It was with interest then, that I received a test 38 tooth ring (via Dave Haygarth) from Marcin at AbsoluteBlack. This ring differed from stuff I had seen previously, borrowing from the growing mtb market for single rings, and featuring a cleverly milled ring that requires no guard, chainkeeper or any other device to make it stick on. I was initially skeptical but equally hopeful that this could be the ideal solution to dealing with super muddy conditions later on in the 'cross season.
Matched to my On One Pickenflick and it's huge mud clearance, I've been running the ring in training and racing and can now report back. Set up is key to getting this ring to work. It's not hard, it just needs to be done right. Chain tension as well as the teeth profile is what keeps the chain on through the rough and the boggy, and chain length needs to be optimised to gain maximum advantage from the ring. Successfully installed, with clear instructions from AbsoluteBlack, the initial feel through the pedals was instantly positive. Maybe you don't pay too much attention to how your chain feels as you pedal, as opposed to your legs, but I could feel a smoothness that wasn't present on my perfectly good double chainset set ups.
The ring has now done a variety of races, and training sessions and in a variety of conditions and has passed all tests with flying colours. Bumpy tracks don't faze it - it hasn't been possible to bounce it off, though me and Dave have tried hard. It's trained and raced in thin sloppy mud, sticky mud (Bradford) and Todmorden (ie biblically thick) mud and simply kept on going. In many hours of use, I had one small problem at Todmorden Cross when a large, ripped up clod of soil got under the chain and onto the ring and caused the chain to fall off. But, and here is the crucial bit, it was super easy to get back on - no jamming on a chaincatcher, no falling between ring and bottom bracket and sticking, just an easy flick to get back on. Over the period of use and in the conditions I rode it in, I would have expected to drop a chain or have problems on a double set at some point anyway. No system is perfect, but the AbsoluteBlack ring works as well, if not better than anything else I've used.
|Pic: Dave Haygarth
As I indicated earlier, the main advantage for me of a single ring is reduced clogging and this positive effect has been clearcut. No bike is clog free, and even if the frame keeps free then the cassette can often stop working properly anyway. But, the AbsoluteBlack ring set up and the resulting simplicity around the bottom bracket area has markedly reduced mud and vegetation build and kept the bike not only trouble free, but weighing less as a result too. Paired with an 11-28 block (10 speed chain, Sram Red rear mech), my 38 tooth ring gives me all the gears I had before and I have never missed the potentially wider range of gears a more traditional double set up gives. From now on, I'll be running this setup on my Pickenflick during the winter season and for me it's a perfect solution to the increasing levels of mud our climate seems to bring u.
UPDATE Jan 14:
I rode the last NWCCA race of the season recdently, starting on my bike with the single ring on. To my surprise, I had a couple of problems with the ring, dropping the chain on both occasions. After consultation with Marcin from absoluteBlack and some careful analysis of my actions and course conditions at the time, I feel fairly confident I've pinpointed the problem.
In essence, both 'drops' were caused by my very rapid changing of gear up the block on transitions from bumpy descent to slow grinding section. According to Marcin, changing 3 or 4 cogs in one movement will result in instability for any chain (on a single ring or otherwise). Ally that to a bumpy section, with no chain guard or front mech to hold the chain on and you have the problem. The solution, a technique which he maintains pro mountain bikers have been following for years, is to shift one cog at a time, rather than the multiple cog, rapid shifts that I was doing. The concession for this is that it takes a little forward planning so as to avoid rapid dumping up the block as the speed slows down. Marcin maintains also that the mtb testers for his single ring have not dropped the chain in testing due to their attention to this technique and that he often finds cyclocross riders are a bit 'gung ho' in shifting technique and could do with refining their actions. Certainly, I have never dropped the chain in thick mud, nor even on a descent - the 3 times I have had a problem have ALL followed multiple shifting into an easier gear before a slow boggy section.
UPDATE 2 Feb 14:
After some discussions with Marcin from absoluteBlack, it's important to point out that the spring tension on Shimano mechs needs optimising to make the ring work to the best of its capability. Here's what it says on the absoluteBlack website....
Important information for SHIMANO derrailleur users:
In order to get best results we recommend increasing cage return spring tension. New derailleurs are assembled with the spring in the mount that allows the most relaxed position of the spring. However there is another position on the cage which will increase that tension. It is a standard procedure, please navigate to point no.7 in the link. You may also ask your LBS to do it for you.
Sram users are not required to do that as oem springs are already in high tension position.
If you missed it, here's Dave's recent video too: