cross-chaining”. Similarly, small ring in front, small ring in back, might mean “chain-slap”. I’ve been guilty of both.
As a triathlete - prior to 2013 - shifting gears was optional. “Crank it like a pepper mill” went one admonishment from the infamous NYC Bike Snob who once claimed to be able to spot a triathlete by their slow cadence and inability to shift. Whatever. I could shift, I just chose not to most of the time, Josh “Butthead” Johnson. And, if you’ve ever done the half-ironman distance 70.3 at Walt Disney World, you’ll know what I mean. 56 miles in the same gear. Never even got out of the aerobars.
So what happened in 2013-14? I alluded to this in a previous #MrsMechanic post. Scene: mid-cyclocross season. I was riding a Cannondale SuperX. This was the early days of my pro racing before I earned the right to have a dedicated, matching pit bike. My speed on the bike was starting to overtake my skills on the bike. Figuring out when and where to shift into the right gear in order to accelerate out of corners, ride sand, blast up punchy climbs, start, etc. I started off the season with the same set-up I had been riding the previous years (maybe even a lot of the same parts?). I had a two-by (2x) on the front, and 10-speed on the back. In the UCI Elite
Women’s race at Louisville, I was within striking distance of a Top-10 finish. That is until I dropped my chain. Twice. The first time, it happened, I was setting the bike down, the chain was on the small chainring in the front, a smaller cassette ring in the rear, and with the slack in the chain, and the jostle of the race, those pointy-thingies just couldn’t hang on. The second time was even worse, I got a little aggressive with the manual shifter without enough tension on the pedals, and shifted the damn chain high off the track. Enough, I told myself. Consciously or not, I stopped shifting onto the big chain ring.
That was when @DougEFreshCX, back when he was sporting the full beard(!) talked to Jose - expert cyclocross bicycle mechanic and “main man" when it comes to SRAM shifting issues, rider-error or else. He suggested that, “People had been running single-chain ring on cross for years!”. In the NorthEast, the mud gets so thick that it lifts the chain right off the chain ring (News flash: this happen in Cincinnati, too, last week-end). To combat this, they use 1x and deploy chain guards or other similarly techie “safety features”. Engineer around your problems, my Dad always says.
Before the next race, Doug was modifying the SuperX. Fortunately, I had switched to running SRAM in 2011 (another move catalyzed by Doug, the Chief Bicycle Officer during his early days in the role). He knew SRAM had just come out with a 1x system for the mountain bike. It utilized a Type 2 rear derailleur because of the stronger spring, pre-“Force 1" (eventual brand name for the 1x system for cyclocross). But, mountain bike (MTB) handlebars are flat, and thus the shifters are entirely different. At issue, would this type of derailleur work with a ram-handle shifter? This is why it is fortunate that I was already riding SRAM. Both SRAM road and mountain shifting has a 1:1 cable-pull ratio (if you would like more explanation than that, might I suggest a couple of youtube videos?). Also, could it run clean and reliably without a chain guard? After all, we are all secretly weight-weenies, and I still wanted to crank it like a peppermill. Fortunately, Wolftooth made a 38-tooth (pointy thingy) wide-narrow chain ring big enough for cyclocross power. Doug married it with the MTB derailleur, using my SRAM shifters, and “Voila!”. We were off to the races.
At CincyCX the following week-end, I would go on to record my first Top-10 finish in a UCI Women’s Elite race. I haven’t “only” dropped my chain since - it has come off in crashes; can’t engineer around everything! And, I won’t say that my placing dramatically improved in subsequent races simply because I switched to a 1x system. But, bringing my riding ability and style in alignment with the demands of the course was game-changing (and I did manage win win my first UCI C2 race at the North Carolina Grand Prix, the 30-34 baby masters National Championships, AND take 11th in the women's Elite race!)
The following season, 2014-15, with two dedicated cyclocross bikes, We set up one as 1x and the other as 2x. By the end of the season, it was clear that I was starting on and preferring to ride the 1x almost exclusively. The following season, 2015-16 and my first riding for Van Dessel, both #FullTiltBoogie cyclocross bicycles were set-up with 1x.
This has opened me up to the ceaseless heckles of one Josh Johnson, fellow Mizzou Alumn, former elite cyclocross racer and teammate on Big Shark Bicycle, and patriarch of cyclocross in the Columbia, MO. “Shift into your big ring,” he implores me. I already did.