The demise of the front derraileur

The Rabo-Liv Team Bike of 2015 World Champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot
The Rabo-Liv Team Bike of 2015 World Champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot | Photo by Thomas Maheux via Instagram

A new generation is a rare thing in Cyclocross. With 2015 marking the first World Championship in the post Nys era, the rainbow jerseys were decided by skills and equipment developed in just the last couple of years. Disc brakes are now accepted as worthy of the rainbow stripes, but a subtler change has swept across the pro’s bikes: The front derailleur is no longer dominant, and in its place are a variety of set-ups from both SRAM and Shimano.

 Gage Hecht, the young American phenom, entered the finishing straight of the Junior race with his eyes set on a World Championship medal. Just 200 feet between him and bronze. But it wasn’t to be: a skipped chain and a moment’s delay was all it took for the youngster to leave empty-handed. Cyclocross veteran Pete Webber was clear in his blame: “there’s no doubt that CX1 wouldn’t have skipped like that. A front derailleur could have cost him that medal”. In a sport known for its reliance on detail, it’s not unusual for equipment choice to be analysed so closely after every race. But in the place of tire tread and air pressure, it’s now drivetrains under the microscope. 

Prevot prevailed in a close battle with Sanne Cant
Prevot prevailed in a close battle with Sanne Cant | Photo: Jim Fryer via Instagram.

The new school of riders has decimated the long reigns and lengthy traditions of the last 10 years. In the space of one year, the average age of the women’s podium dropped from 28 to 24. The Elite men on the podium averaged just 21 years-old. With new blood has come bold new equipment choices. Across many of the pro’s bikes, front derailleurs have disappeared, to be replaced by single rings and little in the way of insurance from chain drops. After the snow flurries had settled and the crowds departed, the 1x trend may have shaped more of the racing than it was given credit for.

As Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, the 22-year-old from Reim, finessed her bike through the multiple rutted corners leading to the finish straight, both her skill and bike set-up gave a nod to a background on the mountain bike. Rather than the traditional two chainring Shimano chainset as seen on her teammate Marianne Vos’s bike, Prevot had foregone the front derailleur in favour of a single ring and no chain guide. A risky move considering the protection a derailleur can offer from dropped chains. The muddy conditions of the Tabor course favoured an organised pit crew and meticulous detail. The lower weight and reduced complication of Prevot’s bike could have been a factor in her pitting just twice compared to Sanne Cant’s three times. Leading Cant onto the pavement, it quickly became obvious that not even an extra chainring would enable the Belgian to come around the young Frenchwoman for the win.

Not everyone is convinced though. VeloNews reached out to Raleigh-Clement Head Mechanic James Sullivan who, like the Rabo-Liv team, has been running Shimano drivetrains with a single ring this year: “Ben’s [Berden] preference has always been a single ring, but we still run a chain guide. Trying to save 100 grams is pointless when the risks are so huge.”

Van Aert was aboard a new CX1 equipped Colnago in Tabor
Van Aert was aboard a new CX1 equipped Colnago in Tabor | Photo: Atsushi Hibiya via Instagram

The risk Sullivan is alluding to is that of a dropped chain, something that may have been a decider in the Elite Men’s race on Sunday afternoon. Wout Van Aert, the joint favourite, trailed Mathieu Van der Poel by just a handful of seconds in the opening laps, before an untimely mechanical caused a dismount on the finish straight. Van Aert’s Belgian Blue Colnago was adorned with SRAM’s flagship CX1 group. But the bike, received by Van Aert just days before the race, suffered from two dropped chains, leaving him 45 seconds in arrears. Entering the same corner on which Hecht fumbled a day earlier, Van Aert’s chain flew clear of his front ring, requiring a dismount to fix. No mention was made of the mechanicals after the race, with Van Aert instead giving praise to the strength of the victor Van Der Poel.

Ellen Van Loy was also running SRAM's newest drivetrain, which she piloted safety to a top 10 finish
Ellen Van Loy was also running SRAM’s newest drivetrain, which she piloted safety to a top 10 finish | photo by SRAM road via Instagram

This incident highlighted the risk of having no insurance policy on your drivetrain. What if Hecht’s front derailleur, rather than causing the problem, had instead saved him from a much more costly accident? With Van Aert off his bike, the chase went cold, and Van Der Poel rode unpanicked to his first senior rainbow jersey. Between Hecht and Van Aert, both riding SRAM, a front derailleur was blamed for both making and breaking the racing. This season has seen examples from both derailleured and 1x bikes having problems; the Koppenbergcross in November saw Lars Van Der Haar off his bike twice and wrangling his chain out from between his chainrings and derailleur. No bike is immune in the rough and tumble of cyclocross.

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Pauline Prevot took her advantage through the technical corners in Tabor | Photo by Jakab Rokob via Instagram

Shimano still holds a tenuous lead in the drivetrain battle. Van Der Poel with a derailleur, and Prevot without, both walked away as undisputedly worthy champions. New school riders like Prevot choosing a 1x solution causes a problem for Shimano, and it won’t be long until they’re forced to provide an official solution for cyclocross. With SRAM pushing innovation so quickly on the sport, it will be interesting to see how the slow moving Shimano respond, and in turn how riders decide to race heading into the 2015-16 season.


The photos in this article, sourced via Instagram, are used without the permission of the original photographers, and are for temporary illustrative purposes only.