Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
To start, thanks everyone for the helpful responses on lowering road and gravel bike gearing, which our last Tech Talk was about. It’s an important topic for all cyclists from beginners to experts and not only because our needs change over time. If you missed it, the story and excellent feedback can be found here: https://www.roadbikerider.com/lower-gearing-gravel-bike/.
Two Comments of Note
This week, I want to follow up because a couple of comments surprised me. That’s fine, I can handle it. What concerns me though is that there are plenty of people just getting into cycling who read RoadBikeRider and I’d like to ensure they get the best information. So to that end I’m going to quickly reply to one very short off-topic comment and then tell a story to answer the other one on gearing.
The Off-topic Short Comment
Bike Fitness Coaching said:
What’s more important than this topic is to get the correct crank lengths for your inseam length.
I agree with BFC that if you feel like your pedaling efficiency is off you should make sure you are on the right length. However, if you’re struggling to get up hills, get the right gearing first because that’ll make the biggest difference.
The Comment on Gearing
So if you need to go into ‘overdrive’ gearing, then why go up these hills at all, so you can say that you’ve ‘accomplished’ something?? (30×34 is ridiculous) I felt like a wimp doing the Zoncolan and Mortirolo (steady 18 to 24%) with a compact front (50/34) and 27 in the rear.. In the past, there was no such thing and all riders huffed up the climbs with 53/39 and 11/23 or 25 at most.. You can always create a gearing that will let you pedal 100 revs while going 2 km/hr but what’s the point?? Get an electric bike if it’s for the view at the top.
Several of you already dropped great comments rebutting BigBorb’s assertions last week. I will only add that it’s not true that “in the past there was no such thing.” Smaller chainrings and larger cogs have been around forever and while professional racers may not have used them, plenty of other cyclists did. And today, Tadej Pogacar who just won the Tour of Flanders pedals a Colnago with a 40/50 crankset and an 11-30 cassette. So even the best of the best have gone to lower gearing.
A Gearing Story
In New Hampshire one of the toughest hillclimb races in the country takes place. It’s called the Mt. Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb (MWARBH). Be sure to click the link to see some great photos.
Quoting from their website “Once a year this race is held on the auto road of Mt Washington…the highest peak in the Northeastern United States. At 6,288 ft, Mt Washington holds the record for the highest wind gust directly measured at the Earth’s surface, 231 mph. The summit features a yearly average temperature of 33.9°F (with no temp over 72°F ever recorded). The route is 7.6 miles in length, has an average grade of 12% with extended sections of 18% and the last 50 yards is an amazing 22%!
Meeting My Twin
In 1978 I lived in New Hampshire and worked in Vermont. I was planning on riding across America so I rode the 25 miles to our bike shop https://www.westhillshop.com/ every day and the 25 miles home at night. I carried my gear on my custom Richard Sachs touring bike in front panniers hanging off a Blackburn rack (in the photo I’m shown with my full cross country setup in Florida – sorry about the photo quality, no iPhone back then).
One day on the way to work I noticed a guy with an almost identical setup as mine riding the other way. I waved and he waved back. This happened the next day and the next. So I hollered at him and he stopped and I went over and introduced myself. His name was Frank Slaughter (I hope I’m not misspelling Frank’s last name).
We Meet Again
I forget where Frank worked and I don’t recall that he was preparing for a cycling goal like I was. But later I ran into him again and it was at Mt. Washington at the start of the race! We were surprised to see each other there. We had removed our racks and bags of course. I had a cycling license and was entered in the Category ¾ event. Frank was in the Novice event, I believe it was his first race.
Infamous Mt. Washington
I don’t know how much the course has changed since that day, but I remember that so much of the surface was hard pack and gravel that traction was an issue. It was so steep too that I stood for mile after mile. I was one of the stronger guys in our category and passed lots of riders.
Near the top the fog was so thick we were riding blind. The race director, concerned about the very real possibility we would ride off a cliff, directed everyone at the top of the mountain to line up along the roadside down the mountain and extend their arms and keep talking to make sure racers knew they were approaching the edge. It was surreal seeing those hands, fingers wiggling and hearing voices urging “stay back, stay back!”
The very top was so steep a support motorcycle stalled out. The driver leapt off as the bike skidded down the hill like a monster hockey puck. Luckily no cyclists were hit and every fan jumped out of the way.
I never saw Frank after the start. His category started after ours so we had a head start. It wasn’t until the results were posted that I saw him back at the bottom of the mountain. We were still in our racing kit with our bikes.
I had my Richard Sachs with race gearing of the time, a Campagnolo 42/52 crankset and a 13-21 Regina freewheel. Looking at Frank’s bike, I saw that he was still running the gearing he had been using to ride to work. I don’t recall what chainring sizes he had on his crankset but I do remember that he had a 13-34 freewheel because back then they looked enormous and I thought to myself how slow it must have been spinning that up Mt. Washington.
So you can imagine my surprise to find out that novice racer Frank spun his way to the top of Mt. Washington IN THE EXACT SAME TIME as Cat 3 Racer Jim lugged his way up on his 42 x 21. Not only that but Frank won the Novice race while I only got third in the Cat 3/4s.
