by Joel Harwood
Race Face started producing mountain bike components back in 1992. They originally gained notoriety for their Diabolus offering, which at that time was one of the few product lines that could withstand serious abuse. For nearly twenty years Race Face produced some of the highest quality components available. In 2011, the company faced bankruptcy and many thought Race Face products were about to become collectors' items. Nevertheless, the company made it through the rough patch and came back swinging with a number of new, refined and innovative components... with a variety of colors and graphics to boot. With the recent popularity of 1x drivetrains, component companies are all jumping on the 1x bandwagon. Race Face has entered the battle royale with their new Narrow/Wide chainring, designed to minimize dropped chains and maximize fun.
Narrow/Wide Chainring Highlights
- Narrow wide tooth profiling ensures ultimate chain retention
- 4mm plate thickness and I-beam construction transfers loads without flexing
- 7075-T6 aluminum, aerospace grade strength
- Reversible laser etched graphics
- Compatible with 9, 10 and 11-speed
- Available in 30 to 38-tooth options in two tooth increments
- Available in 104 BCD (4 bolt) and direct mount configurations
- Color options: Red, Green, Blue, Black
- Weight: 37-57 grams depending on ring size (36T – 50g)
- MSRP: $43.99 to $59.99 USD
Shortly after getting my hands on a new bike I also managed to acquire the 34-tooth Narrow/Wide chainring from Race Face. I mounted it to Shimano XT cranks and mated it with a slightly worn drivetrain without hassle. I had previous experience with a similar product from another brand and I had been running that one with a top guide. But I figured that it wasn't a true test unless I ran the Race Face Narrow/Wide chainring without any guide whatsoever, and I was also looking forward to hitting g-outs and rock gardens as aggressively as I could to give the test some validity.
During my parking lot test the first thing I noticed was how nude the chainring looked without at the very least a top guide. I had been running full DH guides on my XC bikes for the past number of seasons and I found myself questioning whether or not a little bit of fancy machining could suddenly render chain guides obsolete, at least from a trail bike perspective.
The laser etched graphics were understated, the green added a little bling and all in all, the product inspired confidence. As previously indicated, I ran a 34T for this test, but one of the unique and noteworthy aspects of the Narrow/Wide chainring is that you can get one as small as 30T. Previously, this was not possible on a standard 104 BCD crank spider using traditional chainring bolts, as reducing the diameter of the ring that much simply does not leave enough material between the teeth and the chainring bolt holes. By actually machining the female side of the chainring bolt thread into the ring itself (30T only), Race Face has come up with a clever way to circumvent the issue. If you do a lot of steep climbing on your single-ring 29er, this could well be exactly the solution you've been waiting for.
On The Trail
After the initial inspection and set-up were behind me, I was pumped to go looking for opportunities to cycle my rear suspension to see if all that clever stuff meant that I could donate my chainguide to the Smithsonian. Well, after approximately 600 miles of riding I managed to drop the chain exactly twice. Once when I picked up a hitchhiking tree root, and the other mid-crash when I must have loaded the bike in an awkward fashion that I dare not try to replicate on purpose. That's two dropped chains, when riding 3 or more times per week, in varied conditions, using a twisted rear derailleur.
Prior to discovering the Narrow/Wide chainring I would not have put much thought into the chainring I was running. Now that I have experienced the simplicity, reliability, and reduced drag of a guide-less Narrow/Wide chainring I'm pretty much sold on the idea of riding with just a ring up front. One less part to purchase, maintain, and potentially destroy is definitely a win.
Things That Could Be Improved
The Narrow/Wide chainring performed outstandingly throughout the entire test and I'm fairly certain that the tree root mentioned above would have jammed up a guide anyhow. The ring looked good and worked even better. I wish I had a suggestion or two for improvement, but with simple components it either works as advertised or it doesn't. The Race Face Narrow/Wide chainring works.
Long Term Durability
I had the opportunity to ride the Race Face chainring extensively and I smacked it off a few rocks along the way. Assuming that folks split their time equally between rings on 2x and 3x setups I suppose that a single ring should conceivably wear faster. I would like to have ridden the Narrow/Wide ring literally into the ground to compare lifespans with a conventional setup, for the sake of this review, but I plan on running it figuratively into the ground for the sake of my wallet. The current state of the chainring after 600 or more miles is about the same as any ring I've seen and the chain retention is still as good as the day I got it. I'm not 100% sure how a bent tooth would affect chain retention, but I would imagine that unless it was so severe that the chain couldn't grab the ring at all, it won't be an issue. The finish has held up and I have no reason to believe that reliability will suffer as time goes on.
I would also like to point out that the only reason I decided not to give this product five stars is because I haven't had the opportunity to ride it for an entire season. Assuming that chain retention remained as good as day one throughout, it is a no-brainer five star rating for me.
What’s The Bottom Line?
Now that I've had the opportunity to ride a guide-less chainring for a few months without any issues, the Race Face Narrow/Wide chainring is staying on my bike for the long haul. I rallied the ring to the best of my ability, through a variety of conditions, and my chain guide is now a paperweight. I would like to think it will still see use from time to time, but both out of sheer laziness and confidence in the chainring, it will likely sit on a shelf permanently. My drivetrain is now simpler, quieter and has less drag, and I have one less component to purchase and maintain. Though not every rider wants to push a single ring or ride without absolute 100% chain retention, as far as this tester is concerned, the front derailleur and chainguide are now obsolete on a trail bike.
Head over to www.raceface.com for more details.
About The Reviewer
Joel Harwood has been playing in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia for the last 8 years. He spends his summer months coaching DH race groms in the Whistler Bike Park, and guiding XC riders all over BC. He dabbles in all types of racing, but is happiest while blasting his trail bike down trails that include rock slabs, natural doubles, and west coast tech. On the big bike he tends to look for little transitions and manuals that allow him to keep things pointed downhill, rather than swapping from line to line. Attention to detail, time in the saddle, and an aggressive riding style make Joel a rider that demands the most from his products. Joel's ramblings can also be found at www.straightshotblog.com.