In 2017, a new team named Aqua Blue Sport, based in Ireland and created by the eponymous online cycling goods store, tried its luck joining the UCI’s second-tier Pro Continental Tour of professional road bike racing. Unlike most of its rival teams, Aqua Blue Sport arrived with a huge splash…primarily because of the fleet of bikes it fielded into the races. They were all 3T Strada bikes, built from the outset to run only one chainring, therefore fitting in with SRAM’s push for so-called 1x drivetrains.
SINK OR SWIM
Within the ultra-conservative, almost retro-grouchy realm of professional road cycling, there were whispers from the outset. While some applauded the audacity and innovation of the team’s approach, a majority looked at the whole 1x venture as nothing more than an experiment, one to keep an eye on to see if SRAM’s 1x drivetrains would sink or swim in the professional racing circuit.
Fast forward to a year and a half later, and we see Aqua Blue Sport throwing in the towel and closing down. As the podcast team of CyclingTips reports, the root cause is a failed merger between the team and the Belgian Veranda Willems Crelan outfit, the culmination of what appears to be a string of bad business decisions.
While I can’t speak about any shenanigans from within Aqua Blue Sport’s ownership or administration, what does appear obvious is that the team’s unusual bike fleet certainly didn’t help things.
TAKING GUNS TO A KNIFE FIGHT?
In an earlier episode of the CyclingTips podcast, dated May 2018, we get an interview with one of Aqua Blue’s mechanics, detailing the logistical challenges of building a team around running just one chainring where everybody else has two.
That proved to be the tip of the iceberg. Later on, with 3T and SRAM betting heavily on the team in terms of sponsorship, it appears the team had suffered a host of mechanical problems, most notably around stage 6 of the 2018 Tour de Suisse, where rider Mark Christian’s chances of a breakaway win got derailed by a dropped chain – one of many. Given that one of the main benefits talked up about a 1x drivetrain was reduced occurrence of this particular phenomenon, it suddenly wasn’t looking good for the whole concept, and Aqua Blue boss Rick Delaney had strong words on the debacle as he took to Twitter.
Around the team’s closure at the beginning of September, rider Adam Blythe came clean about the 3T Strada bikes being a key reason for the team’s inability to get results. While designed by former Cervelo founder Gerard Vroomen with aerodynamics in mind, the missing provision for mounting a front derailleur meant it simply lacked the flexibility required to be competitive within the pro peloton, leaving its riders more tired from grinding out big gears uphill than other teams’.
The unexpected final nail in the coffin for the 3T Strada’s original 1x ethos actually came two months earlier, in July 2018. As Blythe, Christian, and the other Aqua Blue Sport riders were struggling with their bikes, and while Vroomen insisted on the benefits of 1x on the road when approached by the media, popular demand from non-competitive riders led to 3T backpedaling and eventually introducing the Strada Due (pronounced “doo-eh”), which is Italian for “two”, and a reference to it having two chainrings. This action flew in the face of the original announcement that the Strada frame was intentionally designed as a 1x bike with no support for a front derailleur mount.
THE ONE (CHAIN)RING TO RULE THEM ALL?
Single chainring drivetrains have their uses. They are very popular on mountain bikes now, with riders moving away from multiple chainrings as MTB cockpits become more complicated and cluttered with controls. They are also great for muddy cyclocross races, where the additional chain retention provided by the narrow-wide chainring design and clutch rear derailleur is welcome, and where ultimate gear range isn’t so important. Lastly, for beginner cyclists, manipulating only one shifter certainly reduces the complexity.
As an experiment, however, Aqua Blue Sport’s 1x campaign on the road cycling peloton proved that the drivetrain concept was fighting one domain too far.