The proper gear-ratio
Edit: 24 hours after posting this, I realise that I hadn’t given enough consideration to the fact that discussing gear-ratios can be a touchy subject, given that it’s a short leap between merely talking about them and ascribing some sort of evaluation of the person who is using a given ratio. To save anyone the trouble of having to read to the end, let me just say that below contains no judgement on big gears, small gears, or of people who choose to use either. To that end, I couldn’t care less. This is not a discussion of the merits of any gear range, nor their draw-backs. This is simply a discussion of what might be behind the notion that people ought to be riding a particular gear-ratio because it’s best. Here’s the surprise ending: We all have different reasons for riding. We all like to challenge ourselves in different ways. Ride whatever you like. Ride however you like. Just ride.
The right gear-ratio. Standard cranks, mid-compacts, or compacts? Short cage and a 25t or 28t, or long (mid) cage and a 32t or larger? Spin it or grind it out?
Ever since there was the option of an easier gear-ratio on bikes, people have been divided on what is most appropriate, what is necessary, and what is just wussing out.
Since I’ve been paying attention to cycling, I’ve seen maybe four main changes to gearing. First, triple cranksets were still around (here’s a thought to ponder: why isn’t using a 34-34 combination scoffed at in the same way that some do at using a triple nowadays?), and, even if they were ever acceptable for serious roadies (not really), they even died out pretty rapidly among recreational road cyclists before long. Serious roadies didn’t need a granny gear up front. Two is fine, thank-you.
Second, compact cranksets (50-34) became widely used among recreational cyclists with a cassette size of 23t or 25t as standard. Compacts have now become somewhat standard among serious roadies and even pros.
Then, a few years later and at near enough the same time for our purposes, the mid-compact crankset (52-36) brought a compromise between the standard and compact cranks, 28t cassettes becoming totally normal, and not long after, longer rear derailleurs that could comfortably reach 32t cassettes or larger. We had approached the 1:1 gear ratio, meaning that pretty much anyone could climb just about anything. Repeatedly.
Now, throughout all of this, there were still the two camps that said the same thing about each other. Let’s call them old-school and new-school. The old-school has always maintained that whatever is on the brink of being superseded is good enough. They said it about 42-19 gear-ratios, then 39-21, then 39-25, and I’m sure 34-28 is on the chopping block. “We don’t need those little sissy gears to get up hills. We never had those when we raced, and we managed just fine! Toughen up, princes!”
The new-school has always adopted the easier gears as a way to go faster with less effort. Or the same speed with less effort. Basically, to allow for more options. Fast, easy, whatever your preference is. Let the dinosaurs ride their unnecessarily large gears, blowing their knees to smithereens in the process. Watch me as I spin effortlessly to the top and then chat your ear off as you arrive minutes later trying to put your lungs back into your chest cavity.
I’m not interested here in which one is better, whatever that is. I am interested in exploring the psychology behind why both sides of the gear-ratio divide are convinced that their preferred gear-ratio is superior (I’m obviously limiting our discussion to cycling in hilly conditions).
Firstly, though, let’s be clear that different physiologies are suited to different physical outputs. Some people simply push a bigger gear more comfortably than others, and some can spin a higher cadence better than others. Secondly, though, is that this doesn’t really matter for today.
That you can push a big gear or spin a high cadence is one thing. That you think it’s better, for everyone, is another.
What sparked this train of thought today was when a friend casually mentioned that using a 36-28 gear ratio was in fact an unfortunate situation when used on a particular hill. That this hill is of fearsome proportions is both important and relevant, and, indeed, if you head up this hill on any gear-ratio and don’t wish for an even easier one then you are going quite well-indeed, but, it nevertheless struck me that what was not long-ago considered to be an easy gear-ratio is now considered to be a difficult one.
Then I started to wonder about the whole idea of achievement. What feeling is it that people are using their preferred gear-ratio to support? To what end? Clearly everyone has their own battles to win, and their own way of winning them.
The old-school (to generalize) appear to value toughness. They see easy gears as giving in, cheating, an unnatural advantage, or just being soft. They didn’t need them (which is entirely true). They struggled to get up the same hills that we get up now. They achieved a summit on the same hills that we do on much easier gears.
The new-school simply say, sure, you got up these hills, but how fast, and crucially, did you enjoy it? Could you do it all day?
More than that, easy gears mean more exploring. Many people simply wouldn’t choose to ride up hills that feature a 20% gradient full stop, and certainly not without easy gears. With the explosion of gravel riding, adventure riding, and pursuits such as everesting, whacking on a great-big cluster on the back of your bike is completely normal, justified, and encouraged.
But we still come back to the same point. The motivation behind a person’s reasoning for why they think a particular gear-ratio is “proper” simply reflects what they value as an achievement.
