'Matter'

Matter: Kogel’s Narrow-wide Ceramic Bearing Derailleur Pulleys

After following Kogel for a couple years, spotting their newly-released 12 tooth narrow-wide derailleur pulleys on social media prompted me to enquire about obtaining some for testing and review. Sem Gellegos, Operations Manager at Kogel responded to my enquiry, and kindly sent out two sets of their pulleys so I could run them on a couple different types of bikes: my cyclocross bike, set up with two rings for ‘gravel season,’ and my road bike.

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The narrow-wide design of these pulleys is intended to keep the chain tracking straighter than a traditional pulley, just like the narrow-wide chainrings that have become the single-ring standard. There were a couple reasons I was keen to try these pulleys on these two bikes in particular. My priority was not faster spinning bearings, which is what ceramics are known and marketed for. Rather, I had a couple specific issues with each bike I wanted to address, and when I saw the Kogel pulleys, I thought their larger diameter and tooth shaping might do the trick. Since these were not likely unique issues, I figured others might be interested in the outcomes.

Kogel 1X Pulleys – $109.99 USD

  • Aluminum derailleur pulleys, grade 3, Abec 5 hybrid ceramic bearings
  • Compatible with 11 speed Sram 1x group sets and X-Horizon derailleurs

Cyclocross bike – Steelwool Truffle Pig

  • 10 speed drivetrain – Shimano Ultegra 34/50 crank / Ultegra chain / Ultegra 11-28 and XT 11-36 cassettes / SRAM XO clutch rear derailleur / SRAM Force shifters
  • Chainstay length – 425mm
  • Rear dropout spacing – 130mm
  • Issue: excessive chain drag created by tension on SRAM XO clutch derailleur with 11 tooth stock pulleys

 

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The first big ride, the Riviere Rouge Raudax, in May.

Aero Road bike – Cervelo s5

  • 10 speed drivetrain – Shimano Dura-Ace 39/53 crank, Ultegra chain / Ultegra 11-28 and Dura-Ace 11-27 cassettes / SRAM Force rear derailleur / SRAM Force shifters
  • Chainstay length – 415mm
  • Rear dropout spacing – 130mm
  • Issues: poor shifting performance in larger cogs, chain sporadically riding up onto centre of lower pulley, chain derailing when back-pedaling in larger cogs

As you can see, I was experiencing different problems on the two bikes, so it was great to have the opportunity to try the Kogel pulleys on both. You will also notice I am on 10 speed, but 10 and 11 speed chains are very minimally different in width, meaning the pulleys would work almost exactly the same either way.

Installation

After informing Sem which derailleurs I was using, he sent out what I needed. The pulleys are actually set up with SRAM’s 1X derailleurs in mind, which come stock with 12 tooth plastic pulleys.

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I was impressed by what I pulled out of the packaging. Sparsely packed, the pulleys didn’t come with extraneous materials wrapping them up like jewelery. Clean, simple. I appreciate this, the product stands on its own.

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Since my derailleurs would have different spacing than the 1X derailleurs the pulleys were set up for, Sem sent me the caps (they come in two different bolt diameters) and shims I’d need. I was very impressed to see that I had exactly what I needed to match up spacings between old and new pulleys for both the road and mtb derailleurs (they are different).

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Here’s the set-up on my cyclocross bike.
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Road bike, note the tight spacing between pulleys.

Each pulley had a thin coating of grease covering their bearings. This is the sort of attention to detail I like to see. I added a little more for weather-proofing. The pulleys came installed with Kogel’s ‘cyclocross seals,’ which offer better contamination resistance than their faster spinning ‘road seals’. Installation was easy, though it does take some dexterity to line up washers on each side of the pulleys. If you don’t have thread lock on your pulley bolts, make sure you add some when you re-install.

What about orientation of the pulleys, which are directional? Well, I got a couple right, a couple wrong. I didn’t know for sure until I asked Sem, and he sent the photo below as a guide. If you get these pulleys, install them as below.

