With SRAM Eagle's whopping 500% gear range, there really is no longer any need for a front derailleur.
Winner: SRAM Eagle 1x12 Drivetrain
Yes, there are still plenty of holdouts who will argue otherwise, but as far as we are concerned the front derailleur is dead. And for that we thank 2016's Mtbr Innovation of the Year, SRAM's 1x12 Eagle drivetrain. With a whopping 500% gear range, it equals most 2x set-ups, but without a second derailleur or its precious-cockpit-space-eating shift lever. Instead it's simply one click for harder, one for easier, with room left over for a dropper post lever.
With it's 10t small cog and giant 50t large, Eagle has also made it easier to have the best of both worlds. That pie plate-size 50t ensures an easy-spinning climbing gear, while the 10t lessens the chance of getting spun out on fire road descents. SRAM has also refined the front chainring thick-thin tooth profile, taking technology that started on its 1x11 groups and making it incrementally quieter and smoother.
It looks like a pie plate, but the 10-50t Eagle cassette means you can have the best of both gearing worlds.
Jump on a bike spec'd with SRAM Eagle and it doesn't feel much (if at all) different from the popular 1x11 systems most of us are already used to. Assuming proper rear derailleur adjustment, shifting is rapid and precise, each push of the shift lever quickly followed by movement of the chain and a reassuring "thunk" that action has occurred. Honestly, in a blind "taste" test you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference… until you jump into the 50t cog.
The best way to understand the gearing benefit of Eagle depends on past experience. If you've spent time on a 1x11 set-up with say a 32-tooth chainring paired to the 10-42 cassette, then making the switch will net you a higher high and lower low if you opt to jump up two chairing teeth to a 34. Or if you're happy with your current climbing gear, you can jump up four teeth to a 36, which will maintain your current uphill gear, but add some top-end for your next enduro sprint.
Bottom line, unless you simply hate change, there is no longer reason to have a front derailleur on your bike.
By bringing Di2 to the XT level, Shimano has made it easier for mountain bikers to give electronic shifting a whirl.
Runner Up: Shimano XT Di2 Electronic Shifting Drivetrain
The industry (and riders themselves) are still figuring out how electronic shifting fits into the mountain bike experience. But by bringing its technology-driven Di2 system to the lower-priced XT level, component giant Shimano has made it easier for everyone to take the proverbial plunge. Immediate benefits include the ability to customize paddle function and set shift speeds. And if you really don't want to give up that front derailleur, the precision and reliability of a Di2 set-up is definitely the way to go.
Maxxis' plus-sized Minion tire has helped lessen the penalties of going wider, while maintaining the benefits.
Honorable Mention: Maxxis Minion Plus Sized Tire
The initial knocks against plus-sized tires were that they were either too heavy or too flimsy to actually deliver on the promise of truly enhancing our riding experience. But then Maxxis came along with a 2.8" version of its wildly popular Minion and all that changed. We still don't believe that plus set-ups are for everyone. But for anyone looking to experiment with the potential of a wider tire set-up, including these tires in your game plan will greatly increase the chances of success. Maxxis produced these 2.8's with big knobs perfect for full suspension bikes, providing plenty of traction enhancing tire volume, but not at the expense of casing strength, durability, and stability. The slightly smaller width also means they'll fit into most 29er frames.
This post is part of the Mtbr Best of 2016 awards series. You can see all this year's announced winners here.