Bikes & Tech
Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com

Box Components gives mountain bikers an affordable drivetrain alternative

Box Components touts its inexpensive but burly drivetrains as an alternative to the big brands. Can it compete in a crowded component market?

It was hard to miss the large Shimano booth at the Sedona Mountain Bike Festival. And not far from its trademark blue tent, the iconic red of SRAM’s tents swayed ever so slightly in the breeze, ready to show off the new assortment of electronic mountain bike components launched recently.

Tucked between these two giants was the Box Components stall, a diminutive space with an unassuming black tent. It would be easy enough to walk right past it, but the drivetrains on display grabbed enough attention to get passers-by chatting with Box’s founder, Toby Henderson.

“I played with making handlebars and a lot of different stuff before starting Box,” says Henderson, who cut his teeth racing BMX in the 1980s. Then he made the transition to downhill mountain biking in the 1990s. “The competition in those areas was really steep. We started focusing on the drivetrain and once we got into that, I realized it was a tough thing to do, but now that we’re here and we’re developing it, we’ve got a following of people who want another choice.”

The question is, do consumers really want or need yet another choice?

Apparently so. While Box has already been on the scene since 2012 — only the last three years in the mountain bike world — it remains a small player in the mountain bike space. But it has made waves as an alternative to the big red and blue tents on either side of it. What sets Box apart?

For starters, it’s inexpensive. The entire 11-speed drivetrain, including shifter, can be had for under $500. Just the derailleur and shifter cost a mere $250. And while Henderson was short on details, he says some of the secret sauce lies in the rear derailleur’s adjustable clutch. It adds tension to the system only if the cage has to move dramatically, or quickly. That should mean smoother shifting overall, which is something we all gave up when clutch derailleurs and 1X drivetrains overtook the scene. “Our clutch is really robust,” he says. “And we haven’t had any chain failures.”

That doesn’t mean it’s a throwaway group made for the entry-level rider. Box drivetrains are designed to take a beating.

“Durability. That’s our focus,” says Henderson. “We want our stuff to last a long time. And if you break any of our products, we’ve got a lifetime warranty. That’s what separates us. Our clutch is really good, it’s adjustable, we have some features that make us different from the other guys. But I think mostly that we’re building a robust product with a lifetime warranty.”

And while the major players are making a push into 12 speeds and beyond, Henderson has no intention of following that lead. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“I think we’re going to go the other way,” says Henderson. “The people that ride our 11-speed are very happy with that, and the 9-speed e-bike drivetrain has been popular and the 7-speed has been popular with the DH guys. I don’t think we’ll change that direction. I don’t want to hang my 12-speed over the hub, over the spokes. I want to stay more over the top of the cassette and maybe even have less gears. We’ll see how that pans out. We’re doing research on that now.”

He says that 11-speed systems have a thicker chain, thicker cogs, and fewer moving parts than 12-speed and beyond, which helps Box maintain a certain level of durability. Yet Box also offers an 11-50 cassette, so you’re not missing out on gear range. You could also mix and match, using a SRAM cassette with the Box derailleur and shifter.

But right now Box is limited to mountain bikes and BMX bikes, which isn’t too surprising given how young the company is. “The road bike market is another thing we want to do, but there’s no way we can do it now. For gravel guys who want to put their shifter near the stem, We have a bar mount that will let you put the shifter up there. Our 11-50T range with long cage could work for gravel guys. For road or gravel guys, I don’t want to say we’re there yet.”

In a crowded drivetrain market, it’s difficult to stand out. Box does so in an unconventional way. The company has largely avoided gimmicks and differentiation for differentiation’s sake. Instead, a focus on the logical, and the needs of the rider make it an attractive alternative to the major players. Is that enough to sustain a brand against high-quality component makers with decades of experience and teams of designers, engineers, and marketers on their side? Henderson is hopeful, and he believes there’s an audience for exactly the type of story Box brings to the industry.