Words and Photography: Jake Hood

Where do you even start with this? Is it by talking about the radically new and different transmission system SRAM has just come out with? Or should I start by saying just how much of an all-star crew we had for this trip? How about the epic riding Queenstown provided? Or should we just talk about how good the food was at Atlas? Well, I guess I’ll cover it all below.

I’m a bit of a super tech bike nerd. I love trolling through the Vital MTB forums, looking at all the new and interesting stuff people dig up and find out there on the World Wide Web. How they find what they do I will never know.

They even manage to find stuff that is meant to be hidden from the public, months before it’s due to be released. It must be a nightmare for brands trying to keep things hush-hush, but it helps builds mystery and a lust for the things we can’t have yet. One of the very things I saw on this forum was SRAM’s new AXS drive chains. They weren’t really hiding it from the public, though, as it was already on a few of the pro’s bikes in the latter half of the EWS and XC season last year. The derailleur, cassette and chain were different; instead of being mounted to a hanger, the derailleur is mounted directly to the frame. I saw it and thought to myself, ‘that’s really cool, I like what they’re doing there’, then sort of left it. I didn’t really think about it all that much after that. I was sure it was going to be as good as any other AXS derailleur when it came out. Boy, was I wrong.

When Liam called about this trip, I was flipping stoked. Not just because we would get to ride the new product, but mostly because Chris Mandell from SRAM was coming over to talk us through the product and ride with us. I originally met Chris in Whistler, way back in the day when I lived there. I got to do a few laps of the bike park with him and boy oh boy, can he ride a bike well! I think I first read about Chris in Dirt magazine; it was a short piece about him, his BMX background and the Kona Entourage. Chris has done many things in the industry, he’s a man who’s worn many caps, including working at Kona, designing the original process line of bikes (technical Gen 2 processes) – that you could argue really started the longer, lower slacker trend – and working at Rock Shox as rear shock product manager. The latest Super Deluxe Air is his baby and that shock rips. And now he’s working for SRAM. I’d say I’m a little bit of a Chris Mandell superfan, so I was stoked to get to ride with him again and show him around Queenstown.

My original plan for the few days we had, was to start with a sunrise shoot at Ben Lomond saddle. It would have been a 4am grind up to the saddle to get the sun just poking over the Remarkables. For the five weeks prior, in Queenstown, we had really lucked out on the weather. There hadn’t been a drop of rain and no clouds to be seen, but the weather forecast was predicting rain for the days we wanted to ride and shoot. Typical. Liam and I caught up with Chris the night before the shoot/ride days started. We headed to Atlas for food, beer, planning and shooting the shit. Chris was stoked on the idea of a super-early-start sunrise mission, so we hummed and hawed about the idea. Rechecking all the weather apps suggested rain in the morning and not clearing until later in the day, so the 4am idea got sacked off. The new plan was for everyone to meet at a cafe in the morning and go from there – a bit more of a leisurely time.


That morning, we met up with the rest of the crew: a bunch of heavy hitters; low-key savages on two wheels – and all as humble as they come.

Ben Hildred, the Vertical Metre Eater.
This lanky, tea-drinking Englishman has probably climbed more metres than anyone else in New Zealand, from Everesting and Double Everesting to being the first to complete the Olympus Mons Challenge, doing K2 and climbing one million feet in 200 days. He just loves riding his bike – and all things related to bikes. With a previous history in BMX, he brings that culture to his riding – playing about with the trail, jibing and getting creative – even on the uphills. He treats his 29er trail bike like a BMX, using his long limbs to his advantage.

Dan Booker, the Mayor of Maydena.
A flat-pedal assassin that has more raw talent than many of the top pros. His bike skills and balance are incredible. Seriously, watch some of his manual videos. Silky smooth whilst being stupidly fast. I’d argue he will de-throne Sam Hill soon for the title of fastest flat-pedal rider. It wouldn’t surprise me if you see him nearing the top step in this year’s EWS season.

Last but not least, Andrew Clark.
Hailing from Scotland but now residing in New Zealand, Andrew is the most low-key, chilled-out chap and is as humble as they come. He’s one of the best bike riders that no one knows about! He oozes style, with an ability to contort his bike and body into positions that the laws of physics shouldn’t allow. Take Newton’s laws of motion and throw them out the window when Andrew rides. It’s mind-bending to watch. All while having a massive smile on his face. I wanted Chris to meet him and see what he can do, because it really is something special to watch.


