Have you ever thought while you were riding your mountain bike with a SRAM Eagle 1×12 drivetrain: “I definitely need an easier gear?” The overwhelming majority of mountain bikers we asked this question to in the past few days said ‘No’. So why then did SRAM introduce an even easier easy gear last week; and do we really need it?

By Sean Badenhorst

SRAM’s 2021 Eagle includes a range of colours available in Black, Gold, Rainbow and Copper.

First of all, I need to get this out there – SRAM rocks! If ever I have admired a brand, it’s SRAM. The American brand changed mountain biking when, in 2009, it asked why do mountain bikes need three chainrings? And introduced the 2×10 drivetrain. And then in 2011, it went a step further and asked why do mountain bikes need two chainrings (gasp!)? And then, in 2016 it increased its shifting range to 500% with the introduction of 1×12, or Eagle, as we have come to know it.

As someone that started mountain biking in 1991, drivetrain simplification has been quite remarkable to experience. SRAM has been the agitator and leader in this and it’s been amazing to see just how it has changed mountain biking, from the beginner’s first-ride experience right through to the performances of the best professionals.

Last week, SRAM introduced the new Eagle 1×12 drivetrain across three of its models (GX, X01 and XX1 with the highlight being the replacement of the 50-tooth large cog on the cassette with a 52-tooth cog. This essentially make the easiest gear even easier. Pause. No applause?

The gear range has gone from 500% to 520%. There are new colours for X01 and XX1 with a fair bit of structural and aesthetic changes to the GX, the most popular of SRAM’s Eagle drivetrains. The pricing hasn’t changed (yet), but SRAM says if you want the new 10-52 cassette, you need to buy its new 520% rear derailleur (unless you have a SRAM Eagle AXS rear derailleur).

Interestingly, according to the guys at WorldWide Cyclery, the new cassette does work with the old derailleur, but it’s not as smooth and won’t be covered by SRAM’s warranty if there are any issues.

So, with SRAM Eagle 2021, what we now have is the following 12-cog tooth sizing on the Eagle cassette: 10>12>14>16>18>21>24>28>32>36>42>52. There was already a bit of a leap from 42 to 50. That leap just got a big bigger.

If you are a conditioned, skilled rider and have pedalled up a steep climb in your 50, whether with a 30 or 32 chainring up front (the two most common sizes), you’ll know that you are barely moving. It’s not a gear you use often at all – essentially, it’s a bail-out gear. So why then did SRAM feel it was necessary for us to shift from a 42-tooth (second cog) to a 52-tooth (first cog), instead of the 50-tooth, which has been the norm since 2016, with no noticeable calls for a change?

Are there any climbs in South Africa that require such an easy gear? Sure, there are, but most of those that ride them are conditioned and strong enough to make their way up with a 50-tooth on the rear. And what about the steep mountain climbs abroad? Yeah, definitely some steep, technical climbs in many other countries too, but either scalable with a 50 or walkable. Because let’s face it, if, as an amateur rider, if you’re struggling to turn a 50 on a steep or steep/technical climb, chances are you may be better off dismounting.

What about women? Of the women we asked that ride Eagle 1×12, the overwhelming majority said: ‘No, we have never thought we definitely need an easier gear’. Women are generally less powerful than men, but they’re also generally less likely to tackle super steep or technical climbs.

What about beginners? Unless they come from a road- or track-cycling background, beginner mountain bikers will not have significant cycling muscle power and will struggle to push any gear up a very steep climb. In fact, they’re unlikely to willingly aim for any formidable, steep climbs until they’re starting to build strength and confidence.

SRAM says that the larger rear cog will make it possible for riders to fit a larger front chainring, thereby giving them a better range of gearing for fast flats and descents – i.e making all the gears a little harder. Most mountain bikers use descents to recover and you can’t exactly pedal on technical descents because that would require sitting. Who sits on a technical descent? Enduro racers do pedal whenever they can on descents though, so there is that…

The one area that I have found myself wishing for bigger gears is when I rode a mountain bike with Eagle 1×12 gearing on my Tacx smart trainer on a Zwift ride. Yes, definitely felt I was spinning out a lot on the virtual roads of Watopia on the flats and descents, so there is that…

And sure, there are times when you need to sit tight in a fast bunch or set the pace when you’re feeling good on a flat section of trail or road where some bigger gearing could come in handy. There are also the popular South African ultra-endurance races like the 36ONE and TransBaviaans, mostly on gravel roads, where some bigger gearing might be useful for stronger riders. Currently a 38-tooth front ring is the limit you can run with a 50-tooth rear. SRAM says the 52 will allow the front ring to be increased to a 40-tooth. That should make Jaroslav Kulhavy happy.

The revamped GX, the most popular model in the Eagle range.

Then there’s the fact that Shimano, SRAM’s main rival, launched its first 1×12 drivetrain with a 10-51 cassette and a 510% range in 2018. Is 52 that much greater than 51? Is 520% that much greater than 510%? Surely that can’t be SRAM’s motivation, can it? Besides, minnow brands like e*thirteen and KCNC have bigger gearing range offerings.

While the motivation for the easier easy gear isn’t 100% clear, certainly not to most of the people we have chatted to, it’s great to see SRAM continuing to innovate in the drivetrain category, where it is far more popular, especially in South Africa. Will anyone be eagerly replacing his or her 10-50 cassette with the new 10-52 cassette and 520% derailleur? Unlikely. But expect it to be fitted as a 1×12 upgrade and come standard on many model year 2021 bikes. SRAM will also continue to make the 10-50 cassette. And those new colours! Damn! Who’d have thought copper could be better than gold?

Find full detail on the entire SRAM Eagle range here.