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Practical Gearing

A few weeks ago in mid April I bought my wife a Schwinn Peloton bike with a carbon fiber frame. (Picture above.)

My wife had not been on a bike for at least 15 years, and then it was only a Wal-Mart mountain bike. I considered getting her a hybrid bike first, but when I had the chance of this CF Schwinn that had only been ridden a couple of times, I decided to skip the intermediate step.

Some might consider this “Throwing her in at the deep end,” so to speak, but not really. Although this can be considered a full race bike, I knew I could set it up with an efficient but comfortable position. I bought a lady’s saddle, and swapped the 10 cm. stem for a 7 cm. one.

She was a little apprehensive at first, but I assured her the bike would ride easier than anything she had experienced previously. I fitted a pair of platform pedals without toe-clips.

I am pleased that I did not go the trouble and expense of getting a hybrid first, because my wife took to riding like a natural. We are already riding distances between 14 and 20 miles, at an average speed of around 15 mph.

One thing, I quickly realized that the gearing was pretty useless for the type of medium pace riding we are doing. The bike has a 50 x 34 double chainwheel, and was fitted with a 10 speed rear cassette with 11 to 23 teeth sprockets.

This gave three top gears of 122, 112, and 103 inches, gears that I would not even use, much less my wife. The cassette went from 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 teeth, then jumped to 19, 21, 23. The first time out I showed my wife how to change gear, and sugested she experiment until she found a gear that felt comfortable.

She was on the 50 big chainring, and said, “It’s either too hard, or too easy,” which was a non-technical way of saying the gearing was too high or too low.

A quick look at where she was and I found she was using 17, 19, 21 teeth sprockets, which translated to 79, 71, and 64 inches. Switching to the small chainring 36 teeth, she soon found the 12 tooth sprocket felt best, 76 inches. The problem now was the chain was way out of line.

I started to look for an alternative 10 speed cassette, no one seemed to have them. Then I remembered that back in the day, I would race on a 13 to 18, straight up 6 speed freewheel, but on the wheels I used for training, I would have a 16 to 21 freewheel; the type used in restricted gear Junior Category racing.

The answer was to go to a shop that caters to racing cyclists; I called Excel Sports, in Boulder, Colorado. I ordered a Shimano, Ultegra 10 speed cassette, with 14 to 25 teeth.

After the switch, on the 50 chainring, the most useful mid range gears are now, 79, 75, 71, and 67 inches, and these are right in the middle of the cassette. See the gear table below. (Far right column.)

Not everyone who buys a racing bike is going to race on it, so I don’t understand why manufacturers don’t give alternative options. I even checked out a few high end hybrid bikes and found they too specify cassettes with 11 tooth top sprockets.

Commuters or people riding for leisure or fitness don’t need top gears that are up in the 100s, and more important they need a usable mid-range of gears that are between the upper 60s and low 80s.

These are the gears they will use the most and so need to be in one tooth increments, and somewhere in the middle of the cassette.

Setting a bike up in this manner, (Picture left.) dispensing with high gears that will never be used, allows for a more user friendly range of gears to be fitted. Also in most cases it makes a triple chainwheel unnecessary because a low enough bottom gear can be had without it



Reader Comments (21)

I think you were lucky it wasn't a Standard Double with 11x23, and also lucky that "junior gears" are required for racing in a lot of countries or I don't think the 14x25 would even be made. Pretty weird I agree. Mind you I see way too many men and women who won't ride anything but an 53x39 with an 11x23 thinking anything else will just make them look bad.

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJim Ley

My question is, why not get her a 48 chainring as well. Those Sugino is cheap, given they don't have the pins to help shifting, but you know how to work with that.

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRonald Lau

Carbon Fibre? Shame on you! - More seriously what do you think of the bike?

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPBA

Her bike is geared a bit higher than I like, but I mostly do errands around town and am not a very strong rider. So my bike ranges from a touch under 30" to about 80". The thing I really marvel at is that this was stock gearing on my bike! Most manufacturers seem to think that of course all cyclists can already run, jump, and climb 5 flights of stairs in a sprint.

Finding a bike where the gearing is low enough that a rider will learn to spin well can be a real trial.

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTorrilin

Dropping from 50 to 34 is rather abrupt. With the 50/39/30 and 12-23 setup on my commuter bike, I can always find the right gear.

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChamps

Yeah, I had much the same problem. I do long rides at a brisk pace, but don't race, on a road triple. I realized that I almost never use the third, 52t, ring, and stay in the middle, 42t ring. I was fine with the tight gearing of the 10cog 11-23t cassette. I was also concerned about getting over 1000m passes when I move to Japan this summer. My solution was to switch the 30/42/52 rings to 26/42/48. Now I have some really low granny gears, the chainring I'll ride in 3/4 of the time, and a chainring I can use three times as often as the 52.

But road doubles seem to have a hole in the middle of the gearing, and almost no way to fit a low enough granny chainring. Once again, the needs and allure of the racer make a bad fit for the other 90% of us. We need some stock randonneur models a little better designed than Masi's, which has a road double and dubious gearing.