The rain was coming down as we inhaled our coffees the following morning. But, up the lake, you could see it starting to get brighter. We decided to make a move and go ride some bikes. We were heading to the beech forest anyway and like my mother used to say; “you’re not made of sugar”.

We parked at the bottom of the Skyline access road and, as we unloaded our bikes, I finally got to take a good look at the new stuff. It was quite the radical departure from your traditional mech. Mounted directly to the frame via a big clevis mount, the derailleur looked slick and futuristic. It had almost taken some of the cyberpunk aesthetic and feel that Hyundai is using in their cars with sharp lines throughout, highlighted by the brushed alloy metal on the black derailleur. It’s a solid unit of a mech – it looks like you could take this thing through the gates of hell, and it would come out unscathed. The new cassette was a work of art as well. As you look closer you realise SRAM have added X Sync to the cassette. Like, mind-blowing stuff. The new shifter – or pods as SRAM refer to them – have a more traditional, ergonomic design to them compared to the previous generation. It uses a two-button system, one placed above the other, with rubber paddles that require a push to make them feel like a shift versus a tap. The return spring built into the paddle gives you that positive, almost mechanical, feel. To me though, the pièce de résistance was the new XO cranks. They are gorgeous. A change from carbon to alloy, they are unlike anything else on the market (well, minus 5 Dev). They’re minimalist, cyberpunky and abstract. You can tell they used what they learned about their AI crank program and applied it to this. There’s a hole near the crank bolt, highlighted by the brushed metal accent that gives the look of a drawing compass. The bushed metal part has been placed in the part of the crank where you’re most likely to get foot rub, thus keeping the crank looking brand new for years for us chronic shoe crank pedal rubbers. The final piece that sets these apart, is the return of the bash guard. Why these ever fell out of fashion I don’t know, but I’m so glad to see them back. They mount on the chainring and can be removed if you see fit. I’m such a fan of these.

I was so distracted by the transmission that I didn’t even notice the new code brakes. The silver and black theme continued here. The polished calipers are a thing of beauty; these have stayed the same as the current codes, but where the changes have been made is in the lever. The levers now run parallel with the bars. When you see them, you’re like; “why haven’t they done this before?!”. It just makes so much sense. No more sticking out at 45-degrees, and the cables run much nicer. I feel like the 45-degree brake is just a hangover from V brake levers and no one ever thought, ‘hey, we could just make them run parallel with the bar, keep it nice and tidy’. From the first couple of pulls on the levers, you can tell there’s been some reworking for the internals. Lighter to pull than the previous code RSC. What I did think was weird, was that the new caliper – that had been seen on some of the World Cup racer’s bikes this last season – wasn’t there. Maybe SRAM is holding it back for another brake. I guess time will tell.

Chris explained that there are three tiers of these new AXS groupsets: X01, XX1 and XX1 SL.

We all jumped on our bikes and set off up Skyline access road in search of trails in the beech forest just outside the bike park. It’s a steep grind of a road – anyone who has ridden it will know. Starting at its steepest for the first third, before mellowing off a bit. The clouds were spitting a light amount of rain which was a refreshing change from the previous weeks of blaring sun and no shade – you didn’t feel like you were about to melt into a puddle by the fourth steep switchback. The steep fire road was the perfect place to test the gears under load. The gradient means you have to put a lot of force through the transmission and, being a road, it let you concentrate on what the gears were doing when you shifted. I guess I was in the perfect place to shift like an idiot under load and test these new gears. From the first shift, you realise this is something special – it’s not just another groupset, another new drive chain, it’s more than that. It’s the crispest shifting I’ve ever experienced. It has such a positive feel to it. There is that reassuring ‘clunk’ as it moves into gear, almost mechanical but with the precision of electronics. Lightning fast; instant, precise. Even under load in the worst possible moment to shift, it was still absolutely light years ahead of everything else. Whatever you have learned about not shifting under load, you can now throw out the window. This new system does it with ease. I think a big factor is the added stiffness of the direct mount, and the X Sync teeth on the cassette, but SRAM have also made many tiny tweaks that have really optimised the system. We’ll discuss them later.

The pace was hot, with Ben leading the charge. I guess that’s what happens when you are riding with a bunch of absolute savages. The relentless access road mellowed slightly towards mid-way and gave me time to get my breath under control. We stopped at the mid-way point and Chris told us some stories about the adventures he’d been on. After a quick break, we set off again up the second part of the road. I’ve ridden this road so many times over the years and it never gets any easier. If you get fitter, you just end up going faster. It’s surprisingly addictive to pedal up the road – even though it shouldn’t be. As the trees start to thin out, you reach the Skyline top gondola. We continued heading up via Beeched As, then Ben Lomond walking track to Lower Missing Link – a favourite trail of mine. It’s a perfect balance of flowy beech forest mixed with a little bit of tech. It’s a fantastic trail that works for all abilities, and it was running great after recent maintenance work by the crew at Elevate Trails.

