Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The MTB Front Derailleur Needs To Die


After selling my trailbike frame in September, I was on the road a bit and decided to borrow a few random 'enduro' bikes in order to prevent the oncoming insanity resulting from my lack of riding. I decided to see what current bikes were on the market demoed each bike from a different, local shop in three separate states (UT, NM and CA).  With the daily demo rate ranging from $65 to $95, it seemed like a great way to jump on a different set of wheels without committing to anything (my biggest fear).

Upon renting and picking up each 'high-end demo bike', I was shocked to find that all three bikes had been outfitted with a two-ring crankset and *gasp* a front derailleur.

Now, I rocked a FD for a long time. As someone who pretty much despises climbing and wants to do it as easily as possible, I was always a big fan of the granny gear. In fact, I rocked a FD until I was nearly forced to stop by the mockery of my fellow bike dorks at the last bike place I worked... In 2014. But I held out for a really long time. As early as 2009, commenters across forums were remarking on the simplicity of 1x9 and discussing the race results on such a setup... Three years later, SRAM would bring their first 1x groupset to market with XX1, a 10-42 cassette. I, however, didn't jump on the train until two years after the bike media gods had named it the next 'big thing'. By that time, SRAM had already come out with their expanded line up of one-by drivetrains (along with moving up to 11-speed), including CX1, X01, X1 and they were getting ready to release GX, a solid one-by groupset that retailed at similar prices to their lower-end two-by offerings like X5 and X7. Shimano began selling their own 1x drivetrains mid-2014, with full expansion in 2015, and had a seriously competitive response to SRAM's headstart for 2016 and '17.

Whew. Needless to say, it's all been around a while. As it stands, we're looking down the barrel at 2017 right now, with websites across the globe being updated, next year's offerings being shown off, and bike nerds chomping at the bit to get their proforms in before Turkey day.

So the question is (the questions always bring me back), with alllllllll of this technology that's now five years old, why are Giant and Trek and Specialized still selling $5000 mid-travel enduro bikes with front fucking derailleurs?

Every single bike in a rental fleet shouldn't have a front derailleur. A shop shouldn't be forced into buying entire ranges of bikes that are spec'd with a front derailleur. And an intermediate, advanced or expert rider shouldn't have to walk into a shop and be confronted with the ghostly spectre of a front derailleur. Why? Because they suck. And because, for one reason or another, shops aren't equipping mid-travel enduro bikes with chain guides. Technically, should they? Sure, if customer experience was first priority. But technically, penguins should also be able to fly. They're birds, right? Yeah, well, they don't. And expecting shops to front the cost for chain guides is just dumb -- that's extremely cost prohibitive.

But expecting a $5000 bike to have either a chainguide or some semblance of relevance in the applicable componentry spec doesn't feel very dumb. In fact, expecting a Trek that retails at $5300 in the US to actually come with a drivetrain that makes sense seems very realistic.

"Well, Amanda, what's your beef with the front derailleur? You ran it for a long time. Why do you hate it so much?" Well, I'll tell you why -- because, on every ride I went on with these demo bikes in September, I lost a chain... Multiple times. Every ride. Do you know how frustrating that is?!  To be riding along, just having a blast, then WHAM! You can't pedal, you can't rotate your feet, you basically can't do anything because, yup! That damn FD has thrown the chain again and now it's in knots around your crank arm (true story. It happened. And then I almost threw the bike off a mountain.) Now, when I was young and dumb and full of... stubbornness, I think dropping a chain probably seemed fairly normal. Actually, I don't really remember dropping chains all that often, nor do I recall being so enraged after dropping a chain. Come to think of it, I also sucked. As did my bikes by today's standards. I also went over the bars a lot more. Hmmmmm.

However, this isn't 2012. This isn't even 2014. It is, as I angrily told my shell-shocked boyfriend, two-thousand motherfucking sixteen. (His shock wasn't really at the front derailleur situation, but rather my (second) enraged tantrum over the repeated chain retention failure. But I digress.)

It's 2016 bearing heavily down on 2017, and we still have high-end, purpose-built mountain bikes built with front derailleurs. More specifically, we have high-end enduro bikes being spec'd and sold with front derailleurs. That is crazy. Those bikes aren't built primarily for climbing. They are 'enduro' bikes. They have six inches of motherfucking travel, people. YOU DON'T PUT A FRONT DERAILLEUR ON A BIKE BUILT WITH SIX INCHES OF TRAVEL. Why? Because anything with more than five inches was built for rallying, often towards lower ground. Usually over rocks and trees and other rough stuff. What happens to a front derailleur and chain when you rally downwards over rough stuff? The front derailleur cannot retain tension on a chain and you lose chains. And losing chains makes people (aka, this person) into the big green angry Hulk monster.

Who don't throw bikes. Ever. Nope. Not ever.

With this in mind, after three experiences riding three different bikes from three separate (and equally clueless) companies, I must ask: are you people demented?

No, but really. What is being smoked in that office back there when going over future bike specifications and componentry setup? Are you doing this because it's cheaper (can't possibly use that, because GX is pretty fucking cheap)? Are you doing it because you think the US has all that many $5K bike buyers who want front derailleurs? Do you spec these monstrosities because you think we have the Alps? Or are you building these shitty combinations because you never tire of the YouTube videos where we're all throwing these $5000 rigs into the air and screaming wildly, like wounded bears?

Here's the thing: I know product directors who are smart and careful about this stuff. And I have spoken to these product genii, and they spec builds with chain guides and work ISCG mounts into enduro frames because they ride bikes. They seem to genuinely understand and appreciate the nuances of a bike built for a specific data-set. These same product directors and managers also know that their decisions will directly influence how a bike rides -- for an entire year. And as often as they are meticulous basket cases who obsess over the smallest details, they're the unsung heroes of the end-user experience. Why? Because they know better than to build $5000 enduro bikes with a front derailleur, especially in the day and age of NX 1x/SRAM Eagle (1x12), and the reasonable sanity of demo-bike borrowers everywhere.

For the love of pete, people... Stop putting front derailleurs on anything with more than 4.5" of travel. Please. Can I propose that the FD be relegated to special-orders only? Can we just shove those fuckers into the back of a storage room somewhere in Italy? Let's be honest: the front derailleur is dead.

Stop trying to resuscitate the zombie.

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