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10-Speed - Is more really that much more?

It’s been heralded as the revolutionary technology that will change the way you ride, but do 10-speed cassettes really offer a huge advantage to mountain bikers? The answer may not be as black-and-white as it might seem. By Drew Asuncion

When is more actually less? The shift by large-scale bike manufacturers to 10-speed rear gear cassettes has certainly gotten a lot of people talking about the need for such an

Nowadays, it’s practically impossible to meet someone who hasn’t at least heard of mountain bikes, also called MTBs. At the core, these are regular bicycles whose components have been beefed up to
withstand the rigors of riding over rocks, roots and similar obstacles on an unpaved trail at speeds ranging from slow to whoa. While this may sound like something that a big-air stunt ride like a BMX bike can do, mountain bikes are designed to be more versatile and accessible. This means strong yet lightweight components, specialized frame geometry (no pun intended for you gearheads) to ensure maximum power delivery and comfort, and of course, variable gearing.

It started out innocently enough — some kids put fat tires on their dads’ road bikes and went out into the wild. However, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, major bike brands took note of this development and
started turned it into a branch of cycling that still continues to gain both legitimacy and popularity. Today, mountain bikes have become a multi-billion dollar business, with bike and component makers from countries as diverse as the US, China, Taiwan and Canada all vying for a piece of the pie.

Some of the most important (and thus pricey) components on any mountain bike can be found in its drivetrain. This is the system that converts your legs’ energy into a bike’s forward motion, and consists
of the pedals, crank arms, chainrings, chain, front and rear derailleurs and the rear gear cassette. The most common versions of the rear cassette are 8-speed and 9-speed types; this means that the rear cassette has either eight or nine cogs, each with different tooth counts that commonly range from 11 to 34. However, a few major players in the cycling industry have launched what they are touting to be the future of mountain bike gearing—the 10-speed cassette.

The 10-speed cassette is precisely what its name would suggest — a single unit that integrates 10 cogs with different tooth counts. This technology has been proven effective on road bikes for a while now—check out leading component manufacturer Shimano’s top- shelf Dura-Ace drivetrain series as proof.

The ability to use multiple cogs for a bicycle’s drivetrain offers riders one main benefit - fine-tuning the balance between power output and speed. It’s a given that the harder one pedals, the faster a bike will go, much like a car whose engine power is harnessed by a certain gear. However, different surfaces and height gradients will at times make turning a cog with a small number of teeth impractical. The rider will simply end up bonked, or drained of energy, with very little distance covered to show for it. The most practical answer is to allow the rider to choose between different cogs to dial in the most sensible combination for him or her. Today’s mountain bikes usually offer a combination of nine rear cogs and three chainrings up front for a total of 27 possible ratios, or speeds. Road bikes, being engineered not so much for sturdiness as for lightweight, velocity and maximum efficiency, have the option of using two chainrings and ten cogs, or 20 speeds. However, industry giants SRAM and Shimano have recently released systems built around the
10-speed cog cassette concept specifically for mountain bikes, and others are following suit.

Another reason for the slow adoption of 10-speed cassettes for MTB use was their poor mud-shedding capability. The cogs in these cassettes are tightly packed by necessity, and this means that the mud and other debris that dirt riders regularly pick up cannot be shed easily. This fact can cause problems particularly when one shifts often, and a missed shift can end in a spill or faceplant for many a rider.

Dirt buildup is also a factor when it comes to 10-speed derailleurs. These are the intricate contraptions that do the physical moving of a bike chain up and down through the different cogs of a cassette. When working with a tightly spaced 10-speed cassette, the adjustments needed to make shifting perfect each and every time throughout the cassette are minute, and require a high level of precision. The grimy conditions of off-road riding and racing simply made that level impractical.

Thin chains were reason that 10-speed cassettes could not immediately be adapted for torque-heavy mountain biking. While these chains could technically boast of a small weight reduction, these road-centric products could not offer adequate durability for off-road purposes. Fortunately, with
the advent of advanced materials and manufacturing techniques, chains that were light yet amazingly strong became a reality. At least, until now.


It seems SRAM has gotten the jump on Shimano and other component makers with the 2009 release of their XX drivetrain groupset. Designed around the 2x10 chainring- cog concept, it really isn’t that much of a stretch to imagine that option-hungry MTB riders will embrace products such as the aforementioned X X and
Shimano’s own Dyna-Sys, which offers both 2x10 and 3x10 drivetrain versions. In fact, this is already happening right now. Mud-shedding and mechanical reliability are augmented by extensive designing
and computer-controlled machining. The additional f lexibility, not to mention the bragging rights that come with having one of the these systems, are the main selling points of 10-speed cassette-based systems.

In fact, SRAM’s top-of-the-line X X groupset has become so popular that the technology has now trickled down to their more budget-friendly X0, X9 and X7 groupsets. This is sure to put a smile on the faces of money-conscious riders everywhere.

This is great news because this kind of innovation comes at a price, and for many, it’s certainly not a cheap one. This type of system adoption means a complete drivetrain overhaul if you’re coming from a 9-speed setup, and we all know that top-grade components don’t come cheap. But the 2x10 and 3x10 systems currently offered as of press time certainly have some advantages that 3x9 drivetrains simply cannot match. For one thing, 2x10 drivetrains have less redundant gear ratios than
3x9 ones. Without getting into the nitty-gritty details, current 10-speed users can attest to the fact that it becomes much easier for riders to intuitively find the perfect gear for any situation. Closer gear ratios make for smoother and faster shifting and cadence recovery for different types of climbing and descending situations. Anyone who’s ever run out of middle-ring gearing options using a 9-speed cassette, perhaps forcing a shift into the granny gear, can certainly appreciate this particular innovation.

Also, the additional weight penalty imposed by a 10-speed cassette can be made up for with the two-ring crankset of a 2x10 system. Less rings, less weight. The thinner chain employed by Shimano and SR AM also help to shave off a few ounces. Besides, the improved efficiency of the 2x10 and 3x10 drivetrains will certainly make any added weight unnoticeable.

So what could stop a current 9-speed user from taking the 10-speed plunge? Of course, cost is a major factor. Both SR AM’s X X and Shimano’s Dyna-Sys drivetrains are simply not compatible with 9-speed components. 10-speed-specific cranks, cogs, derailleurs and chains are required, and the total cost may be a bit too much for weekend riders and hobbyists to stomach. Of course, some may argue that 9-speed cranks, for example, may work with 10-speed system components. But it should be noted that trying to mix and match can compromise performance, and these ‘hybrid’ 10-speed systems may end up not working as the manufacturer designed them to.

However, there is simply no denying that 10-speed systems are here to stay, and can most definitely be viewed as the wave of the future. Many major manufacturers are in fact spec-ing 10-speed systems for their 2011 model year offerings. If you’re in the market for a new built bike, or are putting together your dream bike, today’s 10-speed drivetrains from SR AM and Shimano definitely deserve a second look. Get your money’s worth, while making every ride a more fun one for you and your legs as well!