The trail starts off out in the open and winds its way down into the beech forest – this is where it really gets good. We stopped and sessioned bits on the trail while I shot photos. The first feature we stopped on was a bomb hole compression to a small jump. From the get-go, Andrew was blowing minds. He had literally just jumped on the SRAM-equipped Megatower that morning, without any time to get used to it, and rough settings. He came over the rise into the bomb hole, doing an inverted nose press over it, all tucked up in ways that shouldn’t be possible. Smooth as you like. Chris’s face lit up – “what the heck?!” From that point on, I knew we were in for a good day.

We worked our way down the trail, sessioning different parts. Everyone fed off the energy of each other. Dan would be throwing some huge shapes off the smallest mounds while also travelling at a ridiculous speed through the turns. You could feel the earth trembling as he passed. Andrew was doing Andrew things; bending the laws of physics and gapping into switchback turns that shouldn’t be gapped into. Both Dan and Andrew’s styles complement each other, making it so good to watch. Chris was the hype man of the day, throwing out hype and stoke every time something cool happened, genuinely so excited by what was going on. Throwing out ideas. It was infectious. Everyone was just going harder and harder. Chris and Ben were bringing their BMX background to the trail. Throwing down tweaks that are better than a lot of the pros, dancing their bikes down the trail in such a beautiful manner. Smooth and light, their long limbs smoothing out the compressions, they’re two great people to watch flow down a trail. Such a joy to watch. Fantastic.

After Missing Link we headed down Creaky Winders and shot some more photos. This is another absolute gem of a trail. It snakes off of Beeched As and is a perfect mix of tech and flow. It’s niggly and tight in some spots; weaving up and down. It keeps you on your feet with lots of little features, surrounded by beautiful beech forest. It’s tremendous. Everyone was just peaking on this trail; fizzing and pushing each other, over and over. We worked our way down the trail, checking off features as we went. Near the end of the trail, I could tell people were getting tired. Mistakes were happening. I called it a day on the shoot. It was time to head to town and refuel.

We followed the Fernhill Loop back to the bike park and down Squid Run in a train. The crew might have been tired but that wasn’t slowing anyone down. We weaved our way down trying to hold the wheel of Dan. It was another good test of the transmission, which was a lot quieter than my current GX AXS – less chain slap. The shift was more positive even on the way down. Some will say, “ah yeah, that’s just because it’s brand new!”. But the set I was riding wasn’t – it had been used for a few weeks, making how well it worked even more impressive. It was an absolute blast training down Squid Run at the pace we were going. Borderline dangerous with everyone feeling so tired. At the bottom, we all had huge grins on our faces.


All good rides finish with a beer, right?

We rolled back down to the local watering hole to refuel – there was only one place to go, and Atlas was that place. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: it’s the perfect after-ride spot, with great atmosphere, lovely staff, killer food and 22 taps of fantastic beverages to choose from. We fueled up on beer and burgers whilst chatting bikes and trails. Before the inevitable food coma set in, we headed out quickly for a little more time on the products. A few chilled laps in the Fernhill/ McGnarly area, with one lap down Skyripper and a McGnarly to finish the day’s riding. The more I rode the product, the more I liked using it. You just know that when you pull the button to shift, it will do it; there’s no need to worry about a little under-power half pedal to help it shift – just pedal as you would, and the chain will shift on the cog. It really does improve the enjoyment of climbing. The slightly altered rations in the cassette were also a welcome improvement. No more big jumps between the 42t to 52t; instead you 44-52 jump, which feels a lot nicer. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it makes a difference – there’s less of a sudden change in ratio. It’s hard to put in words the feeling of the new transmission over the previous stuff, it’s just an overall feeling of a much nicer time while shifting. A good analogy would be to compare driving a car from 10 years ago to driving a brand new, modern car with all the bells and whistles. Both do the same thing, but the newer car is easier to drive, more relaxing, quieter, with more features to assist you. Overall it’s just a more enjoyable experience.