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Before fixing the orientation of the pulleys on my road bike, I experienced some jamming while in large cogs and rolling rolling the bike backwards at home, moving it around. There is very little space between the pulleys on the Force derailleur, and the chain was derailing and coming out of phase with the narrow-wide teeth, then jamming. After fixing their orientation that problem disappeared, and I had no more issues whatsoever.

Performance

There was discernable improvement felt in both my drivetrains after installing the Kogel pulleys. On the CX bike, I could easily feel by hand how much less drag was being created at the derailleur. This is mainly due to pulley diameter; the larger the less drag on the chain. I assume the bearings are smoother than what I had, but that is impossible to discern without pretty elaborate equipment.

The shifting on the bike became more precise immediately, because the narrow-wide pulleys form a more precise connection with the chain. Granted, my pulleys were not fresh, so I was not entirely comparing apples-to-apples. I figured I’d have a lower risk of derailing as well under backpedaling situations, including unplanned foot-out incidents, which cause a rapid backpedaling 1/4 revolution.

On my road bike, shifting also improved immediately and significantly, and my pulleys were in nearly new condition. I’d had poor performance in the past, with my chain riding up onto the middle of the lower pulley at random times while in my smaller cogs and the 53t. That issue went away completely. Shifting precision went from vague to crisp, which is certainly what I was after. There wasn’t a lot of drag to begin with, so that didn’t change in a big way.

I installed the pulleys onto both my bikes on May 11, 2016. Since then, I’ve had many a great ride and race on them, and racked up considerable kilometers. I’ve been able to use Strava to track exactly how much time I’ve spent on them, which is a pretty handy tool! On my cyclocross bike, I’ve put in 2600km, including some pretty rough events like Vermont Overland, and four cyclocross races so far.

On my Cervelo road bike, I’ve logged 3700km of rides, criteriums and road races. There hasn’t been a whole lot of rain this year, so most of the rides have been in dry conditions.

I’ve experienced zero issues with the pulleys in use. Like any good piece of componentry, they simply disappeared into the bike after I got used to the improved shifting performance they provide. I didn’t have any derailed chains all season on either bike while riding two rings up front. When I removed the pulleys for inspection back in August I noted some degradation of the grease over the bearings, but no change in bearing feel. I cleaned and regreased the bearings, re-installed, rode the bikes. Kogel recommends annual servicing, if not more often if riding often in wet conditoins. More on this below.

The only chain derailment I’ve experienced was at the Calabogie cx race, where I pedaled through a ditch while turning. This flexed my bike enough to allow me to pedal the chain off the single ring, which does not have anything to do with the pulleys.

Conclusions

Overall, I only have good feelings about Kogel’s narrow-wide 1X pulleys. Having received them for test at no cost, I have to wonder whether I’d feel the same way if I’d paid $109.99 USD, plus shipping, brokerage, duty, tax. I can’t answer that question today, but I imagine many of you are wondering the same: are they worth it, when one can get 12t pulleys from SRAM for $73 USD? We’re talking about a $37 difference in price, so the SRAM pulleys cost roughly 2/3 the price of the Kogels. So we ought to consider value in terms of performance and longevity.

Looking at my pulleys in the photo below, you can see they have taken wear to their anodising, but no significant wear to the actual aluminum. I’ve inspected closely today, and find their profiling remains intact, without discernable wear from new, aside from the anodizing.

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So durability of the actual pulley teeth seems very good. I try to keep my drivetrains clean, which will always help reduce wear.

What about the bearings? Both sets feel as smooth today as when I installed them. I note no more lateral play than when new. In effect, they are perfectly fine, and I fully expect to get at least another full season out of both sets. However, I will remove the set on my cx bike for the winter rides, and use an old pair instead. It would be pointless to subject them to that sort of grime and salt, unless Sem at Kogel needs feedback in those conditions. UPDATE – October 27, 2016: After 7 cyclocross races, including one very muddy one, the bearings of the pulleys on my cx bike are unchanged, still spinning very smoothly.

