If money weren’t a concern, piecing the perfect drivetrain together would be simple. But most of us have a budget, so we’ve got some decisions to make. Where does it make better sense to splurge, and where are those extra bucks wasted? Results may vary depending on priorities, but we think the following drivetrain selections offer the best balance between cost, performance, features, weight, and durability.
SRAM will always have a headstart on Shimano in the one-by game. So, the fact that most bikes get a SRAM spec simply makes sense. But the exact makeup of that spec sometimes does not. If you’re replacing parts or building something from scratch and want the best bang/ buck ratio, here’s what we’d suggest.
Shifter: X01 | $90
It’s twice the price of GX and you can’t even see the logo in the bike’s beauty shots, so there’s a lot of downspeccing on high-end bikes. GX did recently get a crisper feel via some refined spring tension, but the X01 shifter offers two worthwhile features. The cable-pulling mechanism rotates on a ball bearing. It’ll hold up better over time and it takes less force to shift. And the pull lever can be repositioned or easily replaced.
Derailleur: X01 | $200
We’re going with our gut on this one. With the recent update to GX, there isn’t the gap in quality that the $75 price difference would indicate. Both have sealed-bearing pulleys, alloy pul- ley cage and the same parallelogram parts. But the Beta editors who spend the most time wrenching simply find X01 to be more precise, reliable, and durable.
Cassette: GX | $215
The one-piece machining of the X01 cas- sette is a thing of beauty, and yields a cassette that’s nearly 100 grams lighter than GX. And saving unsprung weight makes your suspension work better. But, it’s $385. And GX actually offers one benefit over X01: The rings are forged, meaning the metal’s grains aren’t interrupted by machining. It’s heavier, but stronger. What a concept.
Chain: X01 | $60
An X01 chain is nearly twice the price of GX. But great shifting is a game of fractions of millimeters, and that’s where the X01 chain makes its gains. The plates are more carefully formed, so the edges have none of the chamfers or sharp edges that would add noise or hinder shifting performance. Plus, they’re flatter, so the pins make better connections with the plates, making it more resistant to the short-term destruction of missed shifts or other intense lateral load.
Crank: GX Alloy | $135
Unlike carbon frames, carbon cranks offer no nuanced ride-quality advantages. They’re just lighter, and not by much. What really matters is that alloy GX is just so much crank for the money. Though SRAM doesn’t share Shimano’s nifty hollow-forged design, the complex 3D shape of the GX arms is beyond what you’d expect on a ‘budget’ crank. The banger feature, though, is the enor- mous hollow aluminum DUB spindle. DUB allows for more surface area between crank and spindle, as well as spindle and bearing. That adds to the system’s stiffness, lessens the chance of creaking and doesn’t even need pinch bolts.—Travis Engel
For those who haven’t experienced the precise shift or legendary toughness of Shimano components, seeing the company return to the fold might not seem like a big deal. But for those of us who have, the release of Shimano’s 12-speed single-ring groups couldn’t have come soon enough. And when they finally came, they came in full force with four tiers: XTR, XT, SLX, and Deore, all of which feature a wide-range 10-51-tooth cassette and all-new technology—Hyperglide Plus—that shifts unbelievably well under load. Here’s our recommendation for mixing and matching in order to get the most shift bang for your buck.
Shifter: XT | $63
The XT shifter has a more crisp and solid feel than the SLX and Deore ones, but that’s not the only reason to go for it. The metal downshift lever on the XT shifter isn’t just nice to look at, it’ll make four shifts per throw if you need it to, whereas SLX does three. Also, you get Instant Release, which makes upshifts as soon as the lever is pushed, rather than waiting until you release it, and Multi Re- lease, which allows you to grab two gears at a time on the upshift. It’s functionally the same as the XTR shifter, but weighs a few extra grams.
Derailleur: SLX | $80
The XT derailleur is really nice. It’s on par quality-wise with SRAM X0, and costs $80 less. But, the SLX derailleur is another $40 less, tough as nails, and when paired with an XT shifter, indistinguishable in shift quality. If you’re pinching pennies, this is a good place to do so. And since derailleurs are right in the line of fire, it doesn’t hurt as much when a rock reaches out and clocks it.
Cassette: XT | $165
If weight isn’t an issue, you could just go for the $92 Deore cassette. It provides the same shift as XT, but weighs 120 grams more. That’s kind of a lot. SLX splits the difference at 60 grams heavier than XT, a solid option for $105. But we like the 470- gram XT, and it’s still much less expensive than SRAM GX. XTR will save another 100 grams, but costs $390—not super pragmatic.
Chain: XTR | $70
There aren’t many practical reasons to plunk down for XTR, but the chain is the exception because it’ll shift better and extend the life of the rest of your drivetrain. Thanks to more dura- ble coatings on the plates, pins, and bushings, the XTR chain is much more resistant to elongation and other wear. And, the slippery SIL-TEC coating on the outer plates and rollers create smoother gear meshing with cassette and chainring teeth, allowing the whole drivetrain to last longer and perform better. Plus, the hollow pins used on the XTR chain are easier to flare than solid ones, making the connection to the outer links stronger, and thus creating a chain that’s less likely to break.
Crank: SLX | $139
For less than the price of bare XT crankarms you can pick up SLX arms and chainring. And, SLX cranks still use similar Hollowtech II construction found on XTR and XT offerings, as well as the same direct ring mount. They’re not quite as sleek, but they really nail the workhorse look. Deore cranks look damn good too, cost just $115 with a chainring and also use the same direct mount, but aren’t hollow so are significantly heavier than SLX.—Ryan Palmer