Both laps of the Fernhill area were a blast. The party train down McGnarly was ridiculous. Bikes were dancing left and right over the jumps. Berms were being blown up by Andrew, Dan, Ben and Chris. Dust explosions everywhere. It was flipping awesome. Too much fun. Then things started falling apart on Skyripper. The long day had taken its toll, everyone was tired and mistakes started happening. I set off first, only to hear carnage behind me. Dan had blown off take on the steepest part. I think Andrew also had a wee washout. Everyone’s concentration had gone. It was time to call it a day on the riding.


We rode back to town and into Vertigo Bikes for Chris to give us the full tech run down on the product and how it works. The new system is designed to work on bikes that use a SRAM UDH hanger interface. A couple of years ago, SRAM brought out the UDH (universe derailleur hanger). The purpose of that was to create a better derailleur hanger that bike brands could adopt. It was a standard that made sense and, slowly, more and more bike brands have been getting on board with the standard. It was a solid move forward for the bike industry. This new AXS system builds on top of that: the hanger is replaced by a direct mount clevis system to the frame. In doing this, you massively increase the stiffness and strength of the derailleur. It’s not just held by a single bolt to the hanger, instead, it mounts both sides of the frame.

When you induce the hub, frame and axle, it creates an interface that is incredibly stiff and really strong, so much so that you can put your bike on the ground, stand on the derailleur on one foot and get back on your bike, ride away and the shifting will still be perfect. That’s not possible on a normal hanger set-up – something will bend. I had my doubts about it until Chris showed us. It was super impressive.

The derailleur keeps the override clutch system that allows the mech to move out of the way when it’s stuck by an object. It’s fantastic, and something that seems to get used regularly on my current GX AXS. It has saved my hanger from getting bent so many times and I’ve never needing to straighten it like I would have with a normal cable set up. The clevis mount combined with the override clutch ensures you have a system that should, in theory, be very hard to put out of tune. It’s just a more reliable system; more pierce gear shifting, and a better experience on the trail.

SRAM has introduced other technology to these groupsets: flat-top chains that come from their road bike groupset. These increase efficiency and durability while looking flipping awesome. X Sync can now be seen on the cassette, improving the shifting and chain reaction. It really lets you shift under load without the worry of skipping gears. I’d imagine it also helps the durability of the cassette. The recent SRAM x Dome cassettes have an incredible lifespan if you replace the chain regularly. I think these new ones will blow them out of the water as long as you keep up-to-date on replacing the chain when it’s worn.

The smart engineers at SRAM Germany really went to town on this. They have gone over everything with a fine-tooth comb. Chris said that they looked at all the warranty data collected over the past 10 years, and tried to eliminate as many of the issues as they could.

The way they did was by redesigning the whole system and imagining a new way of doing things. The clevis mount gave the ability to produce a far superior product and gave the engineers more ability to optimise every last bit. There are so many little things they have done that just make it a joy to use, such as the slight bend in the derailleur cage. It looks like it has been bent on the trail but, in actual fact, it’s meant to be like that. It helps keep the pulley chain interface better aligned when in the extreme ends of the cassette. There are two different modes to set the cage to, depending on the chainstay length. The new magic jockey wheel, that features on the XX1 and XX1sl models, ensures it will still spin even if an object gets stuck in there.

As well as all of this, set up has become easier than ever before. I’m not going to go into the whole way you go about it – the SRAM technical manuals have that all dialed and are a great source of information. “We gave this product out to some of our racers this year, on the EWS, and the mechanics keep overthinking the setting up of the system,” explains Chris. “It can’t be this easy, they keep telling me.” Easier set-up leads to fewer problems and fewer tuning errors from the get-go.

Now, I imagine that you’re thinking, ‘that’s all well and good, but what happens if I crash and absolutely smash it into a rock and manage to bend it?’. Well, shit does happen and, in that case, on a normal hanger mech situation, both of them would probably be a full write-off and due for the bin. In the case of this new system, however, I’d be very surprised if you could bend the clevis. It is really that strong and stiff. The good news is that the rest of the derailleurs are rebuildable. If you do damage a part, it will most likely be replaceable. You can remove the cage without using any tools. A simple little tap while unscrewing the cage will loosen it up. The tension spring and clutch are now built into the cage.

Servicing and cleaning these parts is super easy and something that can be done in no time at all. The protection covers on the B-knuckle and outer link ensures they are fully replaceable, or upgradeable to the XX skid plate. Is your mech looking a bit scratched up and tired after a year of use and abuse? Simply slap some new ones on and it will look brand new. I’m really behind this, I love it when brands make their products rebuildable and serviceable – products they want to see being used for years and years, products you can fix rather than just replace. It’s the way our industry should be heading instead of adding to a throwaway society just because one tiny part breaks or wears out that’s not replaceable.

