We put both aluminium and carbon sets to the test
Many riders right now are thinking about converting their bike to a single ring but why all the fuss over 1x in the first place? Losing gears may seem like a backwards step, but upgrading to a 1x crankset allows you to eliminate the front derailleur and all the associated hardware and hassles.
A narrow/wide chainring can put an end to chain loss, too. And it’ll save a ton of weight — the front mech, shifter and cable can add up to 450g (nearly a pound).
There are some secondary benefits too — more clearance round the bottom bracket area, less maintenance as you have one less cable to look after and it declutters the handlebar. Best of all, 1x works with nine, 10 or 11-speed, so you can simply fit one of the cranks in this test and get out riding.
Early 1x cranksets were expensive, but over the past year the technology has filtered down to cheaper products. It is still early days though. Shimano for example, has only just started offering a specific 1X set up with the XT groupset, explaining why it is absent from this test.
These cranksets are yet to feature heavily on entry-level bikes because they go hand-in-hand with wide-range 11-speed cassettes, and that’s where the money is, but affordable aluminium 1x cranksets are readily available aftermarket.
The high-end carbon cranks can all run multiple rings if you prefer, but to keep the process consistent we ran them 1x throughout the test.
Know your crankset
The traditional crank length on a mountain bike is 175mm but 165, 170, and 180mm cranks are also sometimes available. Shorter cranks offer better pedal clearance and work best for riders with short legs. Longer cranks offer more leverage and are good for riders with longer legs.
The alternating thick and thin teeth on a narrow/wide chainring interlock with the male and female links on the chain to provide more secure engagement and lessen the risk of chain loss. You can use any single ring with nine, 10 or 11-speed gearing and a Shimano or a SRAM drivetrain.
Aka the bolt circle diameter. This is the diameter of a circle drawn through the bolts holding the chainring onto the spider. The common size for a triple crankset is 104mm, but there is different diameter for double cranksets and even some custom BCDs, such as that used for SRAM’s XX1 cranks.
Not all cranks come with a BB, so you’ll need to budget for that. And some cranks are offered with different diameter spindles, so it’s important to get the right size for your bike. If your bike has a standard threaded BB you’ll need a crank with a 24mm diameter axle. If it’s oversized you’ll need a BB30 crank with a 30mm spindle.
Forging produces the stiffest and strongest aluminium because it aligns the grain structure of the material. Hollow forging is even better, but it’s a more complex technique and is therefore notably more expensive.
These little covers protect the most fragile part of the arm from impact damage — essential on carbon cranks. They’re also available separately (from Race Face, SRAM and Zefal) for under a tenner.
If you’ve spent £600 on a carbon crank the last thing you want is for it to look tatty after two or three rides. Most carbon cranks come with clear tape on the arms to reduce wear and tear from foot rub. It doesn’t always look pretty but it can be replaced once it wears off.
Direct mount chainring
The standard method of attaching a chainring is to mount it to a spider, which is either part of the crank or bolted on. Direct-mount means eliminating the spider and bolting the ring directly to the crank arm, saving around 80g. The downside is once the ring wears out the whole thing needs replacing. And direct-mount chainrings do cost more.
Race Face Next SL
The Next SL chainset is super-light, incredibly stiff and you can have pretty much every combination of BB and chainring set-up imaginable. It’s not immune to damage, though. And as good as the plastic boots are at preventing scratches, a seriously hard pedal strike on a rock actually loosened the alloy pedal insert in the right-hand carbon arm, rendering it useless. We’re convinced that same impact would have stripped the threads out of an alloy chainset too, or at the very least bent the crank arm. So we won’t be deducting points for reckless riding.
Hope Spiderless Crankset
Hope Technology’s new machined crankset is one of those products that you hesitate to install simply because the sculpted, anodised and etched chunks of 7075 series aluminium look too good to spend their life striking rocks, being scuffed by shoes and rotating through British mud!
We really like the BB design on the S-Works chainset as the oversized cartridge bearings press into soft plastic cups, which means you shouldn’t have to bury the entire BB when the bearings die. It’s also 38g lighter than the equivalent Race Face BB, giving the Specialized S-Works chainset a system weight that’s only 4g heavier than the Next SL. So Race Face wins by the breadth of a carbon strand, but the lightest compete chainset would actually be a combination of both!
Overall the DMR Axe offers excellent value. For £240 you get all the parts you need to get you up and running but if you want to source your own BB and chainring, you can mix and match to suit. The crankset itself costs just £139.99 — which is almost half the price of Shimano XTR.
The SRAM XX1 was relegated to the bottom step of our podium only because it was the heaviest, the most flexible and it’s not as good value as the price suggests because you’ll need to buy a chainring and a bottom bracket.
How we tested the cranks
We split this test into two equal parts, with one mbr tester responsible for testing all three aluminium cranks and another putting the trio of carbon cranks through the grinder.
When testing we looked at several key factors — the first being how easy the crank and BB was to install. We then conducted back-to-back testing to assess crank arm stiffness, as this directly affects performance. More flex means that less energy is being transmitted to the rear wheel, which means more effort is required for the same output.
The final piece of the jigsaw is long-term durability — wear on the rings, crank arms and, most important of all, the bearings in the BB. It was especially helpful that this test was conducted throughout the winter months.
A crankset, especially one with a single ring, is one of the few components on a bike that you can fit without having to worry about compatibility. All of the cranksets in this test will function perfectly well with nine, 10 or 11-speed drivetrains from either Shimano or SRAM.
Not all of them are available with a 30mm spindle to fit an oversized BB30 bottom bracket shell, but it seems that needing to have different cranks to fit the two BB sizes may be a thing of the past. By using custom bearing cups, Race Face is able to fit the Next SL 30mm spindle into any frame — regular or BB30. The only thing you need to buy is a £40 bottom bracket. This solution will actually benefit all the crank manufacturers because there’s nothing stopping you from using the Specialized or SRAM cranksets with the Race Face BB. It’s such a good idea it should become an industry standard.
In the top half of our crank test, it was a close-run thing between three excellent carbon cranks. The SRAM XX1 was relegated to the bottom step of our podium only because it was the heaviest, the most flexible and it’s not as good value as the price suggests because you’ll need to buy a chainring and a bottom bracket. You’ll have to buy a chainring for the S-Works too, but at least it’s as stiff as the Next SL and nearly as light.
A carbon crank is an expensive upgrade, so being able to take it with you, should you upgrade your frame, is a great idea. Race Face lets you do exactly that with Next SL. Light, stiff and versatile, it’s easily deserving of top marks.
For a third of the price of the carbon models, there are also some absolutely cracking aluminium cranksets. By using the same three-bolt spider interface as SRAM, the Aerozine X-One A1 can be fitted with any ring combination, including direct-mount. It’s lightweight but the arms are a bit flexy and we’re not sold on the length-adjusting ALS pedal inserts.
SRAM’s X1 chainset is as stiff as the Race Face Ride, but it weighs more. And when you factor in the extra cost of a bottom bracket, it also costs more.
The chainring on the Race Face Ride isn’t the hardest-wearing, and you’ll need an extractor to remove the crank, but it’s pretty obvious why it’s the best budget crank. Look what you get for your money: the narrow wide chainring is £44.99, X-type BB is £39.99; take that away from the £120 and you’re effectively getting a set of stiff-forged cranks for £40!