Do We Really Need 11-Speed?

Opinion Road Bike

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.

Number 9-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.

Enter 11-Speed

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?

Do We Really Need 11-Speed Gallery
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Shimano 9-Speed

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Enter 11-Speed

And hydraulic disc brakes, which we are excited about.
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SRAM Red 10-Speed

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Suntour Cyclone 7000

It all started here for our columnist.
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1990 Steelman

7-speed Ultegra (21 lbs)
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1999 Fuji Team Issue

9-speed ultegra (19 pounds)
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2011 Cervelo S3

With 10-speed (14.5 pounds)
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2004 Teschner

Lighter weight 9-speed Dura Ace & FSA (bike weight: 14lbs 15oz)
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2012 Fuji D-6 with 10-speed (19 pounds)

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1986 Nishiki International

This bike has been outfitted with 6, 7, and 9 speed.
About the author: Twain Mein

Twain Mein has been a fan of mtbr.com & roadbikereview.com since 1996. After meeting Francis, he became fascinated with the technology and gear aspect of cycling and became one of our first product reviewers. Twain has been doing triathlons since 1987 and was ranked in the Top 50 U.S. National Age Group in 2012. He’s recently been learning swimming tips from his 10 year-old daughter who has way more natural talent!


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  • Special Eyes says:

    So right!

  • Mike says:

    I just went from nine to ten, but only due to replacing the bike I’ve been riding for the past ten years. My first thoughts on the new bike, were “great bike, but the number of gears is over-kill”. Glad I’m not the only one thinking this. Other than a professional racer who has an exaggerated need to optimize speed/efficiency, I don’t get it.

  • Terry Burke says:

    Agree completely from start to finish. 11 speed is completely not needed for me & I will continue with my one 10 speed, which is overkill. Balance is 6, 7, 8 on my bikes, very adequate.

  • Len says:

    “Do we really need another cog?”

    This is a question that gets asked EVERY time the bike industry adds another cog. I can remember retro-grouches from 25 years ago saying the same thing about 7-speed… “Ahhh, six cogs is ENOUGH. What are they thinking?!?”

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Anyhow, Campy-istas have had 11-speed for five years now, and I don’t hear too many of them begging to go back to 10-speed. Things’ll probably be the same on the Shimano/SRAM side of things.

    We are finally starting to approach diminishing returns, though. I predict one more major round of upgrades, to 135mm dropout spacing for road and 12-speed.

    After that, I really, really hope the upgrade merry-go-round stops. Until we get lightweight reliable CVT for bicycles, that is.

  • FermentedBrainSuds says:

    I’d be happy to have it. But I’ll be waiting a few years until it gets much cheaper: the second model of 105 11 speed. Then I’ll buy the first model cheap on ebay. I may be a very old man by then.

  • Abe Froman says:

    Do we really need 11 speeds?
    No
    Is having 11 speeds nice?
    Yes, tightens up gearing, gives more options.

  • DrSmile says:

    Campy doesn’t require a new hub to go to 11. In fact you can use a Campy wheel with a Campy cassette on a Dura-ace 11 speed bike. As for the cogs, who really doesn’t want a 16 or 18 cog? It’s the one that’s always needed!

  • Umberto Smith says:

    Internally geared hydraulic transmissions ought to be standard…this is the 20th century…It’s funny how old 6-7 speed clunkers are still on the road 20 years later.

    11 speed is a stupid thing. Less is more.

  • Luis says:

    I ride with a 9 speed drive-train; 14-25 with a 52/39 chainring set. I ride mostly flat grounds and bridge underpasses, and average around 20 mph. I pretty much only use 5 gears; 19, 18, 17, 16, and 15. With my previous cassette I used just 3 gears. Even if I had a 30 cog cassette, I would still use the same five gear combinations. I think most riders are the same way; they have their 3-6 gear combinations that they use 90% of the time.

  • Len says:

    One way we could stop the whole ‘keep adding cogs’ craziness is by having the parts makers STOP forcing 11-tooth cogs down everyone’s throat. =(

    Many riders do not need them, and it’d free up a cog to be put someplace actually useful in the progression.

    But even so, you see makers like SRAM do stupid stuff like announce their new 11-speed cassettes, and they ALL start with an 11-tooth cog. So do all but one of Shimano’s new Ultegra 11-speed cassettes.

    Everyone wants to pretend they pound that 52×11 or 53×11 gear? o_0

    • Mounta1n says:

      If you don’t feel the need for a 52×11 then why not just run compact? You can run a lighter 11-25 and have the same range as a 12-27 on a 53/39. If you don’t need the high gear then it doesn’t make sense to run the heavier crank. I run compact currently with an 11-23, but I’m looking to upgrade to the bigger crank specifically to get more high end so I’m not spinning out and wasting training time on the downhills, but if you don’t need that, compact is great. Lighter, stiffer, and probably a more useful gear range for most folks.