The next day we were up and out, bright and early again. Straight back up Skyline access road then straight up the Ben Lomond walking track. Now, this is a walking track, but there must have been something in the crew coffee that morning because they pedaled up the whole thing. I’ll say it again: absolute savages this lot. It’s pretty relentless the whole way, just a hard going grind, but it rewards you with breathtaking views once you reach the Ben Lomond saddle. There was now 1000m of vertical descent ahead of us, back down to Queenstown. What a treat to be had. We hopped onto Upper Missing Link and stopped at the rock feature near the top. There, I had this idea for a photo I wanted to shoot. Everyone had a run-through, wall riding on the rock, and I got what I wanted. Chris pushed back up to hit it again. He came into the rock at a weird angle, going straight into it; next thing he extended his bike up over vertical and foot planted on the rock. Everyone was freaking out. It was so unreal! There had been a lot of BMX chat on the way up and I guess Chris was feeling inspired. I didn’t think a foot plant on that rock was possible. Next, Dan and Andrew started giving it a go. Popping up high before planting the foot, with the bike basically upside down. It was mind-bending. If they got the foot placement wrong, it would have been a good fall down the other side. Dan and Andrew just shut the rock down. Amazing stuff.

We continued down Upper Missing Link, weaving and dancing our way along the ridgeline, the narrow singletrack snaking through rocks and tussocks. From there, we headed down what you could argue is one of the best trails in New Zealand. I’m not going to tell you where it is or what it’s called – if you know, you know. It’s an absolute gem of a trail. A true mix of everything. Three trails in one – flowing, flat-out beech forest and dark turny pines to Val de Sol-like rock gardens. It’s got it all. As you hammer along the beech forest section, you’re treated to huge compression and little gaps. Flat out straights into tight turns. Cornflakes cover the track and hide the roots below. The new brakes really started to show their improvement over the old ones. The power seemed to have increased, the lighter lever feel was a welcome addition, easing the arm pump on this long run. The classic SRAM modulation was still there, offering heaps of control.

Once you finish the beech part of this trail, you hit the dark pine at what feels like warp speed. Your eyes don’t have long to adjust to the light conditions; turns come up fast, a couple of lefts and rights before coming into a rock roll feature. From there, you head through a small slither of Sycamores, lighting the place up in green haze. The dirt in this section is treacherous in the wet, almost like riding on ice. Finally, you end up with what I imagine a fresh, slightly tamer version of Val de Sol would feel like: deep loam and lots of rocks. I was barreling through this section and smoked the derailleur into something. The sound was horrendous. In my head, I was thinking, ‘ahh, well that’s fucked then’. I didn’t stop though, and continued on to the bottom of the trail. To my absolute amazement, it was fine. Although it sure looked like it had been hit – there were scratches, a big chunk of material missing and rock debris – the shifting was still absolutely perfect. If this was any other system, this would not have been the case. Really impressive.

You know where this ends. It’s the end of the ride, we’re hungry and thirsty. Only one place to go then – back to Atlas. We cheers-ed to a fantastic weekend of riding over some cold crisp pints. What a weekend. What amazing trails. What a tremendous crew. And – what a fantastic transmission! The new benchmark has been set.

SRAM has really knocked it out of the park on this. It’s hard to think how you can improve on what they have delivered here. It’s truly fantastic. It’s robust, designed from the ground up for mountain biking, and finally moving on from the hanger system that came from road bikes so many years ago. I’m a massive fan of the ability to be able to rebuild and replace parts on the derailleur. The shifting is light years ahead of the others. Will this groupset make you faster? You could argue that it will, but I don’t think that’s the right question to ask. Will this groupset enhance the experience of your ride? 100% it will – it’s an absolute joy to use; it makes you want to shift more and it’s easy to set up. It’s built to last; is robust and strong – you don’t really have to worry about it. Going off the reliability of the previous AXS stuff – which was in my opinion the best out there – this should be able to last an apocalypse. I’m not normally the sort of person to fork out for an expensive drive chain, instead, I normally run the cheapest I can get away with. Gen 1 of AXS changed my mind about that a bit, but this new stuff has 100% flipped my view. It’s something that’s worth saving up for and putting on your next bike. It’s something worth investing in. You won’t regret it.

Hat’s off to you SRAM. Well done.

This article is taken from:NZ Mountain Biker, Issue #110

Considering SubscribingPurchase Issue #110