Normally, I’m pretty excited about advances in cycling technology and I love to try the newest, lightest, most aerodynamic inventions. However, with the advent of 11-speed drivetrains, I’m not convinced at the need to upgrade.
Actually, I’m upset that the bike industry is suddenly moving to this “new standard” which results in forced upgrades, but, as far as I can see, with no real benefit to the end user. This conspiracy of planned obsolescence just doesn’t seem necessary. Heck, there are plenty of new avenues of growth like disc brakes, gravel bikes, aero-road bikes, carbon fiber wheels and new and amazing frames. Why do they need to fuss with yet another drivetrain standard?
It All Started With A 6-Speed
As a long-time cyclist and gear nut, I am accustomed to change and typically welcome it if warranted. (You can see the proof in my many bikes from over the years in the gallery below.) It started when I got my first road bike in 1986 was 6-speed. That first bike was a $450 Tange 1 steel-framed Nishiki International with a mix of Suntour Cyclone and Sprint components (think Shimano 105 and Ultegra, respectively. Superbe Pro was the Dura Ace equivalent).
For $50 more, I had it “upgraded” to Shimano 600 SIS shifters and rear derailleur with a six-speed cluster and a 13-26 cassette. SIS, otherwise knows as “Indexed shifting” is likely the most revolutionary advancement in cycling for the past 40 years or more, eclipsed, perhaps only by LOOK pedals that signaled the end of toe clips and straps.
Until SIS, shifting was friction-based. Meaning you had to move the shifter “just so” to get it to hold a gear. With SIS, you simply clicked the lever in to place. It was awesome! The bike also had 52/42 front chainrings, which was the standard for the day. I was happy as a lark and rode the snot out of that bike, and, in fact, I still own it today.
Bottom line: when Shimano introduced 6-speed with indexed shifting, it was a huge step forward in shifting performance, in addition to providing one more gear from 5-speed. It was a worthy upgrade and the gruppo provided many reasons to go to 6 speed.
Then Came 7-Speed
Shimano then introduced 7-speed in 1987. I waited three years until 1990 to upgrade when Shimano 600 became “Ultegra” and sprang for a Dura Ace freewheel with 12-23 gearing, which gave me more top end speed which was useful for triathlons. Fortunately, the original 600 derailleur worked with 7-speed indexed shifters so I didn’t have to upgrade that and I kept the front chainrings. With the lower gears, 7-speed was a reason to upgrade. SRAM also joined the fray at this time with economical twist shifters that also worked with 7-speed. It was reasonably priced to buy just a new cassette and shifters to get the advantages of 7-speed.
Anyone For 8-Speed
8-speed came around about a year later, but I never got it on my road bike, though my mountain bike was thus equipped. I believe 8-speed introduced the 28-tooth rear cog, which, coupled with a 22 tooth front made it much easier to climb the steeps. Shimano also completely revamped their cassette design; 5, 6, and 7-speed cassettes were not compatible with the new freehub design of 8-speed.
In 1996, 9-speed was introduced. 9-speed was notable for introducing a larger big chainring and smaller small chainring with a 53×39 front configuration, and either an 11-23 or 12-25 rear cluster. This provided more power on the down-hills with easier gears on the up-hills. Shimano also introduced the Octalink bottom bracket which was exceedingly stiff and had more splines to reduce and prevent any “play” with the cranks. 9-speed was also lighter.
Thus convinced of the merits of 9-speed, in 1999, I bought a Fuji Team Issue bike with “state of the art” scandium tubeset and 9-speed Ultegra. The Fuji rocked the 53×39 and 11-23 cassette.
So thus far, 6 speed had lasted me four years and 7 speed lasted nine. 9-speed seemed like it was the ultimate – and would never change. To this end, I upgraded five bikes to 9-speed and I enjoyed being able to swap out components easily, without having to change shifters and cassettes. More and more components came on to the market with this standard, and the weights were coming down. 9-speed was the ultimate! Why would it change?
Because of 10-Speed
Unfortunately, in 2000, it did when Campy introduced 10-speed. Shimano waited three more years, first with the 7800 series, then with the 7900 series that featured hidden cable routing for the shifters. 7800 series Shimano Dura Ace was positively goofy looking with the external cable routing for the shifters. But 7900 was a worthy upgrade to hide those cables!
It took until 2008 for upstart SRAM Red to introduce their 10-speed gruppo that was both lighter and less expensive than Shimano Dura Ace while also featuring hidden derailleur cables. Sold on SRAM Red’s lighter weight, integrated cables, and wide 11-26 gearing, I finally saw a legitimate reason to upgrade to 10 speed, and did so. 9-speed had lasted me 9 years.
10-speed truly felt like the end all of drivetrain set up with wider ranges and lower weight. That said, it seemed that a lot of work still needed to be done to refine 10-speed. Drivetrains were noisy, some components were still very heavy, and setup and maintenance was much more finicky. It seemed that 10-speed was in for a long haul of continuous refinements that would take many years to refine.
In fact, SRAM Red was completely revamped in early 2012 to reduce weight and noise and improve shifting; if there ever was an upgrade I’d be interested in, it would be to the improved SRAM Red 10-speed. Shimano also introduced electronic shifting for 10-speed and it seemed they had plenty of reasons to continue to reduce weight and bulk.
In the background, in 2008, Campy did start fiddling with 11-speed and launched it. But I didn’t see it coming to the masses for many years. Well, suddenly, it is mid-2013 and Shimano has made 11 speed a viable option with the roll out of the new Dura Ace and Ultegra. Joining the fray, SRAM recently announced its 11-speed components. So now what?!
What are the reasons to upgrade to 11-speed? Shimano’s Dura Ace is lighter than 10-speed. And it gives you one more gear. Other than that, I am at a loss. Additionally, if you do buy 11-speed Shimano, you need to make sure your rear hub will accommodate it because 11-speed requires a compatible hub.
Bottom line “upgrading” an existing bike to 11-speed is going to be costly. Buying a new bike with 11-speed already equipped may be a better option but sharing components with an older bike is out of the question.
In the end
The new standard represents a lot of challenges. Cyclists who own 9- and 10-speed bikes will be faced with expensive upgrades if they want to go to 11-speed. At the same time, they may be tempted by plummeting 10-speed prices to upgrade the previous generation. Adding a new 11-speed bike to the stable would thus require upgrading other bikes to share componentry if that’s what you do. Frankly, I’m frustrated and would have rather seen more R&D and improvement with 10-speed versus this unnecessary jump to “11”.
What do you think?