How can you say that getting up a tough climb in 10 minutes with really easy gearing is any more commendable or epic than getting up that same climb in 15 minutes with gears that used to be the standard? Clearly the annoying guy that smugly mentions that he got up that hill in a 39-25 is just as successful by his own standards than the annoying guy that condescendingly mentions that, good for you, grandpa, I got up that hill two minutes faster than you in my 34-32.
What I’m saying is that nobody is right, and nobody is wrong. They are both as potentially correct as they are potentially annoying.
Still, it’s interesting to play around with the idea that while easier gears represent progress (which theytechnically are), and with this progress some cyclists are conquering more and steeper hills in faster times, is that really progress? If we look at automotive gearboxes which have gone from 4 or 5 speeds to 8 in a relatively short period of time for the sake of power and efficiency, it’s curious how nobody brags about only needing a 4 speed like those who still prefer standard cranks do, isn’t it? Cars are more about power and 0-60 times. It doesn’t really matter how you got there. Whatever it takes to be faster. Peak horsepower figures. We are continuously searching for an advantage to help us achieve more. The difference is that in a car, all you are doing it sitting in a chair and pushing a throttle. On a bike, you, your fitness, your power, your grit and determination is the most significant factor. The quality of the journey is relevant.
We’re still riding to our limits just the same as when we didn’t have such easy gears to choose from, we’re just doing it up steeper hills, or the same hills but faster, or the same gears but easier. So what’s the difference? Are we getting any more epic?
Of course we are, but then, if you look at it in the narrow view that I’m applying to it, then I say, no we aren’t. I mean, adventures were always had, regardless of what the technology of the time was. We’re just pushing different limits now.
It’s this effort thing that keeps tugging at my thoughts. It’s completely arbitrary. Totally contextual. Better is only better by any one person’s definition. This is not one of those things that you can apply the concept of “correctness” to like you can to mathematics. Sure, if you look at raw times, then, yes, we are getting faster. We’re climbing hills in a way that wasn’t normal in the past. Ok, the science behind fitness is getting better and bikes in general is getting better, so it’s not as cut and dry as suggesting that gearing is the only reason, but I’d be pretty comfortable with the notion that easier gears contribute directly to faster times. But, time isn’t everything.
For example, that first ride you took up a meager hill that nearly killed you as a novice, out-of-shape cyclist is in truth no less of an achievement than smashing out a top ten time up Monte Zoncolan. Time is only one factor, and time is not equivalent to effort. If that first painful ride was more difficult than your fast summit of Zoncolan, then in every legitimate way it should be more impressive. It’s just that big things so naturally impress us, but there are far too many variables to suggest that any one collection of terrain, fitness, conditions, goals, equipment – including gears – and others, to claim that any one event is tougher than another.
And how about this one for something to debate: easy gears are a mechanical advantage. That’s literally what they are. It’s like bragging to someone that you can lift 1000kg with your bare hands, only your bare hands are actually lifting it with a pulley system that makes the effort substantially easier. So, technically, where do you draw the line between progressively easier gears and power-assist motors?
Now that some of your heads have exploded, I should mention that I have nothing against easy gears. Why, I have purposely taken steps to introduce some rather easy gears to my CX bike for the purposes of going up some extremely foul climbs, and, obviously, I love it.
Likewise, I have often been overheard cursing my lack of compact gearing on the roadie, enjoying as I do the challenge of really steep climbs. But, if I’m honest with you (and I know I’m not alone in this), when the competitive juices start flowing even a little bit and the pace picks up on a climb, I can’t deny that I come up with the thought that “I did it just as fast or faster than you but with harder gears”, or any of the other thoughts that inform our concept of what a worthy challenge or achievement is. Just like faster times but with easier gears. There are a million different ways to conquer and enjoy things.
And once again, we find ourselves at the same place we seem to come back to again and again – the challenge. The achievement. Isn’t it strange that we cyclists continuously seek out new and crazier vertical challenges for ourselves, while also continuing to compensate for them as much as we can? Doesn’t that seem a bit counter-productive? Is it maybe because numbers are easier to quantify that we judge achievement based on Strava times and the like, rather than something rather more personal and difficult to judge like effort?
Probably. But then, there are many other reasons why easier gear-ratios are attractive to us, including, but not limited to, longer and steeper climbs seem more satisfying even if it’s not actually any harder, we can ride further with more climbing, and that people love a good view, it opens the door to more and lengthier adventures, and easy gears can get you into some pretty great ones. It’s more fun to run up a mountain than push a big rock up a hill.
See, I do realize that there is more fueling the push to easier gear-ratios than some sort of performance one-upmanship (and marketing, someone has suggested), and where that’s not important, neither is what gear-ratio you are running. Where your preferred gear-ratio is merely a tool in support of the joy of riding, of fun and adventure, there tends to be more of a focus on, I don’t know, fun and adventure. If you don’t care about proving anything other than how much fun you can have, then this debate won’t interest you, and I think that’s the ideal place to be.
Still, the debate continues, and no matter where our gear-ratios end up, I’m pretty sure it always will.
Header image: source