To be honest I didn't originally put "I don't want to ride an e-MTB without it ever again!” as the headline for my SRAM Powertrain review. But this is the internet, clicks are cash and Rich the editor knows best, so "LET'S GO GOOGLE". Plus, I certainly thought that while riding it and wrote it in the feature. So rather than being judgmental about mechanical minutiae like some other media, I’m going to continue to jut my chin out and take the punches for being super positive on this one.
Bring it on
And unsurprisingly, given that kind of ‘mic drop’ statement, the review has definitely seen a fair few people taking a swing at me already. I’ve had all the various variations on the inevitable “They’ll have automatic steering/braking/not having to pedal” comments on my manic laughter-soundtracked YouTube review of Powertrain. I’ve had people from bike brands – weirdly ones who aren’t currently ranging Powertrain but have recently launched e-MTBs – asking if “they can erase my memory” before riding their bike or enquiring if I’m “drunk on SRAM’s Kool-Aid”.
Others have pointed out that Shimano already launched its own e-MTB automatic shift system this summer or that the combined motor and gearbox systems from Pinion and others potentially have far more advantages. And yes, I know Powertrain is based on an ‘old’ motor and it only has two modes and you can’t switch it off while riding. I’m aware that the dual pod on the left side will get in the way of a conventional dropper post lever which means you’re limited to SRAM’s Reverb AXS post with ‘only’ 170mm of travel at most.
These are things that have been pointed out by other media in decidedly lukewarm reviews as well as in punter comments on my Facebook, where the focus seems to be mainly on the mechanics behind the new tech, not the effect on the trail.
And while it’s hard to believe from how positive I was – and still am – about Powertrain, I came into the test unprofessionally skewed in the opposite direction myself. You can ask my mates how much I bitched about how I thought it was a bridge too far in terms of taking away rider interaction with the trail, and removing yet another of the ‘earn your turns’ skill barriers. You know, the ones that keep MTB fundamentally elitist while the ‘woke’ among us wonder why the demographic is so limited or why Warner/Discovery broadcasting of MTB racing this year hasn’t flooded the trails with fresh mountain bikers.
Believe the hype
So what got me swiping left rather than right on SRAM’s new Powertrain Transmission? Simply put, riding it. Within minutes, and a couple of slower than I wanted shifts, I’d tweaked the pedal speed calibration (a five-second pod controller button-press sequence while riding), and I went from surly skeptic to cackling convert. Chasing the next gear, sprinting out of every corner, the only control I was touching up the first climb was the rear brake to slide the new Nukeproof wide into turns I was going into too hard.
I’d deliberately chosen Stainburn trail center to meet Al from SRAM for testing because it’s the legendary home of janky anti flow and I made the absolute most of that with the trails I tried to trip the system up on. And unsurprisingly there were moments where it over-shifted and left me grunting for a second after a sudden speed change, or the rear mech banged an obvious chain move in rather than sneaking across silently. It didn’t take me long to start providing the ‘predictive’ element that the system currently lacks by adjusting my pedal speed to provoke pre-shifts or hold it in a gear longer (think ‘Sport mode’ on an automatic car). Or if you know what you’re doing anyway you can use the shifter as normal to override the Auto function.
No shifts given
I’m already in danger of following the reticent reviewers who’ve concentrated on power pick up, or the legion of amateur online experts who’ve already judged the system without even riding it, and totally missing the point here. The crucial aspect is that this system isn’t meant for experienced mountain bikers with the trail reading skills to prejudge shifts or the mechanical sympathy to understand when to change in terms of pedal load or even crank phase.
Even if you’ve been riding a wildly diverse range of bikes for as long as I have, it’s remarkable how much removing ratio-juggling frees your mind up to concentrate on lines or just laughing at the simple joy of dodging trees, digging side knobs into loam, and sprinting out of corners towards the next ‘send’. If you’re a new or less skilled rider for whom those maneuvers, plus the attendant surface, speed and bodyweight shift assessments, are already drowning you like some sort of cerebral waterboarding torture, the last thing you need is your gears turning traitor on you.
Plus, while I grew up blindly feeling shifts into place with non-indexed downtube shifters on road bikes where a wrong move would thrum your fingers across the front wheel spokes like a potentially lethal harp, new bikes are coming from a totally different perspective.
Namely that switchgear on every other sort of technology generally just works. We get pissed now when software doesn’t download instantly, even if we grew up praying that we’d got the right three-finger chord on the tape deck to get Flight Simulator to start an hour-long load into our Spectrum. We press a button and expect that to be the end of it.
So why wouldn’t people be peeved when we say ‘this button changes the gears on your bike’ and then tell them that they were pedaling wrong, or too hard, or not at all or at the wrong moment or pushing the wrong button? And that’s why they stopped on that climb, fell off, dropped/broke their chain or needed their whole drivetrain replaced for several hundred quid after a month. If you put yourself in the position of a new rider who doesn’t really understand/care how shift ramps, teeth profiles or chain link chamfers work, you can’t expect mechanical sympathy. And I’m pretty sure we all know regular riders who fall into this category – there are several people in my immediate family for a start – let alone those excitedly starting off on their e-MTB ‘journey’.
The next logical assistance step
And that’s another thing (you can say that in a suitably high-pitched and exasperated voice if you want). We’re talking about e-MTB here. A category that has already dodged the most fundamental barrier to enjoying mountain biking – the effort and fitness required to get anywhere worthwhile. So why on earth people are getting their cables in a twist about "auto shifting being a step too far" on a bike that’s already clearly signaled the rider has said “forget hurty legs, I’m here to have fun” is beyond me. But then I knew I was one of them until I rode it and maybe, just maybe, people should reserve judgment until they’ve actually tried it. And if they don’t like it, then fine, don’t buy it, and if that’s the majority consensus then I’ll look as daft as I did back in 1999 when I said Whyte’s linkage bike was the best XC suspension design ever. Or maybe I’ll be proved right in the same way as I was when I slagged off RockShox's radical RS-1 upside-down fork and gave it 2 out of 5. And yes, I have crowbarred that in there to prove that I don’t exist on a diet of 'SRAM Kool-Aid’.
But talking of SRAM, one crucial element that some people have largely overlooked (alongside the very clever, high-density battery using a new type of cell) is that SRAM is brilliant at making people want to buy things. 'Uncle Dave' over on NSMB.com covered this superbly already, but nobody whips up the hype like SRAM on disruptive products like 2x, 1x, wireless gears, T-Type etc. I've even spotted Specialized leading with a 'search bikes with T-Type' hot button on their MTB landing page rather than pushing individual bike models. So while Shimano, Pinion and others might have entered the market already, it's definitely been with a 'meh' rather than a 'wow', and with bikes available from next week we're presumably only seeing the start of the runaway Powertrain onslaught. And that definitely matters more than over-run or peak torque figures when it comes to generating serious sales for the new system.
Finally, to the person who called me out for "gushing hyperbole” (it’s OK that’s safe to Google at work), if I can’t use the phrase ‘game-changing’ for a rad new auto gear shift system that even works when you’re not pedaling, then how boring do you want your reviews to read?