Talking the 9 Speed drivetrain
17 Jul 2023
Reading Time: 5 minutes
What better way to mark a sporadic comeback to writing about bikes, than to write about something totally foreign to many in this, the age of 12x gearing. That’s right folks, I am going to blather on about 9 speed drivetrains.
Yes, you read that right, NINE.
And just in case it’s still not clear, that’s 9 gears only.
On a mountain bike.
I distinctly remember my first mountain bike, a Shogun Prairie Breaker Team Issue boasting the very outrageous 3×7 set up (Biopace rings no less). With friction shifters. And no suspension. And it was outrageous because I had come off road bikes that had corn cobs for clusters and anything less than a 52T big ring was unheard of. Those were the days (they weren’t actually, I’m not that mad). Then came, wait for it, 8 speed, then 9, 10, 11 and now… 12.
Now the most, and highest, climbing I ever did was pushing 3×8 while living in Southern California. Outside my front door I could climb four and a half thousand vertical feet; I still remember hitting that point where you looked DOWN on small aircraft and helicopters. And all that riding was done on a 3×8, though in reality it was 2×8 because other than going down, you never used the big ring. There was a lot of climbing in SoCal and I’d go as far as to say that if you didn’t like climbing, then mountain biking was probably not the sport for you. At the time we never thought about more gears, the triple setup pretty much had everything covered.
But tuning, trimming and keeping the mostly temperamental front mech in good running order was, in no kinder words, a complete pain in the arse.
When 9 speed hit, it seemed like a good, logical step. 8 lacked what at the time was considered, a bigger gear for the really steep stuff, so you had to be fit to push it for hours in the hills. With 9 you could drop to a 2x up front, meaning that the rubbish thing that was/is the front mech was not being pushed to within an inch of its life every ride; I made the jump to 2x first chance I could, sticking with a smaller middle and a big ring. And I happily rode 9spd and never once had the thought that I needed more gearing. So when 10 came out there were questions, mostly ‘why?’. By now though I was designing and specifying a bike range, so we got our hands on 10x drive trains and rode them.
Put frankly I thought, and still do, they were shit. The gearing had too much overlap and the steps between the ratios were not right. Put simply, after 9, 10 was uncomfortable and, more to the point, pointless. But you know, it was on the bike, one gets lazy, so I stuck with it.
Within a year or so of 10 hitting the market, 11 came and not too soon after, 12. Now there are all sorts of reasons for this, and one of the better ones coincided with 29ers becoming the increasing norm. Adding 3+ inches to the rear wheel meant that what was ok gearing wise on a 26, or 27.5, suddenly became taller, hence harder. You can work out the math if you want. And with 1x drive trains becoming the must have, for many, pushing 1×10 (with a 40 max out back) on a 29er was all a bit too much hard work. Thus bikes started to get 42+ toothed dinner plates out the back, mated to silly little 32T rings up front, all so people could crawl their way up steep stuff, which in fact would be easier, and faster, to get off and gently run up. But, you know… ego.
Fast forward to now. I am getting old and crotchety. I won’t deny that. So with three perfectly good bikes, two of which happen to be the very last of the 26ers (read, they have all the ‘modern geometry’, kit, and suspension; but on 26” wheels), I had, and still have, zero intention of replacing them until they break. They also all had 1×10. Yes, you read that right, ‘had’. I stripped off all the 10spd and replaced it with… 9.
Well, aren’t you the grumpy retro grouch I hear you say.
Yea. And no.
Other than the PIA of setting up an old school 9x set up (I’m now collecting clusters and mechs), when paired with a 34T up front, it offers the joy of all useable, nicely stepped gearing that, and hold your breath for this, will get you up pretty much everything. You see, despite the best efforts of cycling world’s marketing departments, while bikes have changed every third minute, the stuff 99% of riders ride, well, hasn’t…
Case in point: We’ve moved back to city where my mountain biking odyssey began all those years ago, and guess what? Yea… the hills are the same and even some of the same trails I rode all those years back are still there, only now smoother and faster. But perhaps the funniest thing? Despite more gears, more suspension, dropper posts and everything else? The riding in many ways has actually become easier; it certainly hasn’t become harder. So on trails that I once rode fully rigid, 3×7, many are riding now with 1×12, with 402+ as the tallest rear cog! I am not sure where they use that sort of gearing, and my friend openly admits he never uses the larger cogs on his Trek… so his 1×12 is more like a 1×10!
In practice the 1×9 (11-36 in my case) is still very well behaved on the trail, especially paired with a 34 up front. Hit the hills though and you’ll know quick smart if you’ve been riding enough, and perhaps this was the uncomfortable truth marketing departments latched on to when they started pushing 10 and more – to enjoy 9spd, you need to ride… on a regular basis. If you don’t, it has a nasty habit of reminding you. Maybe we were all tougher ‘in the good old days’? Probably not, we just rode what we had.
But the biggest draw card for me is that 9spd is robust. The mechanisms don’t have to be as finely tuned as the new high ratio kit and the old SRAM 1:1 ratio was, and still is, snappy and crisp. It’s notchy, a little, some might say ‘unrefined’, but that’s what makes it… good. The clusters are sturdier for the same given weight and the chains… well, they’re not made of fairy string. Simply put, a 1×9 drivetrain is akin to taking a Range Rover Defender, rather than a good looking but delicate sports car, down the trail.
But for all but the most die hard. or the most determined, setting up an old school 9spd drivetrain will be all too much effort. Clusters can be found, Sunrace even makes performance level units, but you have to look for them. Rear mechs though are another story. Again, Sunrace has offerings but SRAM and Shimano only offer lower tier units. They work just fine, every bit as good as the top of the line back in the day, they just may not fill the gear head desires of many; and NOS can be madly expensive (probably for good reason). Chains, funnily enough, are aplenty and Shimano XTs can be found easily enough.
If on the other hand you like the idea of a wide range cassette, then Box is worth a look. Their speciality is well tuned, wide range 9 speed systems. All the simplicity and lightness of 9spd but with the dinner plate out back many think they need. Box will be my go to if I can no longer keep the oldsckool kit going… if I can bare the idea of a 42T up the back…
June 1, 2023: UPDATE! I’ve moved to Box 2 prime 9. Read my review here
Copyright 2023 Gerard Thomas. All rights reserved.
I've run mtb events, distributed some legendary brands, ran my own cycling clothing brand, designed bikes and was a GM and head designer for a famous but sadly now extinct mtb marquee; and after 20 odd years I decided riding bikes was more fun than working with them.
Over that time though, I wrote (and some wrote for me) a lot of stuff about bikes, on blogs and the like. Some was good, some, well... not so much. Rather than loose it all when I shut everything down once and for all, I have kept some of my favourite, and more popular pieces here for... prosperity?
I also am working on new pieces as well...