Interview: Chris Hilton - The man behind SRAM's one-by drives

While digging around for a scoop on SRAM's electronic mountain bike drivetrain at the SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing Team pits at the Stellenbosch World Cup, we were introduced to the man responsible for creating (and hiding) it.


Chris Hilton is a product manager for SRAM working on their drivetrain products in Schweinfurt, Germany. We snapped up the opportunity to chat with Chris about the development processes at SRAM, the introduction of their game-changing one-by systems, bikes standards and pricing.

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Chris Hilton at the Stellenbosch World Cup to oversee new product testing by the SCOTT-SRAM MTB Racing Team.


What has been your journey (in brief) through the bike industry?

I have been in the bike industry most of my adult life. I started in 1993/94 working in a bike shop while doing some racing. From there, I got a job in product development and worked for several companies in the industry. I have been with SRAM for close on 10 years, working on drivetrain products. Stuff like XX1, Eagle, and future products coming out of SRAM’s Schweinfurt design and testing facility.


I believe that better bike parts, make a better bike ride. At the end of the day, we’re all bike riders and our goal at SRAM is to make the bike better.


As a Product Manager, do you get stuck into the engineering side of things?

No, I don’t do any engineering. I have a great team of engineers in Schweinfurt with about 130 people of which around 75% work directly on development.


The Schweinfurt facility is a carryover from SRAM's acquisition of Sachs Bicycle Components who had their factory and machinery there. The RockShox suspension, as well as brake products, are developed in Colorado Springs while the carbon cranks are engineered in California, and some road drivetrain development happens in Chicago.


SRAM is currently one of the more innovative cycling companies. Can you put your finger on any reasons for this?

We tend to do things our own way. We work better for not trying to be like anyone else or worrying too much about other people's expectations.


It is almost six years since XX1 first came out. Now it seems normal but back then everyone was riding three-by or two-by and telling them to get rid of all these parts and buy a new rear hub was crazy. It was a huge risk. Yes, people were already riding one-by and we had simply hoped to make a better system for these riders.


I showed the product to a lot of other product managers, some said it would never work but there were a few who said they wanted it. You can’t please everyone but you have to figure out what you want to do, decided to do it, and then do it well.


Obviously, as one-by has gained popularity, we’ve been working on expanding the range and making other improvements through the Eagle range. We’re not finished by any stretch. We still want to make things stronger, lighter, and more efficient. Even simply making more price points available to people is progress. In that sense, GX Eagle has been really successful for us.


Looking around during the cross-country practice, we don’t sponsor everyone, and there are so many Eagle drivetrains being used. They are our customers. And it is great to see someone out in the wild who has made the choice to buy the product you worked on.


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The interface between the chain and chainring was a key focus in developing the Eagle drivetrains.


What challenges did face progressing from 11-speed to 12-speed Eagle?

We knew we wanted to improve the chainring. It’s really difficult to develop the chainring in isolation. The real key is to develop both the chain and the chainring together which has really helped us reduce the wear on the chainring. You don’t have to develop the materials or put a special coating on it if you understand the core problems. It turns out that it didn’t matter what coating or material we used (we even tried titanium) but once we solved the problem between the chain and chainring, it started to work better.


We don’t make stuff that wears out fast so people are forced to buy more. If our drivetrains lasted forever, I’d be completely fine with that. Sooner or later most people will just get bored and buy something new. There are plenty of business opportunities for us in the market aside from selling replacement parts.


When XX1 first came out, the gear range (10-42) seemed astronomical. It felt like a big reach. People looked at the 42 tooth and said: “What in the world is this?”. People ask us why we didn’t just skip straight to 1x12. Well, that's not the way it works, people have to get accustomed to things. We’ve built some outlandish stuff which we’ve decided is just not right or is not right for now.


Like the gold Eagle drivetrain. There were a lot of people in the company who said it was ugly, too expensive, and no one is going to buy it. But someone has to make the decision to make it and we thought a few people would find it cool. It turns out that a lot of people liked it. But it was a risk. My personal preference, I’d go with the black.


When a new product is released there are always comments about pricing. Do you consider this in your product development?

We absolutely do. But somebody out there has an appetite for almost anything you can make. The question is, just how many of them? We’re very conscious of how much stuff costs.


If you look at the bicycle business, there is us making parts, we sell it to a distributor and they make money selling it to a dealer who makes money. We aren’t getting all that money. There are various people in the chain. If you own a bike shop, that’s you.


I look at other consumer goods. I look at the price of an iPhone and wonder why it has gone from $199 to $799. Yes, the technology has gotten better but so have bikes and so have cars.