On the durability front, these pulleys rate very well, certainly more durable than the stock pulleys on either derailleur, which are plastic. Their bearings run smoother longer. I would normally wear out a pair of SRAM’s plastic pulleys in one season on my cx bike, two seasons on my road bike.

On the performance side, if comparing new SRAM pulleys with ceramic bearings to these, I imagine the difference would be difficult to quantify. Do the Kogels save watts of the SRAM units? I can’t say. Head to head, both new, I imagine the pulleys from both brands would shift similarly well, with the Kogels having a slight advantage in terms of stiffness. The difference would manifest once the SRAM pulleys started to wear down, reducing the tooth profiling. I expect this would occur much sooner than the Kogels, based on my experience with similar pulleys from SRAM. My guess is that the Kogel pulleys would perform well for at least twice as long as the SRAMs, yet they don’t cost twice as much.

Is wear equivalent between bike formats? It depends. On a road bike with a 50t front ring, it’s quite common to run all the gears across the cassette, cross-chaining in the upper cogs. This increases the angle of the chain coming off the lower pulley, and thus increases the rate of wear on it. So on a road bike, where we might shift less frequently than on a cx or mountain bike, we might see a significant wear load on the lower pulley. As that pulley wears down, the chain rolls over it with more drag. So we can’t assume that wear is not an issue on road bikes; it depends on how you ride your gears, and what sort of weather you ride in.

On the cx bike, or a gravel bike, mtb, whatever off-road bike, there will always be a lot of demand placed on the pulleys, both from a high frequency shifting load and dirty operating conditions. The upper and lower pulleys will both be asked to do a lot, either with a double or single chainring set-up. I expect to see the most rapid wear on these bikes, and would personally prefer to run pulleys that last longer than one season.

Still related to the durability question, components like these are often considered consumables that ought to be purchased at the lowest price possible, replaced as often as required. Certainly, we don’t all have the budget to throw $110 USD at a pair of pulleys. In fact, someone running a high end derailleur might opt to downgrade to a cheaper set of pulleys once the stock ones wear out. I totally get that, I’ve been there with XTR derailleurs.

For some, the Kogel pulleys, performance aside, will offer a less consumptive approach to replacing work out parts. There are many rider out there who prefer to use long-lasting parts rather than cheaper, less durable options, even if they don’t ‘come out ahead’ in the end. Cycling is a consumptive sport, with all our worn out parts, and some prefer to keep that consumption down. While a few riders told me they expected my ceramic bearings would not last as long as the steel I’m used to, I had and have my doubts. So does Kogel, who clearly have been dealing with a lot of enquiries about their bearings’ durability:

Kogel Bearings is very much aware of the bad reputation ceramic bearings have when it comes to durability. We blame this mostly on sub-par quality bearings being sold as high quality. A bearing needs to be balanced: the hardness of the balls needs to be matched with equally smooth and hard races. Bearing retainers, seals and greases must be balanced to work in unity. If one of the components is not matched with the others, it will throw off the performance of the entire bearing. The result being high drag, a shortened life span or major failure.

Many will have noted the mad rush to ceramic bearings in recent years, and if you scan the internet, you’ll find some rather cheap options out there. I think it’s likely that a lot of riders have had bad experienced with low quality ceramic bearings, and have concluded that all ceramic bearings are not durable. I don’t think this is the case.

Those seeking every performance edge they can get will likely be happy with the Kogel pulleys, given they do provide a tangible improvement in shifting accuracy. When it comes to reduced drivetrain drag, yes, riders will also feel that with clutch derailleurs if moving up from an 11-tooth pair of pulleys. From a 12t plastic to a 12t aluminum Kogel, however, there ought not to be a noticeable difference. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a difference, however. I terms of bearing efficiency, all I can do is report back next season to say how they are doing, but I can’t quantify how many watts are being saved with Kogel’s pulleys versus anyone elses.