  • view836 says:

    I’ve been riding 11 speed for a couple years. I think it makes a real difference particularly when you’re running big cassettes such as a 12-27 for sustained steep climbs but still want good functionality for the flats and shorter pitches. That extra cog at the back extends your flexibility to stay on a single ring in front on steeper short pitches than would otherwise be possible, without giving up space between the gears for getting a perfect cadence for sustained threshold on low slopes. Even with 11S can at times be exasperating since at the big end you’re going up two cogs at a time in the big cogs i.e. you start getting gaps after your 17 tooth. There’s definitely still room for improvement, as 17 and 19 tooth cogs in the back are very much in usable range on both front rings, I find I sometimes miss the 18 and having a 15-17 gap would be completely unacceptable so on a 10 speed cassette you have to start jumping by three in the final step up in the back if you want to run a 12-27 for mountains, which is a heck of a jump.

  • Junk says:

    For mountain bikes or enduro trail bikes, 11 speed is nice, yes; but what would be much nicer and cheaper is the big 40 or 42 cog and single chainring and also a small 10 cog for speed purposes; i don’t really need all the extra cogs, i mean, i can live with less combination of cogs but the important is to cover the steep climbs and the downhill.

    Right now if want to to go to 1×10 i don’t have change to climb confortably and then go downhill, i can easily install a 30 or 32t but with the 36t cog i need superhuman power to keep pedalling on a climb after 3 hours. Of course there is exotic cogs and combinations that we can install (mrp, italian weird cassetes, etc) but i’m suprised that sram or shimano doesn’t see this point.

  • jhanken says:

    I am actually more interested in what SRAM is doing with the WiFli, offering triple-like gearing ratios with a double setup. For burger-fed geezers with bum knees that live in mountainous areas, this is a welcome thing, now that triples are become rarer than hen’s teeth.

  • B@rney says:

    I transitioned (won’t call it “upgraded”) from 8-sp to 10-sp in 2002, only because 8-sp Campy parts had become so scarce. I still don’t think 10 cogs is a necessity. Nine I think would have been enough and 10 is just excess.

    I posted in a major cycling forum, asking whether 11-sp was really of any (and I stressed ANY) material benefit. All of the unequivocal “Yes” answers came from younger cyclists, most of whom had never ridden a pre-dual control bike, much less one with friction shifters. And probably never ridden anything with fewer than nine speeds.

    Then it occurred to me. These riders had never been forced to learn the skill of “spinning,” not like riders who started with just six or seven cogs. Their primary want is a cogset that would let them tick along like a metronome at their “pet” cadence, and they are willing to accept whatever penalty in cost, weight and complexity that brings with it.

    And the rest of us are hostage to their combined buying power.

    I still think SRAM could make a mint concentrating on an über-light 10-sp manual. Or even nine.

  • Jeff says:

    Its a matter of leg strength vs. terrain. I have a 11-28 cassette with a compact chainring (50/34) and there are times that I’d like to have a 16 on the cassette.

  • Tig says:

    I started riding when 7 was the new kid on the block. I was working at a shop mechanic when Shimano jumped on the 10 speed bandwagon. The price of replacement chains for Campy 10 speed was ridiculously high, and we started seeing 10 speed chains failing at a much higher rate than 8′s and 9′s.

    Now we get to spend even more for 11 speed chains and clusters? Is it really worth the extra cash to be “IN” like sponsored pro’s?

    Until I buy a new bike, my 9 speed Dura Ace is fine. My fixed gear will “last” even longer!

    • Dan Dempsey says:

      Amen to comments on chain prices and wear. I have several steeds but my Western Washington winter bike is an 8 speed with big fenders running 36-22 in front and 11-34 in back. It can haul the heavy groceries up big hills and the chain survives rainy wet winters.

      I have a 10 speed Jamis Supernova cyclo-cross and my long haul touring bike is a half-step 1985 Trek 720 running 46-43-24 and 13-32 7 speed.

      For many of us older folks … 11 speeds why? MOST OF THE BENEFIT seems to be for the manufactures not the consumers…. planned obsolescence and more maintenance…. NO I don’t want to play this game.

  • ChazMan says:

    I bought my first modern road bike in 2008, a Specialized Allez with a 9-speed (11-28) and compact crankset. I don’t race, but like to ride what I call long and strong. After a season or so I realized I didn’t have the power to effectively use my 11t and 12t gears so I settled on a 13-23 Shimano Ultegra cassette. I get the gears I need and a nice even stair-step up or down the range in the meat of the gears as it is a 13-14-15-16-17-18-19-21-23 setup.

  • Mike Crooks says:

    Well, not for me…I’m waiting for the Ultimate Developement: A Continuously Variable Transmission..then I’m going to invent Road Bike Drag Racing!

    • ChazMan says:

      What about those bike with the “auto transmission”? I’ve seen infomecials about them years ago, but didn’t know much about them. Something on the spokes slid out with centripetal force as you went faster and somehow changed gears for you as I recall.

