Before I get too deep into this post I should clarify that I’m not about to tell you Shimano 11 speed drivetrains are the best at anything. They aren’t the cheapest. They don’t have the most gear range. They aren’t the lightest or the most durable. They are just a really great drivetrain choice for me all things considered.
At the time of this post we are up to 12 speed drivetrains with some being electronic with wires or wireless. Sharon and I both have a SRAM GX Eagle drivetrain on the Guerilla Gravity Smashes we bought as complete bikes. Those 12 speed drivetrains work well. I’m not complaining at all. However, when it comes time for me to splash out for a new drivetrain on a bike I turn to Shimano 11 speed…for the most part.
Shimano 11 speed has a lot going for it:
- Readily available online or at a LBS
- Reasonable cost.
- Good gear range 11-42T or 46T cassettes.
- Smaller cassettes mean less unsprung weight on the rear wheel.
- Only the two biggest cogs are aluminum with the rest being steel for better durability.
- Reasonable weight.
- Shifts well.
- Derailleur cages are shorter than 12 speed making it harder to hit stuff on the trails.
- Uses HG drivers
- Doesn’t require batteries!
- Compatible with SRAM 11 speed parts.
I use Race Face Cinch 30mm spindle cranks across most of the fleet. They fall to hand easily and I have a bunch that just keep on trucking so I don’t feel any urge to change. Shimano makes nice cranks as well and I wouldn’t hesitate to run them if that was what was available when I was ready to buy. I run the 49mm chainline non-boost RF chainrings despite having Boost bikes. This move the chainring closer to the big cogs of the cassette for a straighter chainline in the high torque gears for better drivetrain wear.
Running a 28T ring with a 11-46T cassette gives me plenty of gear range even on a 29er. I can run in the 32T cog or smaller a lot of the time which keeps the chain on the steel part of the cassette for a longer service life. Steel 28T rings are available really cheaply if you want a super durable setup.
I love the fact that Shimano 11 speed is easy to find and cross-compatible with SRAM 11 speed. That makes sourcing parts very easy and allows me to adapt to some challenges like a wheel with a XD driver instead of a HG driver. My touring bike is running a mash up of Shimano and SRAM 11 speed parts because I destroyed a derailleur on tour and the closest bike shop was stocked with SRAM parts. No problem!
As 11 speed falls further and further behind the cutting edge in drivetrains it just gets cheaper and cheaper. It’s true nobody ever walks up to my bikes and lusts over my 11 speed parts. That’s okay! Based on the availability of older Shimano parts I suspect I’ll be able to keep buying 11 speed through 2030. If at some point these parts get too hard to find I’ll move on to something else.