Mountain Bike Crankset Reviews

by Joseph Wells - Last Updated: November 30, 2018

One of the coolest upgrades you can do to your mountain bike is to change out the crankset.  There are dozens of reasons why, but a quality crankset makes a difference. In this article we will explore the various options and what they will mean to you.

If you are looking for a simple answer of a great upgrade crankset with many options, look toward the SRAM XX parts groups.  SRAM offers the XX parts on several levels, so you can match to your needs.  They also have a number of configurations available, so if you want anything from a 1x to a triple, they have it in a variety of sizes and gear ratios.

SRAM XX is a great choice due to its excellent shifting performance.  It is possible to get other cranksets, at a lower price, but you give up certain aspects that only the bigger companies like Shimano and SRAM can provide.  It takes a bit of expensive engineering to find out where and how to put shift pins into the chainrings. Tooth profile is important as well when paired with the proper chains.  Mixing parts is not recommended.

The other cool thing that SRAM provides is that ability to go 12 speed.  What that means is if you were considering a 1x setup, but the gear ratios in most 11 speed cassettes are not quite right, the SRAM Eagle 12 speed could help out.  It will add a super low gear, which is what you will desire for climbing steep grades when you don’t have a small chainring.

Best 1 x 10 Cranksets

In this realm of cranksets it is a bit easier to deal with the choices.  Shifting performance on the front is a non factor.  The biggest key here is having an appropriate chainring to help with chain retention on rocky terrain.

Look for cranksets that have some engineering on the tooth profile.  RaceFace uses narrow and wide tooth profiles, as an example, which works great for engaging the chain.  This isnt to say that a standard chainring wont work.

I really love the RaceFace Atlas 1 x 10 crankset.  It comes in several colors, which immediately gives you a custom look.  Pair with it a good bottom bracket and your upgrade is complete.

The Atlas uses a 4 bolt chainring setup, so it is easy to find any number of compatible rings in a variety of ratios.  Dont let the 10 speed aspect fool you, you can go 11 with this crank!

Best 2 x 10 Cranksets

When it comes to excellent value, I look to the Shimano Deore XT 2 x 10 crankset.  I use this personally on my 29″ mountain bike and have raced competitively on an elite level using similar components to what is currently offered.

Again, one of the key points is shifting.  I can shift while pedaling hard up a hill and not lose the chain.  It is so smooth!  This is a tough crankset as well. I live in the desert with really rocky terrain, so I hit the cranks on things, and they still do well.

The XT models come in many different configurations besides the 2 x 10.  They also have every length needed, I prefer 175mm and the 28/38 rings, but if you are doing endurance events, sizing down makes sense.

I also like the bottom bracket and spindle combination with this crank. I don’t get creaking bearings and all of that. Everything is solid and easy to install.

Best Triple Cranksets

If you want to go old school, or perhaps you need that bail out low gear, a triple crankset is on the list.  With a reasonable rear drivetrain, you can get a massively wide gear ratio selection going triple. With many cranks available in a micro drive or similar configuration, you might be able to setup with as small as a 22 small ring.

You will need to verify on your rear derailleur what the range is that can be accepted.  What you have to realize, is you must run a long cage derailleur to allow for more chain length.  You have to sweep up chain for the 22t front, and be long enough to accommodate the big ring while allowing use of all the gears on the rear.

The only drawback to a triple is shifting performance.  The chain is at distinct angles most of the time, which binds it, and makes for hard work for the front derailleur.  Getting everything dialed in is a struggle.

Why Change Cranks?

A false assumption that many riders make is that the crankset that was included on their bike is correct for them. The biggest reasoning behind basic bike fit is that generally most people are proportional and some factors in sizing are reasonably true. That isn’t always the case.

While for many enthusiasts the crankset that came on their bike could be ample, for those that understand bike ergonomics will tell you that there is much to be gained fitting an appropriate crank that compliments the rider and riding style. One of the basic rules on cranks is that longer cranks take away endurance, but gain leverage to ride harder gears. Smaller cranks gain endurance but lose leverage.  Finding the happy medium is key.

Reasons for changing cranksets:

  • Drivetrain performance
  • Ergonomics
  • Appropriate bike fit
  • Adjust for terrain
  • Gain durability
  • Adjust for riding style
  • Adjust for duration
  • Improve look of bike

Let’s go over a few considerations in regards to cranksets. You cannot give up drivetrain performance.  A decade or more ago, you could live with some incompatibility, but that isn’t required any longer.  What many riders lived with was changing cranks for weight savings, or a different gear configuration that may not have been offered by the matching manufacturer. These incompatibilities would make for difficult shifting.

The main goal in choosing any replacement crankset should first off be ergonomics.  It may be well and good that the crank looks cool and is blue in color, but if the width or length is wrong for you, you are wasting money.  Yes, both width and length are factors. As stated above length affects leverage at the cost of endurance. Width is important for body alignment.  Too wide of a crank necessitates angling the knees and hips, which can put awkward pressure on your joints.

Will They Fit My Bike?

Not all cranks will fit every bike.  With bottom bracket differences as well as chain line requirements, some cranks are not great choices for particular bike models.  Be extra careful with full suspension bikes, issues arise here more often.

Some trails have significant erosion and terrain features.  It is possible to choose shorter cranks to allow pedaling on trails that are rutted or worn. Additionally, shorter cranks improve clearance. So if you find that certain dropoffs or rock outcroppings hit your cranks, you can adjust slightly. Alternatively, we used to ride even longer cranks on open and fast trails. We could pedal harder gears, and carry more speed.

Some cranks use lower grade metals in both the arms and rings.  Upgrade cranksets can provide additional durability. If you are bending arms and rings, upgrades like this can certainly help

Riding style is important. Some people naturally pedal slower, with that a longer crank is beneficial for them.  Other people will carry a high cadence and use that momentum to clear hills. Shorter cranks help out there.

Conclusion

Now more than ever it is easier to check off many boxes on what a crankset upgrade will provide for you.  Years ago there were two crank length choices of 170 and 175mm, and just triple chainrings.  We would often remove the inner ring when it wasn’t needed.

Look at the SRAM XX drivetrains and cranksets now.  You don’t have to settle for what barely works, you can choose proper components engineered to work right without compromise. SRAM easily checks all of the boxes, no matter your riding style or needs.

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