In terms of aesthetics, Kogel keeps it simple with black and blue caps, rather than blow up their inventory with a myriad of colours. To me, this approach says, ‘Our stuff is the real deal, we don’t need 10 colour options.’ Riders seeking bling can find it out there, but if history serves as a guide, I would not expect to see the same level of quality sold in 10 colours. Enduro makes a set of similar pulleys out of delrin, a very hard plastic, which retail for about the same price. They claim to outlast aluminum pulleys by far, but this is based on the assumption that the alloy used is soft, which is clearly not the case with the Kogels. Absolute Black also makes a set in delrin, with stainless steel bearings, at $56 USD.

The final dimension to the equation is the human one. Through the summer of speaking with Sem about these pulleys and their press-fit bottom bracket (which will be the subject of the next review), I’ve been very impressed by his professionalism, knowledge about the product, and attitude. One can see from Kogel’s instruction manuals, which feature light, humorous language, that these folks don’t take themselves too seriously, yet they are very committed to engineering and manufacturing premium bicycle parts. The bulk of their business is bottom brackets, perhaps the least sexy component on a bike. They are not about the glitz and the glam, but getting down to making quality product. From my perspective, this is the sort of company that develops bonds with their customers over time, and with that, loyalty. From where I’m sitting, this is their competitive advantage, which is why I wanted to mention it. In a showroom case their product will sit amongst other parts as if the human side is irrelevant. To many, it is. To others, it’s not, and as companies like Kogel continue to engage their customer base through social media to an increasing degree, the human side of the equation will counter-balance the race to the bottom we see playing out online.

Servicing

Given the alloy used for these pulles appears to be durable, servicing their bearings is likely going to be a good idea. How? This service manual details how to work on these bearings, as well as their larger bottom bracket units. It’s the same process as usual for a sealed bearing, essentially, which requires carefully removing bearing covers, cleaning, re-greasing. Kogel offers replacement seals at low prices for their bottom bracket bearings. While the pulley bearing seals are not on their site, one can attain them for $10 USD by contacting Kogel directly.

Kogel has an interesting warranty approach:

2 year warranty: All Kogel ceramic bearings are backed by a 1+1 year guarantee against manufacturing defects. Our return rates are low, for that reason we tend to be flexible when it comes to granting warranties. We judge all requests on a case by case basis.

The first year, your products are covered by our ‘very few questions asked policy’. If products have not been mistreated, we will replace any failed products. After the first year, the bearings need to be serviced by a qualified mechanic. This includes cleaning the bearings, regreasing them with Kogel’s Secrect Grease Mix and replacing the seals. We can execute this service for you, or recommend a shop local to you that we trust.

This means that if your bearings have been serviced properly, they’ll extend their warranty for another year. This is a clever approach, as it benefits the customer in two ways: 1) It motivates servicing the bearings, something most riders will have never bothered to do, potentially stimulating a virtuous cycle of maintenance that extends the life of the component, and thereby it’s ROI and positive vibes around it. 2) If there is a genuine manufacturing defect, it certainly should manifest within two years of riding.

About  Kogel

Kogel’s products are designed via collaboration between their US office and their partner in Belgium. Production of the various components of their products is carried out in a variety of factories in the United States, China and Belgium. All Kogel products are assembled in their office in Texas.

Sem and the folks at Kogel are proud of where they place their priority: quality at honest prices. They are committed to producing the highest quality products there is a market for, and are loathe to sacrifice their high standard for the sake of price competitiveness. I believe these sentiments are consistently reflected in their product, its packaging, their website, web presence, and communication style.

If you’d like to see more from Kogel, check out their blog and site. If you have specific questions about their product, don’t hesitate to get in touch with them, and tell them I sent you.That way they’ll be nice to you. Just kidding, they’ll be nice to you either way.

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