When we had just come out with the XX two-by groupset about 10 years ago, that was a big step for us. It was our first complete groupset. But the price that it retailed for then is more than what XX1 Eagle retails for today. In a sense, the price of our premium best drivetrain has come down significantly. Yes, it is because we’ve taken many parts out but the consumer can still get a top of the range drivetrain for cheaper. That’s not bad progress.


Let’s be honest. What we do doesn’t save lives. It’s a leisure activity. It’s a choice. Bikes are expensive but they are affordable. If you want to choose GX or if you want XX. It’s just a question of priorities.


I think the bike market will adjust to what people are willing to stomach. If you make something so awesome, there are people who will want to buy it. At the same time, we also want to make that awesome product work for more people so when a technology works, we do trickle it down as fast as we can.


It takes longer than you think though. After we’ve made one Eagle range, it’s not just a case of flipping on a few machines and making another. You have to engineer and test lower price parts too and it is just as difficult, if not a bit harder, to make because of the price pressure forcing more efficient manufacturing.


The proliferation of standards is another area that the bike industry gets some bashing. Do you foresee this ever changing?

Standards can confuse consumers. Confusion about standards can start creating problems. There is not good solid information. For example, there are people asking for a Boost cranks because they think it is something better for their bike, meanwhile it's not even a Boost bike.


There can be as many standards as people want to make, as long as there is good clear information behind it to inform consumers. The bike industry has not been so great at being clear about standards.


Arguably they are not standards, they are choices. Options that change. Look at a bike that exists today and the model from five years ago and tell me which one you would want to ride. Yes, you would ride the older bike if you didn’t have the choice but bikes have improved. And it’s because we have been flexible about the choice of changing stuff.


Bikes handle better than they used to, they are a lot more fun than you used to be because we changed standards. We’re not going to stop because of the noise some consumers make. It is somebody’s job to make that bike better and if that means they need a different something to do that, they will do it.


The industry can’t get together and agree on how they will design bikes. It isn’t going to happen. The bike companies must decide how they will run their businesses and the consumers get to decide how that business performs with their money.


There are a lot of opportunities to make bikes better. We aren’t even close to looking at the finish line yet. For example, we still get flat tyres. That’s not a step forward and we need to fix that.


Will one-by on the road take off like it did in mountain biking?

One-by is not a magic bullet. For some people in some locations, it is fine. I would never put a front derailleur back on my cross bike but I ride with a front derailleur on my road bike. While I know people who are perfectly happy with just a single chainring on their road bikes.


On a mountain bike, the gear steps are much bigger. We’ve even made them bigger than calculators might recommend. But from collecting data from riders, we know when riders shift, how they shift, how often, and what gears they're in when they do. If there is more shifting there is less pedalling and our Eagle cassette is spot on.


On the road, it’s not necessarily as easy on the mountain bike. The speed differentials are so big, from 4km to 80 km. Tight gear steps are more important. I don’t see one-by being a runaway fire like it was on the mountain bike. That said, mountain bikes are certainly not coming back.


We’ve got a few cool one-by road solutions coming and we’re going to continue developing on that.


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The gold XX1 was a gamble by SRAM but it has proved to have plenty of fans. Plus, there's always the black option.


How much do you work with the bike brands?

Some brands we work with really closely but you can’t work with everybody. There are just too many companies in cycling.


Many brands saw the potential of the one-by drivetrain while some took longer than others. There were also many who simply said they didn't want bikes that can take advantage of removing the front derailleur. But the front derailleur was a massive limitation to mountain bike frame design.


We didn’t develop one-by solely for the purpose of improving frame design. We built one-by for people who were already riding it. It took almost 2 years before anyone made a non-front derailleur mounting frame. I think it was the Specialized Epic World Cup?


Today, there is no way you’re going to fit a front derailleur into many bike designs.


Do bike designers come to you with problems to solve?

We work closely with frame designers to work around collision and clearance gains. Everyone asked for more space but it wasn’t until Trek came along and said they wanted this much more for developing Boost that we had an exact number to aim for.


It’s easy for us on the drivetrain. If you move the cassette, you move the chainring the same amount. If you only move one of them, then you start to get chainline problems. You can’t just throw the chainring outboard but you can move both out. It was easy for us on the drivetrain but more of a hassle for the hub and wheel companies.


Your preference in terms of riding?

I’m a mountain biker. I ride a Scott Genius. It’s not built very light, for more aggressive trail riding. I also ride cyclocross bikes and sometimes a road bike.


mountainfun, May 10 2018 03:14

Absolutely awesome interview, thanks very much.


Incredible learnings for lots of other industries and businesses too.


Keep it up,