I have seen a huge array of new tech while covering pro races, from the Tour Down Under to Paris-Roubaix to the Tour de France and an array of one-day and stage races in between. Some is interesting, and much is expected. But when Aqua Blue Sport announced that all its team members would be riding the single-chainring 3T Strada next season, I was genuinely gobsmacked.
I simply cannot see any benefit that a 1x drivetrain offers to road racing.
As a Pro Continental team, Aqua Blue Sport is at the second tier of the sport, just below the WorldTour. But with wins at Tour de Suisse and Vuelta a España, the Irish squad is a legitimate professional outfit.
Team owner Rick Delaney has made it no secret that the Irish based team want to be at the WorldTour level and if this season’s success continues — combined with the right recruitment — I don’t doubt they could make the step up in the coming years.
But could the switch to a disc-brake-only, 1x drivetrain bike affect the team’s performances on the road? This is an historic first for pro road racing, and I’m not sure it’s a good thing.
The 3T has many cutting-edge elements: an aero frame for slicing through the air and reducing rider effort, lowered seatstays for more comfort and a huge bottom bracket area to improve power transfer. These frame characteristics are the consensus for top-tier race bikes; just look at the latest Specialized Tarmac, BMC Teammachine SLR01 or Pinarello Dogma F10.
Unlike the bikes above that come in rim-brake and disc-brake varieties, the 3T Strada is disc only. But I’m not here to tell you about those spinning discs of death. Tom Boonen and Marcel Kittel have proven you can win on them without chopping anybody in half.
Disc brakes are inevitable in pro racing – eventually.
But a single chainring for road racing?!
Yes, you can get a big range with 3T’s new 1x cassette. Pairing a 9-32 cassette with a 44t chainring gives you a gear range of roughly 54/39 and 11-28, just a little wider than the standard WorldTour gearing of 53/39 and 11-28.
While the gear range is undoubtedly there, the jumps between the cogs on the cassette are much larger, and in a race scenario this could cause issues.
The 3T cassettes address this by keeping the ratios close at the top or middle of the cassette, and having larger jumps on the lower/easier gear ratios that are less likely to be used while racing, but the gaps still exist.
Consider a few race scenarios: maintaining speed in a bunch of 150 riders and 50kph, holding your cadence on a long Alpine pass with varying pitch, constantly changing gears on an aggressive rolling hill finale or slippery cobbled berg. In any of these situations why would 11 gears with big gaps be better than 22 gears with smaller gaps?
It would be interesting to map how a professional uses their range of gears during a race and compare that to a 1x setup. For me, the benefits of using 1x for road racing just aren’t there. But at least you won’t drop a chain…
Speaking of, a select few race scenarios are more suited to 1x drivetrains. Paris-Roubaix is the most obvious of these, with its pancake-flat elevation profile and 50-odd kilometres of brutish cobblestone sectors. There, a taut chain makes sense. And many pros forego a wide gear range because it isn’t needed. But Roubaix only happens once a season.
Until 14- or 15-speed cassettes, and the subsequent closer gearing, becomes available I don’t think 1x drivetrains are viable options for top-end racing. Saying that, Aqua Blue Sport has been one of the cycling stories of the year (Larry Warbasse is the man!) and I’d love to see Rick Delaney and Gerard Vroomen prove me wrong.