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjamesmallon

What a timely post for me. I just rode a charity ride Saturday with a 30/39/53 triple up front. I rarely used the largest chain ring -- only if I had a flat or downhill with the strong winds at my back. I will look at James' solution of switching to a 26/42/48. Just seems much, much saner.

The rear cassette on this bike is a 10-speed 12x27 -- not nearly as problematic for me. I'll see how the change on the front affects me before swapping that out.

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdb

As I recall back in the bike boom days, a common set up was 52/40 and a 14-28 freewheel. Stock gearing is way too high now for anyone buying an off-the-rack bike. The junior cassette is a nice option, but I doubt any shops swap these in for their customers...I hope I am wrong.

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRick

Came across something neat today! A way to turn your compact double into a triple:

May or may not work, depending on your own bike, but a nice component for those who need it and can make it work.

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjamesmallon

What a refreshing, common-sense post.

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertde


Most bikes sold today are pushing gears too tall for most riders. How many of us spend much time in a 52-11?

These big inches should be optional, not standard fare.

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRider

Nice article, Dave. I'm in complete agreement with you regards the gearing. The manufacturers are catering to the desires of racing and not the realities of practical cycling. I have done something similar, like you, and have changed the big ring on my cranksets to 48 or 46 tooth chainrings. This combined with a change in clusters creates a range of gears that is more suitable for the average sport rider.

May 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick Slesicki

Great article, we stock a wide range of gears Merlin Cycles Gears and sometimes racing gears are really not practical for cyclist who are mainly communting to work. Very informative post.

May 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMerlin

Agree with your sentiment. i recall reading Chris Boardman once saying that few pros even rarely ever use 53x11. A ridiculous sized gear!.

I use 50/34 with a 12-25 block, I find the chain runs fine on 34x13, my favorite gear. Almost the same as the 50x19 combination.

May 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJW

I agree 100%.
Even for Cat 3's an 11 is pretty silly.
I have to admit that my racing wheels have 12's on them, but I've only been in one race where having the "big gear" with a 13, cost me any places.
Nowadays, all my solo training is done on a 13-25. My 9 speed bike even uses a 14-25 for solo workouts.

May 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGrump

Post makes total sense. Most bikes are totally over geared for the typical rider and use.

I'm a bit guilty of this myself, though I did change over to a compact 34 - 50 compact double. It feels great.

May 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDan O

I'm a fan of the Shimano 14-25 cassettes. You do spin out sooner on huge descents, but that excellent selection of cruising gears makes it worth it.

May 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermander

Hi Dave,

This is a great post, as I feel that many multi-speed riders don't think about their gearing too much, and trust that appropriate gears have been engineered into their bikes (especially when riding bikes with greater than 20 possible ratios!)

It seems like fixed and single speed riders give a lot of thought to gearing, as do riders who have more restricted selections (internal gears) or heavy loads (touring cyclists). It seems like I his Sheldon's Gear Calculator (see above post) at least five times during every bike build.

Living and riding in a fairly flat city, I'm finding I get plenty of gears from 6 speed freewheels, and I can forgo the multiple front chainrings altogether. Right now I've got a 45 tooth front ring, and a 14-23 block freewheel. I get a low gear of about 52", almost as low as a "modern" racing gear setup of 39x21. I get a high gear that's tall enough that I could potentially use it.. going downhill.. drafting slightly faster friends.

I like to think of it as whatever gear is comfortable for me to ride fixed, but with a few on either side.

June 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterjOe

I don't know, maybe a triple is also a good option. I convert my MTB step-by-step to road use, slick tires, road triple crankset, road cassette, and I love it. 30-21 is low enough to climb the hills around and in the village. There's much less common sense in 52-12 than 52-13, but it's such a good feeling to use it at the bottom of the hill at around 70 cadence and 40-50 kph. It also has very close ratios, I never feel that's not enough, but it's only an 8 speed cassette. Telling the truth once I missed the 18 cog. Sorrily a can't use the FD to change to big ring, its a 6603 ultegra and a tourney FD :) If I do it, the outer-low side of the FD bracket touches-scratches the inner side of the right crankarm, so I need to buy a new FD, one option is the cranks "own" 6603 FD, but I'm afraid it won't work with ST-M405 shift levers, because it's not a mountain derailleur. Could you advise me a FD? Thanks!

August 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTomBdigger [HUN]

A lot of these comments make sweeping generalizations. In a mountainous region, the most amateur fitness cyclist can ride downhill too fast for a 53-12 gear. I'm all for options, but don't generalize about gears that can supposedly never be useful.

May 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

I found the same problem and solved it by cobbling together a couple cassettes. I'm currently using a single 46t chainring, and a 11-34 10 speed mountain cassette on the back (I had to swap the RD to a 9 speed mountain one)
I bought 2 cassettes, one that was mostly odd numbers, and one that was mostly even, and I assembled a cassette that had a wide bottom end, A tight midrange, and then a couple fairly large jumps at the very top end.

My lowest gear is similar to what you would have on a compact double, with a typical road cassette, and my highest gear is still faster than I need for anything but a steep downhill, and I have very narrow gear ratios around my cruising speed.

I think that it's the best way to go. the best gear selection at the speeds you ride at 90% of the time.

May 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNick

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