  • Mark Wynn says:

    And what do these additional gears to to rear wheel dish and dropouts widths? I, too, started with 5 speeds which were spaced with 2 or 3 chainrings to provide usable gears over a wide range … without having a cog for every gear. (Remember when a “10-speed really meant 5 and 2?) Part of the fun/skill was knowing which (rear or front d.) to shift for the gear you needed. Currently have bikes from 5 to (Campy cassette) 10 speed. The 10 is useful for racing and time trials. The 5 with 2 or 3 chainrings up front still works fine for everything else.

  • Lukaas says:

    I can’t see the point of 11 speed. I only use about 7 of my 10 speed gears at present (12-25 SRAM) and some gear changes are so subtle I sometimes doubt if the gear has been changed at all.
    Can anyone advise why a set of decent shifters costs anything north of $300 a pair? Any particular reason why the prices offered by the “big 3″ are so close together? Are we in fact looking at a cartel?

    • ChazMan says:

      Nashbar seems to have decent prices on shifters, unless you are looking for top-end stuff. My Tiagras have been going strong for 25000 miles, but then again I don’t race.

  • crossracer says:

    The problem is that the parts from the 8/9 speed era and a bit of the 10 spd era are so well made (read overbuilt) that they last darn near forever. If im still riding 9 spd and happy, that means i havnt bought any group items from shimano for 10 years, aside from cassettes, and chains. They cant afford that, so they need to create a buzz and sell someone the latest and the greatest.
    Thus 11spd. problem is that where does it all stop?

    Look at the push for road disks systems, or bikes weighing in at 13lbs. Its about getting people to upgrade almost every year to be “competive”.

    Sorry, ill stick to my old steel steed, 30 years old this year, running beautiful 9 speed stuff, that has all been paid for years ago. Im happy to keep my money in my pocket.

    Bill

    • ChazMan says:

      I think varying markets are partially driving this. There are the die hard racers that will buy anything to save a watt or two whether they need it or not, there are those who THINK they need it, there are those who say, “that sounds pretty cool, I’ll get it in a year or two,” and then there are the rest of us who ride as much as we can, but also have real lives and like nice bike stuff but are more practical about it. My mostly aluminum bike is nearly 5 years old and I’d like a new all-carbon machine with better componentry but my bank statement doesn’t agree right now. So I keep pushing on, making the best of it. My last somewhat major investment was a set of Vuelta wheels, 1500 grams for maybe $350 a year ago. Anything beyond that just isn’t happening yet.

  • Minnesnowtan says:

    11 speed is necessary if the whole compact double conspiracy is to work. With triple chainrings, 9 or 10 cog cassettes are fine, you can have all the ratios and none of the gaps. But with only two rings up front and the mountain cassettes that they throw on the back of road bikes, 11 cogs are needed to fill in ratio gaps. Additionally, with electronic shifting, Shimano can’t make a triple chainring work. I wonder if Campagnolo can do it. They now have Athena chainrings in triple.

  • JFS says:

    the only advantage of 11speed is in the development of 1×11 for cross or road. I love my Sram XX1 for the XC bike and would love a 50x 11-32 for the road.

  • 02Pete says:

    It would be nice to be able to obtain 9-speed equipment in more than one product line. Currently, Shimano’s only 9-speed road line is Sora, and SRAM doesn’t offer 9-speed road lines any more.

    All other things equal, 9-speed equipment appears to be inherently more durable and reliable than 10- and 11-speed equipment. It would be nice to be able to obtain 9-speed gear with high-quality bearings and materials, instead of 9-speed products being relegated solely to low-end product lines.

    It would also be nice for riders on a budget to be able to upgrade selected pieces of equipment, instead of being forced to upgrade everything all at once, or do without.

  • Len says:

    135mm dropout spacing and 12-speed is probably inevitable.

  • gonpalco says:

    Reason for going 11?
    Money… money… money…

    People that pedal non competitive (let´s say not competing for the 20 best in a race), will be more than OK, with a lot less cogs.

    I’ve got 10 on my road, but if I had the chance to buy 9 with less money, I would go that route!

  • yasin says:

    I need advise how to fit 8 speed cassette to 11 speed hub some people told me that 1.85mm spacer wil dol the jop and some said 1mm spacer do the jop
    Am confused. Please point me to direct solution or link

  • Rob says:

    I love my campy 11 and actually wish I had 12 or even 13. Anyone who has climbed mountains hard or pushed your self to limits knows that to get the most out of your legs, joints and your heart you need tighter shifting between gears. I had a 29-12 when I climbed col du la Madeleine, col du Glandon and col du Croix the Fer and I would have loved something like 33 or 34 to 11 and then you would have a cassette for flats and down then mountains and then up… instead of thinking maybe I need to get a compact crankset.
    I think most guys in the peleton would agree with me, some stages must be gamble if they should go larger cassettes or smaller instead of having everything there and hope your legs are just good enough.

  • fozzy says:

    I have an electronic Campagnolo Athena, 11 speed, with campa hubs (my spare wheel is a wheel I bought years ago when I was riding Campa 9-speed solution) but I use MARCHISSIO cassettes. Why Marchissio? Because I do not need 11/12/13 and with Marchissio I can have a cassette 14-30

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