The Possible Moral of This Story
It would be wonderful if Frank reads this story and reaches out to me in a comment or via email. It would be fun to connect again and I’d like to ask him something, not that we can go back and change history.
But, I’d be curious to know if his knees are as destroyed as mine are now? I bet the answer is no.
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s cycling streak ended in February 2022 with a total of 10,269 consecutive daily rides (28 years, 1 month and 11 days of never missing a ride). Click to read Jim’s full bio.
David Goldsby says
I’m exceedingly thankful that the bike industry is finally offering a wide-range (pun intended) of gearing options for the real-world. Not everybody wants to cos-play boy racers. I’ve been using Campy’s Ekar (38t crank with 10-44 cassette) since January. It takes me everywhere I want to go in my hilly neck of the woods.
Doug Kirk, Madison, WI says
I’ve just gone to a Rene Herse 42/26 and 11-36 cassette. I look forward to the mountains now, literally. I will be riding up and around Crater Lake this summer. Only possible because of this gearing. Here’s the full route if anyone is interested. https://ridewithgps.com/routes/41777281
John Marsh says
I can see the Blue Ridge Parkway from my house in Sylva, NC (moved here a couple years ago from Atlanta), There is no such thing as flat in the mountains here. I bought a new bike right when I moved here, with a standard 50-34 compact and an 11-34 cassette. I’m happy to have that gearing and think back (not so fondly) on when riding in the mountains meant swapping out cassettes to get to that “monster” 27–tooth cog. I’d die if that’s all I had now!
One other point: I’ve been strong in certain aspects of riding over the years. But I’ve never, ever been able to “spin” up climbs (keeping anything close to a high cadence). I firmly believe some riders just don’t have the physiology to do so. I think the whole idea of spinning up a mountain fresh as a daisy is just ridiculous! It’s hard work no matter what gears you use. Enjoy it for the accomplishment of having pulled yourself up that mountain—and now you get the thrill of the descent!
glenn ashworth says
I’ve heading up the volunteer crew at the finish line on the top of the Mt. Washington Hill Climb for many years. As you probably know, all the money made from that event funds Tin Mountain Conservation Center. Without it they wouldn’t be able to accomplish all they do for this area.
Nice write up!
As for gearing:
As I age, (76 now), I have a triple up front with a 30 and an 11/34 cassette in the rear on my road bike. I’ve no intention of using an e-bike. The comment made by BigBorb is quite ridiculous . The reason many of us have these gears is not to “get to the top for a view”, it’s to keep going over the top and continue the ride that includes the hill. I’d be pretty bored up here in the White Mountains if I only could ride on the flats as there aren’t many! I will and do use these gears when I must and they will keep me riding until I can’t.
I expect BB is probably too young and lacks the foresight to realize there WILL be a time he will need a set up like mine, unless he decides to switch to riding an E-bike!
Thanks again for all the great info.
Jim Langley says
It’s wonderful to hear from someone associated with that incredible event, Glenn, thanks for sharing that it’s a fundraiser for an important cause, I didn’t know that. I didn’t mention it in the story but I also ran up Mt. Washington in the running race – that would have been around 1972 if I remember right.
Also, your statement that “The reason many of us have these gears is not to “get to the top for a view,” it’s to keep going over the top and continue the ride that includes the hill” is well worth repeating. Thanks for making that point so well.
Thanks for all you do to make that race happen!
Don Macrae says
That’s a terrific story about Mt Washington. It would be interesting to see a controlled experiment, in which a variety of riders rode up a steep slope as fast as they could, with various gearings. Some years ago I was inspired by Contador’s selection of an 11-32 sprocket to ride up the Angliru to buy the same setup. But age as caught up with me and it’s no longer enough. So I need to choose between an e-bike, so I can keep up with my younger mates, or lower gears, so I can cope better on my own.
Vincent Malamute says
I’m not that old and am a big fan of low gears. I love my GRX 46/30 cranks with an XTR 11-40 cassette for my road bike here in Colorado. Doug Kirk looks to be the only one to challenge me for the title of lowest granny gear.
Brian Nystrom says
Thanks for keeping it real, Jim.
My biggest lament with the bike industry is the lack of road cassettes that start with a 13-tooth cog. I have no need for 12t, 11t or smaller cogs and there at times when it’s not feasible to run the tiny chainrings required to get equivalent gearing to my preferred 50/13 top gear, using 11t or 12t cogs.
Back when I was racing, the highest gear you typically saw in competition was 53/13 (110 inch gear). It makes no sense that bikes designed for recreational riding now come with 50/11 (123 inch), 52/11 (128 inch) or even 53/11 (130 inch) top gears. The average bike rider isn’t strong enough that they can actually use gearing like that effectively, so what’s the point?
Don Macrae says
For me, Bryan, the point is downhill. I’m not good at high cadence, and I regularly, ok occasionally! spin out on steep descents with my 48 x 11, 117 inches..
Jim Langley says
Thanks everyone for all these great and helpful points about gearing, appreciate you sharing very much.