AbsoluteBLACK has a popular reputation in cycling to anyone into aftermarket parts. Based in the United Kingdom, they are a family owned company led by British/Polish founder Marcin Golec who looks to riders to help drive and iterate development. Known most widely for their oval chainrings, their complete line also includes hubs, lockings, bash guars, pulleys, top caps, disc rotors and a few other odd ends.
Their website says they are passionate about making durable bicycle parts that look as good as they perform. While I know they make parts that look good, I’ve been curious to see if they really do work as well as they claim. Until very recently there wasn’t much on offer for the road cyclist like me, the AbsoluteBLACK lineup was disc and mountain bike centric. Earlier this year at Eurobike, AbsoluteBLACK announced they would be selling new oval inner chainrings for road.
Announced in September and slated to ship in Late October I put an order in early. The following review is for the new AbsoluteBlack 110BCD 4 bolt inner chainring for Shimano 11 speed cranks.
design & construction
The oval chainrings are CNC’d in a production facility in Poland from 7075 Txxx aluminum before heading back to the UK for a type II anodizing. The oval chainrings are available in any color as long as it’s black. The actual ovality (variation of shape from a perfect circle) of the ring itself is specific to size which means my 34T has a variation of 6.5% where the larger 36T has 11.4%. The ovality is placed 110 degrees from Top Dead Centre of the pedal stroke when mounted correctly. The stated weight is 31 grams and mine came in at exactly 31 grams. Compare this to the 33grams of the stock Ultegra 34T I took off making it a negligible difference but for weight weenies it's in the right direction.
The CNC machining is clean and looks to be very well controlled while the anodizing is dark, deep, and consistent. After a few weeks of test riding the rings they show no signs of fast or early wear.
Putting the chainrings on takes only a few minutes if you have the right tools and know how. In fact it’s a good excuse to take a look through your drivetrain and bottom bracket to make sure it’s tip top clean. The good thing is that since you won’t be adjusting any derailleurs or timing of the ring itself, this is pretty straight forward. It took me less than 5 minutes including inspecting and cleaning the bottom bracket since the crank was out. The very simple installation instructions are printed on the packaging for you.
For the job you’ll need:
- Bike stand
- 4MM allen key
- T25 Torque key
- Shimano crank cap tool (I prefer the Park Tools Adjusting Cap Tool for Hollowtech II)
- Possibly some grease
- Most importantly a torque wrench
If you would like more detailed step by step instructions, pick up a copy of the latest Zinn & Art of Road Bike Maintenance, it's good to have on hand. If you don’t feel up to the task, your local bike shop should be able to do this for you no problem. If you think an installation video would be helpful, comment below!
So AbsoluteBLACK has brought their knowledge and experience to the road cycling market, but is it any good? It will take a long time for me to put enough comparison miles into the chainring to say I’ve given it equal fair treatment. But my initial impressions are really good. To be honest I was worried it was going to feel as weird as some oval rings look. The first hand spin of the cranks after installing the oval inner chainring didn’t really make the differences apparent. If at all, only at very slow cadence. However on the bike that very slight ovality is completely imperceptible to me during the pedal stroke. That’s all well and good but the biggest claims from AbsoluteBLACK are that it will improve your climbing times and extend the enjoyment of your ride by more evenly balancing the workload throughout your legs. It could very well be the placebo effect but my times on a few climbs and on the trainer have improved slightly. I haven’t noticed any improvement to the fatigue or lactic acid buildup in my legs when using the oval inner chainrings but I also haven’t noticed the opposite either. So it’s either a slight gain or even trade.
Oval rings have a really bad reputation for their shifting with no end to the home workshop advice on setups to that perfect front mech shift. Since Shimano is already known for the quality of its front shifting, the AbsoluteBLACK oval inner chainrings have a real opportunity to take things in the wrong direction. As to be expected yes there is an impact to the shifting performance when shifting from the inner ring to the big ring. This is because the nature of the oval ring shape means that at times there is a greater distance that the chain may need to travel in order to make the shift. Timing of your shifts can help ensure the chain is in the right place to make the best shift possible. With these oval rings I’ve never had a shift that didn’t catch quickly, but it should be noted that it’s not as butter smooth on every shift as the original ring shifts but hardly enough to warrant any concern. While I do run a K-Edge chain catcher I’ve also not had any dropped chains. Even tried my hardest to make one happen.
I made this quick video in slow motion to show the oval ring in action. Watch the front edge of the chainring as it moves out just before each foot begins the downstroke and retracts slightly through the bottom end of the pedal stroke before coming back out just as the other foot reaches the Top Dead Centre.
My biggest gripe with the AbsoluteBLACK products was actually getting them. The chainrings were supposed to be in stock on October 20th but it wasn’t until many weeks later that they were in stock and shipped. Even though I preordered. When they didn’t ship on time I searched the web and saw a common thread to forum comments from other customers whom had similar experiences with shipping times. To be honest when I didn’t receive a shipping notice I contacted AbsoluteBLACK and received expedited replies with apologies and transparency to the delays. I never felt kept in the dark but I did have to make the inquiry myself. A proactive communication on delays would be more ideal and welcomed to many I’m sure. If you’re in a hurry, I’d suggest buying from a retailer with stock if you can find one.
The theory and promises behind oval chainrings has been around for a while. Some people say this is simply a return of Shimano Biopace while AbsoluteBLACK says it’s absolutely not. Lennard Zinn had a pretty good post on Velonews last year about the difference between Biopace and the new oval rings on market. Read it here.
The concept and thinking seems sound while the experience of using them shows no negative effects. I have a really bad knee and if the oval inner chainrings were going to make it worse I would have known immediately. At a cost of $62USD (direct from AbsoluteBLACK) it may be worth it to you to give it a try. You haven’t got much to lose.
While I am not currently a member, AbsoluteBLACK does offer and ambassador program to provide gear to cyclists and bloggers to use and include in their writing, filming, or photography. Check it out If you think you’d be a good fit.